It all means nothing in the end
What do you do when you've attached your sense of self to work, and work suddenly feels meaningless? In this talk, Amy explores burnout, purpose and making meaning in an increasingly confusing and calamitous world.
[MUSIC PLAYING] [APPLAUSE] Thank you.
That was a very strange combination of a sort of character assassination and the highest compliments I've ever been given.
So that lends itself well to this talk.
So yes, thank you so much for having me.
So yeah, as Dave said, my name's Amy, and I am a content design and design systems consultant based here in the UK.
Incidentally, I am actually looking for clients right now.
So if you think you'd like to work with me after hearing that and this talk, then you know.
Yeah, then do me a solid.
Anyway, so to manage our expectations up front, some things I'm not going to be talking about here today at the state of the browser are states, browsers, the state of the browser, web development, or tech.
Instead, I'm gonna talk to you about existential crisis.
(audience laughing) Yay, I'm super fun at parties.
So historically, I have been somebody who has derived a lot of meaning from my work, and I have worked really hard.
Like a complacent little cog in a capitalist machine, I have diligently reduced my identity to my professional endeavors and I've made my work my personality.
Oh goodness, what was that, my hair?
Christ, sorry about that.
And anyway, yes, I enjoyed it, I enjoyed my work.
Work has provided me with meaning and purpose and something that I consistently felt motivated by, regardless of whatever was happening outside of work.
So it was a bit of a curve ball for me this year when in about kind of April time, I found myself feeling a little bit out of sorts.
(audience laughs) As I finished up a two year engagement with my last client, I realized I was in this kind of strange and unfamiliar territory.
And as I started thinking about what I was gonna do next and who perhaps I wanted to work with, and thinking about what maybe I wanted to work on, I was struck by this really unnerving realization.
I don't care.
I don't care about design systems.
I don't care about content design.
I don't care about tech.
I don't care about any of it anymore at all.
I literally could not find a single ship to give.
I'm gonna need your sweater, I'm afraid, though.
So no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't care about work.
As I mentioned before, I am.
(audience laughing) I am looking for clients right now, so if you're up for it, Let me know.
Anyway, so I thought, okay, I have been pretty flat out.
I've been working quite hard for the last couple of years, so maybe I just need a break.
So I decided I was going to take a couple of months off to recharge.
So I took some trips, went off to Paris.
I drank wine with my best friend, and I suffered the most luxurious hangover I think I've ever had in a fancy hotel.
I went to Amsterdam.
I got cataclysmically high, and I took generic photos of bicycles propped up against railings.
I took days off to go to Instagramable art installations here in London in an effort to try and reignite some creative energy.
And at the end of it all, I still found myself here, staring into the void, feeling completely uninspired and empty and lacking any motivation to get back to work.
This was starting to get quite serious, so I brought out the big guns.
In an effort to try and understand where exactly this blockage was coming from, I started journaling.
I wrote pages and pages of introspection and streams of consciousness, and I made lists, and I delved deep into my psyche to try and make sense of why I had hit this metaphorical brick wall.
And as I journaled, I started to notice this theme on the pages, this persistent thought that kind of kept coming up over and over.
When I thought about work, the overriding sentiment I had was it all means nothing in the end.
In the end, none of it really matters.
Design systems or content design, tech, work, it's all just meaningless nonsense.
Again, just to mention-- [LAUGHTER] --that I am very much available for new clients right now.
So hit me up.
He's taking photos of this, and I'm like, Don't put this on the internet.
Anyway, so, but it is all just meaningless nonsense, isn't it?
If we're being really honest, at some point in kind of 10 or 20 or 100 years from now, no one's going to remember any of these things that we've said or done.
So why actually bother?
And this was quite the turn of events for me.
As I said, I had been very kind of motivated by my work.
So I needed to take a few steps back and think about how I got here.
How did I, somebody who was historically very career driven, get to this point of total disengagement?
Well, there's a few factors.
So the first one is that I have been dealing with a series of personal events this year, which I'm not gonna talk about in detail, but which have definitely contributed to this sense of kind of futility and insignificance around my career.
So with so much to navigate in my personal life, it's not really any wonder that my career has kind of fallen to the bottom of my priority list.
