I saw something interesting on Facebook earlier about burnout – something about how people who are internally motivated and love what they do apparently are less likely to suffer burnout, while people who crave external rewards are likelier to. I thought this was technically accurate but also a little simplistic. I guess ultimately it really depends on the person and their context.
First of all, it’s not an easy feat to steer yourself into a life situation where you’re internally motivated and love what you do. There are more than a few prerequisites for that. I think Cal Newport established quite clearly in So Good They Can’t Ignore You that it takes a lot of work to get to the point where you love what you do. Internal motivation can also be really challenging to drum up, particularly when the circumstances of your life have not provided conditions that are conducive to that. I’m reminded of a quote from Bojack Horseman – something like, “How do people do it? How do they wake up in the morning and go, ‘yes, another day, let’s do this!”?” Clearly, some people have that feeling, and some people don’t. Some of it might be a predisposition, maybe genetic. Some of it might be conditioned, learned.
I remember thinking very clearly once – “historically, I have no evidence to suggest that I should believe in myself. I have not succeeded at anything of significance. Every attempt I’ve made at anything substantial has failed. If you look at the data, there’s simply no way you could in good faith make the claim that life is going to get better, that it’s worth working towards better things. It may have worked for other people, but it certainly hasn’t worked for me.” If I’m not careful, I still fall into that ‘trap’. I don’t even know if it’s a trap. Internal motivation can look a lot like hubris, and it’s hard to tell the difference. The line between madman and genius, etc.
For me, I think a couple of things that have helped are – lifting weights, and experiencing myself lift a weight that I wasn’t able to lift a few months ago. It’s visceral, physical proof that it’s possible to grow stronger and do something that you previously weren’t capable of doing. But even then… that worked for a while, until it didn’t. I felt like I was on the verge of injury, and I fell off the weightlifting wagon – and right now I don’t think I’m very much stronger than when I started out. But I intend to get back on it, and try again. Because it’s worth trying, isn’t it? That belief itself is probably a privileged belief, one that I might have because I was told almost two decades ago that I was a gifted child – or maybe because I’ve read so much about people who failed their way to success. Abraham Lincoln and so on. Persistence is key, I do believe that. But I can understand people who don’t believe it.
Beyond that – I think a big part of burnout (for me, at least) isn’t so much about ‘craving externals’ but… fear. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of not contributing enough, not carrying your share of the weight. Fear that you’ll be accused of being an imposter. Fear of letting your teammates down. I carried these fears with me for years, and on retrospect it kept me from taking the breaks I needed in order to reorient. I was literally thinking things like, “I have too much backlog and too many overdue tasks to take a break.” Which, honestly, sounded very rational at the time. It always sounds rational if you’re operating in that short-sighted layer, staring at whatever is 5 inches in front of your face. There’s never a good time to take a break. So you have to schedule them in advance and stick to them. If things break and fall apart when you’re gone, so be it. That’s life. People will just have to deal with it. It’s either you take a break, or you burn out, and when you burn out, things just get worse.
It’s easy to say this. I’m on vacation right now as I’m writing this. And I’m feeling strongly now this time that I’m going to schedule the rest of my vacations and breaks for the rest of my life, and make sure I take them. Because there’s a sort of rhythm that simply can’t be negotiated with. It’s like sleep deprivation (and indeed burnout and sleep deprivation seem to get along like a house on fire). If you need to sleep, you need to sleep. At most you can overclock your own system for a day or two before you start suffering diminishing returns. You start getting sloppy, you start zoning out, and while you might be sitting at your desk for twice as many hours, you’re almost definitely not getting shit done. At least, that’s what my experience has been.
If I could go back in time and live my professional life all over again, I would take more breaks. Looking back, it’s painfully clear to me that there were periods of time where I simply should’ve switched off to recover and recuperate – but instead I tried to work my way through it. My body and my subconscious simply wouldn’t have it. So instead of having a healthy, nice cycle of working hard and resting well, I’d sort of shoddily stumble through my work. And I would get distracted, and check social media for “a few minutes of distraction”, and it would snowball, and I would basically be grumpily, unhappily working at a snail’s pace. It would’ve been far, far healthier to rest well and work hard. It’s painful to realise that it’s definitely had a cost on my social life. I didn’t spend as much quality time with my wife as I could’ve, should’ve. I didn’t get to meet my friends, or new people, I didn’t write, I didn’t do things that I cared about. I was just bumbling through my work in a really inefficient, ineffective way. It was sad. Never again.