On burnout, data visualization culture, and the rejection of personal brand

Personal essay exploring my changing relationship to career and self.

Posted on Sept. 8, 2021
For nearly five years, I made the right career moves. I completed side projects to fill out my portfolio. I started a weekly(ish) newsletter of data viz related news and links. I volunteered my time at non-profits to redesign data dashboards, improve reports, and create a better data user experience. I did the thing that has become so second-nature to us, it has [a medical diagnosis](https://www.stress.org/burnout-is-now-an-official-medical-condition): I burnt out. I was never diagnosed as such. Mine has been a slow burn, filled with periods of busyness and periods of calm, but when taken in sum amount to years of being consumed by work, career, job opportunities, and reputation. And then the pandemic came. And I watched the paper-thin walls of my world begin to crinkle, show signs of tearing. I peered through the gaps in my shelter and watched as the world burned, gasping for breath. I felt the weight of grief, anger, toil. I began to fear the [warning of Thoreau](https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/walden/quotes/page/3/)—that "when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." This essay is an attempt to reconstruct myself into a truer intersection of my multiple selves. It is a critique of my own "personal brand" and the ways in which capitalism, individualism, and neoliberalism have seeped their way into my online identity. ## Cult of individuality Many of my thoughts on the implications of an online self have been sparked by Jenny Odell's writing in *How to Do Nothing*, to which I owe a specific shoutout here ([go read it](https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/600671/how-to-do-nothing-by-jenny-odell/); all block quotes below are taken from this book). Odell writes that the way we position ourselves in the online space does not just stay there: it bleeds into our lived reality. She writes: > "It is furthermore the cult of individuality and personal branding that grow out of such platforms [i.e. social media] and affect the way we think about our offline selves and the places where we actually live." Since 2014, I have consistently adapted my social media profiles to be *optimized* for a certain purpose: to make professional connections, showoff my work, and discover career related opportunities. In retrospect, I must say that this approach was successful. I found projects. I made the connections. My reasoning was that social media algorithms are overly simplistic, that they latch on to interests, hashtags, and keywords. So if I was smart about it, I could "game" the algorithms to insert my tweet/post/whatever into people's feeds—more specifically, people who would have some benefit to me. Of course, to call this "gaming" feels generous; we all do this online, all the time, without thinking much about it. To reach the right audience, it needed to be clear what I *offered*. The answer was easy: Ben does data viz. Presto. All social media handles, website URLs, links, etc. received the christened personal brand. BenDoesDataViz. I am Ben. This is what I do. I make you data viz. Of course, the advertising algos loved this. Algorithms, for all their innovation and complexity, often are overly simplistic. And I wanted the advertisement industry, the HR recruiters, the "For You" feed to find me. I built what Odell describes as "a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised to and appropriated, like units of capital." I used these units of capital to share my work. I put in long hours outside of work to show that I was the kind of person to take on cool side projects *in addition to* working 40+ hours a week. I wanted to be the data viz unicorn—designer, developer, consultant, theorist, maker of all things data visualization. To some degree this worked for me. But only for my career. Which as previously mentioned, has increasingly felt hollow. In an effort to optimize my online self, I had slipped into what Odell desribes as "a colonization of the self by capitalist ideas of productivity and efficiency." Oof. Colonization. It is everywhere we look. It is in our schools, our museums, our restaraunts, and our*selves*. It took a long time for me to realize, and a few gentle reminders from my partner, how much the ideas of productivity (capitalism-brand) and efficency (capitalism, not to mention white supremacy) seeped into my language. When she asked "how was your day?" I responded in terms of how productive/unproductive I was at work. When asked "how are you feeling?" I defaulted to how stressed/not stressed I was about a work-related project. These are inevitably a part of people's days—projects, deadlines, bosses, etc etc. But my reliance on these descriptors revealed something deeper: I had commodified my time into units of currency. My currency needed to be spent in areas that would *give me something back,* something to improve myself, my career, my job outlooks. I was exploring the world of data visualization, and I would conquer my own plot of paradise, and would reap the rewards of the land. > "In a situation where every waking moment has become the time in which we make our living, and when we submit even our leisure for numerical evaluation via likes on Facebook and Instagram, constantly checking on its performance like one checks a stock, monitoring the ongoing development of our personal brand, time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on 'nothing.' It provides no return on investment; it is simply too expensive." And so I lost