On the most recent episode of The Thrive Global Podcast with iHeartRadio, Brandon Stanton, creator of the viral photo-blog Humans of New York, told Thrive Global CEO and founder Arianna Huffington about how he deals with burnout and how he grapples with sharing stories that don’t have happy endings.
Stanton told Huffington about two recent HONY projects that were especially psychologically draining: a series about refugees and another about pediatric cancer. He posted about a Syrian-Iraqi refugee he met who gained entrance to the United States but had her acceptance revoked. “I had met this young woman and she wanted to go to school and educate herself, and she was the sweetest and smartest young person, and we had gotten a million signatures on a petition,” Stanton said. “In the end, it just got denied. The application got denied. There was no answer, no explanation.”
Stanton made major news, helping to raise $700,000 in just three days to help Syrian refugees get settled in their new lives. And Aya’s story, the young woman Stanton mentions, was covered by a variety of outlets including MTV and PBS.
But in this case, trying to create a happy ending where there wasn’t one was complicated. He told Huffington that he felt a “maximum amount of frustration that I had kind of used all of my capital and all of my energy, and the millions of people that follow my blog and their energy to try to kind of force a happy ending to a story,” he said.
“I wanted the narrative to have a happy ending, and I really burned myself out trying to do that, and nothing came of it.” That led to a moment of clarity about his role in sharing these stories. “I was having to reflect in that moment on how much ownership I should be feeling over the stories that I’m telling and how much I should be trying to bring them to a just or happy conclusion.”
Of course Stanton isn’t the only person whose work is emotionally draining—and he often hears about that aspect of life from the people he meets. “I talk to social workers a lot who get real burned out because you’re working and you’re working and you’re working and you’re surrounded by all this trauma and all of this sadness and you don’t feel like you’re doing anything or things are getting better,” he said.
There is often a relief that comes for both Stanton and the person he’s featuring that there’s an outlet to share these stories. “I have an advantage built into my work where I am able to share these people’s stories with millions and millions and millions of people, which I know is therapeutic and cathartic for them to be able to plug into that Humans of New York community, which is very supportive, and take this thing that happened to them, which is so traumatic or so hard, and make it mean something by creating a narrative about it.”
And it’s important for Stanton, too. “So many times when I finish telling, or listening to a very tragic story, the end result is both me and that person profusely thanking each other,” he told Huffington. “Me profusely thanking the person for sharing their story and them profusely thanking me for listening to it. I think that feeling of being able to provide that is what keeps me from getting too worn down.”
To hear the full conversation, click here.