What Being in a Devastating Creative Burnout Taught Me About Life


Hi, my name is Nathalie and I am an ex-creative in burnout.

I’ve been in recovery for 124 weeks now, and I am here to share my story…

Realizing you are in a creative burnout is a startling experience.

As creatives, our job basically consists of using our imagination to create (make up?) things that will have an impact on others’ lives. So how does one burnout from that, right?

That’s the exact mindset that led me to ignore for months, that I was in a burnout. I wasn’t in a burnout, I was procrastinating.

After six months of staring at a blank page of a final draft, while telling everybody around me I was “procrastinating” on my screenplay, I had no other choice but see it as it was: I was knee-deep in a creative burnout and I had no clue how to get out of it.

For one, the first rule of the Creative Burnout Club is: You do not talk about Burnout.

Although I didn’t know it back then, admitting to myself I was in a burnout was the first step to recovery.

Mentioning my burnout to others was a whole different story though; and for the longest time, I didn’t. I felt embarrassed to admit that I didn’t feel creative anymore.

I wasn’t sure why, but it felt like something I should feel ashamed of, so I kept it quiet. After all, burnouts are for people stuck at an office job, not for us, not for creative minds, not for me.

Four years after I have diagnosed myself, here is what I learned: you can definitely be in a burnout when you’re a creative. In fact, many of us are.

We’re a massive club actually, between the ones on recovery and the ones in the midst of their own crisis. But we rarely talk about it.

I’ve spent a good chunk of 2015 seeking fellow C.I.Bs (Creatives In Burnout) and talking with them, and what I’ve realized is that we have fundamental similarities in our stories that aren’t often shared.

Here are some of the lessons I learned on my journey to recovery, that have had a profound impact on me, and on bringing back my creativity.

Creative burnout and How to Beat it

The Biggest Misconception About Creativity

“You’re so lucky to be creative, I don’t have any imagination!”

You’ve probably heard this before, and it’s absolutely lethal.

It’s the reason why most creative grapple to recognize their burnout and think they should hide it.

Because people think that creativity is a gift.

But Creativity is not a gift. Creativity is a muscle.

And this is the first lesson I learned on my path to recovery.

Lesson #1 – Creativity is a Muscle

Yes, some people are naturally more inclined to create, just as some people are born more flexible than others. But just as you can work on your flexibility, you can work on your creativity to expand it.

What that also means is that just like a physical muscle, your creativity can shrink or get injured.

This realization pushed me to change mindset.

To move from an entity theorist perspective — I was born creative, creativity is a gift I have received, I have no control over its limitations and status. I am however, entitled to use it as I please; to an incremental theorist perspective — creativity is a muscle that needs to be used gently and regularly. I can amplify and solidify it, I just need to do warm-ups and stretching before and after creative sessions.

Once I realized that my creativity was a muscle, it became obvious that burnout was simply an injury.

And the best part? Not only you can recover from a creative burnout, but you can come back stronger from it. That’s what scientists, including Jane McGonigal in her book Superbetter, calls Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG), a “positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event”.

How do you do that? You change your diet and your routine.

Lesson #2: Problems of Output Are Problems of Input

Austin Kleon’s artwork Problems of output are problems of input sums it up perfectly; if you can’t get anything out of your system, maybe what comes in, needs to change first.

From the moment I decided to become a filmmaker, I started feeding myself with content that was related to making films.

Living in Los Angeles, a town that breathes and lives off films, this was easy. However I failed to expand my horizon stimulating my brain with other arts. And so I saturated. Paralyzed with too much knowledge and too little genuine excitement, I had forgotten to give the kid in me freedom to explore sideways.

I took a big step back and stopped trying to make films. I looked for different topics I had always been attracted to and wanted to learn more about. That’s when I discovered CreativeLive and started following classes on how to make patterns, how to make podcasts, how to use programs and any other topics that I felt curious about.

Introducing variety again into my inputs, triggered new connections in my mind.

And that’s when it hit me.

Creativity is fluid.

It is present in every field. You can be a painter and dedicate days to learning a seemingly unconnected topic, it will serve your art and feed your creativity in unexpected ways.

Understanding that creativity is literally everywhere led me to my third observation.

Lesson #3 – Quantity Matters

As a creative, one of the hardest transition is going from creating for the sake-of-it to creating for clients, an audience, a deadline, and a budget.

The time allocated to creating without purpose shrinks dramatically. Everything needs to become useful: lyrics for a new song; a screenplay for a short film; a drawing for the portfolio, a design for your shop.

Avoiding Creative Burnout

And when you enter that cycle, creating becomes heavier, limited, and contrived by all the guidelines it needs to follow.

That’s when a burnout arises. When no room is left for mistakes, trials, and for connecting with your muse, your element, your zone, your flow; this thing that makes hours feel like minutes.

The paradox, of course, is that when you’re in burnout mode, you can’t produce from that special place; but to get out of your burnout, you need to find your way back to that space.

So how do you do that? I found producing a massive amount of things is one of the most efficient ways out.

Without rules, expectations or judgment. You clean the house by getting all the dust out.

As Alain de Botton puts it, you ‘download your brain’ so you can make free space to reload and, most importantly, so you can look at what’s happening within.

While I was unable to make films, I started a tumblr named better post-it than nothing, where I would draw something on a post-it every day. It was purposeless and nobody cared about it, but it felt awesome just to fill up this one little square of paper every day. Better a post-it than nothing. Seriously.

This gave me the habit of drawing a little something every day. And when I stumbled upon an app that let you create stories for phones, I went for it.

20 stories and a year later, the app closed. But by then, I had moved on writing my first graphic novel.

A few months later, when a contest to make an interactive animation in a month for a music video came out, I gave it a go. I had never done an animation in my life. I had never created an interactive story before. I had stopped trying to make films. But I did it anyway.

Almost two years passed between my first post-it and this interactive video. During that time, I had been producing a massive amount of random work, circling without realizing it, toward this moment where I could go back into working on a film, and feel fully creative again.

So here you have it: Warm-up and stretch your creative muscle, vary your outputs, allow yourself to play and learn in other fields, have fun producing massive amount of things, and trust that your creativity will expand in mysterious ways, until the day you’ll wake up with your mind filled again with those magical connections that make being a creative such a blast.

For more on how to find your most creative self, check out Fulfill Your Creative Purpose right here on CreativeLive.

Nathalie Sejean FOLLOW >

Nathalie is a story fabricator and creative nomad who founded mentorless.com, a blog for filmmakers and storytellers to nurture their skills and craft. She also offers creatives in burnout to reconnect with their mojo and stretch their creative muscle. Join Nathalie on twitter at @mentorless where she hangs out during virtual breaks.