On Depression, Burnout and Finding What’s Important

This is going to be super raw. Honestly, I'm nervous about sharing some of what follows because it's so personal. But I know from the emails I receive that many of you reading this will identify with it. And I hope by sharing this that you will be helped in some way.

I’m not a super positive guy. I tend to be pretty cynical about life and the human condition. For as long as I can remember I’ve fought with “depression”. I put that in quotes, because I’ve never thought of myself as depressed, despite my cynical nature.

But about 10 months ago I entered a phase of life in which I can’t deny that I was truly depressed. I would get out of bed and just wander around the house because I was bored out of my mind, despite the fact that I had mountains of work to get done. The excitement was gone. The feeling of endless possibility that many of us chase just wasn’t there anymore. Forcing myself to work didn’t help. Neither did taking a break. I felt aimless, purposeless.

This continued for months. I missed deadlines. I damaged personal and professional relationships. It was terrible.

It reached the point that I finally saw a doctor about it. We started with weekly therapy and eventually tried various medications.

I can say without a doubt that the therapy has helped. It’s great to have someone to whom you can pour out your heart and who is trained to be a good listener.

I’m telling you all this, because I don’t think I am alone in my experience. Since January, I’ve talked to many friends in the web industry about what I was going through and almost all of them have experienced something like it.

Part of my depressive tendencies are genetic. My dad was this way when he was alive. He lived his life under a cloud of regret for past mistakes. I remember as a kid always wishing I could make him feel what I felt for him. That he wasn’t a failure. That he was a great dad. And that he was loved.

Another part has to do with expectations. And this is the part I hope is of some help to you if you identify with what I’m saying.

I put so much pressure on myself to be successful. To be somebody. And because of that I tend to overcommit and load myself down with so many responsibilities I couldn’t possibly deliver on all of them. I’m so overwhelmed and stressed that I miss the little moments that add up to a balanced life.

And it really is all about balance.

Yesterday I spent a few hours on the couch with my family playing the new Mario Kart. All four of us, my wife on one end, me in the middle, with my girls snuggled up on either side.

I felt truly happy in that moment. And I realized that these were the moments I was missing. For five years, I’ve been so consumed with work that I haven’t had time for anything else.

I’ve had this picture in my mind of what my life is supposed to be like and I’ve been chasing it at all costs. But life has a way of not working out according to my plans. I’m 34 and can honestly say my life looks nothing like I thought it would when I was 24. In some ways it’s a lot better. It some ways it’s worse.

It’s the expectation of perfection or “success” that I think lies at the root of much of this.

But here’s the great thing: just because I feel like a failure doesn’t mean I am one. Just like my dad, there are people around me that need me and value me. Sometimes you have to force yourself to slow down and take notice.

If you feel this way, there is hope. You, too, have people around you that need you. Try letting go of whatever “success” means to you and focus on them. Slow down and really experience the little moments of your life.

During the past three months, I’ve completely changed my routine and reorganized how I work. Being thought of as a success in the eyes of my peers doesn’t mean quite as much to me as it used to. Don’t get me wrong, I still think about it. A lot. But I’m learning to let go.

It’s not a silver bullet, but at the very least, it’s worth a try.

It’s Time For A Change

When I first decided to pursue a career in the web, it was because I wanted to build my own businesses and make my own things and experience the freedom of controlling my own destiny.

The web industry is a wonderful place for the entrepreneurally-minded and I definitely found those opportunities within its borders. I’ve been a freelancer now for almost five years. I built a web design and development shop from the ground up that has supported me well. I’ve had the opportunity to work with (and for) my friends, which has been truly delightful. I’ve started lots of side projects, some of which have actually turned into their own businesses (Lift Themes, WP Theory, Goodstuff), and killed even more before they ever made it out the door.

I’ve really enjoyed my time doing client work and making websites for people. But I’ve come to the realization that if I want to accomplish the things about which I’m most passionate, I can’t do it alone. And I don’t really want to, if I’m honest. The time has come to take the next step.