And this has been especially tricky because in January 2020, I decided to leave my last permanent role and start contracting and consulting.
So I set my own company, it's called Frankly Design, and I began working with external clients.
And I will say on the whole, this has been a really good move and one that I'm super proud of.
But it's definitely shifted things in terms of how I get a sense of my progress and how well I'm doing.
I don't have a boss anymore.
Don't have things like one-to-ones or performance reviews or salary bands or seniority levels to think about in the same way that I did when I was permanent.
And I had underestimated, I guess, how much those things had provided a framework for me to get a sense of achievement and how well I was doing.
So without them, I often feel as though I'm maybe drifting or even flatlining.
How do I know if I'm progressing or what does a good year look like when I'm the only one at my company Christmas party?
which makes me sound kind of sad.
And then there's the focus of my career itself.
So for the past few years, my main focus has been on design systems.
And sorry, I know there was a show of hands for this before, but is there anyone in the room that works on design systems?
Okay, a few of you, yeah.
So you will know that they can often feel like a real uphill struggle.
Design systems involve a lot of organisational change, which means that we sometimes, for those of us working on them, feel like we're kind of constantly working against the people and the organisations around us.
And when we're successful I think this work can be immensely gratifying but we are not always successful and even when we are quite often the journey of getting there leaves us feeling quite burnt out and depleted.
To compound this I don't know if you've noticed but my god the absolute state of the tech industry right now.
We are now dealing with widespread layoffs.
And on top of this, there is the small matter of the fucking well-being on fire.
So between the pandemic and the climate crisis, rising and increasingly mainstream attacks on trans people, the war in Ukraine and the resulting threat of nuclear Armageddon, I think it's fair to say that the last few years have been, to borrow a quote from Succession, quite the shit show at the fuck factory.
This point in particular is something that I know has altered the relative importance of work for a lot of us.
I'm sure lots of you remember this spate of articles back in 2022 and heated Twitter discussions around it about quiet quitting.
This apparent tidal wave of employees mentally checking out, viewing work with increasing cynicism and reducing their input to just the bare minimum required to keep their jobs.
We saw article after article talking about the end of ambition collectively, so this widespread change in our attitudes to work, and this exponential trend in people rejecting the idea that our careers should be a source of fulfilment and purpose, and choosing instead to concentrate on more meaningful things like our friends and our family and our hobbies and our lives outside of work.
And I'll say now that I do think that caring less about work is completely fine.
We have been served this idea for such a long time now that our careers are deserving of the absolute majority of our attention and our energy, our time, and should be our main concern.
And we've been completely overfed this glamorised portrayal of hustle culture.
And I think many of us have just had enough.
And I absolutely think that that's okay.
But I also think that making work completely meaningless is probably not going to make us happy either.
Because the hard facts are that for most of us we still need to work for a significant proportion of a nine to five day, at least four days a week, to survive because capitalism.
And although I definitely don't want to dissuade anyone from starting a socialist revolution, I think that probably for most of us here that feels a little bit unrealistic, right now at least.
So what do we do about it?
If we have to keep working, how can we make work mean something?
I did actually write these exact words, "It all means nothing" in the end, in my journal one day.
And as I looked at them, something else started to emerge, something to do with means and ends.
And what I realised is that I had completely lost touch with my sense of purpose.
And my work, which had once just been a vehicle for my values and the things I actually cared about, had become work for the sake of work.
My career had once just been a means to an end, but it had now become the end itself.
And that's the thing that I needed to change.
So I realised I needed to take a step back and think about why I had started to work in this space in the first place.
So what was it about design systems and content design and tech in general that drew me in and that I saw as a kind of an opportunity to make the kind of mark that I wanted to make in the world.
And as I was thinking about this I remembered an exercise I did as part of a coaching course a few years ago called the courageous leadership program and it was run by Sarah Wechter-Bettcher who some of you might be familiar with as the co-author of design for real life and the author of technically wrong.
And I want to make it very clear that I'm not being sponsored by Sarah to promote her books or her coaching services, but I am a very hardcore fangirl and I would absolutely recommend engaging with her services and her work because it's had a huge impact on how I think about my work.
So in the course Sarah talks about finding your core perspective which she defines as the intersection of your skills, experiences and values.
