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Avoiding Creative Burnout

CreativeCOW presents Avoiding Creative Burnout --   Letters to the COW Team Tutorial


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Burnout is very common in the television industry, but it doesn't have to last. By investing time and interest in learning new skills, Timothy Allen tells us, you will not only develop your career, but also enhance your entire outlook on life. If you keep your learning curve in ''the zone'', you'll be just fine.





I remember my first video job like it was yesterday: I was so excited to get up at 5:30 in the morning to work for free for the next 14 hours that I couldn’t sleep the night before; the glamour, the lights, the action -- I could hardly wait. The morning of the shoot, I practically ran from my car to the set. I arrived early and worked hard all day, fetching coffee, sweeping the set, hiding cables, holding reflectors, and learning how to take good timecode notes. I didn’t know much about video production, but it sure was fun. I remember driving home that night, exhausted, thinking about just how great it was to work “in television.”

I still drive home thinking about how great it is to work in television. Even with the more realistic approach that the years in the industry have given me, I still get a special thrill during location shoots and while I’m turning on all of the machines in the edit bay each morning. I can’t say that there aren’t times that I’m bored and times when I get frustrated, but even after all these years, I still wake up on most days itching to get to work.

Most of us have worked with people who make comments such as “I could slap on a tie and sell insurance and make a better living than this.” or “If I had known that this what TV production really is like, I would have become a tax attorney.” For one reason or another these people have suffered career burnout, and no longer enjoy their day-to-day jobs. They’re just “making a living” as opposed to “making a life”. They have lost the zeal that they once brought to the table and if your not careful, they can suck the energy out of even the most creative and energetic teams.

If you’ve been in this business long enough, you will flirt with burnout. The question is “How do you get back to that place you were before, when life was exciting and you looked forward to the challenges of each day?”

The short answer is: “You can’t.” The good part about this answer is that even if you could go back, you really don’t want to. You want to go forward. Let me explain.

Most people who are just learning to make professional video are thrilled when they are working on their first “real” project. Sure, even at the time, you know it always could be better, but isn’t it cool that you made that program? The point is that you are happy just getting it out on tape. This point in your career is represented by point A on the chart. (see chart 1)

chart 1

For a while, this is enough to satisfy your creative urges, but soon you want to do more. Maybe you want to use a color effect like that hip commercial you just saw, or maybe shoot something in a truly innovative way. Usually the more realistic situation is that you have to learn to do something, because that’s what your client is requesting. If you’ve ever been in an edit session with a client behind you who is waiting to see an effect that you really have no idea how to create, you’ve been at point B on the chart.

At this point you don’t yet know how to do it, only that you want to do it. Point B represents those circumstances when you wish you could freeze the clocks, learn the skills to do what you need to do, and then resume the flow of time without the client even realizing that you have superhuman powers. In short, you have an area of high challenges in front of you, but your low skills in that area prohibit you from conquering them.

At this point, you have basically two choices. You can continue to be frustrated that you can’t complete the task, or you can learn how to do it and start developing your skills. As those skills develop, you move from the left to the right on the chart. This puts you back into the good “zone”, but at an even higher and more enjoyable level. (as illustrated by point C on the chart) This point, where you can rise to the higher challenges with your higher skills, is by far the most rewarding place to be.

After years of this continual process, you eventually get to a point where you can generally do whatever the client might ask for. If you are working on the same types of products over and over again (as is common in corporate video) your projects can become tedious and boring. You might find yourself continually turning to the same formulaic solutions to solve your creative challenges. In effect, you are too good for your own good. Your skills surpass your challenges. This is represented by point D (for “Dull”) on the chart.

You then have new paths in front of you. You can let apathy and boredom set in, or you can search out new challenges that will move you back up into the “zone” where you are fulfilled. (Of course, you can also quit entirely, but for the sake of discussion let’s assume that you don’t want to change careers today.) These new challenges that you search out can be things such as gaining a deeper understanding of the equipment and processes that you already work with (i.e. advanced editing techniques) or learning about entirely new equipment that could still be relevant to your field. For example, if you are primarily a graphic artist, you could learn more about audio production.

Some people have a “side project” that they work on, just so they can try new things and have fun without the pressure of client demands. This allows them to stretch their skills in an environment that doesn’t promote anxiousness (moving them to a higher level along the “zone” line.) While some of us don’t have the means to keep side projects going at work, (company regulations etc.) we all have other equally viable options.

The best part for those who are already sick of video production is that almost any new experience can help you become a better storyteller, even if it that activity seems to be unrelated on the surface. What really matters is how much of yourself you put into the new activity. By focusing on those new experiences, you’re sharpening skills that will help your career, while leaving behind the anxiety or boredom that gets you down at work. Take an honest look at your projects from the past few years and be honest about how much you’ve grown as an artist. When was the last time that you really learned something new?

As creative professionals, we are in a very unique position. We differentiate ourselves from each other by our ideas. The great part about this is that each of us has a lifetime of experience that shapes those ideas. To cultivate your creativity is sometimes simply a matter of learning and experiencing new and different things. Again, these “new things” don’t have to be industry specific at all to be relevant regarding your career.

Studying art or going to a museum can give you a new appreciation for color composition and framing. Learning to play a musical instrument is one of the best ways that you can gain a better understanding of “pacing” in your video projects. Studying history, psychology or philosophy can give you a completely different perspective of not only your video projects, but also life in general. Traveling to a foreign country can be very therapeutic for burnout, but it’s not simply because you are away from your workplace. It’s because you are immersing yourself in new experiences. The experiences that you can gain from a week of travel can shape your views and attitudes in a way that living in the same town for 20 years never will. If, however, you can only travel as far as your neighborhood bookstore, pick up a magazine about a subject that you might be interested in, but know nothing about. If you can’t think of anything new that you’re interested in, just pick a magazine that you’ve never seen before and read the whole thing before you toss it away. I’ve learned as muchs about certain subjects from the ads in a magazine than I did from the articles. Of course, if you truly experience the lessons of any activity, it will be much easier to remember and apply those lessons when you need them.

Study and pursue a new activity that can be enjoyed instantly with little skill, but can evolve with you to become more complex at the same rate that you are learning more complex skills. This will keep you in the good “zone” of things. If you are not a graphic artist, learning Adobe PhotoShop is a good example. It’s easy to open the program up and start playing with filters, but the creative possibilities are endless. You’ll find yourself using that newfound knowledge before you realize it. Whichever activity you pick, you’ll soon see how refreshing it is to get back to a “beginner’s mind” and a renewed thirst for learning. Even if the subject doesn’t seem at first glance to be video related, I’m sure that with a little creativity, you can find a way that it will enrich your career. It’s very important to pick something that you want to learn. If you pick something simply because you feel that you need to learn it for your job it will only speed you towards a burnout.

When you become interested in a particular subject, you naturally want to spend more time involved with that activity. When you spend more time with it, you generally get better at it. This, in turn makes it even more fun and interesting. So the circle continues until you fall out of the “zone of balance” between skill and challenges and find yourself either bored or anxious.

That’s the point where you should try learning something new. If you can’t stand to even think about video for a while, don’t. Pick a subject that seems entirely unrelated to television to pursue. Even if the subject seems as unrelated as flower arranging, that new knowledge is bound to be useful someday. Who knows? Someday, you just might find yourself in an interview with Home & Garden Television.

Burnout is very common in the television industry, but it doesn’t have to last. By investing time and interest in learning new skills, you will not only develop your career, but also enhance your entire outlook on life. If you keep your learning curve in the zone , you’ll be just fine.

Keep exploring and have fun!

I’d like to recognize and recommend Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s book Flow – the Psychology of Optimal Experience . Several of these concepts are derived from that book and I highly recommend it to those who are interested in learning about the psychology of human perception as it pertains to happiness. (And yes, I did have to check the spelling of his name!)

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Comments

Re: Avoiding Creative Burnout
by Amy Allen
Wow, this is really great. I'm just starting a new position in my company which involves more creativity than my previous position. Thanks for the reminders to stay in the Zone.


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