I’m excited to announce that, as of today, I will be joining the folks at Lift UX and UpThemes as Director of Product, which is a fancy way of saying that I’m going to be spending a lot of time doing the things I love most–brainstorming, strategizing, storytelling, breaking, fixing, building… You get the idea.

I connected with Chris Wallace and Brad Miller (the founders of Lift) over a common vision for a family of products that we’ve all been working on in various forms for some time. We’ve spent a lot of time brainstorming and sharing our ideas with each other. In the end, we decided that it made a lot more sense to join forces and make something truly great, than to go it alone.

So, what exactly is this product we’re going to build? I’m glad you asked. Coinciding with my move to Lift is the acquisition of ChurchThemes.net, the first church-specific WordPress theme shop on the internet. Up until now, ChurchThemes has primarily been a provider of free and premium WordPress themes built specifically for churches. The company has seen nearly 45,000 downloads of its products in the three short years since it opened shop.

We’ve got big plans for ChurchThemes and my primary role will be overseeing and leading the charge on those plans. The long-term strategy for ChurchThemes involves a marketplace where theme sellers can offer their own church WordPress themes. The marketplace will also hook into a new hosted website solution specifically for churches. ((There are number of hosted solutions out there, but we’ve got some cards up our sleeves we’re not ready to share just yet. Think HappyTables or WordPress.com, but blow-your-mind-awesome!))

We’ll be releasing more information in the near future about this new venture and what we hope to accomplish with it. In the meantime, you can whet your appetite here. If you want to be among the first to see what we’re up to, get yourself on that email list.

Building a product is hard. Building a great product that changes people’s live is downright magical. But if anyone can pull it off, it’s the Lift team. They’re a group of people who really believe they can change things. And as Steve Jobs is famous for saying, it’s the people who really believe they can change the world, that actually do.

You Matter

If you've been following along for any length of time, you know I write a lot about my fear of failure, insecurity and chronic self-doubt.

I write about this stuff because I’m constantly plagued by it and it’s always in my head. Every time I open Photoshop or Sublime Text, or iA Writer, or sit down at the drum kit, I fight with a voice that says “Your work is terrible. You have no skill. You don’t matter.”

A therapist would probably tell me this has something to do with my childhood and upbringing, and maybe it does, but I’ve never been able to shake it. Even in the height of “success”, I’m still filled with doubt.

If you feel that way, I want you to know that you do matter. I know how helpful it can be to hear that from someone else, even if deep down you know it’s true. You matter.

You may not realize it, but you impact the lives of people all around you. That’s an incredible responsibility.

A few month ago I was at a tiny web conference in Greenville. A guy walked up to me and said he loved my podcast (The Gently Mad) and that it was the reason he was there that day.

He told me how he had always dreamed of taking his life by the reigns and getting into the web industry so he could quit his job and do something he loved.

He told me that my podcast had given him the inspiration needed to move his family across the country and go through a web design and development course taught by The Iron Yard. He was graduating that day and just wanted to let me know how my show had encouraged him and given him the push he needed to start this new life.

I was completely floored. I had just finished whining to a friend for an hour about how nothing I did in life seemed to matter very much. How I had nothing to offer and nothing to say that hadn’t already been said.

And then that guy showed up. I knew nothing about him and yet he had been listing to my show and it had impacted him.

There are people like that in your life right now. People you don’t know, whose lives are being affected by what you do.

Zig Ziglar is famous for saying:

You never know when a moment and a few sincere words can have an impact on a life.

This should give you pause (and fill you with hope). Regardless of the size of your audience, you have an opportunity. Don’t miss that opportunity by believing the voice in your head that tells you you don’t matter.

The next time you sit down to write or design or create something, remember that there are people out there who are listening. You may never hear from them, but they’re there and they need you.

And that matters. A lot.

The Horn Doesn’t Matter

I've been a musician since I was 5 years old. My parents afforded me the opportunity to play lots of different instruments and one of my favorites was the trumpet.

I spent hours listening to stacks of jazz and classical records from heroes like Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis and Doc Severinsen, and dreamed of being able to play like them.

