Healthy Mind

Could Finding Your ‘Unicorn Space’ Be the Burnout Solution You’ve Been Dreaming Of?

Courtesy of Eve Rodsky; W+G Creative
Burnout has been on the rise for so long now, it seems we’re becoming hardened to its dismal reality. Depending who you ask, anywhere from 49 percent to 79 percent of the American workforce has experienced the effects of burnout at work in the past year; the phenomenon is so pervasive, it doesn’t even exclude those who like their jobs. Though there’s been no shortage of proposed solutions—from radical self care to work-life boundaries—there’s clearly still room for improvement. And that’s where lawyer and best-selling author Eve Rodsky is swooping in to offer a potential alternative: Finding what she calls your “unicorn space.”

As described in Rodsky's latest book, Find Your Unicorn Space: Reclaim Your Creative Life in a Too-Busy World, unicorn space is time that you carve out for active and open pursuit of self-expression. And if you’re thinking, But unicorns don’t exist, well, neither does a unicorn space until you give yourself “permission to reclaim, discover, and nurture the natural gifts and interests that make you you,” Rodsky writes in the book. In other words, in order to make your unicorn space real and reap its mental benefits, you first need to commit to it.

And that’s intentional: All too often, the seemingly simple act of “taking time to be creative” falls to the end of a to-do list, wiped out by the very burnout blaze it can purportedly solve. Unicorn space, by contrast, is a version of creativity that Rodsky says is a must-have, not a nice-to-have—and therefore can’t be relegated to bottom-of-the-list status.

“What has the power to help burnout is an ability to get interested again in your own life.” —Eve Rodsky, author of Find Your Unicorn Space

“When we’re this burned out, the thing that’s going to be able to cure it is not what people often tell us,” she says. “It’s not going to be a walk around the block, and it’s not going to be a drink with a friend—though there’s a place for both of those things. What does have the power to help is an ability to get interested again in your own life.”

What a unicorn space is *not* (in order to understand what it really is)

Above all, a unicorn space is a creative pursuit. What it is not is another task—which is part of why Rodsky rejects any comparison to a hobby (“which has a connotation of infrequency”), a passion (“way too much pressure”) or self care (“which is important but serves a different purpose”).

The closest thing she can compare a unicorn space to is being in a flow state or having an experience where you’re immersed in an activity that piques your curiosity. But even that isn’t quite right, she says: “Flow typically requires a lot of uninterrupted attention that often we don’t get. What a unicorn space is, is just a place where a person has some intention—even if just for a couple minutes at a time—to do something that they enjoy outside of their obligations as a partner, parent, or professional.”

For Rodsky herself, finding that unicorn space means returning to a childhood joy of hip-hop dance by taking classes and learning routines on TikTok; for the many folks whose experiences she includes in the book, it’s things like studying Vedic astrology, learning mixology, or narrating children’s audiobooks. In all of these cases, there is, crucially, an opportunity to go beyond exploring a curiosity and arrive at Rodsky’s other two Cs of creativity: connection (finding a way to share the activity with other people) and completion (enacting a related goal like, say, doing a dance performance or getting a bartending certificate).

“A unicorn space is just a place where a person has some intention—even if just for a couple minutes at a time—to do something that they enjoy outside of their obligations as a partner, parent, or professional.” —Rodsky

While your first inclination might be to assume you don’t have time for all that, know that Rodsky’s framework requires rethinking time, too. (Make no mistake, this is the same author who quite literally wrote the book—called Fair Play—on the unfairness of a society built on a gendered division of household labor, so she’s taken into account both the paid and unpaid tasks that might be filling your list.) Her argument is that, if it’s necessary to your well-being to do something creative (more on that below), then it’s also necessary to set the kind of time and space boundaries to make that happen.

Interestingly, one of her biggest tips for doing that is to just start, in earnest. That is, once you’ve begun following your curiosity to find your unicorn space, commit to a related act that requires time. Take the mixology example: If you were planning to explore that interest, you might sign up for a class, which happens at a certain time that you’ve now inadvertently claimed for yourself. And if that sounds too idealistic, Rodsky encourages you to go back to the “why” of it all—the reason that creativity is such a necessary mental-health protector in the first place.

Why the creativity of a unicorn space has the power to help even a bad case of burnout

“When I started interviewing people for the book, the word that kept coming up was ‘drowning,’” says Rodsky. “And when I asked them what that meant, it was really a combination of overwhelm and boredom. Put those two words together, and it’s almost like drowning in the mundane.” In that framework, a unicorn space functions like an umbrella, she says, preserving your sense of self amidst the hardships that you'll inevitably encounter.

And research backs her up: In a March 2021 study of 1,420 employees, creativity was shown to allow for “transformative coping,” or an ability for people to “harness and amplify their positive feelings about themselves,” and in doing so, improve their resilience. Not to mention, creativity has also been shown in previous research to cultivate flourishing (the positive opposite of the oh-so-prevalent languishing) and to contribute to a person’s sense of purpose in life, which has been linked to longevity.

However it arrives, though, the benefit to finding your creative unicorn space tends to occur in real time. As you’re pursuing this element of self-expression, you’re experiencing the kind of happiness or joy or intrigue that can grant you reprieve from the onslaught of life. “It’s not about eventually getting to a place where you’re happy all the time,” says Rodsky. “It’s about finding something that gives you the ability and the strength to weather any emotion as it arises.”

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