I'm writing this at the peak of a burnout that has been lasting me for the better half of the last decade. I would like to think of myself as somewhat of an empiricist so I want to document what this feels like and what this felt like to determine whether my decisions were worth it. Hopefully, those who read this can gain some insight before heading down the same road as I have.
This post will span a year; starting with my efforts throughout my senior year until I have finished with my Bachelor's degree and can provide my historical perspective on my work/life balance.
Crash and Burn:
Bleed like a Stone
I don't want to appear as though I am not comfortable, nor in hard times. However I want to in some way document my thoughts on what burnout feels like, and my approach in handling it. It's not my intention to whine about non-issues. I am trying to eke out my reasons for feeling shitty with this blog post to document my recent outlook.
My life is starting to feel like a looping version of a National's album.
I hear a lot of people expressing that they don't know what they want to do with their lives. I have been fortunate in being stubborn and figuring out what I wanted to do very early. I know that I wanted to work in computer security or R&D and I knew that I needed to get a degree to make it in those professions.
I'll say it again: I am nervous to present my earnest feelings on how tired I am in these pursuits. I fear that a lot of you reading this may think, "What have you honestly done that would burn you out?"
For the last five years, I have been working full-time and going to school full-time. Apart from my first year, I have not taken government money to pay tuition as I know there are others who need it more than me. From then on, I have paid for every penny of my higher education with money I have earned working. My work day starts around 8:00 am, and ends around 11:00 pm when I prepare for the next day. Personal work and leisure are for weekends when appropriate, or when not working on school/work related projects.
Checking my workplace's vacation hours. I have, over the course of the last five years taken twenty-eight days off work. twenty-one of which were school or work-related, meaning that I was working rather than relaxing.
I read through Atlas Shrugged in my freshman year, and remember the protagonist Henry Rearden who was meant to symbolize the epitome of an objectivist. A person who was consistently productive and held himself in high esteem. He was always being told by everyone else to take a break. He persisted onward, applying intrinsic value to his work. For him, there was virtue in working through dedication and moral conviction. His worth was derived in its totality from the merits of his labor. I did, and still do, place a lot of value in being a productive and consistent person, not for productivity's sake; rather, because I find that people who are not doing interesting things are dreadful and boring. I hated conversations of pleasantry with people who didn't have new things to talk about or interesting thoughts of their own to share.
I was terrified of being boring. I found pleasure when other's would correct my enunciation, so I would not make the same mistake in other's company. I have always thrashed against my peers to try to speak affluently and be interesting. I consciously decided to exert time and effort pursuing things that would widen my perspective and change my thoughts rather than spend time doing things that I found interesting. I ate up (and still do to be completely honest) quotes like:
“If you go home with somebody, and they don't have books, don't fuck 'em!” ― John Waters
Despite not being a particularly well-read person, that idea resonated with me to the point I would read things that I hated so that I could at least say that I have read them. It made sense to pursue a career in a field that is always changing and solves interesting problems. Doing things that people could tangibly see required great effort, whether spearheading or being part of something bold. It only made sense to quit my job as an electrician and pursue higher education to work with my brain rather than my back.
Without delving too far into the feelings that motivated me to dust off my blog and write about burnout and attrition. I think an image will suffice my current concerns.
I am only now realizing that I am not finding any new intrinsic value in my work or my schooling. Seeing this decline in interest in learning feels horrible. Often, the work that I am doing feels so far removed from what the outside world can see that I don't feel like there is any redeeming value in the work. I can't point to a web page or inform a friend that the thing he is doing with his phone was produced by me.
It's not the first time I have felt this, nor do I sincerely believe it will be the last. It is, however, the first time that I have felt this way since I had a glimpse of what I was aiming to do. I was for the first time able to see that my work was meaningful to someone and that it provided value. Weekends, where I would usually be able to suss out a couple hours of leisure after finishing my tasks, are now a marathon of guilt and dread. I can't even walk home from work on a Friday without immediately going over the work that I have to finish over the weekend so that I can have a "fresh" start to the week on Monday.
It's a constant anxiety that I used to only feel while procrastinating that has bled into every thought that I have, regardless if there is anything important that actually has to get done. Strangely, this feels like a real affliction based on artificial constraints. I don't believe that if I didn't accomplish every ridiculous goal that I have set the companies I would work for would fail. I don't think that if I suddenly stopped working that really anyone would feel a huge detriment to the business. If I quit school today I don't reasonably think that I would be in less of a position to succeed in my dreams. There are enough people doing all sorts of work around me that nothing of value would be lost if I popped out of existence today.
So why do I feel so stressed out and tired all the time?
It feels as though every waking second I have I should be working on doing something, anything so that I don't fall behind and lose everything. The more I earn the less I feel like any of it really matters. The proportional value I see when gaining something feels less than the thought of losing something of equal value that I already struggled for. I've taken a little time to look into why I feel this way and found there is at least some evidence that humans often place a higher value on what they have rather than what they could have. src While this may only be anecdotal, I can't help but harken to a time where I had nothing to prove to anyone, the aimless summers when there were no black shrouds of guilt of not being productive.
I can't say that a large portion of my feelings regarding this has nothing to do with social adulation. I think that it would be easier to work on a more boring but required job if I was working for a company that was known well enough that my friends and family were familiar with a product my company provides. If I worked for Google, at least a grandparent could say "You remember Tell? The lanky one with the hair? He works for Google now." Rather than "You remember Tell? I hear he is doing well for himself with computer stuff." At least the brand awareness might make the process of reinventing the wheel more meaningful.
