Get A Life

When you look into a mirror, who stares back at you? Forget the physical characteristics. You see yourself as a creative professional, a designer. Your work defines you.

A letter to the editor that appeared in Fast Company’s September issue read, "When we’re starting out in our careers, it’s easy to confuse what you do with who you are—which makes working long hours not only tempting but identity-strengthening."

The writer could have been referring to designers. Except that, for designers, the career-as-identity thing doesn’t stem from youthful exuberance. It doesn’t dwindle over time. The 50-year-old agency principal is just as geeked about playing with type and images as a recent art-school grad—and he’s probably putting in even longer hours than he did as a junior art director.

But is it healthy to derive your self-worth exclusively from your work? It’s an easy trap when you love what you do (believe me, I know). Business guru David C. Baker warns that designers seek too much creative fulfillment from their jobs—a theory that often prompts replies of "Not me!" from his listeners.

The danger, Baker says, is that designers tend to let their need for creative stimulation distract them from good business or career decisions. "For example, you might take a job for $20,000 that you know should be worth $25,000 because it provides an outlet for creativity," Baker says. "Designers also work very hard, and thus end up with too little time to have a life outside work. This puts pressure on seeing work as a creative outlet instead of what it should be."

Baker’s mantra is, "Have an interesting creative life outside work." Just look at several examples from our 2005 Business Annual: Enspace founders (and spouses) Ken and Jenn Visocky O’Grady spend hours in the classroom, drawing inspiration from teaching young designers. Joe Duffy, after 20 years, is relaunching his business on his own terms, with a team of friends and family at his side. Owen Jones & Partners principal Rusty Grim works from home three days a week because he loves his country lifestyle. In our conversation about the design profession, Dan Pink says that an aptitude for play is essential for success in the emerging economy. You can’t get that from sitting in an Aeron chair.

No matter how engaging the work you do for a paycheck, it’s still just that: work. When you clock out for the day—and it shouldn’t routinely be much later than 6 p.m. (seriously!)—that’s when your real creative fulfillment should kick in. Go outside and take photos. Play with your kids. Walk the dog. Cook dinner with your spouse. Paint, sculpt, write. Make music. Read. Whatever.

Get a life.