Tag: Career

What’s Your Burnout Flavor?

“I never thought the system was equitable. I knew it was winnable for only a small few. I just believed I could continue to optimize myself to become one of them. And it’s taken me years to understand the true ramifications of that mindset.”
– Anne Helen Peterson 

Yes, I’m still thinking about that piece on millennial burnout from a couple of links posts ago, and the many, many think pieces I’ve read following up on it or responding to it since.

Ironic, I know, since I just wrote a post myself not too long ago about deciding that the hustle was still worth the amount of effort it takes. I still believe it is. But it took a conversation on the (fabulous) NPR podcast It’s Been a Minute to really articulate the feeling of burnout that I seem to personally experience. The author Anne Helen Peterson sat down with host Sam Sanders to talk about her own misconceptions of what burnout actually is, as opposed to how we tend to think about it. It’s not a destination, it’s a journey–or more specifically it’s a treadmill run where you don’t actually get anywhere.

“You reach the point of collapse…and then you keep going.”

I appreciate that this is not unique to my generation, but I am a firm believer that every generation has a unique combination of circumstances and variables that make them culturally distinct enough to trace broad trends. Peterson doesn’t make any points I haven’t thought of or written about before, but she articulated the mental load of some of the circumstances of millennial:

  • Graduating in a recession, with fewer entry level jobs available, and fewer jobs overall which will set us up for what have become the traditional routes to retirement
  • Lots of us are getting more stability ten years on…meaning we’re getting to traditional adulthood phases of lives and careers a decade later than most of us anticipated
  • The change of digital pace. My freshman year, Facebook was brand new and now it’s destroying Western democracy (or so it feels)
  • The way we self perpetuate burnout circumstances by not enforcing boundaries or insisting that others in our communities enforce their own boundaries either (answering emails late at night, women doing the “second shift” without thinking about it, always been online and accessible, etc.)
  • The feeling that if we aren’t being successful–making enough money, out of debt, in a fulfilling job, generally living our bliss–that the fault is someone ours and ours alone. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in hard work, but I also know that there are things such as systemic realities that can significantly affect how much pay off you see, no matter how hard the work.

“Burnout is of a substantively different category than “exhaustion,” although it’s related. Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.”

This, I realized reading the piece, is how I experience burnout. I have lived in the space for a long time–not in all aspects of my life, but enough to make an impact. Whether it was struggling in a toxic job, working the hours necessary to make it as a full-time freelancer, or just the slog of budgeting aggressively to pay down debt, there have been points where I have felt like all I wanted to do was sleep for a year. But of course, that is not an option. For any of us! Life goes on, whether or not you have the energy to deal with it.

In my case, it’s a privilege problem in some ways, to be sure. My struggles are not the same as a woman in poverty, a single provider, in an abusive household, or any of the thousands of other circumstances much tougher women survive every single day. There are class elements of this, gender elements of this, privilege elements and racial elements. There is no such thing as a universal experience. But the sheer amount of statistical evidence that this feeling of burnout is a genuine phenomenon and a widespread thing are frankly too much to ignore.

“Errand paralysis.”

The description of errand paralysis really struck me because it was the individual symptom I fall prey to most easily.

You know that feeling you get when you look at your list of To Dos and honestly are unable to make yourself do even small tasks that should not overwhelm you, but do? I feel like I live in this mental space.

Peterson herself exclaims, “That term sounds ridiculous; that’s such a bourgeois problem…but I think that everyone has a to do list in their head, right, in their head, written out–whatever. And there’s a bottom half of that to do list–and everyone’s is different–but what happens is that that bottom half keeps not getting done and it weighs on you in a way that you internalize.”

I have found myself putting off incredibly basic chores that do not, on the surface, phase me in the slightest but that in the moment feel insurmountably hard. I have also been incredibly harsh on myself for this inability to get small tasks done. It’s a hamster wheel of anxiety and it has absolutely contributed to the darker periods of my overall mental state.

When the treadmill keeps going but the dopamine runs out.”

I also shared this previously, but the description above from Hank Green on burnout also resonated. As I said, the beautiful and difficult trouble with life is that it goes on. It doesn’t stop. And while I believe firmly that hard work is a component of success, I and others in my generation sometimes struggle to explain this general, pervasive feeling of demoralization. I believe this is why irony is our generational language in comedy, trolling is an unfortunate generational pastime, and we invented the shrug emoji. As the Peterson article delves into, we’re working hard: there is an abundance of evidence to back this up. But it feels (or is) for diminishing returns when compared to our parents or grandparents. The treadmill keeps going.

