I’m so long overdue for one of these blog ordeals. Any mess of words, with intent to communicate something relevant to my present life and work. “Finish Blog Post” has remained somewhere near the middle of my daily list for the last couple of weeks. And I can’t tell you how badly I would like to cross it off. I’ve crafted a few bits, only to read back over them and feel like they weren’t really coming from me. And that’s all I ever aim to do with these posts. Be me.
What a whirlwind of a past couple of months. Since my early-August trek back to the motherland, it’s been a non-stop design hustle with some absolutely amazing projects to show for it. I’ve been working with a fabulous woman named Kristin Moore at Hershey Cause Communications, redesigning the State Innovation Exchange’s website. The Miller Lite brand overhaul at 180 Studios. A couple of album packaging projects. A most epic booze packaging project at Meat and Potatoes. Film titles for two upcoming releases. A google YouTube political spot. 3D stage animations for the ANCC Nursing Magnet Conference in Orlando. A stint with David Lee Roth, even. And of course, my beloved Howlin Ray’s is soon to unveil some new web-related goodness. Man, it’s really really been a great couple of months.
I feel blessed and truly lucky to be able to work on some of these amazing projects, with some most incredible and inspiring entrepreneurs, creative directors, visionaries…
And to a different tune, heh heh – lucky to have seen some amazing shows the past few months as well. Peter Gabriel & Sting. Lissie. Allen Stone. Kraftwerk. Opeth. Megadeth. Black Sabbath. Tal Wilkenfeld. With some of my favorite people on earth to boot! My, oh my, this seems to have transformed into an unintentionally boastful post about how much I’m enjoying life right now. Is that boastful? I don’t mean for it to be. I’m just really happy.
Before I get into the bread and butter of what I actually want to talk about though, I want to make this clear: it wasn’t always that way. Around the middle of July, I could feel myself slipping into this awful depressive state – a state that I’ve come to know all too well and loathe just the same. It’s terrible. I’ve always likened it to going to dinner with the person I know I am and can be, sitting across the table from that person. Liking them. Being proud of them. Wanting to be them. And having no bloody idea who they actually are anymore. I found myself then – without health insurance, without nearby family, and without any sort of crutch. And I knew that it was up to me to do something about it.
One off-Tuesday, I decided to check around my area for yoga studios. Nina Hamilton’s flow classes at Main Street Power Yoga had been something of a floatation device when I’d moved back to Pennsylvania. I knew that feeling. And I wanted it back.
A desire for change led me to Rising Lotus Yoga. Chance led me to Madeleine Culbertson’s Tuesday night Candlelit Flow class. And I’ve barely missed one since. Forgive me for a moment for being such a soggy dippy-egg. I promise, the real nitty gritty is coming! But I find myself headed to Rising Lotus Yoga every Tuesday and Thursday evening, and I just feel right. I check in with who I am. I remember what I’m going after. And I leave there, knowing I’m ready to take it all on, collected, and in stride. Three months later, and I can truly not remember the last time I felt this healthy, happy, and prepared for complete and utter world domination.
One of the most important teachings in yoga is to be observant, to listen to yourself and to listen to your body. When it says yes, go further. When it says no, stop.
I’ve held downward dog poses for longer than I’d ever care to admit. Those hurt after a while. All of the blood rushes to your head, and for a moment – you can’t quite remember why you’re in the class, why you’re doing this to yourself, forcing yourself to learn to be happy in an uncomfortable situation – but then Madeleine Culbertson calls out for you to flow through the rest of your vinyasa, and the rush of blood brings you right back to your intention. It’s just the best.
The words “yes” and “no” are consistently hot topics of conversation in today’s society. Brock Turner. Donald Trump. Laci Green. Although by their definitions, both words are printed in black and white, they always seem to be up for some sort of debate.
I, however, have come to apply them to my life as a freelance designer – quite differently.
Yes, is a promise to my client. No, is a promise to myself.
When taking on a project, a relationship, a challenge – this is truly applicable to almost anything, I’ve begun to view the word “yes” as a commitment – a promise that I’m going to deliver what I say I’m going to deliver. There are always going to be setbacks, timing issues, schedule changes. But as long as you remain a communicative human being and keep the promises that you’ve made at the heart of it all, any hang-up can be worked around.
When you say “yes” to something, take it seriously. Deliver what you say you’re going to deliver, and deliver it to the best of your absolute ability. Yes – that’s the easy one for me. Although I have certainly let people down in my day, I don’t believe in it, and I try my damnedest not to.
“No” has always seemed somewhat more of a gray area. When I was younger, I’d take on work I couldn’t handle, overload and over-stress myself, and on more than one occasion, I found myself in the wake of it all, everything crashing down around me. I have this incessant need to please people, to always get the job done. Even if it means I’m awake til 6 am. If it means I sacrifice an outing that would’ve otherwise been important. If it means I accrue and internalize the stress of others to uphold my end of the deal. I do not do this any longer.
A couple of months ago, I was working on a project. The deliverables were clear. The project scope was clear. It was all outlined in writing, and I’m no fool. I was raised by Richard M’F-in’ Harrell, as should be his nickname. (It’s not. Mostly I just call him Dad. But he is a pretty badass one.) Once I’d sent off the final files – I waited a few days for word, only for the boss-man to tell me that everything was good, and thank you for all of the great work. I was a happy girl.
But then, over the course of the next month, I’d get repeated, late-night, last minute requests for changes. I’m talking like, they have a meeting in six hours, they waited until the last minute to review the designs that they’ve had for weeks, and now, suddenly – they would like some alterations.
