Health as Personal Brand
Written by Susan Lin
The @bysusanlin personal brand is simple. She’s a prolific creative human being driven by the imaginative forces from her childhood. She’s one-dimensionally a fan of the color teal, Studio Ghibli’s Totoro, forms that look like or are trees, and making things in just about every 2D medium. But @bysusanlin is a personal brand. Brands are edited. Brands have conversion goals. Brands are not people.
I am a person. Sometimes, others assume I am a manic pixie dream girl who has a manic pixie dream life. Why would they assume otherwise? I consciously hyper-edit what I do and don’t show. Here’s a quick summary of my personal brand: A lot of my work and a lot of my hair. I admit, I look the part.
Brands are edited. Brands have conversion goals. Brands are not people.
But I also do a lot of things wrong. In other words, I fuck up at life sometimes. Occasionally, I fuck it up majorly, especially when it comes to health. However, I cannot discard the bits that didn’t go so well. I can’t curate it away. That’s why I’ve always hated products like Timehop. To me, these cruel memories dressed as adorable objects read as “Here’s what I regretted doing in my life a year ago and 5 years ago. You’re welcome.”
I’ve come home from an objectively great day feeling despaired. In moments of weakness, when I needed to talk to someone about it, I would instantly regret reaching out after hearing a reply such as: “You have so many skills, you have no reason to be sad.”
“You have so many skills, you have no reason to be sad.”
These words have haunted me. No reason to be sad. No. Reason. To. Be. Sad. I wanted to scream, “I’ll tell you 99 reasons I have a reason to be sad and people like you are one of them!” Then my rational self reminds me, “The intent was not evil. They probably have no idea about your demons. All they see are your accomplishments, because all you ever choose to share are your accomplishments.” It was then I realized how a personal brand could be harmful.
Living with that realization was an isolating experience. During the day I kept up the facade that everything was fine and during the night I would try to figure out what was wrong with me. I went on forums in the middle of the night when I felt like no one was awake to judge. My fear was that everyone would echo that sentiment I had heard one too many times before: You have no reason to be sad.
It took years to work up to the point where I sought help. I recognized I had problems, but long feared the solution. I tapped into @bysusanlin’s mantra of doing everything right. I started seeing a mental health consultant, a therapist. I’ve seen someone for over a year now and have them on call for dire situations.
Is this your first time hearing this? Did I sense an inkling of judgement because “successful” people don’t need therapy? Was therapy only for fictional characters that had tail-spinned into sobbing and thrashing? I’m not surprised. @bysusanlin never talks about therapy. It had nothing to do with her. She’s a brand. She’d keep painting, designing, and coding until the universe set itself on fire.
Luckily, it was easy enough to keep the mental health journey off social media. I’d like to think the angst even helped me create better. I kept sharing my creative work actively throughout the year after I started seeking help. I learned too that my past creative work was the shining beacon that kept me going in the darkest times of my past life. I used my present day creative work as a crutch for especially grueling sessions. I knew whatever resolution that would come out of these sessions, my future creative work would be a big part of it.
As fate would have it, no less than a month after I was able to slow down my therapy sessions, I started having wrist pain. Very bad wrist pain. I could no longer hide behind my stream of prolific creation, what I sought solace in all these years to cope with my demons. I had lost the heart of my support system.
The first morning I woke up with shooting pain, I hid under the covers and thought of the possibility of never being able to make anything again. Why hadn’t I stopped before? Fear of losing momentum. For every 100 days project and 10,000 hours of practice comes with the pressure of consistency. A routine that was hard to obtain and even harder to maintain. For every cheer that the #100DayProject I was doing at the time brought in, it also brought an equal amount of fear. It was definitely part of the reason my body had been broken down. It also meant it was obvious something was wrong when the daily posts stopped cold.
Around this time, I had to start unfollowing amazing creators online. Why? Because I felt like shit. “I’ll never be that good.” And especially with the injury, “I could never catch up.” Having control over when I saw content was a good step towards reclaiming my sanity. I can choose to look outwards when I’m in the right frame of mind, instead of having content be pushed onto me. Digital products are designed to addict after all.
