Human Resources Personal

Is burnout sustainable?

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After being diagnosed with six generalised infections in a row over the last six months, my doctor has become less and less subtle over the fact that I was basically working myself to death. The biggest irony is that our motto at Adimian is “sustainable development”.

How did I miss the elephant in the room? How did things get so bad that my doctor is filing my job as a chronic disease that’s killing me faster and faster?

Obviously, nobody starts their week by telling themselves “let’s see how much damage I can do to my health”. Some people have to live through stressful jobs, nurses, cooks, air traffic controllers, etc. But this is not my case. I manage a software company, and write software for a living. This can be stressful at times, but most people would see it as a comfortable office job position (and it could definitely be).

Build your own hell

Stress and pressure come to me in different shapes and flavors. Stress from managing a company, being profitable, making heavy financial decisions, hiring and letting go team members. Stress from customers, meeting expectations, and taking responsibility when things don’t go as expected. Stress from the family, being present as a husband, as a father.

You can usually cope with external sources of stress, there are methods, there are advices “don’t make your work define you”, “say no”, “take some time for yourself”. People will understand that you are having a lot on your plate, and sympathise.

But for some people, our hardest master is ourselves. I tend to be very understanding and positive with others, but I won’t allow myself to become sloppy or lazy. No me time in my ever ticking clock, heeding to a permanent call of (self-imposed) duty.

The highway to hell

“Just slow down” would seem like an obvious advice here. Actually every time I find myself bedridden for a whole weekend, recovering for a week of self-inflicted abuse, I swear myself I’ll just slow things down. This time I will make it, and life will become sustainable again.

Then, as usual, something seems interesting to me: “I should learn this new language”, “I should read this book”, “I should fix this complicated problem”. Next thing I remember is waking up after binge-learning or binge-reading or binge-coding. I look at myself with pride, “once more you did it, you hero”. This helps me forgetting that I just traded some of my life to acquire this new skill, and I traded quite a big chunk of it.

Just like paying some extra to get same-day delivery on Amazon, you pay a higher price for getting knowledge and skill without taking the slow road.

Neo learning Ju-Jitsu in 2 minutes, and reducing his life expectancy by 25 years. Meh, I’ll pass.

Full astern

Now you might be thinking “this is nuts, this guy should just do his 9 to 5 and get home and enjoy life and eat chimichangas”.

I would probably suffer as much, in a completely different way. See, my current work schedule might be damaging me, but I still get to do what I love. I am passionate about what I do, so when I do something, I go full speed. The opposite of full speed forward isn’t full reverse, it’s just slightly less fast.

Take me my sources of curiosity, take my books, my articles, my blog posts, my tutorials, my tweets, my newsletters; take my side projects, my oversized professional projects; take this and take the salt of my life as well. When you get yourself  high on knowledge and skill, a peaceful life is the last thing you can hope for.

Sustainable burnout then?

Do as I say, not as I do, or more precisely, take your responsibilities.

I guess there will always be people who will find me insane/weird/sick for neglecting my health to fuel my ambition. And they would be right.

I also guess that some people got the hint that to get anywhere faster than the rest, you need to take shortcuts, but those deals with the devil have paid off, and I feel now, even knowing what I know, that I was right to take these deals when I took them.

So I am torn here, between warning people and scaring them off a lot of suffering, or acknowledging them the right to harm themselves as long they are consenting to it. But since there is no consent without being informed of what lies ahead, at least take my story as a cautionary tale. Unchecked, this behaviour will lead you to sadness and despair, and you will do yourself and your relatives a lot of harm in the process. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can control it either, or believe that it won’t happen to you because you are smarter than that. As much as there isn’t moderate passion, there is no sustainable burnout.

It’s dangerous to go alone

If you nonetheless want to take on the journey of the “fast lane”:

  • Don’t start alone. Find a trustable person, and ask them to check on you regularly (because we both know that you’re not going to call by yourself) , and quizz you about how you feel about yourself, your life, etc.
  • When you feel that life is losing its meaning, or feel like life gets too much “in the way” of your passion, this is actually a good time to take some time off, and (re)think about your priorities.
  • Set your own pace, don’t get told by unhealthy people that you should work around the clock. Especially if they justify it because they’re doing it themselves. First, you don’t know how they are coping with it. Second, burning out by passion is self-harm, burning out by request is just harm.