So now what? Frederike Luijten keeps control in a challenging professional field
Who's prepared for a pandemic? The graduating class of 2020 were thrown into a totally different field of work than the one they had prepared for. How do these alumni deal with the impact of the novel coronavirus on their creative-professional practice? Lars Meijer and Tim Bongaerts, who graduated in the year of COVID, will be exploring ways to succeed as a creative entrepreneur in this new world. By talking to resourceful ArtEZ alumni, they'll be trying to find out what it takes to be an entrepreneurial artist today. What lessons can we learn from these alumni?
This week, they spoke to author, programmer and student facilitator at the ArtEZ Creative Writing program Frederieke Luijten, about a healthy business, the repercussions of a burnout, and the importance of structure.
I always felt honored that people asked me to help them
In her final year at ArtEZ Arnhem's Creative Writing program, Frederike Luijten had a lot on her mind. She was finishing her graduation work, an experimental poetry bundle about her ADHD; she coordinated and printed De Seizoenszine, a literary magazine; she founded the writers' collective Wildgewelf; and had a thousand other tasks she took on from day-to-day. Frederike's enthusiasm and boundless energy were a given. The walkways of ArtEZ were a perfect place for her to build and expand her network, and those of others. Some small talk, helping each other out a little here and there. "I always felt honored that people asked me to help them." As she was juggling all of this, it may not be much of a surprise that Frederike was nearing a burnout by the middle of the academic year. "Every part of Fred had left my body. I didn't recognize myself anymore." What did she need in this period and how does her current entrepreneurship reflect these past experiences?
When somebody's entire identity is invested in the work, the chance of a burnout increases
It can be easy to overwork yourself. Especially in the creative industry, it can be difficult to separate yourself from your creative work. "When somebody's entire identity is invested in the work, the chance of a burnout increases," Frederike was thinking out loud. "Only when your work is successful, will your mind be calm." In our interview, Frederike could name almost exactly the moment that she realized things weren't going well. "One afternoon I opened my laptop and panicked. I had no idea what was happening to me." Her tutor, Hanneke Hendrix, ordered her to rest for a month. "I had one last presentation, and then I would allow myself to fall apart," she admitted. In retrospect, she also sees it was too little, too late: she should have done something sooner, given her situation. "When I started to acknowledge that I couldn't do it anymore, Bert van Beek, my graduation supervisor, quickly came to my aid."
It's easy to see the problem once the repercussions announce themselves, but how can we see that the dikes are about to burst? Does ArtEZ have a role to play in that? Or are students themselves responsible?
The boundary between the personal and the professional is very hazy
"My friends were very strict with me and they kept me in bed all the time," Frederike continued her story. "Hanneke moved my deadlines, Bert scratched all my engagements from my calendar. I was lucky with them, with other tutors, things would probably have gone differently." The growing attention for young people and their mental health is not a new trend. The RIVM announced in 2019 that 25% of the 18-to-25 age group suffered from burnout-related symptoms, especially emotional exhaustion (report download). This is connected to the growing pressure on all students. The report quotes one of them: "You have to keep going, to stop things from getting too much."
We're wondering if ArtEZ could devote more attention to burnout and other risks of unhealthy work stress. Within the academy, there are multiple ways to get in touch with confidants or deans, but once people are ready to ask for help with their mental health, it's often too late. There may be various reasons for this, and the RIVM report quotes one: "They [parents] think that you're just throwing a fit, if you have a burnout. Like they'll say, come on, just keep going! I'm not going to explain everything to them, they'll just think I'm a drama queen."
The threat of being perceived as a poser, or someone who doesn't deserve help, is a common concern among students. Embedding the importance of taking breaks and relaxing in the curriculum could be a start. That way, both teachers and students can learn to maintain a balance and a healthy approach to work. Frederike agreed with us: "There needs to be more awareness of the mental stress of an art program. The boundary between the personal and the professional is very hazy."
My weekly planner reflects my mental health
After taking a month off, Frederike knew that some things would have to change immediately as she was approaching her graduation. Without structural changes in her way of working, she would fall into the same downward spiral. "When I get a commission, I often feel like it's now or never. I felt this urgency that things had to happen that same day, which also turned out to be a possible symptom of ADHD. For Frederike, there was no structure in her work, which led her to try and organize everything at once. But this also meant that she couldn't relax when she wasn't doing anything. "My weekly planner reflects my mental health. When I've made a clear planning of things I'm going to do, it becomes easier for me to really take advantage of those moments of rest. It also allows me to look back with confidence and see what I've done in the past." Of course, every business benefits from structure, even if just for financial reasons, but it can also be good for our sense of self-worth. Because the professional field is so precarious or because we're afraid of losing our post-graduation momentum, we might push ourselves past our limits more than once. Maintaining a log of hours worked on each project can help you give yourself permission to take breaks.
In my experience, clients often seek the road of least resistance: people they've met before, known quantities
"After graduating, I told my department head that I wanted to work for ArtEZ. They advised me to come back in a few years. But a few months later, I got a call asking if I was still interested." Now, from the other side of the divide, and in a position to distribute commissions, her views on entrepreneurship have changed. "I now know that it's worthwhile to let people know, at the end of an e-mail or in a discussion with a potential client: I'm available. In my experience, clients often seek the road of least resistance: people they've met before, known quantities." There is no golden formula for starting a business that isn't uncertain. Uncertainty is part of the job.
Nevertheless, ArtEZ is in a position to hand students the tools to address these insecurities and develop a healthy professional practice for themselves. Talking with others about subjects like rest, healthy entrepreneurship, and the importance of a social safety net, helps alumni better prepare themselves for the challenging professional field that awaits them. Nobody needs to carry the weight of the uncertain nature of creative professional practice alone..
Starting work during a pandemic: practical lessons
To help improve the entrepreneurship focus in the ArtEZ curriculum, Tim and Lars have also made a survey. With this survey, they will research the skills and forms of entrepreneurship of the class of 2019-2020. Read more here.
Previously published articles in this series:
- So now what? Actress Ilse Geilen presents a new twist to digital entrepreneurship
- So now what? Cedric Siegers demonstrates essential flexibility and resilience as an entrepreneur
- So now what? Myrthe Majoor offers her perspective on the assumptions surrounding the 'flying start'