My Burnout Update

Thanks to everyone who left a comment or sent me email in response to the previous burnout post. I’m grateful. I felt I owed you an update and here it is.

The unexpected entertainment of expressing an emotional experience is how surprising people’s responses are. Some are too concerned. Others not enough. Some don’t know what to say, so they grasp at what’s familiar and share that. Some don’t know what to say and stay silent. Others admit they don’t know enough and simply ask what they can do to help. It’s fascinating how when you’re real, the best people are real right back. And when you haven’t been real for awhile with someone it takes time for both people to calibrate where exactly the other person is coming from.

I’ve rediscovered how easy it is to shake myself and others out of a worn out routine: just be completely honest. Honesty is the easiest way to make life interesting. It’s the basis in part for why improv often works so well and regular life does not.

In short I’m doing fine. I’m not in a rut exactly. I’m not even really burnt out, and wasn’t beyond the first few days (which was now several weeks ago). Part of what I didn’t convey well in the first post is paramount: I now have a lack of conviction that I have to continue to be productive to be a good or happy person. There is a faith we share in society, an unquestioned ideal, that we must work hard and be successful to be good people. I don’t believe this anymore or at least not as much. Many people have told me “don’t worry you’ll get out of it soon” but what they don’t understand is I’m not sure getting out of “this”, whatever it is, is progress. There’s something here I can learn or need to figure out first.

George Carlin has a joke about motivation and the American self-help industry. He didn’t understand how you could buy a book to get motivation. If you’re motivated to buy the book, why not just use that motivation to do the thing itself? He goes on to point out that some of the worst people in history were highly motivated: Genghis Khan, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot. Books about motivation and productivity never mention them. Maybe there are more important questions to ask ourselves than how productive or successful we are or are not?

Maybe it’s not so bad to be unmotivated if you’re not hurting anyone else. The slacker who spends all day on the beach, or the bum in the park, does less damage to the world and the people in it than many CEOs and heads of state. Maybe it’s more important to do things that don’t earn as much money or prestige but that matter far more to the people you do them for? Or simply cause no harm? These are big questions, I know, and it’s much easier to only ask the little ones.

So many of us drive ourselves and our families into the ground chasing the modern version of a rat race. It’s a largely technological race now, but the results for all contestants is the same. We chase a made up idea of what success looks like, an idea shaped by corporations, religions and television, that’s defined by what’s easily measured, not what matters most. We’re so invested in the game we never stop to notice how miserable the personal lives of many of these “successful” people we’re chasing actually are. How much emptiness they feel and how productivity and what’s easily measured is the only way they know how to fill, even if temporarily, that void inside. Many legendary people were assholes, even to themselves, and I’m not sure it’s a worthy trade.

I still plan to work. If I’ve promised you something I will get it done and do a good job. I won’t disappear. But perhaps what I’ve achieved is I don’t mind taking it slow. I hope you don’t mind either. I think I’m learning something. But I’m still sorting myself out and I’ll share more when I have it together. Thanks for reading.


38 Responses to “My Burnout Update”

  1. Amy

    I read your original Burnout Post and this update post.

    I have been feeling the same way for a very long time. Disillusioned by the traditional and expected of today’s rat race. I want to make a difference, do good things, help people who need helping… and yet I feel surrounded by a disconnected world and wondering what’s the point of anything we do?

    Motivation, for me, is at an all time low to ‘get on’ with life. So instead I decided to clean my house. Yes. That’s what I have motivation for. For deep cleaning my personal space. It’s the only thing that drives me these days. I’ve also been using honesty to rid myself of relationships that don’t work and social media that drains.

    Like you, I’m not sure where this is all headed and I’m attempting to be okay with the uncertainty. Maybe we are caterpillars, chafing within our chrysalis, waiting for our time to emerge and as a butterfly? ;)

    Good luck fellow traveler.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks Amy – always good to meet a fellow traveler.

      As you point out in your own story it’s when we feel different that we make time to deal with things we’d normally avoid. This seems important to me for that reason alone. It’s not easy to end a relationship of any kind – when else would we be motivated to take that on except now?

      Most of the arguments for why we should be productive or passionate aren’t particularly good when you stop to question them (Is this really a better life than this other option, where I don’t have as much money but I’m a better person? Where I’m not as successful by worldly standards, but I’m more connected with people and ideas I care about?) But the arguments are pervasive. They are powerful. It’s very hard to shake free of the currents and decide, for yourself, why you’re doing what you’re doing, if anything at all.

      I’m fond of the existentialists whose central message is there is meaning but you have to make it, and that’s much harder than adopting someone else’s sense of meaning. But making your own meaning is the only way to find other people who share it, it’s the only way to find a community that’s real for you in the ways most are not.

      For now, for me, it’s chop wood, carry water. I’m not worrying much about figuring everything out in part because I know that I can’t. I’m feeling and thinking and talking and that’s the best hope I have for understanding more about myself and what I want, and need, to do.

  2. Kim

    Sorry for my blatant answer but I guess you’re also asking for them as well. My 2 cts are that you’re absolutely right, you’re in a self created rat-race and your body&soul rebels against a life goal as stupid as simply filling a bookshelf.

      1. Kim

        I’m not so much for measurable life goals but if you really want one of those, what about “winning the noble prize” or “have (incredibleBigNumber) readers for a book”. Take at least one, which is not averageable (“Oh my god i just wrote 1000 pages this year” ==> ratRace).

        Why do you need a measuable life-goal at all? What will happen if you reach it? You probably then need a new (less stupid?) one?

        What about having a life-vision? It’s less measurable it gives you a clear direction about the way to go and you can still break down measurable for more reasonable goals. What about “I want to educate the world” or “I want to make the world a better place” or something like that? You can still make measurable goals which, other than life goals, are ok if you reach/fail them.