And it's the combination of these three factors together that give us our unique lens on the world and they usually inform the career path that we take.
So for me they look like this.
The things that I'm good at are communication, working with other people, being perceptive of the needs of those around me and the people that I encounter through my work, being analytical and I'm a good systems thinker so I can see how different people and parts and processes connect to each other and to a bigger whole.
In terms of my experiences, very early on in my career, I remember feeling completely bewildered by the kind of corporate jargon that was being thrown around at the company that I worked for.
And hearing these acronyms and these obscure project names and these very strange terms of phrase and terminology made me feel like I was less capable or knowledgeable than those around me.
And when I finally did realise that it wasn't me and that this kind of language is just alienating by design.
I became determined to rally against it for the remainder of my career.
Then working in hospitality in my teens also meant that I got really good at building relationships and dealing with difficult customers and this has been immensely applicable to my work as a consultant.
And then on top of that I didn't really have the easiest childhood.
So my parents separated when I was really young and I ended up living with my dad and I was a pretty kind of anxious and quiet kid which is quite hard to imagine how I know and and in secondary school I was bullied quite badly for a period of time and all of this made me really sensitive in the best way possible to the struggles that people face and I felt like I wanted to do something that would make a difference to the quality of people's lives and these experiences informed my values so I really care about inclusivity and I believe that everyone has a right to access the information and services that they need and to participate in the spaces that they work in.
I also try to champion and exhibit vulnerabilities or something, this is what happens when you work in your slides in the morning of the conference and because I think that doing so connects us and it helps us to open up and bring our full selves to work.
I also try to work hard to make things more equitable by shifting power from those who have far too much of it into the hands of those that find themselves systematically disempowered and discriminated against.
I believe in transparency but as individuals and organisations we should be honest and transparent about what we're doing and why.
And something that I want to add and acknowledge at this point is that all of this is underpinned by something else about me which is that I have a lot of of privilege.
So I am a woman, which is not always a picnic, but I am also white, I'm financially secure, I'm educated, I'm still just about young enough to be considered relevant in tech, and I am cis and I'm not disabled.
And I have to acknowledge that because it is important, it's relevant, and I have to decide what I'm going to do with it.
And so from here I wrote a statement that brings all of this together and this is my core perspective.
As someone in a position of relative power and privilege who has experienced exclusion, I want to champion inclusivity.
I believe that people can bring value and make positive change when they are validated and empowered to participate.
This I believe is my purpose.
This is the end goal for me.
This is what I actually care about and content design and design systems and the work that I do are just my current best means of achieving it.
And I realised I needed to hold myself to this to find meaning in my work again.
But having a purpose in isolation is not much use.
It's not really enough just to know what our purpose is.
To actually find meaning we have to find ways to fulfil that purpose and that means setting goals.
So let's talk about that.
So there are lots of different models for goal setting and most of them make me want to push forks into my eyes.
So here is what I like to think about.
When I'm setting goals I like to ask myself, does this connect to my purpose?
Do I actually care about achieving this goal?
Is this the goal that I actually can achieve?
And how will I know if I'm making progress?
So let's take a quick look at each of these, starting with goals that connect to purpose.
Now as a reminder, this is my core purpose and the important bits for me here when it comes to goal setting are that I want to champion inclusivity, I want to validate other people and I want to empower other people.
And so when I'm setting goals I need to think about whether they connect me to this.
So if we look at a goal that I started the year with, I decided that I wanted to work on design system that enables content localization.
And if I'm honest, I am not all that intrinsically interested in this, but as somebody who works at the intersection of content design and design systems, this felt like something that I would like to be able to say that I had done.
I don't know a lot of design systems that do this well.
If you do, please let me know.
But I figured maybe I could make a name for myself if I could be somebody who could do that.
But this doesn't have any connection at all to my purpose, it's just a portfolio piece.
So a better goal, and one I'm working towards now, is to work on a design system that prioritizes accessibility and inclusion even over aesthetics.
Now this might involve content localization if it's for a global organization, but it's not the point of it.
The point is to make sure that I'm using design systems work as a mechanism for making the kind of impact that I'm interested in making.