I accept that a majority of the work that I am doing is important and that regardless of whether or not the work is glamorous or tedious, it remains a necessary step for building a company that can sustain itself. But I can't help but feel jaded at the fact that I am so muddled away in the background that even people who work in the same field as me have no idea what I do day to day.
What burns the most is that after all is said and done, I hate that I have taken the skill that I have spent so long working to develop, and burned through every last bit of passion and joy I initially found in it. Recalling the days when I first thought to myself, "I can do this," where every lesson formed some piece of a cohesive whole. How every little improvement made a world of difference to how much fun it was to have to really think about what I was doing.
I remember when was first learning how to program with Scratch in high school. We were tasked with making a calculator with sprites that could do basic arithmetic up to three digits on the screen. As an incomprehensibly lazy child, paired with my rather unstudious nature, I knew that if I was to complete this assignment I would have to spend a lot of time to figure out how to do it. So I spent an entire evening working out how to make this program work. To my genuine astonishment, I was able to complete the assignment in a single night. I felt genuine satisfaction as began to unravel the complexities of something as simple as a calculator and know what little piece to add to the program next. It was such a novel concept at the time to use a variable to store a value of what I wanted to put on the screen, and that I could take the output of any calculation and update that same variable and have it all work itself out!
When I went to class, I remember being baffled that apart from one other student, the rest of my peers had attempted to hard-code hundreds of possibilities and ended up with programs like this:
when 1 pressed: if + pressed if 1 pressed display 2 if 2 pressed display 3 ...
I remember feeling so gratified when I was able to explain to them how I approached the problem with my variables. Watching them observe my thoughts and then have it "click" for them, jumping back to their computers to implement something simple rather than difficult. The rest of the day I was so excited to program the next assignment that I couldn't focus on any other classes. I was completely enamored with all the possibilities of things to make. I knew that if I tried hard enough that I could make anything with my computer, and I was so genuinely excited to learn what was next. I remember specifically thinking of what I would be doing once I got "good" at computers.
Now a lot of those dreams are within reach, and I can not be less interested. I get home, and you could not force me to do any projects "for fun." I don't want to listen to music, read, watch movies, or anything else to decompress; I just want to sit alone and not think about anything for once.
Unlike a lot of the anecdotal stories that I have read regarding burnout, I have documented a lot of what I have done in my daily journals and can review everything that I have experienced with more granularity. Since I have started working on new and interesting things, I have found that the majority of the entries are not positive, from my personal well-being and from my outlook on others. As much of a stoic as I see myself, there are a lot of people with whom I have either fallen out of favor or others who have fallen out of favor with me.
I don't think that I have unintentionally burned many bridges with people, as the ebb and flow of life pulls people in as well as pushes them away. I can say, however, that the people with whom I have decided not to interact over the course of the last few years I have no intention of interacting with into the future. I have, through years of deliberate action, pruned those out of my life who I didn't think were helping add to the narrative of my life.
The entries in my journal from the earlier days were substantially less dramatic but were also a lot more innocent and hopeful. Here is a sample from a very old entry in my journal:
... Not to imply that I am not constantly tired. Despite the constant shin splints and blisters, I will venture on, and hopefully, in time I can afford university and be somebody worth remembering. I want to live in a nice place, and spend time with people that are much smarter and more disciplined than me.
So, was my bet worth it? Do I feel more satisfied than before? Would I do it again?
As with anything qualitative worth writing about, the answer lies in a gradient of yesses and nos.
Happiness & Other Illogical Nonsense.
I would argue that for the majority of time since the dawn of humanity people have spent the majority of their efforts singly focused on one question
"Can I always be happy? Is there a way to ensure that happiness is my default state of being?"
As far as I, or anyone else who has looked at this question honestly, the answer is a resounding No. There are at current count, 7.5 billion humans on this planet, all of whom have different goals and motivations. For the entirety of human history, no two single people can look at each other's actions and motivations and come to a complete consensus as to what the purpose of life is. There is no valid reasoning as to why no person can consistently act in accordance with that goal.
It's not even comparable to any other human endeavor. It is the subconscious goal of every being on this planet to find or accept some extrinsic reason to do anything. It's why I'm writing, and why you're reading. People have locked themselves away in caves, endured extreme hardships, fasted, and writhed to perhaps glean meaning and happiness. Yet, no one has come any closer to any conclusive answers.
It would be the equivalent if every single person was a scientist focusing every waking moment to determining whether or not fire bad and still coming up with wildly different assertions today.
I don't honestly believe that there is any true satisfaction that comes from anything intrinsic in the universe. I understand but do not like the fact that I have accepted that this is the case. That it is easier to be happy when distracted. I believe that my value and meaning in life comes only from what I personally decide to attribute meaning to.
So, what is a person like me to do? I want to be happy.
Someone I care about shared the following video:
After reading through my journals over the last years I have realized something. That the points where I was most happy or interested in working, I was working towards something. I only now realize that as my degree is coming to an end, and I have achieved my dream job, I don't have any particular goals that I am working toward. I guess I didn't think that I would have gotten this far by now.
I feel that I have spent enough time here waxing non-poetic about burnout. But I need to start knowing what the goals in the next chapter in my life should look like.