Burnout: It’s a real thing. And it’s scary.
A few months ago, I was sitting in a typical review meeting. You may have been in one of those: a bunch of colleagues huddled around a table, the air conditioner spewing out tension-filled drafts, a gravitational pull of stress towards a senior executive (“The Executive” / “TE”) sitting in the room with his arms unhappily crossed and a frown on his face, a nervous team member rapidly going through status with a feeble veil of confidence, a loud hum of the projector providing the only shelter from uncomfortable silence in the room.
It was my turn next. I got up and started going through my updates. Barely 30 seconds into my update, The Executive lost patience and started asking pointed questions (which were going to be covered in the next slide). I could feel my heart racing, a cold sweat erupted in my palms and I struggled to maintain my cool as I attempted to answer those questions and explain where the challenges were. It soon became clear that the executive was not interested in hearing any answers, and simply said, “I’m disappointed. I did not expect this level of incompetence from you.” With that, The Executive walked out the room.
Now, I have been working with TE for over 10 years and have come to expect such reactions in such meetings. This wasn’t new, and has happened numerous times before. What was new, however, was my reaction to the situation. I found myself storming after TE (who, by then, had walked out the building and was waiting at a pedestrian crossing). Before I knew it, I was yelling at TE things like, “How dare you talk to me like that” and, “who do you think you are”. I probably blacked out or something because I don’t remember the new few moments. Next thing I know, I was being walked back into the office by TE and I just sat there for a while — confused, embarrassed, angry.
Soon I calmed down, got myself back in a professional mode, and apologized to TE for my behavior. Thankfully, TE was understanding and very concerned because I had never before raised my voice or shown any anger. I excused myself for the day and went back home. Honestly, I was very shaken up and did not understand what was happening to me. I shared this with my wife, and she was very supportive and helped talk through what happened.
Thus began my journey into understanding my mind and my body. A few months prior to this incident, I had been diagnosed with a thyroid auto-immune condition called Hashimoto’s Disorder. Essentially, my body thinks my thyroid is a foreign entity, and it attacks the thyroid. It’s not known why this happens, but stress may be a contributing factor to it. I started learning more about Hashimoto’s, and how it affects us and realized my treatment may not be effective enough to combat a number of symptoms caused by it. Anxiety, depression, lethargy, etc., are all reported by those with this condition, and people just have to find their way of dealing with it.
I sought medical help and got into physical therapy, psychological therapy, took medications etc., but none of them were doing much more than providing temporary relief. I could feel myself slipping down further into a dark corner of my mind. I would get up in the morning and lay in bed for an hour or two before dragging myself out. The thought of going to office would make me break down and I would cry at the door for a while, before forcing myself out. I started showing up at work later and later and left earlier and earlier. I had basically become useless at work, with no focus, no real output in work and was just mechanically going through the motions of responding to people, doing basic follow up and just somehow getting through the day.
Something in me made me turn inward in all this, and dig into why I was feeling this way. Why did this work that I enjoyed for so many years, suddenly turn dreadful? Why had I become so sensitive to criticism? Why had I stopped caring about the commitments and plans? Why was I filled with negative thoughts all day, and unable to move past them? Why was I letting all this affect myself, my wife and my child?
And I decided I had to do something. Something had to change. I could not continue like this. I had been trying for a while to change myself — it wasn’t happening. I tried to change my interactions at work — it wasn’t happening. So I decided to change my job. It wasn’t an easy decision. There were many factors at play — fear, anxiety, uncertainty, lack of confidence. But my desire to be better and be there for my family somehow boosted me above all that and I made up my mind. This was going to stop. I will not continue in that environment that was causing me to lose myself.
I didn’t know where I would get a job. It didn’t matter. I decided I needed to take a break, and cleanse myself from all the negativity and then figure out what I want to go after. I started making a list of things I’ll do during the break. Just fantasizing about going to the library, or playing golf, or watching a baseball game were enough to lift my spirits. I could feel that sense of excitement coming back to me. I didn’t stop there, and cotninued to expand the list into things i’d like to learn or try. Thinking about all the articles I had bookmarked and all the technologies I had been watching but never got a chance to try out suddenly made me energized. I could literally feel my blood flowing and it was like the clouds had lifted and there was a bright blue sky above me again.
That was the moment I found hope again. That was the moment I found myself again.
I knew what had to be done. I went to TE and told my story. I said I need to get away from this environment and I need to spend some time figuring out what I will do next. I took a sabbatical and got down to work.
The first week, I didn’t get much done. Getting myself to focus was still a big challenge and it didn’t last more than a few minutes. So I started researching ways to combat it. Many sources pointed me to meditation/mindfulness and I decided to give it a shot. My wife recommended Yoga, and I decided to give it a shot. My doctor recommended exercising, so I decided to give it a shot. I was willing to try anything and everything in the hope that something helps. And I wanted to do this naturally, and without medication.
Week 2 was better — I went to that baseball game (it was a beautiful day and we won!), I borrowed a friend’s bicycle and went cycling, I started going for long walks and I stumbled upon this app for meditation called Headspace. I was exhausted but felt more energized. It was weird.
Week 3 got me more active. I then started reading more about recent technology developments. I got into learning about Amazon Web Services, and Internet of Things. I came across a job opening at AWS for a solution architect, with a specialization in IoT, and decided to give it a shot. Having that goal, that target changed everything for me. It helped me find my focus again. I did a lot of research into the Amazon hiring process, the kind of things they ask for etc., and started preparing for it.
The next 3–4 weeks were a mad rush as I filled my days with all this physical, mental, spiritual and learning activity. The meditation process helped me establish a discipline and a routine. The learning process helped me feel productive about the day. The physical exercise helped me feel better and focus more. The Amazon interview process is multi-step and long, and I might make a separate post about it, but after a few weeks of deliberate practice for the big interview, I felt much more confidence and had started to enjoy the process of learning. I found myself most engaged when figuring out something I had not done before. I was most proud of having written a whitepaper, purely as an exercise to show Amazon what I was capable of producing.
I didn’t end up getting an offer from Amazon. They were looking for someone with more hands-on experience than what I had, and I gathered that in the process, but I still had to give it a shot. I do appreciate what the process did for me though. It made me think. It made me dig deep into my past experiences and brush the dust off all the various situations, problems, challenges and things I had done over the years and forgotten all about them. I had become so caught up in the daily to-do list, that I had lost track of my achievement list.
So now what’s next for me? I have some ideas, and I’m working on those. The theme for me is exploration and curiosity. I am going to combine those into what shall become my next venture. For now, I am celebrating my win over burnout, over depression and over the dark side. I am here, I am alive and I am ready for whatever happens next. More to come, stay tuned!