Burnout, Layoffs, and Fyre Fest: The Art of Bouncing Back from Failure
Whether they’re big battles or small indignities, times where we fall short or times where we fall flat on our face, the ability to come back swinging is what transforms a debacle into a lesson learned. The art of bouncing back is really code for resilience, that elusive and invisible backbone that, like a Black Panther suit, can turn jabs, discouragement, and burnout into more fuel to your fire.
From an HR lead getting the rug pulled out from under him in his own feedback session, to the self-doubt of being downsized, to the designer behind the infamous Fyre Fest, we talked to six creatives about how they learned to pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and start all over again.
For a long career, look for the patterns of burnout
I spent a long time taking on very ambitious never-been-done before projects [like the first-ever live Drone Orchestra for John Cale of the Velvet Underground]. I was an executive producer in a very close collaborative relationship with artists and designers. And it was amazing. But the ambition of the projects was so huge that, by the time we launched them, anything that was imperfect became such an acute thing that even though things were successful and they were practically impossible to do and we did them and people came, the level of dissatisfaction was quite profound. It actually undermined everything that we built and every success that we had. You come out the other side and you’re almost unable to acknowledge the beauty, the power, or the success of what you built. It really affected my relationship with the people I collaborated with.
So, I took a pretty deep look at ownership and attachment. It made me realize: if you’re going to take on epic projects you’ve never done before, you need to plan for recovery and you need to see the patterns—the peaks and troughs that you go through. It’s not worth it to let the anger, frustration, and disappointment undermine everything. In clinging onto that tiny detail of disappointment, you lose the value of the experience you created for thousands of people. That enabled me to form a much more resilient approach and be able to say to my teammates, “This is where we are in the process, this is why it feels bad right now.” Or to give people space to say, “I’m really stuck and I’m not feeling good.”
Once you identify a pattern, you can zoom out a bit. You can create a little bit of space to coach people through because you know the high of success will come. Or just acknowledge the crash that comes after, so you can get up and start all over again. For a long career in this world you have to see the patterns, adjust the patterns and ask yourself do I need to keep being like this? Because you might not.
Blast self-doubt with staying busy
A number of years ago, I was asked to come into an impromptu meeting. Like anyone caught by surprise, I grabbed my notebook in case I needed to take notes. I didn’t need to take notes. I was being let go.
I had heard many stories of mass layoffs. I thought to myself, “that could never happen to me; I work my ass off, I’m well-liked, and my work speaks for itself.” To be fired without grounds was confusing. That’s not how the world works! There are rules! Aren’t there? Yes, but they never broke any of them. It says right there in the contract when you sign on to the job: “We reserve the right to end this contract for any reason.” And they exercised that right.
I believed the world operated a certain way: you work hard, show your worth, and people will notice. I still believe that to be true. But that’s not the only way the world works. When I learned that that can be taken away from me, and without grounds, it shook me. I really did wonder what I could’ve done differently. It’s human nature to want a reason so that you can make sense of things.
You can never mentally prepare yourself for the self-doubt that creeps in and plants itself right in the part of the brain that contains all your self-confidence. When doubt in your abilities overtakes you, it doesn’t magically go away overnight. It drips away slowly like a tiny pinhole leak. When I started interviewing again, I noticed how I focused on what had happened to me instead of what I could contribute. I needed people to know I wasn’t laid off for incompetence. It was a pride thing. But telling people your sad story doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s like telling them your pet fish died—for twenty minutes.
It was tough for me to get over, but I knew that holding grudges was exhausting and unhealthy. Instead, I channeled my energy towards something I could be proud of. You’d be surprised at how motivated and focused you can become after a layoff.
It wasn’t until I interviewed for California Sunday and Pop-Up Magazine that things took a turn for the better. The opportunity felt risky (I’d never worked for a startup before) but incredibly exciting at the same time. Almost five years later, after three National Magazine Awards and back-to-back "Magazine of the Year” honors at The Society of Publication Designers, it’s unbelievable how far we’ve come. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened had I never been let go. I realize that hardships, as challenging and frustrating as they are at the time, often pave the way to something better.
If someone is speaking a different language, start with listening
I closed my company NJ(L.A.) at the end of 2017 to join Wieden+Kennedy and took over a 100-person team to build out the design offering.
I was incredibly naive to think that it was going to be a walk in the park. I learned I would spend more time managing (and learning to manage) versus doing creative work. I learned that often design in an ad agency means “execution” and “production,” or in other words, “comps” and “decks.” There was also a massive perception gap between “creative” and “design.” How is “design” not “creative?”
My gut reaction was, “Have I just lost everything I believed in? Have I lost all my integrity and ethics? Am I dancing with the devil?”
