Away from Keyboard – Episode #9

Jeremy Fuksa is a unicorn

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Jeremy Fuksa has had a rough few years. After deciding to go out on his own, his third year in business was filled with anxiety. Going back to working a full-time job may sound like a failure to some, but Jeremy doesn’t look at it that way.

He talks to me about his unique skill set, dealing with anxiety and depression, and how his recent experience has taught him some great lessons.

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Applying a label to the vast range of talent and skill Jeremy Fuksa possesses is just unfair. He’s a designer, developer, video editor, podcaster, and well, the list goes on. Throughout the years he’s hosted several podcasts, which he says always seem to have personal and creative angst at their core. But this February, Jeremy together with Paul Armstrong started a show that explores their anxieties on a whole other level.

The show is a heart-warming, refreshing, and a “holy crap, I felt that way too!” lens into the lives of Jeremy and Paul. Unfortunately, being able to commiserate means having to go through less than ideal situations, and Jeremy says it started with his struggling business.

The last couple of years were difficult for me. I decided that I had always wanted to try to go out on my own, and run my own business, and I did that for three years. The first year was a gangbuster, the second year was okay, and then the third year was just nail-bitingly frightening. A big part of where the show came from was, of course, that anxiety… But then to just put it bluntly, during that last year I couldn’t afford to have health insurance, so any anxiety or depression medication that I had been on, I was no longer on, so I was just kind of free-floating and I needed to figure out a way to help myself feel better in lieu of chemistry.

Paul and I had tried starting a show a few years ago, and then we got busy and it just never really took off… And finally, we just made a concerted effort to make it happen, so that’s how Uncle Weepy’s Depression Dungeon got started. It just became a way for us to examine our own – some people might say that it’s a way for us to examine our own middle age white men privilege, but… [laughter] It really did come from that place of a little bit of self-healing, to try to just kind of talk out what’s bugging you.

Why do you feel that it was so important for you to go on your own and try this for yourself?

[00:03:57.29] Really for no other reason than I just needed to know whether or not I could. I had seen so many people and knew so many people through our extended network that we know, whether it be Twitter people, or just design community, or any of those things… And I saw all these people who were making a life for themselves.

I wouldn’t say that I necessarily just flat out envied them; I realized that their life was a life of hard work, and it wasn’t just that they were internet-famous web designers, that the money just rolled in, and they got to blog and podcast every once in a while… I knew there was real work behind it, but I just wanted to know if I too could make that happen for myself. And honestly, even though that last year of doing it was really rough, I will say “Yeah, I think that I was able to do it for myself”, because I made it three years. I did a lot of things backwards in so many ways, so it was a valuable lesson, and one that I won’t say ended in failure, because I learned a whole lot out of the process, and I did get what I wanted out of it.

That was the knowledge of knowing that I could do it if I wanted to, and who knows if I would want to do it again in the future… I don’t know; I think I need to get a few years of distance between me and this past experience before I would entertain that idea again. But it was definitely what I needed. I got what I wanted out of it.

I feel that it’s such a good sign from you, and possibly the growth that you’ve gone through with this particular experience, that you say that you don’t look back on it as a failure.

Yeah, because I very easily could. By all accounts and purposes, anybody who walks away from a freelance job to go back and get a regular ol’ day job - that seems like on paper it’s a failure… But I just don’t see it that way, and I don’t feel that it’s I’m being myopic, it’s just – again, I set out to do what I plan to do, and that was enough for me at this point.

Do you feel that as creative professionals we compare ourselves too much to other people?

Constantly, yes.

And that’s the genesis of some of this stuff? Because at least personally, I always dreamt of being my own boss, because I saw other people doing it, without really understanding the realities of when you are your own boss, you’re no longer just a designer, you’re no longer just a developer, or whatever it is that you’re doing; you’re now that plus bookkeeper, plus accountant, plus marketing, plus all these other headaches that come along with owning your own business and running it.