Now this is one of many goals that I could have chosen that connects to my purpose but it's one that actually gets me fired up so I actively want to pursue it which leads me on to having goals I actually care about achieving.
Now another goal that I could have set myself and one that I have thought about many times over the years is learning to code.
So I'm in that strange position of being someone who works in tech and in a very technical technical space, but not being a developer.
So learning how to code, I thought, would maybe empower me to build some of the things that I would like to build for myself without needing outside support.
It seems like a cool thing to be able to do.
Congratulations to all of you who can do it.
And if I can make that code accessible and performant, then it connects me straight to my purpose.
But what I've come to realize is that there is a reason that I'm not a developer.
I actually like being a content designer and a team leader, and I like working with brilliant developers who I can absolutely count on to take care of this.
So when it comes to code, the thing I actually do care about is documentation.
And so a much better goal for me is to focus my efforts on training developers on how to write documentation in a way that's inclusive.
I started doing this a couple of months ago, and honestly, it makes my heart sing.
Writing and running training was very much a new skill for me, but it's one that I genuinely felt fired up about acquiring.
And it did take me out of my comfort zone, so I had to learn a lot of new skills to do this.
But I knew it was within my capabilities to do.
And that leads me on to setting goals that we actually can achieve.
So we're often encouraged to shoot for the moon when we're goal setting.
So we were told to kind of set our sights ridiculously high on the basis that even if we don't quite achieve what we want to, we'll discover that our abilities far outstretched what we imagined.
But honestly, and I know this is not a particularly sexy take, fuck moonshots.
Moonshots came straight from the capitalism playbook and I hate them.
Just fuck aiming for an unattainable vision.
All it does is just wear us down.
And the The thing about setting achievable goals is that you actually get to feel a sense of achievement, rather than thinking about all the things that you didn't manage to do.
I am not interested in setting a trap for myself to fall into and burning myself out in the process.
An example of this that I genuinely wrote down at the start of the year was to write a book about how design systems contribute to systemic harm.
(audience laughing) And you know, this is actually something that I want to do.
It's a subject that I feel really, really passionately about and it is actually relevant to my purpose.
But if I expand on the question slightly to ask, is this the goal I can actually achieve given my current resources, time and energy?
The answer is absolutely fucking not.
(audience laughing) The fact is that I just do not have the bandwidth right now to write a book.
I am way too burnt out and I know that all it would do is make me feel like a failure.
And so instead, I decided to make a podcast about it.
This was a much more attainable way for me to explore and communicate about this subject.
And I only went and bloody did it.
It's called Systems of Harm.
And if you don't mind me doing a very quick shameless plug, it's available now on all good podcasting platforms.
And the nice thing about this goal is that it was very, very specific and measurable.
So I set out to make and publish a podcast, and I did it.
And that links to my final consideration, which is how will I know if I'm making progress?
So not all goals are as finite and specific as making a podcast.
Sometimes we just want to deepen our knowledge about a subject, or we want to develop new skills in a certain area.
And these kind of goals can be harder to measure.
But it's so important that we can see that we're making progress, because not doing so is a recipe for burnout.
And I'll explain why.
So the term burnout was first coined by Herbert Freudenberger in 1975, and it was characterised by these three components.
The first one was emotional exhaustion, so the fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long.
Then there is depersonalisation, which is the depletion of empathy, caring and compassion.
And finally, we have a decreased sense of accomplishment, so this unconquerable sense of futility and a feeling that nothing we do is ever enough.
And it's this third component that makes it so important for us to support our goals with progress markers, because if we don't, we are just running on a treadmill and taking actions without any sense of really moving forward.
And this leaves us with no sense of satisfaction or reward, and that's what burns us out.
So what have we learned?
The combination of a core purpose and goals that help us to fulfil that purpose and a way of measuring our progress is what gives our work meaning.
But there is a really important caveat to this, and that is that this is only true if those things come from within us and not from other people or institutions.
We cannot rely on external resources, sources, sorry, to tell us what matters or whether or not we're moving in the right direction.
And this leads me into the last thing that I want to talk about today, which is disconnecting from external validation.
So a really hard and painful realisation that I've come to this year is that I have relied far too much on other people to give me a sense of myself.
I have needed recognition and praise and acknowledgement to make me feel valid and successful and I have done things that I didn't really want to do or care about in pursuit of other people's approval.
