On Burnout and The Year Of Hell
I hate it when I miss things. And I missed the telltale signs of burnout in her.
She is a young designer with a lot of promise and loads of skill to back it up. I thought she would make a good fit for one of the best enterprise UX teams in town, so I made the connection between her and the company.
I met her the day after the big interview loop. And… there was the sign I’d missed. There had been an interview question she struggled with. It’s a fairly standard one in UX interviews, but it requires some finesse to answer if the corporate political environment impeded your ability to do your job.
The question nagged at her. It shouldn’t have. But it hit her squarely in the spot she was most burned out, and that sort of sting doesn’t sit well, nor does it fade quickly. She came back to it in that meeting and subsequent conversations.
She made it to the interview loop on her own merit. Her burnout betrayed her.
If I’d known her state, I would have prepared her differently, pushed her to tighten her story and pack away as much of the anger and pain as she could. Would it have helped? I don’t know. But I know it’s what got me through my own Year Of Hell.
I had watched my job turn into a death spiral. What started as a passionate reimagining of a cornerstone product quickly turned into an overwhelming experience that consumed me. We didn’t have enough designers. The development team was moving too slow. But I was heads down and stubbornly trying to drive the design through, so I didn’t notice.
Eight months into the reimagining I went to see family in Atlanta and had an awful time. My head wasn’t on vacation, even though I was a six hour plane flight from home. I was standing in the Georgia Aquarium when I got an e-mail saying a contract designer quit, citing how overwhelming the work had become. I loudly swore, not noticing the group of kids I was standing next to. I had become That Guy, the one who swears in front of your kids because he’s completely oblivious to the world around him.
I missed that sign. It was my own telltale sign of burnout, but I chalked it up to a bad vacation.
Burnout has a lot of symptoms, but I can walk through the list and tell you that I’d felt every one of them that year. My relationship with the organization had become so lopsided that it didn’t matter how much energy I was expending; the more I threw in, the less I got back. I felt increasingly disillusioned. I wasn’t able to sleep through the night. When I wasn’t feeling angry, I felt depressed; when I wasn’t feeling depressed, I didn’t feel anything.
Everyone else noticed, but I didn’t. They tried to warn me. I even had one veteran UX designer tell me, over several drinks, that I needed to abandon the field altogether. And yet, I soldiered on in a toxic environment when I needed separation from it.
Eventually, the death spiral was beyond recovery, and the best thing for me to do was quit. I turned in my resignation and shut down for a while.
I didn’t know if I would ever recover.
The damage felt irreparable. I was mentally exhausted and questioning everything I believed in. I felt I was standing in the remains of a tornado-flattened house wondering if I even should rebuild.
To find my path out, I turned towards something I had let go by the wayside during the years of burnout: I would try to reboot my creativity through writing.
I put together a plan: A month of blogging as much as I could on a set of topics I threw together. I called it The Month Of Blogging Rantily. I unpacked what went wrong with the job, how I lost a ton of weight in the Year Of Hell, and my philosophy on the job search I was spinning up. I tried washing out the toxicity.
I found new rituals. I decided during my layoff I would try to tour as many Seattle coffee shops as I could. There are… well, they are legion, and that’s just the Starbucks. I used the opportunity to drink coffee as an excuse to go write.
I went running in the afternoon, walking in the evening. I made a list of design and technical books I had put off reading and started devouring them.
The more I pushed myself creatively, the more my old creative self came back. Instead of the death spiral of diminishing returns the last job put me through, I was getting a return on what I was producing. People read my writing, commented on it, tweeted it. Reading books about UX confirmed that I wasn’t an idiot when it came to design, and it restored my hunger to learn more again.
When I finally signed on with a new company, I had occasional jitters, post-traumatic afterimages of the burnout. But the fear was gone. I was executing again.
What I discovered later is I had essentially done what I was supposed to do to build up my resilience. Through writing, becoming more realistic about my plans and goals, and building up my self-image and problem solving skills, I strengthened my ability to recover from a crisis — and started to identify how I got where I was, address the problem, and choose a different path.
Burnout is something pretty much everyone in the tech industry has had to confront (and if you haven’t, you will soon enough) — it’s a dirty secret that the tech industry and burnout are intertwined. We don’t want burnout, then we talk about the “9 to 5” coders and designers with disdain because “all they do is punch the clock.” We don’t want burnout, but we talk hustle. We don’t want burnout… and then we do.
Some people suggest “work-life balance” or “positive organizational culture” are effective preventatives for burnout. I disagree. Work-life balance and culture can help provide some organizational resistance to burnout, but you still see burnouts and people out of balance. So it’s only half the solution.
The other half lies within us. I think we can teach ourselves to fight back against the siren call of burnout, and we can do it by building up our resilience.
With resilience we form a better self-image, so the guilt of not working hard enough doesn’t win out over balance. We form better coping mechanisms, so the fear of not doing a good enough job doesn’t call us to work harder. We become decisive and self-reflective, so that we don’t forget that control our destiny and can learn from our past, good and bad, to make better decisions about our destiny.
Resilience is difficult to build up, since it’s less a “magic bullet” and more changing how you cope. The American Psychological Association offers ways to build it up; much of it comes back to taking care of yourself emotionally and physically and keeping a good perspective on the situation at hand. In a burnout situation, that can be difficult. Ultimately, quitting the job helped me regain my perspective and find my hope.
Not everyone is lucky enough to just walk away. If you feel like you’re burning out, talk to someone and get help.
My primary lesson from the dark days of burnout is to be honest and transparent, even if you fear that people will find out the awful truth. Sometimes you have to accept that you aren’t as good as you think you are, that you’re a fool for thinking you could blithely avoid burnout by sheer will. Of course, in some cases, it also means accepting you’re better than you led yourself to believe.
Honesty is difficult, though. I have people from my past trying to tell me, over and over, that I should not talk about how I fell apart. But let’s go back to the start of this piece.
I’m sitting in front of a designer who is clearly burned out. What do I tell her? Do I allude to my Year of Hell? Do I elude, wave my hand over the burnout and tell her to go find help? Or do I tell her the truth: That one year previous, I was where she was, and if I managed to climb out of this hole, she can too?
I decided to tell the truth. I wrote this piece you’re reading.
I know some notable and notorious people in the tech industry who have been through the same dark, burned place I’ve been. But they won’t talk about it, perhaps out of shame.
And still, I keep meeting young designers, developers, leaders who are suffering from a sense of burnout, and they’re feeling alone.
It’s time we told them the truth: It’s OK, we have been there, and we may be there again. And the only way to survive our years of hell is to remake ourselves as resilient people.
Originally published in The Pastry Box.