But there was a problem. I hated practicing. Practicing was hard. In reality, I was more obsessed with the *idea* of being a great trumpet player, than actually playing. But I wouldn’t figure that out for many years.

So I became obsessed with gear. Even as a kid, I was a gear whore (some things never change).

I thought if I used the same gear as my heroes, I would be a great trumpet player. I would save my allowance and use that money to buy mouthpieces, mutes, bags and other accessories.

One day I was telling my teacher how I planned to save up and buy a Bach Stradivarius (a horn that cost thousands of dollars and was similar to the models played by many of my favorite trumpet players).

He encouraged me to try one first, so I did. My mom drove me to a Ken Stanton music store in Marietta, Georiga (where I grew up) and I asked to play one of those amazing trumpets.

I sat there in a practice room staring at that horn for several minutes before working up the courage to play something. When I finally did, I was shocked that it sounded exactly the same as the beat up Yamaha I had been playing for years.

Needless to say, I was pretty disillusioned. I related the experience to my teacher and he said something to me that I still remember:

“The horn doesn’t matter. It’s how you play it.”

I continued to play trumpet throughout grade school and into college. I always enjoyed it and I was good at it, but I never put in the sweat and practice needed to be great.

I’m a web designer now and I often find myself doing the same thing, obsessing over designs or platforms or processes or mechanisms. It’s easy to get distracted with tools, because some part of me thinks that if I just had a killer design, my blog would take off. Or if I had a better process or writing environment, I would finally be able to be a great writer.

But deep down I know that’s not true. We get good at things by doing them every day. By practicing.

If there’s something you want to do, then just do it. It really is that simple. It’s not easy, but it is simple.

A famous writer has been quoted as saying, “I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.”

The few successes I’ve had in life can be directly attributed to that philosophy. The philosophy of doing.

My encouragement to you is to start that thing you’ve been putting off. Stop obsessing with the idea of doing something and just do it. I guarantee you’ll be happy with the results.

Confidence: The Holy Grail of Personhood

What is it about putting myself out there that is so compelling? Why do I feel the need to do it over and over again, despite a pretty solid track record of failure?

Even as a child, I dreamed of being a writer. I was fascinated with newspapers and books. I would devour them, imagining my name in the byline, my face on the jacket cover.

I think what lured me in was the idea that one day I could have enough confidence to write. Writing (or podcasting or designing or any form of art) is the ultimate statement of confidence. It’s me saying that I’m smart enough and knowledgable enough and sure enough of myself that I’m going to write this thing and put my name on it and put it out there for all the world to see.

That kind of confidence was mesmerizing to me as a kid. Because I didn’t have it. I’ve always been a bit quiet and shy, but not overly so. I did alright in first and second grade. The other kids liked me. I had a girlfriend or two. Those were the good old days. The golden years.

Then it all went to shit in third grade. I started gaining weight and the bullies came out of the woodwork. I don’t blame them now, because I was a 10-year-old kid with a set of extraordinarily large man-boobs, which is actually pretty funny if you think about it.

So, confidence. It was like a mythical holy grail of personhood that I couldn’t seem to attain. Sports were clearly not my thing, so I retreated to the world of the mind. I read, I wrote, I played music, I got into electronics and computers.

Looking back now, it was all clearly an effort to find that confidence. And I didn’t find it for a long time. But then, when I did find it, I lost it again after about 20 minutes.

And that’s been the last 20 years of my life. I make something. People like it. I get a little confident and then I start thinking, “They probably don’t *really* like it. They’re probably just saying that. I mean, come on, who would honestly like this shit? I don’t even like it.”

And suddenly I’m a 10-year-old again, with my arm crossed, trying to hide my manboobs from the sea of confident, successful, existentially-satisfied 10-year-olds all around me.

Because that’s all we really are if you think about it. We’re all 10-year-olds, hoping someone will like us so we don’t have to go onto the playground alone.

Maybe that’s why I put myself out there over and over again. Blogs, podcasts, articles, web designs. Maybe it’s all an effort to get someone to like me enough that I don’t have to ride the fuckin round-a-bout by myself. Someone to join me on the playground of life.