Oh, yeah. Yes, as far as comparing yourself to others, that’s been in my blood my entire career. I can think of times early on in my career where I was working in agencies with other people, and looking over people’s shoulders, seeing what kind of work they were doing, and just being completely envious of the fact that they were doing this great work that I felt was just not in me… Not true, by any stretch of imagination; if I would have just sat down and applied myself maybe just that 10% harder than what I was doing at the time, I could certainly have done just as good of a job as any of these people that I was looking at.

[00:07:49.01] That idea of impostor syndrome comes into it a lot when you’re comparing yourself to what you see other people doing. I’m looking at what they’re doing and it’s fantastic, and whether or not other people might be looking at your own stuff and going, “Man that guy is really good” or “That girl is really great at what she does”, the person with impostor syndrome feels “Any moment now I’m going to be found out for the fraud that I am, and everybody is gonna know that I have no idea what I’m doing and I’m just randomly throwing stuff around on a screen and every once in a while it sticks.

There’s a great amount of that in any creative field, and there’s a great amount of that in any creative profession, whether they want to admit it or not.

I think what’s so fascinating about you too is the fact that your skillset is so incredibly diverse.

Yeah, it’s kind of nuts.

I think the typical job just isn’t made for you.

That is very true. Yes, I have spent my career kind of being this jack-of-all-trades. For a while it was really hot to call myself a creative generalist… I began my career with video editing and visual effects, and so a lot of my first few years was spent entirely doing television commercials, so I have a heavy video background, and just happened to be also the one guy at whatever agency I was working at that knew how to work with the web. And so 15 years ago I decided that I needed to probably either be really good at one or the other, so I decided to go with the web.

But I’ve always had this diverse skillset of being able to work with the web, design for the web with a video editor and animator’s eye… And that worked pretty well when Flash was big, but still, there were always these jobs that just never quite fit quite right. Or I would get places and they would find out that I had this weird, hybrid, unicorny kind of background and skillset, and they would start making up job titles for me and throwing me into these jobs where I could do a little bit of video and a little bit of After Effects, and a little bit of web, and a little bit of print design, and a little bit of this… So I was always constantly busy. That for the longest time was for sure my number one strength. I could go in anywhere and say “I’m this guy that can do all these crazy things; all the rest of these people are really, really good at one thing, and they may be the best that they are at one thing. I’m maybe not THE best at any one given thing, but I’m pretty good at about seven things.” So that became really my big calling card.

Fast-forward to, let’s say, three years ago, the epiphany came to me that all creative professionals kind of come out of the box right now, or figuratively speaking, come out of the womb that way. There’s nothing special about me anymore in terms of that wide array of skill, because it’s so innate in any young professional that has grown up within the last 15-20 years, because with huge leaps in technology, they’ve got the ability to edit video, because it’s always been – whether it’s Windows Movie Maker, or iMovie, or any of those… These tools have been available to them, whereas they were some specialized piece of equipment before.

[00:11:57.24] With the advent of that, with the advent of amazing cameras in iPhones, and so on and so forth, what used to be my number one strength is just table stakes for a creative professional these days, it seems… So that was another really big anxiety-inducing moment, of just realizing, “Well, okay, my time has come and gone as being this elusive thing.”

What does that realization make you personally feel about yourself?

Well, cynically, I could say “Well, I’ve had a good run.”

[laughs]

In a lot of ways, it makes me feel super-grateful. I won’t say regret. I do not regret it. I think that having that weird, winding path is what held me back from those milestones that I felt that I was supposed to have in the marketing and advertising industry… Because I was. I was too busy exploring what was going on over here, and then “Let’s go see what’s going on over here on the East Coast of creativity, and let’s go see what’s going on down in the archipelago of video”, and so on and so forth.

Somehow I fell backwards into this perfect storm of opportunities that created a very unique path for me throughout the last 23 years… So I’m super-grateful for that.

