“A chance to catch a breath”: Danielle Pender on why we should avoid the pressure to create
The editor of Riposte magazine on how it could be best to use the time to reassess our relationship with work, rather than quickly pivot to new projects.
Right now, we’re all hopefully practising some good, robust social distancing. Let’s assume you’re all locked down at home checking in with family members, changing from your day pyjamas into your night pyjamas and snacking your way through the day. Or perhaps you’re at the other end of the panic spectrum. Maybe you’re obsessing over whether the pain in your chest is corona-related or plain old crippling anxiety, maybe you’re reading every news update and washing your hands repeatedly even though you haven’t left the house in a week. Wherever you land on this sliding scale of unease, it’s safe to say we’re all beginning to come to terms with the corona crisis and the uncertainty it brings with it, especially when it comes to how it has affected our work.
My own personal panic set in about three weeks ago. At the time the work cycle for the next issue of Riposte, the magazine I edit, was well underway. We had a batch of fantastic commissions on the go, shoots were being arranged, we were talking to a personal hero about a cover shoot and we were working on two events with great brands – the money from which was going to see us through financially. I was really excited about the coming months, and then suddenly I wasn’t.
“The resounding call was to work, work and work some more.”Danielle Pender
At the beginning of March, it quickly became clear that things weren’t going to be OK. As the number of corona cases rose, so did my anxiety about the future of my business. A dinner in New York that we had been planning with a brand partner had to be cancelled because of rising public health fears. A second event we had in production with another commercial partner had to be cancelled for the same reason, and the main financial backer of the upcoming issue pulled out as they wanted to put all spending on hold. In short, I went from feeling super positive about 2020 to having no work with zero promise of any money coming in. This turn of events left a huge gap in my schedule and bank balance. My initial reaction was to hustle harder for more work and identify how we could react to the situation. I then lost all momentum and energy, and with the news escalating every day, I was starting to lose my breath.
Last week I developed all of the symptoms of Covid-19, but because you can’t get tested (unless you’re a celebrity with zero symptoms) I don’t know for sure whether I’ve had it or not. This question mark brings its own anxiety with it. Whilst feeling ill I spent a lot of time in bed glued to my phone messaging friends and family, keeping up-to-date with every news story and half-heartedly lolling at corona-related memes. In amongst the best memes the internet had to offer were a lot of posts about optimising this “downtime”. There were calls to better ourselves, learn a new skill, start a new project, find more work, put ourselves out there. The resounding call was to work, work and work some more. I saw one tweet that read: “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.” The bard may well have penned this classic tragedy during his own period of self-isolation, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a new home-school schedule to work out as well as aching muscles and a low-grade fever.
“Do the next thing well, or just do the next thing and the next thing and then have a lie down.”Danielle Pender
This repeated insistence that we should be “making the most” of a pandemic feels like the perfect reaction for our time and our generation. We live in a capitalistic system that sells us the fantasy that hard work and tenacity alone can bring you success and fulfilment; more than ever before our work and home lives blend into one another without clear boundaries and anything can be monetised – even in times of chaos and uncertainty. Why wouldn’t we think work would be the answer to all our corona woes. But let’s be clear – this isn’t the wild period between Christmas and New Year when days all roll into one and your blood is 80 per cent gravy, that stretch could indeed be a good time to start thinking about that side project.
What we're going through right now is different. This is a global health pandemic where thousands of people’s lives are at risk and the global economy is teetering on the brink. The UK is on lockdown, you’re only allowed to leave your house once a day. Our way of life has completely changed into something we’ve never experienced before. I’m not sure more podcasts and more side projects are currently the answer to what we’re all experiencing right now.
I do acknowledge that for some, creativity and productivity is a way to deal with stress and a way to feel connected and useful. But for others, this added insistence to always be “on it” can add pressure to an already very stressful situation. Work, along with our output and productivity, has become fetishised. We have become measured by what we produce over who we are. It’s gone so far that when we’re faced with a global pandemic and quarantine, all we can think of is what we should be creating and how we can be more productive with our time. This same attitude can also be seen in how we have turned maternity leave into an opportunity to produce. No longer is a woman’s maternity leave the time to ease your way into motherhood, now there is the added pressure of becoming a “mumpreneur”, of starting a side hustle and building up a new brand alongside learning how to keep a small person alive, and keeping your sanity and relationships intact.
If you’re out there and you’re creating and producing and it’s making you feel better right now, then more power to you, keep doing that. I 100 per cent salute you. If you’re at home with a career/business on hold, assuming the unexpected role or carer or teacher and you haven’t got a clue what’s going on, please don’t add pressure onto yourself to keep working, to keep doing, to keep sharing – not everything is a content opportunity. Do the next thing well, or just do the next thing and the next thing and then have a lie down. Sit with yourself, your thoughts, sieve through your feelings and slowly work out what your next move is.
“It feels like there needs to be some time to adjust, time for reflection, a chance to catch a breath.”Danielle Pender
I’m not writing this from the privileged position of sitting on reserves of money or having rich parents to bail me out. I need money. In the next few weeks, it’s very possible that I’ll have to claim housing benefits and apply for universal credit. On the list of what I wanted to achieve in 2020, neither of those things featured. I need to work to earn money but even as that financial pressure hangs over me I am experiencing the innate urge to resist doing what I’ve always done – to grind my way out of this.
I’ve bought into and embodied the hustle culture for the past eight years. I’ve worked evenings and weekends to build up a business from scratch. I’ve always found ways out of tricky cash-flow and work situations, and it feels very weird to not have anything to do work-wise. However, rather than rushing to put out content or pivot Riposte in a meaningless way, just to be seen to be doing something, it feels like there needs to be some time to adjust, time for reflection, a chance to catch a breath, to re-evaluate how life could be different after this, how our businesses and work lives could be different. This is one of the things that makes me feel excited and positive for the future of Riposte, that we have the chance to thoughtfully assess where we’re at, how we do things and how we want things to be in the future.
Will things go back to the way they were when this is over? I don’t know. Will we all hop straight back on flights, dive back into old work patterns and refuse to learn any lessons? I really hope not. What I do hope is that over the coming weeks we allow ourselves the opportunity to reassess our relationship with work. To find a way to define ourselves away from what we do for a living, because we are all more than our output.
Repeat after me: “I am more than my output.”