And one way I discovered this was by becoming self-employed.
So as I mentioned, I stopped working in-house nearly four years ago now and it's only recently in light of this kind of Bernie outty existential crisis grumpy cat vibe that I've begun to realize how much my sense of purpose and my progress has historically come from corporate career progression frameworks.
Without someone else telling me that I'm exceeding expectations or acknowledging my work with a pay rise or a bonus or changing my job title to move me up the ranks of some professional hierarchy that someone else has decided, how do I know if I'm doing a good job?
And even though I moved away from this in quite an absolute way, I think this is a helpful question for all of us to ask because if our only sense of validation comes from our employers giving us pay rises and promotions and good performance reviews, then the absence or removal of those things is guaranteed to leave us feeling invalid.
And I'm not saying that these things aren't important because they are, right, we all need money to live and we all need feedback and positive reinforcement and that's normal but it's a question of how much power we want to give to them.
If we make these things the sole metrics against which we measure our success and the things that we allow to motivate us then we're putting our sense of self-worth entirely into the hands of something that could be taken away and that leaves us in quite a vulnerable position.
And this wasn't the only way that I was overvaluing external validation.
She says to you from a stage.
So like a lot of us I expect, I was using social media to give me a sense of validation.
In particular, Twitter.
I beg your pardon, X.
Or nowadays, X, Mastodon, Blue Sky, Threads, unless we forget how we've all gone crawling back to LinkedIn.
Of all the abhorrent things that Elon Musk has done, the way that he has forced me to re-engage with LinkedIn is something I will never forgive him for.
Now I used to share a lot of my work on Twitter, chasing the dopamine hit of likes and comments and engagement to make me feel successful.
And the recent fragmentation of the social media landscape has really highlighted how flimsy it all is.
If validating ourselves with corporate gold stars puts us in a precarious position, then looking to social media to give us a sense of self-worth is even more risky, because as we've seen, it can so easily be taken away.
So again, we have to ask ourselves, how do I know if I'm doing well if I'm not collecting likes?
Because the other thing about using social media engagement or other types of external validation as a means of motivation or a measure of success is that it is a race to the bottom.
It will never really feel like enough.
Am I happier now with 10,000 followers on Twitter than I was when I had 10?
Or when a tweet gets 100 likes instead of three?
Not really, honestly.
I have become desensitized to it.
So it takes more and more to make me happy.
And it has been designed that way, right?
If it could be completed, then we wouldn't keep going back.
And so it keeps us on this kind of hedonic treadmill.
And it is, to put it bluntly, it's an unwinnable game game designed to make us feel shitter the more that we play and it is the poison that promises to be the antidote.
Having said all of that I want to acknowledge that we will never completely stop needing external validation.
We are a social species and we need each other and we need acknowledgement from time to time we all need that.
But to cultivate true meaning we have to answer to ourselves first and foremost.
So, where does all of this leave us?
How do I cultivate a sense of meaning now, if not from other people's approval?
I ask myself a few questions.
Am I fulfilling my purpose?
Is what I'm doing day to day making the kind of difference that I want to make in the world?
Am I making progress against my goals?
Even if those goals are modest, or even if my steps towards them are minuscule, am I still moving forward?
Am I looking a little bit less like this traumatised fox?
I am getting there, slowly.
And most importantly of all, am I enjoying how I'm spending my time?
Is any of those things actually making me happy, and inspired, and energised, and connected to people, and all of those things that I want to feel as much as I possibly can.
And this last point is the most important and is where I want to finish up today.
I started this talk by saying that it all means nothing in the end.
And in some ways, I still think that that's true.
I do hope that I'll get to make a difference during my brief stint on this planet.
But one day I am going to die, sorry to tell you, and I won't be taking any of it with me.
I do believe that the mark that we make matters, so the end matters.
And if I've made the kind of difference to the things I want to change by the time that my number's up, then I will die a little bit happier.
But the means matter too.
How we get there matters.
We need to know where we're heading to, and we need to derive meaning from the journey and the destination.
And the good news is that we get to decide that.
It all means nothing in the end, but only if you let it.
(audience applauding) [APPLAUSE] [APPLAUSE]