Can’t take the credit for this one, but I sure do love it.
Can’t take the credit for this one, but I sure do love it.
I just came across an article entitled “Creative Burnout: Hitting bottom and getting back up” posted on Medium by Ash Huang (@ashsmash). While the full article is more in-depth, I wanted to highlight a few key points she has on burnout – both its nature, and how to recognize it in a culture where one is supposed to present a bulletproof face at all times. This is very much a facet of both American culture and “tech industry” culture, and it is bullshit.
All emphasis in the following quotes from Ash’s article is mine.
“I quit my job this year to go freelance. I’m very happy and I’m blessed with wonderful, clever clients. I’m writing this post at 1pm on a workday and I don’t have to ⌘-tab if anybody walks by. By all accounts, I am free.
But I have this strange urge to run away. I dream heavily of hiding in the woods. I have to choke down my lizard brained flight response when a friend asks me if I want to co-work, reminding myself that they’re not trying to own me. And so, despite being happy and doing work I’m proud to put my name on, I realize I am still burned out.”
Burnout isn’t something that happens in a week, and it’s not something that’s undone in a week. Recovery may take months or even years, and – at least for me – it’s been a process of two steps forward, one step back.
Slowly, slowly, my ability to do the work of life – reducing entropy, be it by cleaning my kitchen or by contributing to open source – comes back. But it’s still well below normal. I get contracts, I get some money coming in, and suddenly I’m not keeping the kitchen clean or my garden has weeds bigger than the vegetables.
Recovering from burnout takes time.
Ash goes on to list a few ways to recognize burnout, and she hits the nail right on the head. If you are experiencing these, you’re in the red zone. If you persist on your current course, you will do more damage to your health (physical, emotional, mental, maybe spiritual) and it will take longer to recover.
Techies, remember that “fail fast” mantra? This is your life. Don’t fuck it up with bad priorities.
“You spend most of your free time on cures
Do you depend on any of the following for your sanity: Caffeine, vacation days, heavy drinking, venting to friends, hoarding electronic gadgets, gorging yourself, womanizing/manizing, frequent massages, videos of cute puppies, recreational drugs…
Note the for your sanity bit. Power to you if you light one up once in a while, but if you’re doing it to escape, to cure yourself of something, you should take note.
Cures mean something is wrong. You don’t take a cure for a bad heart unless you fear you have a bad heart. If you find you’re getting out of breath climbing the stairs, you can reach for a pill or stop eating hamburgers for every meal.”
I’m looking at you, past self who tried every friggin’ trick under the book to stick with the meaningless 9-5 software grind: the work-25-minutes-reward-5-minutes trick; the unilaterally alter my job description a bit trick; the go camping (but never long enough) trick; the shots of vodka at 3am when every other sleep aid has failed to touch the insomnia trick.
“You are terrified that you’re going to fail
…The reality of our comfy first world situation is that we can bounce back from most failures. You lost 15% of signups by changing something on the homepage? Well, I hope to God that you learned something. Take note. Try again.We are afraid to fail when we believe we don’t have much gas left in the tank. Afraid that this time could be the time that ruins us, because a comeback’s not in our cards.
That pessimism, my friend, is deep burnout.”
I suspect this is only going to get worse for Millennials, many of whom in America were raised in a culture that didn’t allow them to fail. Participation trophies and “everybody’s a winner” are cultural creations created by Baby Boomers and amplified by Gen-Xers. They’re fully understandable in light of the conformism many of these future parents suffered growing up. But not allowing kids to fail early and often and figure it out themselves obscures the critical life lesson that failure is both common and necessary.
You learn from failures. You do it again better next time. Or at least, you will if you haven’t been utterly shattered by the fact that your very first try at ____ wasn’t a smashing success (or at least worthy of a participation trophy) like your entire childhood taught you it would be.
For those who understand failure happens, the above rings true – we know failure happens, maybe we’re even pretty okay with it, but if we’re burnt out and running on fumes, it does become terrifying.
“You are too busy to be present
There are two kinds of busy. There’s anxious busy and what I like to call Katamari busy.
Anxious busy is when you put in more hours and it seems to have no effect. When you’re too scared to go out for dinner because you should be cramming extra productivity into every waking minute.
Katamari busy is when you are alive with the love of your craft, and every new little thing seems a wondrous detail to integrate into your being. It’s when you can’t stop talking about how exciting your work is, and are curious about others’ work because it inspires you to roll up another cow or ferris wheel. [That’s a Katamari reference. -ed.]
Anxious busy is eating at your desk. Katamari busy is eating at a cafe and then staying up til 3am because you thought of something exciting to take your project to the next level. Anxious busy reduces you, Katamari busy makes you bigger and stronger.”
For every one of us who hasn’t done something important because some “necessary” bullshit “should” come first – and then quite probably, depending on our personality type, procrastinated such that neither the truly important thing nor the bullshit got done – you’re in the danger zone. If this goes on enough that you feel resentful when you realize another round is coming, you’re in the red zone.
“Important things” are things that are meaningful. Spending unscheduled time with your kids is important. Spending a week in the trees (without your goddamn smartphone, unless it’s for geocaching) is important. Editing all that wedding footage is important. Practicing an instrument is important. Sharing your beliefs at your neighborhood meeting is important. Contributing to open source is important. Mentoring a greenhorn in your industry is important. Helping a lost cat is important.
The way I use the word “important,” paying your mortgage is not important. Shipping that dead-on-conception module for your company’s Enterprise Application™ is not important. These things are the opposite of important; they are bullshit.
Take care to understand my meaning. Of course you have to pay your mortgage, and of course you have to do your job. But when supporting necessary-but-meaningless activities occludes everything in life which is important, it is time to refinance or quit.
I’m still researching how burnout manifests for others; for me, it was ever-increasing “brain fog,” total inability to concentrate, and eventually a complete inability to do my job. For me, the symptoms got worse when I left my industry, because the last vestige of structural bullshit holding the rest of the bullshit in place was gone. My executive function was in total collapse. It was so diminished that I literally could not plan anything more than about two hours in advance, and I was aware of that fact, and it scared the shit out of me, and I seriously considered getting a brain scan “just in case.”
If you stare through the screen for hours at work while doing nothing, and then you come home just as frazzled and drained as if it had been a hectic day, and there are 500 more things you “need” to do at that point, and this has been piling up for ever and ever, you are burnt the fuck out and need to radically alter your life.
The longer you wait, the more damage you will do to your health, and the longer your recovery will take.
Personally, I’m at five months and counting. I still struggle daily. Just recently I’ve started haberdashing a variety of freelance “hats” to wear. I’ve already contributed more to open source while eating nothing but canned food than in all the years making salaries most of my elementary school peers could only dream about. I’m excited about some things now, though there are days of pessimism. But I’m no longer afraid of “failing.” Been there, done that. I suspect it’ll be the best thing I ever did.
PS. I know this post comes – as with anything from an educated white dude – from a position of privilege. I don’t have kids, and I had just enough money-rabbits to pull out of hats that I could eat and avoid losing my home while marinating for a few months. I don’t have easy answers for those of you who are utterly trapped by debt and money (other than maybe emigrating from America, which isn’t really an easy answer). I don’t. But for those of you who aren’t trapped like that – yet – don’t ever put yourself there.