How’s that for a metaphor?

On Professional Profanity and Being Yourself

My buddy, Sean McCabe, whom I respect greatly, published an article today entitled Cheap, Lazy, & Foolish: Professional Profanity. You should read it. It’s full of Sean’s typical thoughtfulness and unique style. (And while you’re at it, subscribe to Sean’s podcast. Trust me, it’s one of the best on the internet.)

However, I felt the need to respond with an article of my own, because I disagree so strongly. Coincidentally, I just had a long conversation on Twitter with my friend Jonathan Christopher on the same topic. The issue appears to be on people’s minds, at least within my circles.

I want to say at the outset, that I don’t feel dogmatic about this issue. It’s not a hill I’m willing to die on. I don’t care whether you use profanity or not. However, I strongly disagree with Sean’s foundational presupposition and felt the need to respond.

For Sean, the issue is preconceived projections. He puts it this way:

Blog posts, tweets, speeches, books; they’re all produced with forethought.

You plan out what you post, you prepare what you speak, you have all the time in the world before your press publish, and yet you choose to curse intentionally.

You are making a conscious decision to trade class for crass.

Sean is baffled that anyone would intentionally choose to use profanity and believes that those who do are trading “class for crass”. The foundational presupposition here is that words, in and of themselves, have an objective quality. Meaning, some words are objectively classy and others are not.
This is my main point of contention. Words, like all forms of art, are relative. One person’s class is another’s crass and vice versa. Who are we to stand in judgement of what is tasteful and what is not (from an objective sense)? Everyone is, of course, free to form their own personal opinions, but we’ll get to that later.

Sean says that speakers (and I’m going to include writers, podcasters, musicians, film makers and anyone who puts their art out into the world) use profanity for shock value or to appear cool or hip.

Some speakers will leverage this informality and speak crudely in an attempt to appear “cool” or “hip” to the audience.

Here’s the problem: You don’t sound relatable and you don’t sound cool. You sound unintelligent and you look cheap. Of all the descriptive words you could have chosen, you selected this stale, worn-out cliché of a profanity because you’re apathetic.

First, as I said above, it seems to me that this is merely Sean’s opinion. It may be true for him, but not for everyone. We can’t possibly know the motivations behind an artist’s art (unless they tell us), so this broad brush generalization seems ill-informed.

Second, calling it cheap, stale, unintelligent, worn-out and apathetic is, again, a statement of personal taste, not an objective reality of the art in question.

Let’s look to the world of music as an example, because who doesn’t love a good analogy?

What defines a quality work of music? For some, it may be Bach’s Prelude in C Major, while others would choose Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. But can we really say one is objectively better than the other?

What if, instead, Sean had said, “Anyone who chooses to use Nirvana instead of Bach in their speech is trading class for crass.”

It seems arrogant to me, to take one’s personal opinion and make it objective truth for everyone else.

Anyone is free to think, on a personal basis, that Bach is better than Nirvana, which in the end means it’s better for them. But to argue that Bach is the best that exists, as if such a thing could even be proven—that’s where the trouble lies.

I would venture to say the same goes for language. Language is an art form, after all, just like music. How can we objectively assign greater or lesser value to a particular grouping of English letters? To me, that is what is foolish.

Sean goes on to make a case for considering your audience:

Is it really worth estranging such a huge subset of people that could potentially be in your audience? In extremely practical terms, we’re talking about potential sales here. These people could be buying your products, hiring you for your services, or compensating you for whatever it is that you offer.

It seems that Sean is switching gears here from discussing the use of profanity in a general public sense to its use in sales and marketing.

So, now the question is, is profanity “cheap, lazy, & foolish” in marketing?

I can see why some would say “yes”, but for me the answer is still “no”.

Because you should never pander to the crowd. Pandering can certainly achieve fame and riches, but at what cost?

If you alter your message to be more palatable to a certain portion of the population, you’re not really connecting. You’re a hypocrite. It’s smoke and mirrors. People can smell fakeness a mile away.

Don’t be fake. Be yourself. Authenticity wins every time.