At the risk of offending someone – this is ad agency life at it’s finest. Anxiously awaiting happy hour with your friends, only to find out at 6:59 that you’ll be staying until midnight for some unexpected changes. I am no stranger to this, and while some people can find a place of zen within such an environment – I myself, cannot. And it’s the reason why I decided to return to Los Angeles as a freelancer in the first place. I wanted control of my time. My life. My work. I’d let others have control of it for too long. And sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of that.
But, back to the project.
“I started this thing. I’m going to see it through.” That’s my mantra when it comes to design work. Self-accountability is just as important as accountability to others. I begrudgingly shifted around my carefully-plotted-out schedule to accommodate their wishes, and I did so with a smile.
Until about the fourth time this happened. I rang up the producer and said politely, “I am happy to help you out. But I am extremely busy, and I’m going to need a 48 hour turnaround window for any further changes.”
“Completely understand! Will make sure we get any additional notes to you in a timely fashion.”
Okay. Great. Wonderful. Spectacular. We’re on the same page. Crisis averted. (This is my brain running circles around Usain Bolt, literally.) Onward and upward to other things.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks later – to the night before the event that this was all going towards. Saturday night. 10:30 pm. My phone rings. I see who the caller is and I answer. Pause.
“Hey, um, so, we’re going to need some changes.”
I’ll spare you the bitter details of that evening, but I managed to stay awake until something like 8 in the morning, making the requested alterations to the project.
I started this thing. I’m going to see it through.
And right around 8:01 am, I realized – that was it. I got about 3 hours of sleep, and the next afternoon, my phone rang again. “Hey, um, so, we’re going to need —”
I cut him off. It came out as a reflex. Maybe it’s all the yoga. Maybe it’s Richard, sitting in the back of my brain, barking orders. Maybe it’s just a more mature sense of what I need and want in this life. A simple respect for myself, for my time. It was something.
“I’m happy to make whatever changes you need for the event today, but I’m going to need paid overtime.”
The result was not exactly what I’d hoped for. This producer took every possible angle to get what he wanted. He was rude, condescending, and I reckon it was a bit of a defense mechanism for his own poor project management. And you know what I felt? Into it. Over it. Onward. After he was done with his monologue of sorrow and ill-repute, I calmly repeated myself:
“I’m happy to make whatever changes you need for the event today, but I’m going to need paid overtime.”
I did the math. I outlined how many hours it would take. I gave him a number. And still he pressed onward that it was owed – he said, “what this comes down to is that I simply need this work done or we cannot make this event happen.”
And what I said in response surprised me – although I felt, maybe a bit brash, the words came out fast and they came out hard. And I fought this feeling of guilt that creeps up behind me any time I don’t say yes to something. But I took one look at the schedule I’d outlined for my day and knew that I’d be doing myself a disservice by allowing my time to be taken advantage of.
“And what this comes down to, for me, is a simple disrespect for my time. The deliverables have been received, the work has been done. I very much respect what you do, and I have enjoyed working with you, but I simply cannot do any more work without being paid for it.”
A grumble. A cough. I’m not sure that’s what he expected from this young girl designer, generally eager to help out however she could.
He went at me again. “But I need this.”
“Then pay me. And that’s all there is to it.”
It’s not that I needed the money. It’s not that I needed the work. It’s not that I needed anything, in that moment, other than to communicate what I needed, and what I needed was an acknowledgement and a compensation of inconvenience.
Long story short, they offered me some more work. And I said no. I’d already seen what was involved, and decided it didn’t suit my schedule or my needs. And it was so freeing, so blissfully exhilarating. There is absolutely no shame in knowing what you want in life, and turning down the things that just don’t fall in line.
When it came to that company, prior planning and project management was at a weakness. And I wasn’t going to let that be my weight to bear.
“No” is a promise to myself.
“No” is a promise to stand up for yourself, for what you believe in. It’s a promise to acknowledge who you are, and to be that person, unabashedly and uncompromised. It’s a promise to live what you might vent to your friends later on, instead of venting it to your friends later on. And saying “no” to those less-than-desirable things, frees up that time to just have fun with your friends instead. Later on.
“No” is a promise to recognize that you are good, strong, and worthy of the best. I think we all have trouble believing that sometimes. But we shouldn’t. We are all worthy of the best. Make the choice to take that and run with it.
“No” is an acceptance that you will not do something. Not being able, or wanting to do something isn’t necessarily a shameful thing, as we all so often have conditioned ourselves into believing. It’s not an embarrassing thing. It’s not failure. It just means that it doesn’t work for you. And guess what? That is so much more than okay.
There is, of course, the dichotomy of never saying “I can’t.” I’ve written about this. My beloved childhood gymnastics coach used to make us do rounds of pushups and sprints when we said the words “I can’t.” Let’s not mistake “I can’t” for “No, I won’t.”
“I can’t” means that you aren’t going to give it the ol’ college try. Maybe there’s an underlying fear, maybe there’s a doubt – something that can be overcome. “No, I won’t” means that although it may be possible, your will has had the last word. It doesn’t suit. And you will not.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this concept as applicable to freelance design, as it’s become such a huge part of my daily regimen. I’ve interviewed for gigs, talked with folks about their projects, talked with friends about their lives and ultimately decided that when something doesn’t work for me, that’s all there is to it. Into it. Over it. Onwards. Upwards.
If it’s going to be more headache and hassle than end-result? Move on.
If it’s going to be a disrespect of your time and energy? Move on.
If it’s going to be a clear-cut, pain-in-the-ass, with no return?
If it’s just simply not going to align with who you are, your goals, and your ideals?
But if holding that downward dog for two minutes is going to give you a literal pain-in-the-ass for the next day or so, maybe think about pushing through it. Some things are worth it. And it may just give you the strength to know what’s worth pushing through – and what just is not. It may even give you the motive to push onwards. Upwards.