Feeling Stuck? Think Beyond Yourself.

Enriching your business and your life through volunteering.

I LOVE OUR CLIENTS. But sometimes, our clients aren’t enough.

Our production cycle fluctuates, alternating bursts of creativity with spells of monotonous production. We’re blessed with repeat business, but a dozen consecutive projects for the same client starts to feel like eating oatmeal for every meal, again and again. We keep the lights on, but do little for the soul. I imagine all, save the luckiest in our industry, run on some version of this treadmill.

The start of the year is typically a lackluster time at our studio. Low budget, low imagination jobs, combined with low temperatures and low light of a New York winter, all threaten to push me down the chute of professional melancholy. And, I find myself burning out. For me, that’s not about running out of ideas. I simply cease to enjoy the process and can no longer appreciate the process, or the result.

And, for years, that’s precisely where I’d tumble.

My solution to this creative depression was to do my own thing. But, identifying that elusive thing required a lot of inspired thinking. My reality was a Catch-22. When I enjoyed my work, I spent my downtime on leisure, the perfect fuel for maintaining inspiration. Once desperate for a creative challenge, I was in the wrong frame of mind to get inspired, and inevitably got stuck. Worse, my personal rut always led me questioning the lack of social value in my career.

And then, I discovered professional volunteering. This year instead of indulging doubts, I basked in the sunny vibes of supporting a cause I stand behind — while working on a Mission Explainer Video for Community Technology Alliance (CTA) — a California non-profit that develops data-driven solutions to ending poverty and homelessness.

Still from our brand new pro-bono project for CTA.

The idea hatched as a final project for an undergrad motion graphics class in 2010, when I set up each of my students with an non-profit to create an awareness video. The results were mixed, but I recognized how giving a little something back to the world could put me on the path to getting back my inspiration.

Refining 10 student projects was impossible, but bringing one pro bono project, done under my close supervision by an intern, to a professionally completed result was certainly achievable. It would have clear educational value, while removing my discomfort of free labor. So, our summer mentorship program “doubles up” on giving back by both mentoring young designers and powering up a non-profit.

Still from a mentorship project by Teresa Yang for Blue Capes, a United Nations effort.

I still take solo work, like 2016’s eGirl Power Awareness Video. Some, like the Awareness Video for Food Fight, non-profit that develops in-school food and nutrition literacy programs for students, teachers and community wellness become a collaboration with other artists in our studio.

Over a dozen projects in, I see tangible benefits:

• I feel less creatively stifled when my daily workload turns into a daily grind, knowing that when I’m ready, there’s a cause needing support that can stretch my imagination.

• We can help great organizations in our own backyard, like the College Advocacy Promo we did for NYC’s Transportation Alternatives.

Still from our TransAlt College Advocacy Promo

• Working with young designers is exceptionally rewarding. While they benefit from my experience, I revel in their enthusiasm and freshness.

• I can now actually come up with my own pet project ideas! I attribute this to not feeling the intense, suffocating pressure of having to find them. And, I make time for these ideas, despite pro bono commitments. I attribute THAT to not succumbing to inertia from my creative depression.

• We can trace paid work to our pro-bono jobs. And likely, the variety added to our portfolio generates new clients in ways that are harder to measure.

• I am able to build my own incubator for learning, experimenting and designing in directions that don’t fit our commercial clientele.

My greatest reward, however, is steady social contribution. I’m paying it forward, for my professional success and the support I got from others. This generates gratitude and selflessness, mental states proven to bring more happiness to one’s life. So, in choosing to create for others, I’m creating a happier “me.”

What could be better than that?

A version of this article was originally published on Fast Company on 04.15.2015