myself. My first loves—writing, literature, music, long bike rides, poetry—were too expensive. Speaking out against opression and injustice was also expensive. My version of a personal brand around data viz meant "keeping all the doors open." I became, as Odell puts it, "a person reverse-engineered from a formula of what is most palatable to everyone all the time." I do not think that each person needs to be tweeting their beliefs/opinions about every item in the news (quite the opposite, in fact). But if I'm honest with myself, there were moments when I consciously decided to say nothing about racism, sexism in the workplace, and more, for my own preservation. Self-preservation. It can an infectious thing. At an evolutionary level, it appears baked-in to being human. But more importantly, breeding competition is the bread-and-butter of American individualism and capitalism. > Things like the American obsession with individualism, customized filter bubbles, and personal branding— anything that insists on *atomized, competing individuals striving in parallel, never touching*—does the same violence to human society as a dam does to a watershed. Putting the majority of my waking hours into my profession, into this atomized singular goal, left me withered. I put my dreams of self-producing an album, writing more poetry, building homemade synthesizers, and reading long novels on the shelf. My watershed contains many streams and tributaries. My misstep was to build a dam. ## Flows of the self Lately, I keep thinking about a quote from Audre Lorde on the joining of multiple selves. In her original context, Lorde was talking about intersectionality: the joining of herself as black, lesbian, mother, feminist, poet, and more. For Lorde, there is no one without the other—"...allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restrictions of externally imposed definition." I think the same can be said about our intellectual lives, work, and creative pursuits. For many years, I have put boundaries on my lanes. I only do data viz, because that is what people followed me for, and that is what I get paid to do. I *externally imposed* a definition of the type of work and art I can create. If I'm honest, I am tired. I have seen more data visualization on front page newspapers during the pandemic than all my years combined. I have seen incredible innovations and charts and explainers. But as I [wrote back in January](https://medium.com/nightingale/data-visualization-as-grief-599dc6536e6f), these visual statistics seem to have made little impact on roughly half of America. Vaccine skepticism, refusal to require masking, and ignoring social distancing measures (all of which directly contradicts available science) has drawn this pandemic on and on and on. Making better charts didn't stop it. I remember the tightness in my chest the first few weeks of lockdown. I remember the restlesness I felt, and the constant urge to "pitch in" however I could. My profession and background in data viz seemed to be an obvious place to start: I could volunteer to make dashboards, trackers, simulations, etc. In part, I did these things. Others more talented than myself made some incredible visual pieces to explain the unfolding science behind COVID-19. But then it kept going. And it kept going. And it felt like the only people who cared were the people already primed to listen. I lost my stamina. I grew tired of sitting in front of my laptop hour after hour, writing code to make charts that picured death after death after death. I need more than a career in data viz. I need more hobbies, art, music, time with friends and family, gardening, birdwatching, and crossword solving. I want to define myself not by what I do professionaly anymore, but instead in the same way as composer Pauline Oliveros described herself in 1974: "Pauline Oliveros is a two legged human being, female, lesbian, musician, and composer among other things which contribute to her identity." Ben Dexter Cooley is a human, male, husband, musician, writer, artist, naturalist, poet, and cat-owner among other identities and interests that make up what it is to be Ben. I don't know exactly where I'm going from here, but it's not backward. I want to bring my whole self to every encounter, both digital and physical. I want to reject the predictable, static personal brand in favor of the actual ways we form a self; something Odell describes as the "unstable, shapeshifting thing determined by interactions with others." Practically speaking, this means a sunsetting of "bendoesdataviz". My online self will no longer be only about data visualization. I want to explore my art, music and writing without borders. I also plan to dedicate more time to this site, bdexter, as a home for my "life work". I'm not sure if this term will stick, but by "life work" I mean the things that I am pursuing, exploring and creating, all of which give me joy, or wonder, or meaning in some way. Sometimes this will include data visualization, but crucially, it does not have to. My newsletter, [*Data Curious*](https://datacurious.substack.com/), will revamp, although with a different tone and less content focused exclusively on data viz, charts, maps, etc. And finally, I plan to continue a practice I recently have been reading about: [digital gardening](https://bdexter.com/notepad/digital-garden-art). This post is one such plant in my digital garden, and I hope to revisit it's main themes to keep them growing. Data visualization still is, and will continue to be, a big part of my life. I still enjoy its craft and practice. I just need more streams in my watershed.
⇦ back to notepad