How am I Not Burned Out?
I’m a solid 12 years into my YouTube career. During that time I have been the CEO of three different companies, hired dozens of people, fired a few, started two non-profits, a couple podcasts, wrote a book, lived through good times and bad times of my chronic illness, all while being in a stable, happy marriage and maintaining at least some friendships.
How the fuck did I do that?
Well, first, the number of times I have cried while pooping is not zero. I don’t want to give you the impression that I do not experience stress or that I have never over-committed myself. I have made lots of mistakes. I have had many bad days. I have hurt people and myself. I have gone long stretches of working 60 to 80 hours per week. I have turned to hide from one overwhelming, impossible-to-solve problem only to find a completely unrelated one staring me in the face. I have never burned out, but I have come close.
But despite the fact that we started 11 years ago, I’m still doing this professionally, and (right now at least) I’m really enjoying it. I’ve also watched other people have strong, stable, healthy relationships with their work and their audience. And I’ve watched others…not. I’ve watched some people realize that they don’t want to have this job anymore, and now they have different jobs that are fun and fulfilling and that is also fine. I’ve watched people quit YouTube to become doctors. And I’ve watched people cling to content creation while every signal says they should quit because they can’t let go of this one thing that they think is proof of their worth.
I’ve written a book in which the main character goes through all of this and worse and it’s coming out this month. So, yeah, I’ve thought a lot about this.
I don’t know if I can provide useful advice here, but I think I can provide guidance. I know how I navigated this, even if I don’t know how other people should. Here’s some thoughts I’ve had about how I managed to not miss an upload without ever having had a single panic attack over the last 12 years.
- I never left town. The smart thing for my career (and believe me people have told me this) would be to leave Montana and go live in New York or LA where all of the jobs and professionals and colleagues and meetings are. And I LOVE those places, and I go to them and hang out with friends and have meetings and I feel the unquestioned belief that this is the only way to live a truly valuable life surge through my veins. I see people who are doing better than me, but who are worse people than me, and I want to beat them. I get angry and scared and excited and motivated and then I leave and come back to Montana and hang out with my friends who do amazing work growing food or building houses or making espresso or working for the government and I remember that there are seven billion different ways to live a valuable life and that I’m just doing this one for now.
- Relatedly, I kept my friends. When I uploaded my first YouTube video I had a ton of good friends. Over the last ten years I’ve watched their families grow. I’ve watched them get married and divorced and get jobs and lose jobs and I’ve done my best to be a part of that community. I have not always been good at this, and it’s a failure that I feel, but the connection to between valuing my friends as humans and feeling valued as a human (not just as a creator) is direct and linear.
- I was 27 when I uploaded my first YouTube video. I had a master’s degree and was running a small business. I had had good jobs and bad jobs and was fairly secure in my identity and understood who I was. When my audience or the algorithm wanted me to be something, I knew with a fair amount of certainty whether I wanted to be that thing or not. Many YouTubers hit their first milestones when they are teenagers, some when they are pre-teens. I’m not saying that having a little more life experience is necessary or a guarantee of a more stable YouTube path, but I do think it helps.
- I was doing it with my brother. Having someone who is going through all of this with you and can talk you down when things are going poorly, or give you an outside but honest and absolutely trustable perspective is fairly uncommon in this world. But it’s something a lot of successful creators have. It’s different than having a significant other who loves you but doesn’t always understand every piece of the responsibility or pressure you’re feeling. Having someone to call who understands this every bit as well as I do is an impossible gift.
- My dad had run organizations. Always having a mentor who would answer the phone if I had a question about management or finances or partnerships was huge. This is very rare. Also, he was our bookkeeper for like seven years.
- I was married when I made my first YouTube video. Having a partner who not only didn’t know who I was before we met, but didn’t know I would be “internet famous” when we got married and thus didn’t sign up for any of this shit has been extremely grounding. Seeing Katherine have different perspectives on all of this, and watching my ambition and (at times) addiction through her eyes has made me a much better person.
- I learned to say “no.” This is largely about being really honest with yourself about the value of your time and creative energy. Because I have a pretty healthy ego and am a grown-up, I very rarely (though not never) have said “yes” to someone just because I felt bad saying “no.”
- It was all very new. When I started making YouTube videos, it was no one’s dream to make YouTube videos. Everyone was trying to get jobs in movies or TV, and there was no way to even monetize YouTube content. In my mind, every dollar I have made from YouTube is just a bonus. Now, being a YouTuber is a dream of so many that competition for the attention of audiences is in huge demand. People work much harder for a much smaller chance of success. And once you have that success, it feels like a betrayal of all of the people who want to be where you are (not to mention your former self) to think anything other than, “I will use what I have now to get even bigger.” YouTube is not such a friendly place as it once was.
- My core audience is very good. Partially because of how we make content, partially because of when we started, partially because of individual human decisions, we just have a very supportive audience that doesn’t need me to make a perfect video every week. I can upload something half-assed and they’ll be OK with that. We also have core audiences that watch regularly with intention instead of depending on algorithmic feeds, which means we’re less dependent on the whims of an intelligent machine.
- We figured out money early on. When you’re trying to base your business on YouTube and you’re stuck focusing on adsense, it’s a nightmare. Rates fluctuate constantly, videos you think will do tremendously well won’t, trends pass, people lose interest, views fluctuate wildly (more now than ever.) Because our audience was so supportive, merchandise (and especially book sales for John) brought us stability early on. Since then, Patreon has also introduced a lot of stability for us. Taking away the pressure of “what will I use to buy diapers” goes a very long way.
- I have lots of help. I have hired so many really great people. And a lot of those people have, likewise, hired great people. I don’t really know how I managed this, but I will say that, if you’re looking to hire, find an assistant that has executive potential, because those jobs are surprisingly similar. If you can find someone who has experience building businesses but who also understands what you want, shares your values, and won’t feel under-utilized doing data entry, hire them.
- I have never believed in perfection. I love to create, but I do not have that thing that many of my friends have where they believe every creation has a perfect form that you must get as close to as possible. I’m a brute force creator, and I am proud of that.
- I really really like my job. I like writing, I like editing videos, I like managing people and growing a business, I like science and thinking and making stuff with my brother. But I also had to realize that the great gift I had been given was not the ability to grow an audience as big as I could possibly grow it, it was to figure out how to do the things I enjoy, not to feed the growth, but to bring myself (and hopefully other people) joy.
Like I said, I don’t think this is going to be that useful. Creation is different now, and you absolutely have to grind to get to a point where you can start making healthier decisions. And now, it is a less friendly place more dependent on algorithms and less on community behavior.
I will now say the sentence that I say to creators most at creator-focused events: Diversify Your Identity.
Find ways to value yourself outside of the metrics of social media. That might be how you feel about your creations. It might be a small community of talented people that you respect and are part of. It might be classmates or colleagues. And, if at all possible, invest in your identity as part of your communities and families. Value your life as a sibling, a child, a parent, and/or a spouse. Value your life as a member of your town or city or neighborhood. Value yourself outside of your creations.
Searching for meaning in attention and influence is excellent fuel for ambition, but life is long and this is not the only job you will ever have. It is not the only reason you matter and it is not the only gift you bring to the world.
Hank Green has been making YouTube videos for a long time. He created VidCon, Crash Course, SciShow, DFTBA.com, and is the author of the novel “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” which is basically just this essay but with more adventure and robots. It comes out September 25th.