To be deemed successful in our society, some might say that we have to work around the clock, but Madison Utendahl, the founder of Utendahl Creative, believes quite the opposite. In fact, she believes the phrase “grinding till you die” is complete bullshit and that burnout is not something to celebrate or be proud of. She also believes that time is a construct and that the main issue with burnout is that society has a serious problem with being still. Utendahl is no stranger to feeling burnout herself given her quite impressive résumé. She is not only a Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient, but she’s also the visionary founder of a branding and design agency that represents some of the biggest names in the industry.
Given her many examples of creative Black girl magic in the industry, what separates her is that she’s also the blueprint for celebrating rest and leads her team of creatives to do the same. To ensure that her staff isn’t experiencing too much burnout, she implemented a mandatory five-week work break where everyone can have the “mental peace” of knowing that everyone is on vacation. Unlike many founders in the digital industry, she leads with empathy, and her compassion was conveyed with every gem that she dropped about how we view work in our society.
After chatting with Utendahl last week, I left more enlightened than ever before and with a newfound perspective on what success really is and what it means to me. Read below to see how Utendahl balances her mental health, what airplane mode can do for your day, and why you may or may not have the definition of meditation twisted.
How You Start Your Day Matters
When we wake up in the morning, it’s so easy to hop on our phones and log in to Gmail to prepare for a workday or hop on Slack. We’ve all been there, but Utendahl doesn’t play games when it comes to how she spends her mornings before work.
“I spent many years not balancing my mental health. I’ve learned what doesn’t work for me. A lot of people don’t like to sit in the discomfort of things not working in their favor, but ultimately, it allowed me to figure out what does work,” she says. “I’m strict about a few things, like the power of airplane mode. I’m on airplane mode until the next morning after I meditate. It allows you to have agency and autonomy when you start and end your day. Before, I used to have this boundary of waking up and looking at my phone, and whatever someone said to me would dictate my day. I really just became super dedicated to asking myself what it means to have full agency of how my day starts and ends. I’m very into working out, but airplane boundaries are the best lesson to protect my health.”
I can’t even begin to count how many times I skipped a yoga or workout class because I didn’t have time. In other words, I always have an excuse for why self-care isn’t on my agenda for the day, but Utendahl believes that making time is a choice. “Time is a construct, so you don’t have time if you don’t choose to make time. But I can also cancel these meetings. You can cancel meetings and see what you have to get done versus what you think you need to get done. Make space for mindfulness,” she says. “People need to learn how to meditate. Take five minutes to close your eyes and sit in the stillness. I think we teach meditation as like ‘We’ve got to be in this stillness and transcendence and enlightened space,’ but sometimes, mine are filled with anxious thoughts. There are so many options to have so many incredible resources to move through those incredible thoughts.”
As someone who’s worked two jobs at once for the majority of my career, I can honestly say that I’ve had zero boundaries when it comes to rest. I actually used to applaud myself for always being the busy friend, but Utendahl believes that boundaries are the key to avoiding burnout. “American society is built around work, [but] European society is built around working around being able to live instead of living to work. This country isn’t designed for us to do that. I didn’t have boundaries. I thought working hard was working overtime. I was just grinding 24 hours a day and not prioritizing my own self-worth, and it was a struggle. I haven’t always had this structure in my life, and I would argue that everyone creates better work when they have the space to create better work,” she says.
If You’re Experiencing Burnout at Your Job, Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up
As a Black woman in corporate America, I feel I’m just grateful to have a seat at the table. Sometimes, I feel bad for even saying that I’m overworked or tired because I feel like I don’t have the right to express that in a space with faces that don’t always look like mine. I shared this with Utendahl, who said that this might be a limiting belief that women of color and women in general feel.
“The reality is that all women struggle with this. The reality is that the mindset holds us back from actually being there,” she says. “In that moment, if we are just allowing ourselves to be grateful to be there, we’re probably not going to speak up and vocalize our opinions. We’re not going to take up more space. We have to challenge that by eliminating that from our vocabulary as women. If we just exist in gratitude versus instead of knowing, then we’re never going to vocalize ourselves and perpetuate these gender and race norms about what we can do.”
How to Stay Inspired in Spite of Burnout
Staying inspired can be rough when you’re constantly overworking. In a world where “perfection” is being projected into our psyches every time we look at a screen, Utendahl believes that we should actually embrace mediocrity: “It’s okay to do things that are mediocre. As a person of color, they say you have to be excellent, but what does it mean to give ourselves permission to put out mediocre work? It’s the quantity of what you’re producing, and one of those things will be great. If we can release the expectation of everything being great, then it would allow us as creatives to not suffer. I’m not saying I’ve mastered this, but it’s something I work on.”
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