Design & direction across brand identity, screen and print
Water off a duck’s back
How not giving a fuck made me get my shit(s) together
- 3,520 words
- 14 minute read
Often, I get asked how I manage to ‘fit so much in’ between home, work and life. Granted, I do—and have done—a lot of work over the last decade: Self-initiated design projects, new businesses, authoring books, teaching, curating exhibitions and repping illustrators. It’s not all peaches and cream, though. The pressure of having so much to care about really tested me at times.
Sarah Knight wrote the amazing The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck, and it was a game-changer for me. I’ve also read an abundance of articles in the design press highlighting burnout, inadequacy and anxiety (this by Katy Cowan, is also a great read) which I feel relates on the whole to having a high-intensity-care-threshold about work. I wanted to share my interpretation of this topic and hopefully help some people along the way.
Shits. There are those that give them, and those that don’t. On the whole, I consider myself as someone who gives. I care about my partner, my family, my friends (of course). I care about their wellness, their opinions and lives. I care about the day-job, my business and other ongoing projects. I care about my colleagues, their opinions and their lives. I care about society, about our communities and politics. I care about the planet, our environment and the future. I care about Manchester United’s yo-yoing form and what players will come and go this summer. I care about my bike being set up properly, my sneakers being clean and the clothes I wear. I try to care about my health intertwined with all of these things. And I’m sure you’re the exact same¹.
But honestly, it can get tiring. Life is tiring. There’s so much to think about every single day. So much to take in and commit your attention to. When people talk about burnout, it’s exactly this. Priorities, which ones we care about the most*,* and in what form we then continue to nurture them. Too many shits that require too much attention—whether these are priorities based in a confined area of your life or not—and a nervous breakdown is always potentially an imminent reality.
Think about the ‘Good, Fast, Cheap: Pick Two’ saying (one of the more banal, yet almost always applicable, rebuttals to absurd client requests). However apply it not to work, but life… Something along the lines of ‘Home, Work, Community: Pick Two’ could be an appropriate appropriation of it. When things go wrong in life, it’s usually because something is being neglected in one of these areas. Other things just take priority. But do we have to just settle for two out of three, both in work and life? It’s more difficult at work to align to all three, granted. But could we have all three aspects of what makes life worth living and not burnout? I say we can. I think we can be truly happy at work, at home and in our communities.
How so? Well, I sincerely believe the secret of a happy life is to care less. I mention Sarah Knight’s book in the introduction as this was my first introduction to this way of thinking (at least, this is my interpretation of her ‘anti-guru’ methodologies. The writer Tennessee Williams was once asked by a reporter ‘What is your definition of happiness, Mr. Williams?’ And Tennessee answered, ‘Insensitivity, I guess.’
Give. Less. Shits. Whoop there it is, you sensitive bastards.
Admittedly, I heard this pearl of wisdom from Tennessee via the inimitable Diane Lockhart whilst in the middle of heavily binging The Good Fight. Moments of clarity can show themselves at the most unexpected of times. And this was one of them. It suddenly made sense to me²… how I can be happy.
Could care less
I’ve always had a laid-back and optimistic view about life. I generally believe that things have a way of figuring themselves out and luckily, they have for me (for the most part). I’ll take a punt on anything and have confidence that there’s always a solution somewhere down the line to problems that crop up. I think there’s a beautiful relationship between being optimistic and laid back. It makes me proactive but not uptight. Ambitious but not ruthless. Decisive but not obnoxious (like Sarah says in her book: You can not give a fuck and still not be asshole. Find the balance!). Nobody’s perfect of course—not at all suggesting I am—but I know who I am, what I’m like and what I want… and this helps with this don’t-give-a-fuck attitude (cue this Eminem classic if you need a soundtrack). This is my view on this, after all.
And I’m not saying for a moment that we shouldn’t care about stuff. Quite the opposite. I listed the stuff I care about most right from the off. We have to care, and there is an awful lot that we need to care about. Not just about ourselves or those closest to us—but also for the greater commonality of man on the most grandiose of scales. The little things and the big things.
The way I see it, we really only have so many shits we can give in any day, week or month. Then when we run out of shits, we become unhappy, because we’re expected to give them and there’s just nothing left to serve up. Everyone has a ceiling, right? And when those shits are unevenly distributed through the ‘Holy HWC (Home, Work, Community) Trinity’, it also makes us unhappy, as we’re bound to leave something important behind that we care about more than the shit we’re actually giving at that time. Do you follow?
But—when we organise the shits we actually give, and distribute them in the areas that actually matter the most, we’re on the road to happiness. Then once organised, we can end up with a surplus of shits—as we realise actually, we didn’t need to give a load of them in the first place at all—and that’s when we can be really happy. Organised shits, with a few in the bank for a rainy day. So instead of just not caring, we have to be selective with what we do care about. And here’s how I do it.
By home, I mean our partners, kids and families.It’s the immediate people around us that are often the most important ones in our lives, and also our common home, the earth, and the environment itself.