I know that I tried their patience, as they tried mine. There were some disappointments. I realized I needed to earn the trust for what I’m trying to do. Little did I know that we are so similar in thinking and process. Slowly we started meeting and working with amazing people here. It’s like having a hot bath. You sit still and adjust to the temperature. First, I made sure to listen. To listen a lot.
If you want things to change, stop complaining. Just do it. Get a solid support team around you and make sure to hone in on your communication and leadership skills. Because it takes a village.
Build a culture of feedback to save yourself big surprises
Alex Seiler, Senior Director, Global HR, WeWork
I was in a situation where I managed a much bigger team where I was constantly seeking feedback and asking, “What could I be doing better?” And they were not being transparent with their responses. And it came to a head when I did a 360° [review] as part of getting an executive coaching engagement. A lot of feedback came out in that.
I called everyone together and said, “Listen, I’m not trying to call anyone out but I received this feedback as part of a 360 and I don’t know where it’s coming from.” I had previously been opening the floodgate to get that feedback. But just because you ask for it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen.
It hurt but I used that as an opportunity and I said, “We’ve built a high performing team and I’d like to think that you can come to me about anything.”
What it came down to, from their perspective, was that they had left it too long. They said that they should have said something earlier, specifically around burnout and capacity issues. But they let it linger. They took ownership of that. I also took ownership for the fact that, as much as I like to push people, maybe I push them too hard.
In the future, what I would do is bring the team together and set operating norms. I would highlight on a more consistent basis that, as much as I’m giving you feedback, I expect you all to be giving feedback as well. You have to build that culture from the get-go.
Talk to people you trust during tumultuous times
I moved into my current design leadership role as part of a larger reorganization of our product development teams. It was a huge challenge and I had to figure out a lot, quickly. My new responsibilities included: managing more designers than I had ever managed before; hiring, interviewing, and on-boarding; collaborating with a new product partner to establish a strategy; and nurturing a healthy team culture amidst all that change. All of this while wrapping up a huge product launch where I was still the hands-on design lead! On top of all that, my incredibly supportive manager went on parental leave for six months.
I felt truly in over my head for the first time in my career. I was juggling more than ever before. I didn’t have enough hours in the day to stay on top of everything. How do I manage all of these meetings I need to attend while also working closely with engineers to launch new features? How can I be a great manager when I’m not able to check in with my reports? How can I make sure the design work is on the right track when I can’t be in all of the conversations around it? I couldn’t give everything 100%. Was I set up for failure? After a few weeks in my new role, I found myself dreading the commute to the office.
I knew I needed some help. So, I reached out to people I trusted and admired. I talked to colleagues and friends who had gone through similar transitions. I discovered that I had a much bigger support system than I realized. Just by letting people know where I was struggling, I got so much great advice and offers of help.
The biggest takeaway is that it’s truly impossible to do it all. I’ve gotten better at carving out time for focus, planning, and my team. I've grown to lean more on others when I find myself trying to juggle too much. It's been an exercise in discovering where to let go and where to take control. I’m still figuring it out.
Sometimes, just go to an island
Oren Aks, designer and former Jerry Media strategist for Fyre Fest
I had a job at Thrillist as an editorial graphic designer and then I met the guys from F*ckJerry and they poached me. It was the best job ever, in the beginning. My life was looking good, feeling good, and Fyre Fest was, no pun intended (pun intended), fueling that.
You know the story. It all crashed and burned. I stuck around for six months at the agency because I couldn’t afford to quit. I was living paycheck to paycheck. It was a very confusing time. I felt really guilty and no one around me understood what I was going through and I didn’t know how to talk to people about it.
One week before the end of the month, a new apartment I found fell through. I said, “This is it. I’m leaving New York. It’s not meant to be.”
And then the documentaries came out. I was really scared in the beginning. I thought, “Fyre is bad. I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s move on.” Then, I started to see the positive: I can talk to people about what I’ve been internalizing for two years. But with that, I struggled with the question of how to handle all of it. I wasn’t prepared. On one side, it was great because I was meeting really interesting people every day and had so many opportunities presented. But I would come home tired and without energy to work on the things that I’d just met with them about. So, I decided to go off the internet to focus on what I actually wanted to do.
So, right now, I’m in this teeny tiny little village of 75 people in Greece for a month. There’s no grocery store, there’s nothing here. I’m up at five. I’m in bed by 9:30. I do yoga in the morning. It could be too much isolation for some people if you don’t use it right, or challenge yourself, or put yourself in fun situations on purpose. For me, I have to plan something and make sure that there’s a point.
Strategic isolation allowed me to focus on working on what I’m passionate about. It’s for bettering yourself through a strict regimen. The big difference is how you feel and how you work when you are in control, not the client or a deadline. Being stuck in your daily routine doesn’t allow you to do that, so it can be really healthy to separate from your own world. Sometimes you need to take a step back to make a leap forward.
More about Emily Ludolph
Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer.