A jelly looking for a mould?

An attempt at honesty about my mental health and working life.

It’s the turn of 2019 and here I am contemplating a big shift in my career. Again.
After two-and-a-half marvellous years at Cogapp I’m off again with a spring in my step to seek my fortune. Or not.

This post is going to be a bit more candid about where I’m at: it’s about work/life and what happens next. As such, it’s going to be written by this go-getting, future-facing, reflexive but positive voice that has always been a huge part of me. But I’m also going to attempt, for the first time, to be more open about the emotional gremlins that are less comfortable to expose and harder to put on a CV.

That voice will look like this.

At Cogapp, I joined as a developer, all set to build my l33t h4xor skillz in HTML, Drupal, JavaScript, Solr, Python… you get it. That was after a 3-month intensive course at General Assembly and I pretty much couldn’t believe my luck: I got to build digital stuff for GLAMs with a team that are among the best in the business. What could possibly go wrong?

I slowly realised that though I normally love learning (and I’m pretty good at learning?) web development just wasn’t clicking. Ouch. I’d invested a lot in getting my digits dirty.

I had got to the point where I could (can!) fix bugs, write small programs or pages and so on. I could (can!) also see the broad architecture of a project — the bigger picture, the core problems and how to shape solutions. Frustrations came when connecting all the pieces, and building stuff from scratch. My colleagues would race ahead with an incredibly lucid conception of all the moving parts — load balancers, search indexes, multiple internal APIs… They could see a project and build the right engine in their heads, whether it was a turbocharged V8 or a 50cc 2-stroke. I felt like I was limited to tuning the parts when they were already in front of me, or discussing the driver’s benefits.

The team were amazing about it, and luckily appreciated that my background in museums, heritage and academia meant I could step into other gaps in the workflow: research, analytics, user experience, data processing. But these aren’t the core of Cogapp’s offer and only some projects demand such work. When those projects were no longer on the books, it was time to say goodbye. I learned a huge amount at a great company — just not what I expected to. Leaving is the right call for Cogapp and for me.

But it scratches old wounds. We all want to find a team to fit in with, don’t we? To have skills that make us a valuable member of the crew. Added to this: being in a team is crucial for me. Enforced solitude crushes my productivity, no matter if I’m in the best of mental health states.

Job identity | Personal title

All of these ended. Few of them on my terms. Almost all left me with a degree of discomfort. Or worse. Though I’d try and see the bright side, each one seemed to say: ‘Lovely to have you Pat, but you don’t really fit in here so off you go…’ Off I’d go, looking for something as different as possible in a hunt for a home. Feeling like a jelly.

What do you put on your business cards? Twitter bio? Conference badges? LinkedIn? I’ve tried to sassily/self-deprecatingly summarise the ping-pong journey between jobs with stuff like: “Web Developer | Museum Geek”, “Museum and Heritage brain-for-hire” and currently “Cultural comms and digital bod”.

Like the job titles, this self-labelling feels like this is scrabbling for an identity. Any appreciation I have for the diversity of my work experiences is often outweighed by a sense of worry, panic even, that there is nothing valuable or bankable in which I’ve done my ‘10,000 hours’. Apparently, ‘portfolio careers’ are now normal, but an abyss opens under me when someone asks “…and what do you do?”. Contemplating a job description feels similar: I might match with many of the skills but there’s often a sense that I lack the key building blocks that would even get me considered.

The connective tissue between my jobs seems to be about presenting old stuff — archaeology, art, heritage, collections — through various channels — digital, visual, stories, exhibits. The passion for it is consistent: I get pissed off when I think it’s being done badly. I have a hunger to improve it, to help organisations build dialogue between their collections and their audiences.

But that hunger has caused friction too. Academia and the cultural sector are famous for their intransigence. Being the instigator, cage-rattler, what-if-asker in any organisation is never comfortable. When tight budgets and old habits have made creative thinking feel like a perilous extravagance, it doesn’t take long for me to internalise my own frustrations and each institutional rejection.

Several people have suggested I cast my net further: that my mishmash of skills could benefit any creative, interpretive, digital-focussed team. The obvious initial candidates are digital agencies: Brighton has plenty of them and they apply many of the creative tools that I love to unleash on a problem.

None of these look like a home though. No matter how creative, collaborative or innovative the methods are, I get hung up on the material: banks, oil companies, sportswear brands… premium lagers. It’s hypocritical, but I can sleep fine buying many of these products; it’s the idea of helping them sell more stuff that sticks in my throat. A visceral reaction more than a logical one: I’ve no illusions about how a good deal of the cultural sector is ultimately funded.

A case history…

Parental deaths are common. Quitting academia is common. Mental health issues are common. We should all share about these more. This is easy for me to say in the abstract. I can even try to remember that one common symptom of depression is a sense that one’s own story is invalid and pathetic. I’m not trying to add to the discourse — there are plenty of people with more insight and far worse situations. I’m not remotely going to expose my whole story, but this openness about the connection between mental health and work is new.

In 2013 my mum died and I quit my PhD. This isn’t even the first time I’ve said that in public but it’s still hard to say, the aftershocks are still real and recently I seem to be getting worse.

The team at Cogapp couldn’t have been better about it — support, compassionate leave, flexibility and openness — an exemplary way to support staff with mental health/invisible health issues. My departure was coincidental but unrelated.

One of the oddities of depression (for many sufferers) is that learning better tactics for dealing with a bad day (week/month) makes it look less bad from the outside. In 2013 a bad day would be duvet and cereal (inability to make effort or be social), Netflix repeats while trawling Buzzfeed quizzes (inability to focus or process new/challenging ideas). This cocoon was the safest way to protect/distract myself from the dark cloud of internalised hatred, unworthiness and guilt.
Now, making coffee, having a shower, cooking, laundry, a workout, a trip to the corner shop and other heroic achievements are all much more possible. I’ll probably even seem fairly normal in conversation. The dark cloud is still there. Sometimes it’s worse. A trip to the office might as well be to the moon.

On a ‘normal’ work day, the first signal I get that something’s going wrong is a loss of focus. I’ll take three goes to read a paragraph, five to write one, half an hour to get my head around a chunk of code or spreadsheet. Knowing the difference between this being normal and hearing the alarm of a shitty few days is impossible: another game to play with willpower and self-worth.

Elsewhere in working life, most people have a healthy distaste for meetings. But the good ones? They’re pretty much my favourite thing. Bouncy, creative, round-table meetings with lots of energy, ideas, biscuits and possibilities. Taking problems apart, unravelling everyone’s issues, hunting for the underlying causes, establishing testable ways forward. Academic conferences and seminars could be good for these, Cogapp was better — including some of the workshops I went to and ran.

These used to nourish me — I’d be absolutely buzzing. Now, though I can thoroughly enjoy the experience, they often knock me out for days. How can that be!? I’ve made the half-joking observation that I used to be Tigger, bouncing around, full of enthusiasm and positivity. Now, I have more in common with Eeyore and Piglet.

Since the beginning of 2019 I’ve been wrestling with ‘What’s next?’. It doesn’t feel like a fun problem to unravel. I am someone who works with my mind — this may be a platitude: yes of course we all do! — but it does sometimes feel like depression is laser-guided to obliterate the key skills that run through all the things I’ve tried doing. For me, depression makes focus impossible, it crushes social confidence (including online), it makes thinking and learning painfully difficult.

It feels like a sports injury. It feels like any chance I have to bring my A-game has been quashed by an unhealed fracture. I used to have hefty stores of grit to draw on to make an above-average effort and deliver good work. It’s now exhausted just turning up: sometimes it isn’t even enough for that.

So what the hell happens next?

It was terrifying.

It was great to reconnect with creative, like-minded and forward-thinking people. People who want to make museums work as forces for good and make positive spaces online and off. It deepened my hunger to make a difference to the sector and gave some sense I have done my ‘10,000 hours’ here, even if I never set out to do them.

The familiar frustrations I heard expressed led to a bigger mix of feelings. On the one hand: a sense that the lessons I’d learned at Cogapp and across my career put me in a great spot to help tackle these problems. Want to get agile? Want to do better social media? Bring design thinking on board? Harness creativity? Connect with communities? Analyse audience data? I can help with all of these and a bunch of other things. If I can’t help, I’ll tell you who can.

But so many people were still fighting to get the basics of these working. The grind of fighting them was clearly taking a personal toll. Egos, territoriality and culture were just as big a problem as budgets and external conditions. I won’t last long in those fights.

Brooklyn, Derby, Bristol, Santa Cruz. They have their problems, but these museum teams seem to be making great strides in the right direction and thriving. It is more than possible. From what I’ve seen, fostering staff initiative and talent has been crucial to their success. If you want your team to look more like that, I would love to be involved.

At Let’s Get Real yesterday, we finished with a great ‘Agony Aunt and Uncle’ session with Anra Kennedy, Ross Parry, Dan Martin, Steph Fuller and cliff manning. The panel unpacked great practical questions submitted by museum staff ‘at the coal face’. I took a different tack, so my (understandably unanswered) provocation was:

It’s 2029. How many UK museums have a Creative Director?

A quick google shows very few 2019 museum teams have this role, especially outside North America. But surely modern museum teams have to be as creative as advertising agencies? TV production companies? Fashion houses?

So. Here’s my hubristic voice saying I would like to be one of the people with that title by that year. That’s the mould I think I’d fit best.

And here’s my humble voice, terrified, hoping to get into any friendly team in the next 6 months. Doubting that I have a snowball’s chance in hell of escaping the dark clouds for long enough to get anywhere.

If you got this far, thanks for reading. I hope it wasn’t too awkward or self-indulgent. Please get in touch with projects, ideas, comments or chances to collaborate.

pat [at] pathadley.net or PatHadley on Twitter

Any other thoughts appreciated too — if you’re struggling with your own mental health, I hope you’re getting the support you need and looking after yourself. Sharing is horrible but it does help. I think?

Written by

Cultural comms and digital bod. (On a partial mental health break) Poorly preserved archaeologist remains. Formerly @cogapp @YorkMuseumTrust

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