I don’t have any solutions to this, and obviously I’m still working out the reality of stress, money, ambition, career, and opportunity in my own life. But having this expanded framework of burnout has helped put a lot of past experience into perspective for me in a new way. I can now see when I was operating with nothing but fumes in the tank and what the long term toll of that was on my body and brain. I can see how choosing different habits, lifestyle options, or priorities has helped actually put some gas back into that depleted tank. I’m no longer burned out as I once was, but I know that the possibility is much closer than I would wish and one or two bad turns could put me back there again.

Have you burned out? How did it look and feel to you personally? What, if anything, has helped or are you still on the treadmill? 

A Career Year

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

It’s not an easy thing to leave a job, especially one you’re finding success in. In recent months I received one raise, negotiated another, and was promoted–all the result of a lot of hard work and a lot of determination. And then, somewhat suddenly, I decided to leave my position.

I’ve mentioned this briefly in previous posts but in a lot of ways, I feel like I need to make up for lost time career-wise. I graduated as the recession was kicking off and was the primary breadwinner while Jeff was still in school. Hindsight being 20/20, I should never have stayed at my first job as long as I did but when you’re in a mindset of just paying the bills, it’s easy to let small setbacks (like not being able to go abroad with your husband to grad school, or having to wait a year for a new visa) add up to big ones. The long term benefit has been an internal commitment to not allow myself to ever get “stuck” in a job again–whether in progress, advancement, money, or learning opportunities. And in spite of a lot of the growth over the past year in particular, I found myself feeling a bit stuck.

Behind the scenes I called 2015-2016 my “Year of Career” due to the amount of work I was putting in. Willingly, might add. Due to my sense of falling inadvertently behind, both I and Jeff (who somewhat shares my feelings, though slightly less so as he spent a year getting a masters degree that paid off in exactly the way we hoped it would; namely, getting us to London) agreed that we’d be willing to burn the candle at both ends for a few years to gain as much experience and as many opportunities as we could. Our end goal is to position ourselves to have a more balanced life, but we were willing to put in the long hours and weekends needed now to get us there.

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It has been an intense year. Coworkers have come and gone, a new mentor entered the picture, projects grew or got smaller unexpected, and I was thrown into [the right kind of] sink or swim projects that allowed me to learn. My instincts were tested, as were values, resilience, and skills. I hired and eventually had to let go of my first assistant, then hire a second one, I put together not just individual marketing campaigns, but got to develop whole top line strategies, I vastly expanded my network of contacts in both the business and creative world, and I had some pretty high highs. I also fell on my face a few times, lost my cool, struggled as my department grew and shrank and grew again, occasionally thrived on the uncertainty, but other times struggled with it.

But in spite of all the bustle, increasingly I recognized that nagging feeling of “stuck-ness.” Some of it was internal, some of it was external, but it was unmistakably the feeling that I once ignored for too long: I had a very strong impression that it was getting time to go. Just as I had really come to the conclusion that I would listen to that feeling and start hustling to make something happen, the universe placed a not insignificant opportunity right in front of me and I decided to grab it with both hands.

My new position contains many elements of my old plus some fresh new challenges and I’m still finding my feet a week and a half in, but tremendously grateful for and enjoying the new work.

However I’m recognizing the need to shake up more than where I work, but how I work. My old position was a crucible in many ways, a major support role in a team relatively small to be in charge of the amount of assets we managed. Everyone wore a lot of hats, I was on at least half dozen projects simultaneously, and our department was involved in every single phase from research before an acquisition all the way through to the final sales. The amount of learning opportunities I had were amazing. But there was a dark side. Because we were a small team, it was nearly impossible to “switch off.” This was not just me, I learned eventually, it was part of the culture that the company developed. For a while, my first whole year there, I didn’t see this as too much of a problem because I was committed to burning the candle at both ends if needed, but nobody can work like that forever before both you and the metaphoric candle burn out.

I came close to burn out more than once in my old position. Emails on the weekends, occasional whole weekends in the office, taking work home with me…it added up. At one point I was having actual nightmares about spreadsheets and waking up in the middle of the night composing tomorrow’s emails in my head. My new company makes a priority of balance and working hard…during work hours. People are expected to go home at reasonable times, not to be available during atypical hours, and to take holidays. I’m only a week and a half in (plus I had a week of break between positions) but it is a bit shocking how much adjustment this mentality is taking. I knew I didn’t like the imbalance I felt previously, I didn’t know how all pervasive it was, and I definitely didn’t appreciate I am going to have to relearn balance–it is NOTHING like riding a bicycle.

But I need to. In many ways, this job represents a step towards that longer term goals: I worked hard for nearly two years so I could work smarter for much longer. There’s still a lot of work to do setting up in my new gig, plus I’m working on some side projects again after they fell (out of necessity) by the wayside, but for the moment at least, I’m seeing how my year of career paid off.