Understanding Burnout

Why your life wasn’t fixed after following those 5 weird tricks discovered by a startup worker.

10 years ago I headed to Gamestop to pick up a game for my not-yet-red-ring’d release model Xbox 360. The object of the game was to drive a car as fast as possible along a pre-defined route with blatant disregard for any and all traffic law. Like many games, the way you win is by doing it better than anyone else. Fortunately, there was a way to ensure that you’d be going faster than anyone else – by gaining as much boost as possible, propelling you to the front of the pack, and never letting go until you reached the finish line.

The game did a remarkable job of making like you feel like you were completely in control at a 200+ mile per hour clip. Perform a death-defying stunt like driving through oncoming traffic and you’d be rewarded with boost and the ability to go even faster. That is, until you hit a wall.

Oh yeah, the game was called Burnout.

Fast forward to 2014 and I was pretty much sick of the Internet, websites, design, and just about everything having to do with the relatively short career I’d built for myself in the past handful of years. More frustratingly, I couldn’t understand why. I’d read a bucket of blog posts on sites not unlike this one that championed the importance of cutting back on work hours, exercising more, getting outside, picking up some hobbies outside of tech, traveling, working on something you’re passionate about. Ok cool, I can handle that.

The problem was, I was already doing those things. I’d put the new lifestyle into place after coming off a stressful two years of seed-stage startup life. Exercise most days of the week, no more than 40 hours in the office, hiking and trail running on the weekends, flights every few months to check out some other city’s hip coffee shops, working in an industry I was passionate about. I thought I’d figured it out. And for a while it worked. Until it didn’t.

So I blamed San Francisco. If I just left town surely everything would be fixed. I packed my bags and moved to… exactly where you’d expect.

Portland didn’t really change things. If anything, it just made me miss all the good things I had going for me in San Francisco. Maybe I went to the wrong one? When my lease was up last summer, I moved my things into storage and hopped into my car for a solo cross-country drive from Portland, OR to Portland, ME. I wasn’t moving to Maine but there’s nothing quite like a lonely 5000 mile drive when it comes to finding some time to think.

I don’t know if I got all the answers but I at least came home with some.

If I was doing all the right things to cure burnout and they weren’t working, were they actually the wrong things? Not at all. But it’s totally possible to go about them the wrong way.

Without realizing it, I had fallen into a pattern where everything I was doing to disconnect from the tech world was being done to ensure I could work even more intensely when I got back to the office.

Weekend trip to Seattle? 
Oh great, I can knock out one of those business books that’s been sitting unread on my Kindle during the flight.

Hour at the gym every weekday morning? 
Perfect time to get all those podcasts in and absorb the lessons my peers are doling out on Design Details.

Weekend hike with some friends?
I swear it’s not going to happen this week but 30 minutes in and someone’s talking about their startup.

Hobbies outside of tech?
Wow this screenwriting class is so similar to information architecture work. Maybe I can repackage some of these things into a design workshop.

You can work 35 hours a week and it’s not going to do a damn thing if everything you do in your “spare” time has to somehow feed back into those 35 working hours.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about striving for self-improvement and I certainly don’t want to throw away the knowledge I’ve gained from every morning train commute spent reading Medium posts and catching up on design twitter or every dinner with friends spent debating the merits of some startup’s business model. But it’s ok to not be on 24/7. It’s just not sustainable for most people most of the time.

In Burnout you could choose the hyper-aggressive path – dodging oncoming traffic, knocking out your opponents, hitting cars, doing everything in your power to make sure you had a completely full boost bar at all times. At the end of the day, a car with 10% boost is going the same speed as one with a full 100% bar. However, the car with 10% boost didn’t gamble on dropping from first to last every 15 seconds of the race.

So maybe don’t go for every single boost opportunity. Maybe just get enough to stay in first place. Maybe even get second place once in a while. You can race again. At least you didn’t hit a wall a few feet from the finish line only to watch everyone pass you.