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Great Expectations

Anxiety and avocados; two staples of the Millennial diet. Everyone seems to be dealing with anxiety, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s suddenly become more mainstream due to millennials being more sensitive than our predecessors, or having more frequent discussion around mental health. It is something I personally have dealt with for the past four years, and for me, it’s a learned behaviour, based on my personal experience of trauma. In February of 2016, my Mam suffered a very severe stroke which still continues to affect our day-to-day lives in a very substantial way. I was living in San Francisco at the time and moved home within 24 hours of getting the news. After the initial few weeks of surgery and induced coma, came the real recovery. Not just for my Mam, but for our whole family. My Mam is amazing and has worked incredibly hard every day since regaining consciousness. For me, it was slower.

The experience was life-changing and honestly, I had been pretty happy with my life up to that point so I wasn’t really on board with the change. My solution? I refused to accept that anything was different. I worked really, really hard to maintain my personal, social and professional life exactly as I always had, alongside the new challenges and responsibilities I faced. I thought if I kept all the balls in the air and all the plates spinning, then it hadn’t really affected me and therefore I didn’t need to face it. That was, of course, absolute bullshit. Eventually, the cracks began to show and in 2018 it came to a head. I finally accepted that I couldn’t “control” my way out of the situation and sought professional support. I learnt how my efforts to control outcomes, and the unrealistic expectations I was setting for myself, were proving detrimental. I got a handle on things, and life went on.

Fast forward to January-March of this year. I was working on a project that I was very proud of; one I had struggled with, one which itself had been a source of anxiety, and one that I knew was going to be important in my career. Just as we were set to launch, the pandemic hit. The launch was delayed, first by a day, then two, then a week, and then a month. Finally, the whole thing was cancelled. As every member of ICAD (and most of the world right now) will likely agree – there’s something deeply unsatisfying about pouring so much energy into a project only for it to disappear into thin air. It’s a bit like losing a sneeze, only worse. I needed something to hold on to, a result of some sort. That turned out to be a lesson.

So here’s the lesson I’ve learnt: uncompromising expectations and white-knuckled control are the enemies of creativity, productivity and the ability to deal with evolving situations. I realised this in conversation with a colleague a few weeks after the launch was cancelled. Having explained our new strategy he asked if it was ‘what I had expected’ – to which I laughed, replying that I had stopped having expectations several weeks ago now. I was being flippant, but seriously, not having expectations for a particular outcome allows you to react, adapt, pivot and innovate. It allows you to let go of plans less painfully, and throw yourself more fully into new ones as they form. So many times I have been frozen with indecision, trying to imagine in my mind’s eye what the end looks like, or what is expected, when I am always better served by simply focusing on the next step. If you have a rigid expectation of how something will or should turn out, and it doesn’t work out that way, there is always a feeling that you’ve lost something. If you can simply focus on doing the next thing as well as you can, then it’s more like you’re on a journey. At the end of the day, control is limited, this is a fact we have all been sharply confronted by over the last few months, and things rarely turn out quite as expected. So I have resolved to focus on being present and try to worry less about the end game. This is a lesson I’ve learned before and it’s a lesson I’m sure I’ll have to learn again because, let’s face it – good mental health is a practice, a bit like graphic design.

Insights by Jenny Leahy

Jenny Leahy – freelance graphic designer and ICAD programme coordinator.