Hacking the Wetware 2 - Antipatterns (Burn Out & The Ego Trap)
Of Burn Out And Boiled Frogs
I can't speak for everyone, but as for my own experience, burn out can be tough to self diagnose because it happens slowly, by degrees.
It's a state of mind where pushing yourself even a little bit, even to do the things you'd normally do as a matter of course, feels incredibly difficult. It's that feeling of knowing you need to do something but being unable to actually complete the thoughts or actions necessary to actually get it done.
Often, at least for me, it's a result of having to perform the same set of tasks over and over again in a stressful situation.
Human brains simply weren't designed to be subjected to a constant diet of stress combined with cognitively challenging tasks and an overall lack of novelty or variation.
Understanding this can go a long way for preventing it, but even so, especially in the technology industry, it can happen to anyone.
Changing things up with your work load can sometimes help, but other times the source of the stress or conditions around your work mean that even varying your worrk may not be enough.
There's a really superlative book on this topic I can strongly recommend - Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers.
How Does One Un-Boil a Frog?
There are a few things I have found to be helpful through the years in recovering from burn out.
Do Something Fun & DIFFERENT. Pick Up a New Hobby!
As a part of recovering from my most recent bout of burn out I've started learning how to play the piano/keyboard. A key aspect in this being effective is that it's something VERY different from the activity that got you here. For me, learning an entirely new skill that has nothing to do with computers has been satisfying and fulfilling.
Tech projects can be good too provided they're well and truly disconnected from the work that's burning you out and don't end up being a source of stress themselves!
Why not go for some long walks/hikes in the woods? Go for a nice bicycle ride? Finding fun activities that are also exercise can be good on many levels!
Give Yourself a Break
As professionals we put a ton of pressure on ourselves. Everybody wants to be a superstar and nobody likes to think about losing, even when losing a tiny and actually almost meaningless skirmish can feel like you've lost the war.
It can be difficult to zoom out and gain that perspective in the moment, but it's important to try and figure it out. Having solid support systems can be very helpful here, whether it's your spouse, a good friend, or even a therapist. Speaking of...
Get Help If You Need It
Many of us were raised to think of therapy as a thing for "crazy people" - that nebulous other that SURELY isn't us! We're stronger than that and more self sufficient.
Except, when push comes to shove, we're all human. We all need mechanisms in our lives to help provide balance and an outside perspective to keep us grounded and help avoid boiled frog syndrome.
I myself use BetterHelp and have found it incredibly useful.
This may sound a bit wu or perhaps irrelevant to some, but I have recently found it to be a powerful tool for shaping the way I think about things in a positive direction.
Taking a moment to zoom out from whatever I'm thinking or feeling and appreciate the fact that I live a life of such incredible privilege helps me gain some much needed perspective.
Clearly I'm not the only one, I found this Youtube video on the topic really helpful.
The Ego Trap
There's something else I want to talk about. This may not apply to you, but if it does, maybe I can help.
Many of us who work in technology take a lot of pride in our work. We may even, if we're lucky enough to go to work for what some might consider an 'elite' company, attain positions with a fair bit of cachet in the industry.
This can create yet another variety of boiled frog - the ego trap. Where your very identity becomes bound up in your job. It's not just "I work for BigCo" - it's "I AM BigCo".
I can't imagine that anyone who's fallen for this would even admit to it in the moment. It's the kind of clarity many of us only get when our situation changes out from under us and we're forced to confront an unpleasant reality.
Remember, no matter how excited you are to be working for any particular company at a particular job, at the end of the day it's JUST a job.
Cliches about health being the only thing that matters aside, this situation can create some incredibly intense tunnel vision:
"I WILL find a way to maintain the status quo!".
Thing is, maybe you Can't and moreover maybe you shouldn't! For your own sake and perhaps for that of your employer.
Sometimes, the only winning move is embracing your limitations and accepting that you can only do so much so fast.
I don't mean to say that one should just meekly accept defeat, but sometimes winning is having the wisdom to tactically retreat and formulate a better plan for success :)
Skills can be built upon and improved, and taking ownership of that process and the will to make it happen can itself be incredibly empowering!