Right away, let me just say that I don’t have kids. Which helps immensely adopting this mindset. I get that I generally have more time and freedom to dedicate to areas of my life that I couldn’t if kids were a part of it. And I can only relate to having kids through my family, friends and colleagues that do. Above all, they, and your family come first. Right? I mean, that has to be the way it is. I totally get it when a colleague has to leave the studio early to pick up their daughter, or there’s an issue at school. Absolutely, number one.
And for me, this is the same mindset whether you have kids or not. Even if you don’t, in my view, your partner and / or general family should take priority over everything. Does your girlfriend need picking up at the train station? Get to it. Does your husband need help with getting the place ready for his parents visit at the weekend? Crack the marigolds out. I’m no Dr. Phil, but being in any sort of relationship is a team sport. Help each other out, right?
Family can be a tougher nut to crack, for obvious reasons. Shit with family can run deep, for sure. If you’ve already decided it’s not a shit worth giving, then sound… but if you have a good relationship with your family, then nurture it. Did your Nan break her knee (mine did last week)? Call. her. Everything else can wait. Visit your Dad. Help your sister out with the gardening. Whatever—just spend that time nurturing those shits and I guarantee the benefits will outweigh the disagreements about who should be the next PM.
In all of this, if other things are getting in the way—and by other things this is usually work—it’s time to rethink work in my opinion. If you can’t have a working environment that allows that time for the most important shits in your life, then you’re at the wrong place. Again, I realise I’m in a position where I can say this. I can up and leave and go wherever, whenever and as long as my partner is up for the move then it’s plausible. Not so much for those with kids, with roots and a ton of other things to think about. But I do think there’s always a way. It might take a bit longer to get there, with more planning and more resource, but if work is getting in the way then the best time to plan that next step is right now.
Also. Climate change is real, and you should do your bit to reverse it. For the sake of your kids future. I don’t give a shit if you agree or not.
By work, I mean… work. Obviously. This is the day job, the side projects, the career path. It’s school, it’s learning, it’s progressing in your profession of choice.
I’ll start by saying I think it’s okay to ‘hustle’. It’s okay to work hard, dive into work and be ambitious. It’s okay to work late, to start early and get shit done. When you need to. It’s that distribution of shits again. Sometimes, staying a bit later to get that thing done will help in the long run with something else on your plate. It’s when this overworking becomes normalised there’s an issue. But really, that’s up to you to manage. You’re a grown ass adult, so handle your time. Project managers aside, there’s nobody else who’s there to do it for you—and if the working environment dictates or enables this level of normalisation, time to get the fuck out of there. They’ve got it twisted.
The difference between working somewhere because you want to be, rather than being somewhere just because makes a huge difference with the amount of shits we give to this portion of our daily lives. Some just want a simple life, and are in jobs just for income and have little interest in that job outside of the recompense. It’s not those people I’m thinking of here, though. They likely have their shits in order with some left over, as they’re not being taken up by what’s going on in the office day to day. I’m talking about those in positions who live and breath their profession, invest in the culture attached to it and sometimes, define themselves by the very role they work in.
It’s difficult to reduce the amount of given shits about something you live and breath. When you truly believe in what you do, actually enjoy it—and are good at it. Often it becomes your whole life. And like I said, that’s absolutely fine in my opinion. It just comes with a caveat that likely, all your shits will be in this basket and there won’t be much room to give a shit at home or in your communities. If you can live with that, then sound as a quid.
But there are those who love what they do, are good at it and at the same time want to have a life at home and in their community. I consider myself as a person who wants to do well at work, to make stuff I’m proud of and learn as much as I can along the way. But do these ambitions necessarily correlate with caring about everything in the workplace, all the time? I don’t think so.
I’m guilty of micro-managing, past and present, which always comes from a position of utmost care. But, by caring less about what others are doing, we can build levels of trust, and as a team, can often move forward at a greater pace, do better work and be happier throughout it. Those who I micro-manage aren’t able to make mistakes and therefore not able to learn. How is that fair? On me or them? It’s not. At the same time, being micro-managed is something that a lot of us have to deal with. For those with a passion for learning and progressing, this can be stifling. With this comes stress, anxiety and digression more than anything else. Because, you guessed it, we all care. We don’t want to be stifled because we give a shit about moving forward with our careers and improving every day.
But how does one give less shits at work? Well, it’s all those things beyond our control. When that client doesn’t turn up on time. When that potential intern doesn’t turn up at all. When things get moved around at the last minute. When the brief changes half way through. When you don’t get an immediate response from a colleague. When your design route doesn’t get picked. When your director is… directing. All of those things that have the potential to ruin your day but are largely out of your control. Will you really give a shit in a couple of weeks time about it ? If not, why give a shit now? Rise above.
By community, I mean society and individual communities. A small circle of friends, being part of a larger community or increasingly, in digital communities in which we see ourselves as the protagonists. But also how we see ourselves in the world and how the world sees us as individuals.