Break

[00:13:54.29]

In the third year of his business, Jeremy couldn’t afford health insurance, which meant he’d had to come off medication in a time when he’d need it the most. I know I’d be terrified, and Jeremy was pretty scared, too…

It’s pretty frightening. Luckily, over the five to seven years prior to that – you know, I had always taken… Well, I won’t say “always”, but at least since I was in college; it’s been a good almost 30 years… Antidepressants. And over the five to seven years prior to stopping taking any medicine, through doctor’s visits and so on and so forth I kind of started figuring out that it really wasn’t so much that I battled with depression as much as I’d battled with anxiety that would occasionally lead to depression.

A couple of years before I made that decision to stop the medication I had gotten off of an anti-depressant that if I would have just stopped cold turkey would have been really, really bad, because it had a lot of withdrawal side-effects, and things like that… So what I was on was really more anti-anxiety medication. I was afraid of what kind of side-effects or withdrawal symptoms might I have; luckily, there were none of that. But mostly, I was super-anxious and scared about the fact that I was having to stop this medication at a time when I felt like I really needed it the most, because I was in a very anxious and uncertain period… So I just wasn’t sure how I was gonna get through.

I’ve got a great family, a fantastic wife, two great boys - I’ve got a great support system. I wasn’t worried about going off the deep end or anything like that, but I just was worried about being healthy… Healthy to the point where I was continuing to make decent eating choices, or continuing to eat, or any of those types of things. So there was a lot of uncertainty about that, that I worried about.

There were some moments when the anxiety roiled up and was telling me that I can’t do this, I’m stupid, and I should have never tried to make this business work in the first place, or I don’t know the first thing about design, or any of those crazy things that anxiety tries to tell you… And they were rough, and you just kind of have to figure out alternative ways to do something about it.

I took some walks, I tried to get a little more into mindfulness, meditation… The Breathe app on the Apple Watch is kind of a life-saver in moments like that. Just whatever I could do to subside that anxiety. And it would never go away completely, but it was at least enough to where I could go “Okay, this is past for now. We can move forward. I know it’ll be back again”, but knowing that it will also go away again. It was a lot to work with during that time, but it was just something that frankly I just had no choice in the matter at that moment.

What was your wife’s reaction to all this?

[00:20:01.17] Honestly, it caused a lot of anxiety in her, to the point where I started to get a little more worried about her than me, because she was always the person that has always been super-strong… She’s very level-headed; she’s an attorney, so she’s got a certain mindset, and her mind works a certain way, and is very rational, and things like that… And when I started seeing a lot of my irrational anxiety kind of mirroring back at me, I got a little worried about all that. It was just the stress of the situation.

It also helped us out a lot, I think, because over the years in our relationship she has really tried to be very empathetic about anxiety and depression, and she knows something’s wrong, but she also knows that absolutely nothing is wrong… And she would just have no frame of reference for that; she would try to be empathetic and try to understand, but there was just no way that she could. So I think she got a little window into that in those last few months; it gave some insight, and I think that it really helped deepen a lot of understanding about kind of “When Jeremy gets a little off some days, sometimes there’s just no reason for it. It’ll go away, and it’ll be okay.”

How do you– let me start that again… I don’t wanna say “survive”, because that’s not the word that I think goes there… And I don’t think it’s “overcome” either. I suffer of anxiety too, and I don’t think anxiety is something that you ever overcome. I think it’s something you learn to live with as time goes by, but it’s not something you overcome. But I feel that there are times where you’re feeling better than you’re– so maybe I’ll ask you that… What do you feel made you feel better?

Well, the easiest answer was that I finally decided I needed to shut down my freelance business, go back to work somewhere, get some healthcare and get back on my medicine. That’s the short answer to it. But when I was trying to formulate that plan – because that’s not a plan that necessarily happens overnight; it took me probably a good 3-6 months to find something. Just knowing that it’s going to get better, it will get better… The word I would say is kind of transcending that anxiety maybe; riding through that flow, getting to the other side, to be able to work on the next thing. Having some faith to fall back on is good.