What connects people to one another is authenticity, vulnerability and realness. I can’t stress that enough. Be who you are. If you are the guy who never curses, that is completely fine. Be that guy. Embrace it. Find the people who love you for who you are and be vulnerable with them.

And if you’re the guy who curses, the same advice applies. Embrace it. Don’t worry about the people that don’t like it. If it is truly who you are, you will find the people that love you, the people you can serve and with whom you can be vulnerable.

Don’t stop being who you are because some people won’t like you or find you cheap, lazy or foolish. My guess is, you don’t want those people in your tribe anyway.

I don’t really care about who the world at large thinks I should be. I know who I should be and I want to put out into the world the things I feel inside me. I don’t care if a certain part of the population doesn’t like me. There are people out there who will like me and those are my people. Those are the people that matter.

My biggest complaint is the implication that those who choose to use profanity are somehow lazy, foolish, unimaginative or inarticulate. Some of the deepest thinkers I know, use profanity. Sometimes you just have to say fuck.

Maybe for Sean, it is cheap, lazy and foolish to curse. But that is for him to decide for himself. Claiming that this is objective truth for all humanity seems unprovable at best and arrogant at worst.


I hope none of this comes across as a personal criticism of Sean. As I said, Sean is a brilliant guy, a valued friend and trusted advisor. If you’re reading this Sean, I love you buddy and couldn’t think more highly of you. ;)

 

 

Say What You Can Say

Stop worrying about what you don’t know and say what you can say. This is advice my friend Chase likes to give me, but if I’m honest, it has yet to sink in.

Stop worrying about what you don’t know and say what you can say. This is advice my friend Chase likes to give me, but if I’m honest, it has yet to sink in.

So often I find myself struggling to produce because I’m trying to say things I can’t say. In an effort to seem valuable to my heroes, I imprison myself by trying to write things they will find impressive.

But here’s the truth: I’m not as good as my heroes. There’s a reason I look up to people like Jeffrey Zeldman and Jason Santa Maria. They’ve been doing this stuff for a long time and comparing my output to there’s is a losing battle. Comparing myself to anyone is a losing battle.

You may not be able to speak directly to your heroes. They are far ahead of you for good reason. They have learned from experience, things you have yet to learn. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to say.

I may not be able to write an article about how to grow a design shop into one of the foremost shops in the world, but I can speak to the thousands of freelancers out there who are just starting out and worried about where their clients will come from or how to price their first jobs.

I probably can’t write an article about CSS or web development that would teach Chris Coyier something new, but there’s a lot I can say to the people behind me.

And here’s the thing, it takes doing it to get better at it. The reason our heroes are so good is because they were able to overcome their fear and just keep doing it, day after agonizing day.

Find the thing you can say and focus on that.

My friend Chase said it the best I’ve ever heard anyone say it:

Basically I saw the things that other people where saying, and I said to myself, “I need to say those kinds of things.” So I said those kinds of things in those kinds of ways. And everything came out all markety and weird…That’s what I thought I was supposed to do.

Here’s the thing, we often say things in or content, our marketing, our writing, whatever, that may not necessarily be true, because we think people want to hear it.

But I’ve learned something. For me and maybe for you too, the things that I make get better when I stop worrying about the things I’m supposed to say or what they want to hear or anything like that, and I start focusing on “What do I really know that I can say.”

Stop putting on yourself the burden of being remarkable. Fuck remarkable. Just be yourself. We all have something to offer. We all have something say. There are always people out there we can help.

Cheers,
Adam
@avclark

David Rakoff on Writing

You want your piece to be “the world.” And of course it isn’t “the world”. But you go in with these sort of larger, lofty dreams that you have for anything that you might approach writing wise.

That said, I never approach a story with “how can I make this weighty, how can I make it mean something.” I really do just approach it with my notebook and a pen and I just think, “My task right now, the task at hand, is to right as much as possible.” Something happens, right it down. Think of something, write it down.

In that case, it’s very much like a gerbal on a wheel. I’m just trying to get as many words of notes into my notebook and then into my brain.

It’s in the committing those notes later on to the keyboard where I can expand on them.