This Is What an Octopus Can Teach You About Life

How to overcome burnout and live again

John P. Weiss
Sep 19 · 8 min read
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Artwork by John P. Weiss

Over the last few years, I have posted tons of blog posts and thousands of comments online. I enjoy writing and consider it a privilege to have people read and follow my work.

I illustrate all my articles and stories, which adds additional time and energy to the research and writing I put into each published post. It’s a labor of love, but sometimes the things we love can wear us out.

What should we do when career or creative burnout creeps into our souls? Some folks go on vacation, hoping they’ll catch their second wind. Others make a career change or alter their artistic direction.

For acclaimed nature filmmaker Craig Foster, he took a different approach to his career burnout. He sought refuge along the Western Cape of South Africa, freediving beneath the rough waters into the magical kelp forest below.

What Foster found in the kelp forest and sea-floor not only cured his career burnout, it filled his heart with a deeper appreciation of nature, people, and especially family.

All thanks to an encounter with a speckled, intelligent octopus.

Where life feels okay again

My creative burnout started to settle in over the last few months. I began to question the value of my work. “Is it worth the energy and time?” I thought to myself. “Should I just go back to painting?” I wondered.

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Perhaps my creative angst is a reflection of our altered lives, thanks to the COVID pandemic. Or maybe I’m navigating a mild, mid-life crisis?

“In my early fifties, I was going through a phase where few things felt right and I was trying to figure out those that did. It was not uncommon. In your twenties, you pursue your dreams. By your late thirties and early forties, you hit a certain stride. Then you hit your fifties, you get your first annoying thoughts of mortality, you begin more serious questioning of not just the meaning of your life but of what’s working, what’s not working, and what you still want, and all of a sudden you don’t know which way is up. You thought you knew but don’t. You just want to get to where life feels okay again.”
― Dick Van Dyke, My Lucky Life in and Out of Show Business

Whatever the cause of my malaise, I retreated to the television the other night to mentally escape for a while. My wife joined me, and we began scrolling through channels in search of something decent to watch.

That’s when we found the Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher. “This looks interesting,” I said to my wife. “Sure, why not,” she said.

Without a doubt, the documentary turned out to be poignant and memorable experience.

Watch the trailer to My Octopus Teacher below.

Respect and joy

Craig Foster is no stranger to the rough waters off the Cape of South Africa, having swum and free-dived there in his youth. So it was natural that he returned to those waters, to escape his career burnout.

During one of his free dives, Foster encountered a strange-looking tangle of abandoned seashells, balled up on the ocean floor. Suddenly they all fell apart, revealing an octopus that used her suckers to camouflage herself with the seashells.

Foster was intrigued by the intelligence of the octopus. Apparently, octopi are incredibly smart, as noted in this excerpt from a New York Times article:

“Cephalopods behave in ways that certainly suggest they’re highly intelligent. An octopus named Inky, for example, made a notorious escape recently from the National Aquarium of New Zealand, exiting his enclosure and slithering into a floor drain and, apparently, out to sea.”

Foster decided to return the next day, and learn more about the octopus he encountered. On a subsequent dive, he found her den beneath a seabed rock (Later in the documentary we learn how Foster knew the octopus was female).

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At first, she was cautious. But eventually, she reached out with one arm from beneath the rock and gently touched Foster’s hand. It didn’t take long for her to figure out that Foster was not a threat, and soon the two were swimming together.

Sometimes she would swim onto Foster’s hand, and ride to the surface with him so he could inhale more air. Often, Foster would follow along and watch her hunt small fish and crabs.

Foster’s beautifully filmed and narrated documentary shows us how clever his octopus friend is. How she entwines herself in kelp to sneak up on prey, and uses seashells as armor against a pyjama shark attack.

“The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.” -Richard Bach

Foster’s many underwater excursions with his octopus friend remind him how fragile life can be, and how beautiful. He begins to think about the important things in his life, like his young son, Tom.

Foster’s octopus friend teaches him that he is a part of the environment, not just a visitor. So many important realizations, all thanks to a small octopus.

Strength to body and soul

Most octopi only live a year or two, but that didn’t prevent Foster from falling in love with his cephalopod friend. Every day he discovered new things about her.

For example, octopi can be playful. One day Foster found her happily flailing her arms at fish swimming above. Foster realized she was not hunting, but playing.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” -John Muir

Then, inexplicably, she stopped and swam over to Foster, latching on to his chest in an extended octopus hug. To see such trust and affection between a sea animal and a human being is incredibly moving.

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My Octopus Teacher” documentary. Photo: Netflix

Foster found himself completely absorbed about his octopus friend, and the world she lived in. He wondered if she dreamed, and if so, about what? He invited his son Tom on dives, so that he could meet the octopus and share in the experience.

What Foster found was a renewed appreciation for the ocean environment, and most importantly, his relationship with his son.

Had it not been for Foster’s career burnout, he would never have escaped to the underwater world where a new friend awaited him. Thanks to his octopus pal, Foster deepened his relationship with his son, and found renewed direction and purpose in his work.

The question is, how do the rest of us find such meaningful breakthroughs to overcome burnout? Where do we find our octopi?

How to overcome burnout and live again

You don’t have to dive the rough waters along the Cape of South Africa to overcome career or creative burnout. Here are five strategies that you might find useful.

Get outdoors
Never underestimate the power of fresh air and nature to restore your spirit and perspective. Whether it’s a weekend camping trip, fishing at the lake, hiking in the woods, or frolicking along the beach, the outdoors will reinvigorate you. Getting outside and away also gives you time to think and reflect on where you are and where you’re headed.

Say no
Nobody likes to disappoint others, so we often say yes to things when we should say no. Other people will always spend your time for you if you let them. Learn to politely say no to discretionary commitments that keep you away from family, passions, and a healthy work/life balance.

A poor diet, lack of exercise, and little sleep create a recipe for stress and burnout. The same goes for relying on alcohol. Drinking is an easy escape, but often eats up free time and can lead to hangovers and demotivation.

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Prioritize passions
During the busiest years of my law enforcement career, I made my artwork a priority. I gave up golf to buy more time for landscape painting on my weekends. Your creative passions feed your soul, so guard them closely. Also, if you’re burned out with your creative passion, experiment with related or even different pursuits, to see what quickens your heart.

Escape plan
If you want to break out of prison, you need a sound escape plan. And being in a lousy job is a lot like being in prison. Make a list of your talents and abilities. Then, research related or different jobs that are a good fit for you. Before you apply for that new job, learn all you can about it. Who is the boss? What are their challenges and strong points? The more you know about a prospective employer, the better you’ll do in an interview.

Lean on love
When we’re burned out in life, learning to lean on the ones we love is crucial. Craig Foster’s little octopus leaned into him for a big hug. Your loved ones can help you cope, plan, make changes, and escape burnout. But you have to talk to them. Let them in. Take advantage of their advice.

Craig Foster’s octopus documentary came along at a good time. It inspired me to reevaluate the things I’m working on, and learn to listen to my heart more.

My wife and I have two trips planned for next year, and I’m rearranging my schedule to put more emphasis on personal fitness. I’ve also been busting out my oil paints and brushes more, to deepen my artistic abilities.

All this from the wisdom of a little octopus.

Before you go

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I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint, and write about life. Get on my free email list here for the latest writing and artwork.

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John P. Weiss

Written by

Artist & Writer

Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.

John P. Weiss

Written by

Artist & Writer

Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.

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