I have always found it nonsense that as long as you do what you like, you don’t have to work a day in your life. Even as a freelancer, and you have chosen your work yourself, you work. And sometimes that is fun and sometimes it’s less fun. There is always a chance of becoming overworked or suffering burnout. A burn-out usually occurs when you have long-term stress, from whatever cause.
I love what I do but I’m overworked nonetheless
When I decided to be a freelancer in 2008, after several years of being employed, I did so mainly because I wanted more control over my work. I was on the verge of burnout, and I wanted to avoid that. I wanted to decide which assignments I would do, with whom I would work and I wanted to plan my own days.
I love being an entrepreneur, more than I could ever imagine. I love coming up with projects, marketing, all the different tasks. But even a happy entrepreneur can get overworked.
I am often told that it seems like so much fun, drawing and colouring all day. But an illustrator is not a toddler. Illustrators are mainly busy with e-mailing, contracts, administration, marketing, negotiations, and much more. For example, I spend about 25% of my time drawing. Now, I don’t mind that very much, because I like doing a bit of everything. But if you do too much of what you don’t like, it affects your well-being.
I have been missing autonomy in my work for a while now. Since my switch in 2010 from freelance art director/graphic designer to illustrator, I’ve worked mainly for clients. This means that most days I translate other people’s visions into images. That is great fun, but in recent years I felt the need to express my own vision and tell my own stories more and more. I am lucky to work with wonderful clients, but no matter how nice those people are: the urge to create things myself became stronger and stronger.
As a freelancer I can’t say ‘no’ to everything
I like to please others, also clients, and because of that I regularly go beyond my limits. This has been the case for as long as I can remember: I did it in my youth too. To be honest, I was used to being tired. Until the end of last year, when it was too much: I hardly slept, had panic attacks and I constantly had headaches. The doctor’s conclusion was “severely overworked, or burnout”. Her advice was to work as little as possible.
Fortunately, she understood that completely stop working was not an option, as I am a freelancer. I often receive well-meaning advice like “just focus on yourself” or “it’s better to stop working altogether”. I know that would be the best thing to do, but I don’t have an employer who will give me six months off and continue to pay my salary, as is often the case when you are employed in the Netherlands.
As a freelancer, I can say ‘no’ to jobs, which I have done for the past year. With the risk of losing clients and income permanently, so that creates a certain tension. That is why I say ‘no’ to jobs that do not suit me very well and occasionally say ‘yes’ to jobs that are lucrative. I try to find a balance, because my intuition says that it is not wise to stop everything for a year. I fear that I would not do my career any good, which I have worked hard on for 15 years. I don’t know if my fear is valid, but I don’t want to take the risk.
I praise myself that I never miss deadlines, but sometimes wonder if I am thereby heading full speed ahead towards my own deadline.
So it is that I am now writing this from a little white cottage in North Yorkshire, England: I have taken a semi-sabbatical. I have been saying for years that I would like to spend some time in England, but there was always an excuse not to. Now I had the best excuse: I had to get away, otherwise I would be overworked. Of course, I could have stayed in the Netherlands, but another place helps me relax better.
Why taking a (semi-)sabbatical in another place?
Both at work and at home. That means not taking on all the jobs to please others, but also not meeting up with friends. I have the best friends, but because of my completely flat battery I haven’t been able to have coffee with them every week. I find it hard to say no and a sea of them gives me an excuse to refuel.
I am now in a cottage that is quite minimalist. For these months, I have only brought the most essential things with me: a few pieces of clothing, a few brushes and paint tubes, and so on. Because I’m not surrounded by my own stuff, I’m less distracted and can concentrate better on myself and what I need.
In the Netherlands, I live near the city. Although we have a nature reserve in front of our house, the space is limited and there’s noise always. In a couple of hours you explored the whole area. In England, I now live on the North York Moors, and a short distance from the Yorkshire Dales. Two immense nature reserves that together are about as large as the provinces Groningen and Drenthe together. So there is plenty to walk about!
Inspiration and development
Another country inspires me. What I, as a Dutchman, may find very normal, is here not so normal at all. Nature inspires me to create new work (although not immediately: first I need to rest). There are nice villages to discover and new food to eat. Through new experiences, you develop as a human being.
This is the most important reason: in a different surrounding, I look differently at the world around me. In the Netherlands I have my routines, which are not necessarily good for me at the moment. Because I’m in a different environment with my overworked brain, I can notice more quickly where things are going wrong, because I can see more clearly what is going on.
I can notice more quickly where things go wrong, because I have stripped my environment of everything I know. For example, I noticed that when I worked here one day, I was immediately rewarded with a migraine and severe sweating (apologies for the TMI). So that job caused stress. With that information, I can look for other solutions.
I have been in this lovely cottage in England for about a week and a half now. I am still trying to figure it everything out: new supermarket, different rhythm, more sleeping. I have already walked, climbed a steep hill with a sprained hip muscle, eaten in a pub and watched a lot of British telly. In the near future, I will write here about what I am going through and write down my thoughts. I would love to hear from you as a reader: you can leave a comment (or questions) below.
Photos by Marleen Annema
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All text and images © Marloes De Vries