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Lauren Hom (@homsweethom) is a lettering artist and designer who started her career in advertising. Upon realizing she was burnt out from long nights at the office doing unfulfilling work, Lauren switched to pursue hand lettering full-time. We speak to her about post-burnout career transition, burning out even when doing what you love, and getting comfortable with saying no.
I experienced burnout while I was a student, but I didn’t know what it was. I thought you were supposed to feel tired and stressed all the time. My first true burnout came about six months into working full-time at an advertising agency. It was my dream job, but we were working lots of late nights. I felt physically and emotionally drained.
My “aha” moment was eating a pack of raw ravioli on my kitchen floor at 3 AM after coming home from another long day working on a pitch. I was 23 years old and thought, “Wow, it’s only been six months. I’m a junior art director. What kind of workload gets put on a senior director?”
I started asking myself all these questions. Am I weak? Everyone else seems to be fine with this. What’s wrong with me? It led me down the rabbit hole of questioning if I made the right career choice and what other options were out there for me. I’m actually really glad that I hit that wall because it led me to what I’m doing now.
Definitely both. We were working 10-12 hour days, maybe more. Though I had found a lot of success from my passion project Daily Dishonesty, I still pursued advertising because that’s what I majored in. I realized when I started burning out that I was able to work 6-7 hours on Daily Dishonesty at school, but putting that same amount of work into doing banner ads or pitching ideas that might get killed did not light me up in the same way. The kind of work I was doing played a huge role in my ability to work.
During school I was told there were fifty other people that would kill to have my job, so be grateful. I would convince myself that this is what people said I would have to do: work my way up the ladder, keep my head down, do work that I don’t like to do for the greater purpose of getting promoted and making more money. I would tell myself that things would get better and this was just temporary.
Ravioli happened six months in, and I was gone within three and a half months after that. I was able to make that transition fairly quickly. Even though I was burnt out from ad work, I escaped by doing personal work and having autonomy creatively. I was in the midst of working on Daily Dishonesty too. Because I had lettering going on on the side, it was fairly easy to make the jump once I realized I wanted out.
I told my advertising partner that I didn’t want to work this job. I was so scared to break the news but he was very supportive. We told our creative director after that and I gave longer than two weeks notice because I felt really bad, but he was very understanding. We have this idea that we’re going to let other people down and they won’t understand, but creatives generally support other creatives following their dreams. He ended up hiring me for a project a year after I left.
After the ravioli moment I rebranded my website to focus on lettering and signed on to work with an agent. I decided to give lettering a shot for a year and if it totally crashed and failed, then worst case scenario I would go back to the ad industry.
Yes. I once believed the phrase, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” That’s definitely not true. You’ll still work a lot. When you follow your passion, you take things more personally and are more precious with it. It’s a different level of pressure and stress.
I have experienced burnout, though nothing to the extent of eating cold ravioli off the floor. When you do everything yourself you don’t set any limits on how much you can work, especially when you’re young and hungry and want to take on as much as you can get. I built my career with this foundation. Things went well and I got more project inquiries and I would still say yes to everything, which led to some stressful late nights. That’s when I realized that even when you love what you do, you can still burn out.
With freelancing I realized I had more autonomy and I could say no if I wanted to. Whenever I did have a busy season and said yes a little too much, I knew that it was temporary and I had full control over saying no and taking breaks.
This year I made a list of things I definitely want to do and need to make time for, including projects and personal goals like baking bread. I look at my schedule and when a project comes in, my first gauge is how excited I am to work on it. Do I align with the client and the brand? If that’s a no, I’m fortunate enough to be at a point in my career where I can say no to those opportunities even if the money is decent. I know my time is valuable and is better spent doing something I like to do or working on a personal project. There really is a capacity to how much I can take on. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at saying I’d rather do a great job for two clients than a half-assed job for six in the same month.
Honestly, the number one thing that helps me say no is that I have an agent who says no for me. I know that’s not a situation that everybody has but that was one of my big motivations in getting an agent. For anybody who doesn’t have an agent and is a people-pleaser like me who has a hard time saying no, one thing that has helped me is realizing that I can’t do my best work if I’m running on an empty tank. By saying no to certain things, even if it bums out the client, you have to know that it’s in pursuit of bigger yeses.
I also always send a list recommending other people for the job, just to aid the client or art director in their talent search. It’s great because I get to pass off work to friends or students, and it’s a win win for everybody. By saying no, you’re making space for someone who might be earlier in their career to have those opportunities that you had five years ago that got your foot in the door. You can think of it like passing the torch.
When I started Daily Dishonesty, I was still in school and didn’t have any expectations because it was my first passion project. It blew up online which was great, but it set the bar unrealistically high. I got a book deal from that project and so much client work. It was the first time that happened and I thought, “this is amazing, passion projects are so cool.” Then the next two projects I launched, Ex Boyfriend Tears and Will Letter for Lunch, also did really well. I started off my career with three bangers.
After that, I launched a series of projects that did well by other standards—I did something I wanted to do, I got a portfolio piece, some press and client work—but not in the way that those first three projects blew up. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed, but I knew it would probably pay off in the future. Most importantly, I had fun doing it. With client work, I have very little control over what the project is going to be. Maybe it’s not my most creative work but it pays the bills and makes me money. Working on something that I really feel passionate about is super valuable and I always need to remind myself of the intangible value.
Now that I’m seven years in, I feel less pressure because I know those intangible benefits will show up in other ways. For example, I did this project in 2015 called Wiggy Banks where I painted coin jars with honest things that you would save up for, like tattoos and tacos. It got shared a little bit, but definitely didn’t do what I thought it was going to do. But I put it in my portfolio, and three years later I got hired for a $15,000 project based on it.
I always tell my students, projects are planting the seeds for future opportunities that you don’t even know about yet. It can be discouraging that a year or two passes and you didn’t see many results, but you have to know if you liked doing it, there was still so much benefit in creating that project. Things can and will happen from it. There’s no bad that can happen.
I acknowledge that I still go at a pretty fast pace. What I tell myself is that no matter how much I get done in a day, my to-do list will never be done because I’m ambitious and have lots of ideas. I know that I should work hard but there’s always going to be more work that I’m probably not aware of right now. I’ve learned to be more kind with myself.
Freelancers have scarcity mindset especially when they’re starting out. The thought pattern that used to happen with me is that if I don’t take this project then this client will never show up again, so I have to take it. That’s a huge reason why people don’t say no and eventually burn out. But if you’re not taking care of yourself and your health, you can’t make your best work. You making good work is what your entire career will hinge on. There’s no point in burning out now.
One thing that baking bread has taught me is that in order to rise, you have to let it rest first. I think it’s a good metaphor for freelancers and creative people trying to make a living.
The number one question I get is, “I’m trying to build a business but I have a family. How do I manage that?” I never know what to say because I don’t have a family. Everyone’s got different responsibilities and lifestyles. I don’t berate myself for not taking weekends off for six years or working really hard. It was part of the journey. Wherever anyone is at, take a step back and make sure what you’re doing feels good for you right now and you’re working towards a workload that’s sustainable. If you’re in grind season and you’re feeling good, more power to you.
We have to acknowledge as well that when you consume art online, like Instagram or Pinterest, you’re following all your favorite artists. Who doesn’t want to do that? But you are constantly bombarded with a flow of people producing work. You’re sitting there thinking, everyone’s so productive, I need to be productive too. In reality, that could be old work that was posted. Also the sheer number of people you have access to, versus before when it was whoever was in your vicinity, is so much greater.
It’s important to realize that what we consume is not the rate at which we need to produce. It’s okay to take time off and not post on Instagram for a couple weeks or even a month. The world will not forget about you.
I see that pressure that I used to feel and a lot of my students feel: that “oh my gosh, everyone’s making all this stuff and I’m the only one in the world that’s not producing” feeling. But we skew our own bias by the way we consume other people’s works.
-As told to Carolyn Yoo, March 2020. Transcribed and edited for clarity.
We chat to Tina Essmaker on false beliefs about work, the pressures of social media, and making small changes that add up over time.