Laurel Pantin on leaving NY for South Africa, anxiety and how taking time off actually helps your career (and why you should do it, too).
Burnout. So hot right now.
Kidding, obviously. Terrible, unintended (promise) puns aside; cries of burnout, especially in creative industries (ahem, fashion), are unavoidable as of late. But why?
The idea of leaving it all behind for a on-your-own-terms dream gig that can preferably be operated out of any time zone is both tempting and terrifying. Which is precisely why, of course, we were equal parts fascinated, proud and envious when Laurel Pantin described her experiences doing just that last year. That's right: the Teen Vogue, Glamour and Lucky alum packed up and effectively 'quit' New York, Joan Didion-style, for four months in Cape Town. At least, that was the plan at first... before Pantin and her fiancé went ahead with tacking on another two months in the South African capital, before going on to wrap up her year living in London (a lifelong dream). And yes, we watched the entire thing unfold over Snapchat and Instagram, and, no, the envy never got easier to deal with. Here, Pantin (who we fittingly caught up with whilst she was leaving work on her way to a ceramics class) addresses all of our burning questions, from how she silenced the 'what if's' in her head (and everyone else's) and just went for it, to how she's managing her workload (and the stress that comes with it) now that she's back at it in NYC.
On what pushed her to 'quit New York' & move halfway across the world:
"Most of my fiancé's work is based in Africa. For a while, he had kind of been feeling it out, seeing if I was even marginally willing to move to Africa, and I would always say no.
I had spent too much time investing in my career, and really carefully building it. I loved my job, loved working, loved the girls I worked with. But then at a certain point, we got the opportunity to move to Cape Town, and I started to think about what my grandkids would think about me, and what I would want to tell them about my life. When I was really old, did I want to look back and only ever have worked? Was there any way in hell I would ever regret taking a year off and moving away? So I just said, ‘Yeah. Let’s go, let’s do it!’
I was really excited, especially because Cape Town is so far and so different, but there’s also a fashion industry there, and all of Condé Nast's South African brands are based in Cape Town, so it was a place where I could [still] work. The bonus of me leaving and taking some time was that I love to write, but I wasn’t really writing in the position that I was in before I left; that was important to me to start doing again. So it was a break from New York, but not necessarily a break from working—just kind of getting focused back on what I like to do most."
On extending her sabbatical after just a few months away (!) :
"We initially planned on being in Cape Town for just four months. And then, two months in, everything was going really well with my fiancé’s work, and I was loving it, so we extended it to six months. Coincidentally, I’ve always wanted to live in London, so at the end of the six months in Cape Town, we thought, ‘All of our stuff is already in storage. We’ve already left New York. Let’s see if we can be based out of London for a little while. It would make his life a little easier, and I can see how things go there.’ So we just went there for six months. We just got back in the end of November to New York. [It’s] very fresh, being home again."
On having her doubts about her decision (and how she defeated them):
"When I first left, I was like, ‘Well, what if the thing I really want to do is just watch TV and eat cereal every single day? [Laughs] 'What’s going to happen?’"
I would spiral out in the craziest ways. Even when that Refinery29 article came out, I didn’t really expect it to resonate with people the way it did. I saw it kind of spreading across Facebook and getting all these views and comments; people were really reading it and kind of taking it to heart. I get so in my head—rather than feeling glad or happy that people liked it, I was just like, ‘Oh my God, people are going to know what a nut I am, and no one’s ever going to want to hire me!’ It was really difficult being that far away and not having control of something that you put out into the world and seeing it grow.
At the end of the day, if you take that kind of opportunity, you really just have to try your hardest to remember that your life is really long, and even if you don’t have an easy time finding a job when you get back, you’re not going to be unemployed forever. I just kept telling myself, even if I couldn’t do anything in fashion again and even if no one would hire me for the kind of job I had before I left, the year still would have been worth it in the long run of my life. But it’s definitely a struggle."
On how her year away changed her perspective on fashion (and New York):
"When I came back to New York for Fashion Week while I was still living abroad, I was really excited about it again, and I hadn’t felt that kind of excitement about Fashion Week in a really long time. So it was nice to kind of take a step back and realize I do love this, this is what I want to do. I just lost sight of how much I loved it, and the reasons why I loved it, when I was here."
I also think that New York is so tough. You kind of forget how tough it is, the longer you’re here. You forget how pushy and urgent everything is, and I just really needed a break from New York City. Even now, coming back after being away for a year, the city itself has lost a bit of its shine for me. It doesn’t feel like it’s the end all, be all anymore, which is kind of nice."
On her new gig (& how her time away prepared it for her perfectly):
"Sweet is a collaboration between Hearst and Snapchat. For the first few months, we’re publishing exclusively on Snapchat, but we're launching a website really soon. We’re focusing on the best in the world of design, style, lifestyle, culture, and travel. All the content feels very curated and everything’s really nurturing. There’s a huge focus on giving context to the different products we feature, and really trying to pick out the most interesting places in the world, or the coolest guy who’s making wooden spoons, or whatever. There’s definitely a sense of discovery about all of the content. What I’m doing there is overseeing all of the fashion, and also all of the beauty. I am writing, editing, and styling shoots for us."