And that idea of stopping the freelance business had been something that had crept in at least a year ago, but it was something that I wanted to deny… Because I was at that point in the thick of it; I did feel at that point that, well, if I do shut it down, then I am a failure. And so that acceptance of the fact that I did do the things that I set out to do, and that if I did shut it down, it wouldn’t be a failure - that was step one. After realizing that, then it became a lot easier to say “Okay, what is this plan gonna look like? How does this work? Where do we go? What are we gonna do? What kind of work do you wanna go back and do? Do you wanna try to find another one of those crazy unicorn jobs? …because that’s probably gonna be really hard to do now. So what’s one of the strongest skills that you have, that you feel like you’re strongest in, and you feel like you could make some difference in the world?” Then I just kind of formulated a plan and went from there, until I finally got into a job, and got that healthcare back, and got back on the medication.

[00:24:20.19] It’s interesting, because I feel that that is the hardest part - when you’re depressed, everything is such a fog that getting through that fog to what you’re talking about, of finally making a plan and acting on it is so difficult, and feels so far away. I’m so glad that you were able to do that.

Let’s move on to that last part that you just said, that you got a job.

Yeah, I got a job.

And you started – I wanna say a month ago, right?

Yeah. LinkedIn says I’ve been there two months, but I don’t think I’ve been there that long. I’ve been there just a little bit over a month, a month-and-a-half.

And how’s it going?

It’s going very well. I’ve moved out of the advertising and marketing industry altogether and have gone into healthcare information technology, and software that revolves around that. It’s a really wildly different – there’s a big difference in making a website that sells a hamburger and coming up with software that helps doctors save lives every day. That was one of the things that I used to say back in the advertising days - you know, whenever we were working on something and people were overthinking something, or just really honestly sweating something a little too hard that just didn’t need to be sweated, I was like “Look, we’re not saving lives here.”

[laughs]

Now I’m in a job where the products that I help build actually do save lives. That’s kind of a wild thought. It’s a very humbling thought, but at the same time it’s overwhelming because there is so much that I know that I don’t know. But yeah, I’ve specialized now, and so now I am just working strictly in user experience.

However, at the same time, they realized that I have a little bit of a unicorn background, and so I still am doing a teenie-weenie bit of coding, and things like that… So I’m keeping it real, keeping it varied, as I have throughout my career, but I am specializing a lot more than what I used to.

What do you feel like you’ve learned from these past few years?

Flexibility was key. Humility… Probably even more than flexibility. Everybody is absolutely right when they say “Do not start a business unless you have at least six month’s worth of savings.” They’re not joking. I always felt that I was pretty good at communicating, accepting feedback, giving feedback, collaborating… Those types of things. I realize that I was not as good at that as I really truly thought that I was. Because that was something that, for the most part, had always been walled off from me. Empathy - you know, I’ve always been a pretty empathetic person, but it was easier to empathize in a larger range of things than what I was able to before.

[00:27:53.15] The flexibility that everybody craves for being your own boss, the ability to go do whatever you want, whenever you want - it’s a little overrated. The perfect example was my parents were incredibly generous, and for Christmas last year they bought my family and my sister’s family a trip to Disney World, and we went to Disney World over Memorial Day, and the week after that. It was a great time with the family. Imagine - you’re in the happiest place on Earth. And I think that I probably was never more stressed out and anxious than I was on that vacation… Solely for the reason that if I’m taking seven days off, I’m not working, which means I’m making zero income. And honestly, that was really THE moment when I was like, “Dude, this isn’t sustainable. I mean, I should be having the time of my life, and yes, I’m having fun, but I should not be caring anything about the things that I’m caring and worrying about right now.” That was when I really had that big epiphany that something needed to change.

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