I think this is perhaps the most crucial of all areas in one’s life that where shits have to be precisely distributed to be happy. Sure, being happy in your home life and at work can take up a greater amount of shits, but we tend to have a greater sense of control in these areas than our communities, as home and work are far more intimate, crafted and generally, controllable (to an extent).
Our societies often dictate our point of view. It can set the foundation of your entire life and can be the difference between being happy in adulthood or not. Where we are born heavily affects our opinions, political stance, religions and football team of choice. The friends you grow up with, the fashions you follow and the personality that grows up with you. How much we care about these things has a huge impact on our mental stability. People can have a sense of who they ‘have to be’ is set to a certain default because of these factors.
The expectation in my home town is to get a working-class job, get married, have kids, go to the pub on weekends then go on holiday to Spain once a year. If that’s what you have, want and have always wanted, then great. Great for you! But it’s not for me at all. I wanted something else, and I wasn’t the only one. So I left, and 15 years later I’m living in a part of Switzerland which is literally like paradise. Honestly, it’s like God herself painted this place. Don’t give a shit about what’s ‘expected’ of you in your home town? The city you work in? Move, if you want to. Find a way. It’s your life, nothing is too big and nowhere is too far. Get away from those people who are making you feel like you have to fit into their idea of a mould just to be accepted. Fuck that.
Our friend’s interests become our interests, our friend’s beef becomes our beef and our friend’s friends become our friends. We often care about what these groups think of us more than what our families do (I’m probably still in some parent-rebelling phase inspired by what my buddies are into). But I think it’s because of these exact reasons why we have to be careful about our shit-distribution, as they can quickly be taken up leaving no room for any others anywhere else. This is accentuated when we’re in adolescence, but still something that exists in abundance as we grow into adulthood—we care a lot about what our peers think about us. And that’s the thing. Why? If they were really our friends, it shouldn’t really matter. They should be friends with us because of who we are. If they don’t like who you are, then why give a shit what they think at all?
The same goes the other way. Our friends give a shit what we think. Ponder this: if your friend wore a clothing brand you didn’t align yourself with, chose not to have a beer on a night out or liked a band you didn’t (or any other amount of trivial things), would you care? If the answer is yes, you’re caring too much. And if you or they act on the same trivial things (such as drinking under social pressure, or wearing clothing brands to fit in) because you’re worrying about their opinions, then again, you’re caring too much. And if they actually do care, to the point where these trivial things bother them, then they aren’t your friends, homie. Time to focus those shits somewhere else.
Like friends, people tend to care about how the world sees them online, in the street, wherever. I am also one of these people (I mentioned something about clean sneakers, right?). It’s why we put on deodorant in the morning, why we do our hair, put on clothes at all and feed the followers with curated content on our Instagrams. It makes us confident and happy to be well presented. Often, people say it’s for themselves—which can be totally true—but I find that motivation primarily comes from striving to influence others to have an improved point of view of oneself. The way we act and behave combined with how we appear is generally a concerted effort to fit in with societal norms, both in reality and online. And to a point, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this whatsoever. Everybody wants to fit in somewhere, it’s just when we start giving too many shits about fitting in as that’s what’s expected, that the happiness scales become unbalanced.
With happiness comes freedom
In all, I am happy (woohoo, great for me). I got here by really thinking about what I care about most and concentrating on those things. Sure, the balance gets tipped from time to time, but in general I manage to stay focused by staying organised with what shits I give and having flexibility in my priorities. I have personal policies and I aim to communicate as best I can with all of those around me. My expectations of others are managed, along with other’s expectations of me. If they’re not, then I look to address them.
Focus on doing good work and be the best employee / employer you can be. Don’t worry about that e-mail in your inbox. If you miss that meeting, you can catch up later. If the HR manager doesn’t like today’s outfit, whatever man. As long as you and yours are in the right place, work can come and go. Don’t stick around because of a false sense of loyalty if it’s not right for you. First and foremost, it’s family. Home should be the place where you actually feel at home. This only happens if it’s priority №1 in my opinion.
As I’ve already suggested — if you are you, then you should strive to be you and be totally unapologetic about it. If you want to listen to black metal, dye your hair orange or wear an all-leather get up, then do it. Fuck what the world thinks. Fuck your friends if they don’t like you for it. None of that matters. You’ll find new friends and circles . I have a whole bunch of times in my life. There’s liberation in not giving a shit. In wearing what you want³, in focusing on what you really care about, in letting things go and in rising above. There’s a power in it, because you’re not in anyone’s grip any longer. You are, and free to be, you. What an incredible notion.
These are notes on how I approach and deal with the shit life throws at us. I understand everybody is different, in different situations and with different things around them dictating what they can and can’t do. I’m not here to say what you should and shouldn’t do, per se. I’m just here to offer my viewpoint.
¹ Potentially not about Man Utd. Swap out for team / sport of choice
² Definitely felt like Gandhi for a split second
³ Or not — I’ll never forget the sight of a stark bollock naked Spaniard walking down the beach in Barcelona without a care in the world. Truly inspiring