Furlough: The new F-word

Recently furloughed creative director Dave Leong explains the thinking that’s helping him navigate tricky times.

Dave Leong was a strategy and creative director for the Americas at a US-based events agency.

One week ago, I was temporarily furloughed. This new F-word didn't mean much to me, so it was in my nature to dig deeper to understand it. From the Dutch verlof meaning ‘permission’ the word was historically used in the military to grant a leave of absence.

Suddenly, though, these two syllables have shaken our world to its core. Nearly 3.3 million people signed up for unemployment in the US last week. Last week. This fluffy-sounding term has brought industries, no economies, to their knees and has left me housebound without work or pay.

Let me tell you how I got here and, importantly, the steps that I used to resolve that the new F-word is just a temporary furlough, not a fallout.

Six weeks ago, my days were filled with clients who wanted to tell a story through experiences, connect people to a message, make them feel something.

Four weeks ago, we had our first postponement. A client was concerned about an impending virus that had started affecting travel in Asia and Europe. We agreed to look at 2021.

Three weeks ago, the office was on edge. Events were dropping left and right. The news media was heralding the arrival of the virus within US borders. The palpable tension in the office was only amplified by the side-eye looks on the subway when a person turned to cough.

I had the first racist encounter of my adult life when a woman in my apartment building stared dumbfounded by my face and refused to enter an elevator with me because I looked Chinese. Oh, to be naive and three weeks younger again. Now, we don't enter elevators with anybody else, period.

Two weeks ago, I found myself motivating our New York team remotely from my couch to take on productive projects through a new crisis hitting our industry. Our book of events was decimated.

Our competitors and vendors were hurting. A small light in the form of virtual events (something that, back in 2008, we were concerned could end the world of live events) suddenly became our only hope for income.

My immediate response was to be creative. What could we do to position ourselves to be ahead of the curve once industry confidence restored? How can we improve our business and finish those don't-have-time projects? How can we learn from this situation and adjust our behaviors?

Then one week ago, the inevitable happened. Was I angry? Was I shocked? No. It had been coming for weeks, months even. And I wasn't alone.

I, like millions of others, am now quarantined at home. Don't get me wrong, I'm lucky to have a home to be quarantined in with running water to keep my hands clean and access to nutritious food to keep my body and immune system healthy. Being cooped up, though, inevitably changes you. And it should.

Take a step back

I’ve had bad days. Hell, I’ve had bad hours. Social distancing has definitely messed with my mind, body and soul. I’ve questioned life choices, wondered what I did to deserve this, felt depression creep back in. Then I remembered something that I used to preach. A concept I call The Breath.

As a pilates instructor, I deeply understand the vitality that breath gives your body. It guides the movement of the exercises, allows you to engage your core and gives you the capacity to flow through difficult stages.

I've applied that concept to my creative work by simply reminding myself to take a breath. This breath represents a pause, a step back. We can get quickly caught up in the panic of now. We can't give ourselves the space to think, to create, because our endless lists of tasks demand our fullest attention.

One of my creative heroes David Shing once explained to me why we have shower thoughts; those moments when we step into the shower and Ding! the greatest idea pops into our heads.

He said that this happens not because your brain suddenly switches on when you step into the steaming hot blast of bliss, it's because your brain never stopped thinking. You just had to give it the space to put the pieces together.

So, I challenge my audiences to do one simple thing in order to deliver more creative solutions to their clients: take a breath. Step away for a second. Give yourself capacity.

We will rebuild

We've helped cure diseases through connections formed at conventions. We've helped build the most loved brands in the world through handshakes at trade shows. We've helped prime ministers and presidents lead their people through strife. We've forged peace treaties, developed space rockets, created new jobs, built economies.

But away from those big things, and most importantly, we've forged lifelong friendships that never could have happened if not for our events. How many lives have been saved through those relationships? How many connections forged? How many new families have formed?

See, we are the instigators, the enablers of change. We will rebuild from the ashes of our industry. Not because we need the cash flow, not because we need the work. But because the world needs us.

Sometimes, we listen to those outside our industry who say that all we do is plan parties. Not now. Not after this. My resolve has only been strengthened that this furlough will not become a fallout. I will not be defeated, because our industry matters too much.

This article was written by Dave Leong. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of C&IT Magazine.

Dave Leong was a strategy and creative director for the Americas at a US-based events agency, a pilates and fitness instructor and an avid Instagram cook. You can find him on LinkedIn and Instagram.

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