On the journey to physically alleviating my arm, nothing was what it seemed. It took a significant amount of time to properly diagnose the root of the cause. It turns out my wrist pain was originating from elbow pain. It was also not carpal tunnel, but cubital tunnel. Specifically, the ulnar nerve was taunted and crushed by swelling tendons in the bent part of my arm. The ulnar nerve runs from the fingertips up to the shoulders, so some days it would manifest as back, lower arm, or upper arm pain. I would stick a relief pad anywhere it hurt when I had to get through work day. Of course, I also have sensitive skin, so occasionally it broke into hives. No one wants to see a neatly cropped square of hives, no matter how geometrical, so all of it stayed off social media.
As a result, the previously public nature of my productivity had been exposed. The art show I had once excitedly head towards wasn’t going to happen. How awful did I feel when I updated my audience only to have a good number of them stop supporting me? Answer: Pretty awful. Investors in @bysusanlin were very upset she couldn’t produce as much. However, it’s ludicrous to give an artist $5 and assume the artist has to submit to your whims. I did feel like I owed an explanation for the slowed rate of creation after setting myself up with the personal brand I had. Making an apology for my faltering health felt weird. My personal brand had driven me into this weird position.
I’m catching-up with friends about the steps I’ve made to take care of myself. When I mention the pay cut for my new role, it shocks them. Yes, it’s true now I make less than what I made as a junior designer fresh in Silicon Valley. However, it’s a reflection of how absurd the expectations are. I used to spend 60 hours every week doing work related to my profession, I currently have a hard stop at 32 hours most weeks. Recently, Draft sent a weekly letter about the 40 hour work week and how rare they are actually 40 hour work weeks. I prefer not to depend a physical and mental therapist for the rest of my life, so purposely seeking out sustainable support systems is vital to staying healthy. Every company lists work-life balance as a bullet point on their About page, but do they really mean it? One of the reasons I dug myself into this bad health hole was because I was stacking my passion projects on top what it took to stay afloat in the burnout tech industry culture. I can already feel that I’m going to be saving a lot by not having to seek as much future medical help.
Making an apology for my faltering health felt weird. My personal brand had driven me into this weird position.
While it’s important to find a living that doesn’t burn you out, you should also be wary of quitting your job all at once for your passion too soon. I am not the first to say this. If you still choose to know the consequences. Those who have successfully made the transition tell us the moment didn’t come until their once passion projects eclipsed their duties at work. In fact, the mantra ‘Do what you love and all will follow’ is false, because a successful transition is intentional. It does not happen by accident. None of my measured successes happened solely because I really liked to paint. Every success @bysusanlin announced, I spent weeks or months in advanced planning up to that point. As for those investors, I was in a fortunate position where I could offer the explanation, give refunds if necessary, and afford to lose people’s support. I can afford this flexibility because of what I’m doing for a living. Also, no one’s ever stopped to ask if the end game was to even leave my job. Everyone who only knew @bysusanlin assumed.
Remember the investor in your personal brand that most matters is you. Don’t you forget that. If you’re doing destroying yourself for the sake of some ‘higher calling,’ it doesn’t exist. I wish I could end this with what I found at the end of the tunnel. But I’m still in the tunnel. In fact, I’m probably somewhere in the deep dark middles of it. I’m massaging my arm on a tennis ball massager (a physical therapy tool which is two tennis balls in a sock) as I pen this post. In this culture of the glorification of the overworked maker, remember this: Life is short — Do it for yourself.
Life is short — Do it for yourself.
In the end, it’s all you’ve got. Your demons won’t be exactly like mine, but I’m certain there will be adversity in your path. I’ll have to baby my right arm for the rest of my life. I’ll have to slowly extinguish the demons I’m harboring. We have to focus on self care. You should focus on creating the things you want to see created. Remember your friends online may be acting as personal brands, but are powered by a real person. Treat them like a real person, not a brand. Don’t assume that’s all there is to their life. Help them be a little healthier that way.
Health is the Chairs and Tables theme for 2015. We pick a theme for at least four seasons and s-l-o-w-l-y release a report on it. For a full list of writers, the editorial team, and more on the subject and themes for previous years, hit open sesame.