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an over-the-shoulder view of Ilya Milstein sketching

Big Ideas

Five Ways to Nurture a Sense of Self

From respecting your morning routine to the value of playfulness, creatives offer insights on the importance of nourishing your whole self.


It can be immensely gratifying to get lost in creative pursuit, to lose track of time while working in the service of an idea. That sense of single-minded purpose can be a sign you’re on the right track. The focus can be addictive. But the specter of burnout hovers over this all-or-nothing approach, and it can easily lead to your sense of self being subsumed by your work priorities. 

How do you step back and keep all your different selves in harmony? We gathered advice from creatives on how to nurture a strong sense of self and strike the right balance between the twin pulls of your personal and professional responsibilities. 

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Learn from the Lows and Avoid the Wallow

A setback can have long-term effects that erode your sense of self and fundamentally skew your perspective. Leo Jung is now creative director of The California Sunday Magazine, but a layoff earlier in his career left him full of self-doubt and finding it hard to move on. His sense of self was wrapped up in this particular moment of professional hardship and it had a knock-on effect on his personal life. 

“You can never mentally prepare yourself for the self-doubt that creeps in and plants itself right in the part of the brain that contains all your self-confidence. When doubt in your abilities overtakes you, it doesn’t magically go away overnight. It drips away slowly like a tiny pinhole leak. When I started interviewing again, I noticed how I focused on what had happened to me instead of what I could contribute. I needed people to know I wasn’t laid off for incompetence. It was a pride thing.” 

Recognizing this pattern made it possible for Jung to extricate himself from the circular thinking that was holding him back. “It was tough for me to get over, but I knew that holding grudges was exhausting and unhealthy. Instead, I channeled my energy towards something I could be proud of. You’d be surprised at how motivated and focused you can become after a layoff.”

Black and white portrait of Mandy Blankenship.

Photo of Mandy Blankenship by Mollie Greene.

Move Your Body

There’s a reason that physical exercise is cited time and time again as the panacea for all manner of struggles. Most of the time, it does indeed do the trick. The key is finding the right activity to soothe your overactive mind. Running miles on end isn’t for everyone, so allow yourself to have an open-minded approach to movement, even if it’s not the obvious choice. Maybe tai chi or fencing or Pilates or interpretive dance work for you, so own it.

When artist Mandy Blankenship was struggling with fertility treatments and unexpected post-pregnancy complications, she found that yoga was the best fit to bring her back to herself, “I never liked sports because I’m a perfectionist and I didn’t like losing. Yoga is me against me. I can go to whatever level of intensity I need that day.”

Build a Routine That Serves Your Full Self

A work routine can be a no-brainer. It’s how you stay accountable to your managers, how to deliver on deadlines, and how to structure your day so you feel accomplished and productive. As tempting as it can be to zone out in your downtime and relish the freedom of just being you, making the effort to set up personal routines that honor your time is worth it.

Ilya Milstein sitting on stoop.

Photography by Eric Ryan Anderson.

Australian illustrator Ilya Milstein moved to New York and launched his freelance career by working long hours, seven days a week. The drive he felt then helped build his success, but he recognized that it was an unsustainable long-term model. Today, he has a changed perspective. “To expect that an unhealthy lifestyle won’t impact one’s thinking seems absurd. Be kind to yourself in small ways and take joy from your daily rituals. Have your morning coffee on your couch with the news rather than nervously gulped over the kitchen sink. Self-care and self-understanding will obviously make you a better artist and person — the two are quite intertwined — and knowing your limits will keep you afloat.”

Get Outside the Cubicle

Staying in one place can feel like the necessary commitment you must make until, after toiling away for the proper amount of time, inspiration strikes. But that’s a mythological fallacy. Taking time away from your usual space is not only healthy but can be the answer to the riddle that you’re trying to unlock. Stepping out from the workspace can be a vital reminder that you are a whole person, not a collection of KPIs.

Man with crossed arms in front of mural.

Photo of Duncan Wardle courtesy of Disney.

Duncan Wardle spent 25 years at Disney, and in that time learned that nurturing our inherent creativity means getting in touch with the basics and rethinking convention. “Be playful when you are looking for that big idea. For many of us, our best ideas come to us when we’re in the shower, when we’re jogging, when we’re on the train — in other words, when we’re anywhere but at work. Why? Because we can only access our subconscious brain when we are relaxed. When we’re stressed, all that stimulus back there is waiting to connect the dots with the challenge in front of us, but it’s off limits.”

Take the Time to Reflect

Michael Ventura, author of Applied Empathy, and a speaker at the 99U 2019 conference, believes that self-observation is a future-proof skill that is invaluable for all aspects of your life, saying that “ultimately it makes me a better listener, collaborator, and, frankly, human.” 

Black and white image of a man with a beard wearing a jacket

Photo courtesy of Michael Ventura.

Ventura defines it as “the ability to hit pause, take a moment to evaluate yourself, and take stock of where you’re at.” He suggests keeping a list of specific questions to answer, “Am I breathing?” I mean really breathing, not just panting at your desk while you frantically write emails and hustle to meetings. It also extends to your emotional state. What’s the most common emotion you’re feeling lately? Are you in control of the emotion or is it controlling you? Is it triggered by someone or something? Are you able to manage it? Trust your intuition and check in with yourself frequently.”

Easier said than done if you’ve worn in a groove hustling to meetings and speed-reading emails. While it is a slow process getting back in touch with your emotions, the self-awareness you’ll build will pay off in the long-term. As Ventura says, “It isn’t a switch you flip and immediately everything changes. It’s a dimmer that you slide until the ability eventually becomes second nature. Set a few times each day when you’re willing to stop whatever you’re doing, no matter how ‘critical’ or ‘busy’ you are, and take a moment to observe yourself. Noticing is the first step in learning who you are and what you are going to do about it.”

Mia Pinjuh

Mia is a writer based in New York. 


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