I would try and imagine what my absolute dream job would be, and kept a journal and did the whole thing. I wrote that I wanted a job where I would be kind of in control of the fashion content, writing and styling, overseeing a team—I love editing other people’s writing also. I wanted to be digital. So when this project came up at Sweet, it just checked all those boxes, and then some. It was just amazing how it kind of came together. I think the main thing that I realized was that I wanted to sort of be in a position where I could have some control over the content I was creating, and have a lot of creative freedom. That’s definitely something that I have now. It continually blows my mind how lucky I am."
On how she deals now that she's back in New York:
"It’s super important to take time to yourself—whether it’s walking to work in the morning rather than sort of throwing yourself out of bed and on to the subway, using your vacation time, or just in the middle of the day, going for a twenty or thirty minute walk. We’re right next to Central Park, so I’m really looking forward to that in the spring.
Any way that you can find a pocket of time to be a little bit selfish and indulge yourself, I think is really, really important. In the long run, it keeps you from burning out like I did, or getting to a place where you can’t separate your personal life from your work life. All of the best people I’ve ever worked with—all the best editors and fashion directors—I thought that they were so great because they really like fashion and they really love their job, but I thought that they were so great because they really love their life a whole lot more. I think kind of keeping an eye on that perspective is really important. In the end, it makes you a better manager, a better writer, a better anything—this value in yourself and your mental state first over everything. Nobody wants to have a public office meltdown.
You’ve got to get an extra hour of sleep or just go home and veg out and like, eat weird, sad girl sushi in bed—whatever it is that makes you feel better, you’ve got to do it. Take the time to take care of yourself. I always think: if I called my mom and told her about the things I’m freaking out about, how many of those things would she say, ‘That’s not really a problem’? Some people just like to be busy and like to talk about how busy they are and like to freak out and panic. I don’t. But I think probably everyone can find a way to kind of chill a little."
On learning to manage her anxiety (and gaining perspective):
"I was just thinking, ‘When I go back, I’m going to freelance. It’s going to be fine. I’ll wait until the right thing comes.’ It gave me the perspective to be in a place to sort of wait for the right job, rather than take the first thing because I was so freaked out and panicked. I was lucky that the right, perfect thing came along. But I still get really anxious—I think it’s just a personality thing. It’s like a fear of heights. It’s something you never really get over entirely. But it has helped me have a little bit more perspective and try, when I am freaking out, to say, ‘This doesn’t really matter. My anxieties aren’t based in reality.’
I think it helps to sit down and write down the things that you’re feeling anxious about, because more often than not, it’s stuff that you’ve just like totally made up. When you can see that it’s not based in reality, or when you can see that the worst possible outcome really isn’t even that bad, it helps put things in perspective. I feel like traveling and really seeing other parts of the world and the problems that a lot of other people face, versus the things that I think are problems in my life, that definitely put things into perspective. Especially being in South Africa. That was like a massive, massive wake up call as to just the way that everybody else lives. There were some really heartbreaking things. It was super eye opening."
On the power of delegation (& how it can save your sanity):
"Think about the things you’re panicking about—what’s really urgent? What’s not so urgent? What’s going to probably sort itself out on its own? What can you delegate? I think when you have a team sharing responsibilities, it’s really important for everyone to feel included. It lightens your load. It’s good for the whole team's morale."
On how taking time off actually gives you an edge in your career:
"I think that people tend to think it’s a much more damning a thing to take time off than it really is. Like I did, thinking, ‘If I leave, no one’s ever going to want to hire me again.’ In my experience, taking a year to travel makes you really interesting and different. Not a lot of people do that or have that perspective. It kind of rounds you out a bit. If someone’s looking for a cool nail polish store in South Africa, you know about it."
On what you should do next if you're suddenly inspired to do the same thing as Pantin:
"Depending on your relationship with your boss, the first thing to do would be mention it to them. Say, ‘I’m thinking of taking a little bit of time.’ I’ve met some other people who have done things like this, and in some cases, they’ll hold your job for you, or they’ll say, ‘well, when you come back, let us know.’
Talk to someone at work who you trust and who you think you have a good relationship with, and then if you decide to do it—this is something that I didn’t do as much of as I should have—email everyone you admire who you’ve ever worked with, and see if you can get ten or fifteen minutes of time to sit with them and let them know what you’re doing. See if they know anyone in the place where you’re going. More often than not, you will find some weird connection to the place you’re thinking of going, and it can end up being really helpful down the road. That makes it feel a whole lot less like you’re just stepping off the face of the planet. I just find everyone wants to be up-to-date on what other people are doing."