  3. Tony DaSilva

    Hi Scott,
    I’ve followed you over the years because I truly admire your honesty and your willingness to put yourself out there – warts and all. As long as you keep doing that I’ll keep following you.

    In light or your current mood, do you still have the goal of filling your bookshelf with books you’ve written, or are you now rethinking that noble goal?


    1. Scott Berkun

      Cheers Tony.

      I got into this place of writing books because it was the best idea I had for what to do with my skills. Despite my feelings about everything right now writing books still seems like the best use of my skills in this world :) The question above from a commenter I take seriously: if books are silly what isn’t? I’m not joking. It’s a serious question :)

  4. Kelly

    Moments and spans of creative genius , Motivation via inspiration or and unexplainable explanation, rise and set upon many moons. With maybe just whispers of a path, sometime a scream. Sometime deafness sets in or you happen to hear the song, either way it’s an adventure and if your lucky you live to see your own growth , it’s a blessing!

    1. Scott Berkun

      I still hear songs. I have ideas for things to write or make often. Instead it’s always been for me a question of how much I truly care about the idea to want to put in the time to build whatever it is. Unless you find a muse that can do the work for me, the muse doesn’t seem to be my problem.

      1. Patrick

        This is exactly how I’ve been feeling for the past month or two. For me, my inability to “truly care” comes from a fear that I will commit to an idea (and waste my time on an idea) that turns out to be “bad,” therefore meaning I am “bad” (or a fraud).

        There’s really no logic or evidence that supports why my project would end up “bad” and a “waste of time” or why would it expose my incompetence. Yet still, I second guess every line I write or idea I generate.

        Maybe when we focus on the expectations or opinions of others (a boss, a reviewer, a potential client), we feed our self-doubt — which in turn makes us become stuck in a cycle of second-guessing or feeling apathetic toward our ideas…

        I think I’m rambling a bit now, trying to work out my own thoughts and feelings on the page… but maybe there is some truth in here for you too? Who knows.

        Thanks for logging your creative struggles and burnout — it’s refreshing to hear other people’s perspectives on this common malaise.

      2. Schalk Neethling

        My problem is I have stopped hearing the songs, stopped having the ideas. When ideas do sneak up from my subconscious, I find it incredibly hard to hold on to them and bring them out from my subconscious.

  5. @asandford

    Thank you, Scott. I’ve been feeling the same way recently. I spent 7 years getting a master’s degree, and now I’m trying to convince myself that I’ll still be a good person if I never get to use the degree. If I do no harm, and try to do good, and do it well, then haven’t I succeeded?

    1. Scott Berkun

      It seems as life goes on we accumulate more sunk cost and it can weigh us down. Any college degree is about the past, not the present, yet we endure so much trying to justify our pasts to ourselves. “Well since I did this 20 years ago, and this other thing 10 years ago, I guess I just have do this other thing now.” In one way that’s loyalty, which could be a good thing, but in another way it’s lazy. Maybe we’re smarter now in the present, or more self-aware, or a better person, and we can only grow by leaving something behind.

      I find it’s valuable to pretend, every now and then, that I just got here. That I just woke up in this body and this life and owe nothing to its previous owner. It’s a powerful exercise because in some ways it’s true. So what if I change this? So what if I change that? So what so what so what.

      1. Dave Gordon

        Well said. I’ve been managing projects since the Reagan era, and writing about project management for the last five years. And in the last few days, I’ve decided to go do something else. Not sure what yet, but I’m confidant I’ll find out soon enough. I’ve gotten enough return out of my old investments, and even if I haven’t, it’s time to diversify my life’s portfolio. Agito; ergo sum – I begin; therefore, I am.

  6. Nancy

    Nice to hear the update, Scott. I am finding joy in finally coming full circle and re-embracing the life philosophy I had before I let myself get caught up for a couple decades in things that are unimportant. Have you read any works by or about the Stoics?

    1. Scott Berkun

      I’ve read some of the Stoics, including Seneca, and I’m fond of their core ideas (thanks for mentioning them). They dovetail nicely with eastern philosophy about work and life too. But there is a large element to the way we experience life that knowing and feeling are not the same. I can know what might be best, but that doesn’t mean I feel it’s the best, or want to do it regardless of the logic behind it.

      1. Nancy

        Yes, that is true. What I’m studying and trying to apply is a blend of the two – feeling the feelings and using what I know, if that makes sense. For me, that falls in the letting go category, or begs the question “how’s that working for ya?” “ya” in this case, is “me” ;)

        1. Scott Berkun

          Yes – and you’re pointing out (with your notion of finding a blend) one of my problem with the Stoics, or more precisely, with how people today often interpret them. There’s a justification of rationality that’s been emphasized – the cliche of “don’t worry about what you can’t change” – whereas I believe it’s always a balance. For a time it can be healthy to have feelings about what you can’t change – our feelings aren’t rational you know :)

          More broadly, there is no perfect line to walk. We can be too emotional or too rational. Or to stuck in the past or too blind to it. It’s never an either/or, and the walk we have to do in life is sloppy and we have to adjust often (if we’re awake). And that’s perhaps what I’m in the middle of now – there are some adjustments I’ve discovered I need to make and it will take me some time to sort out what they are, or even learn how to make those adjustments well.

    1. Scott Berkun

      New to me – thanks Todd. I don’t think my problem at the moment is inspiration or craft. It’s something else. But I’ve read Fish before and I’m a believer in sentences so this was a nice suggestion. Cheers.

  7. Michael Nitabach

    After years in the hypercompetitive world of academic science, I have reached the realization that what I care about much more than the traditional markers of “success” is that I make decisions and perform actions that help the people around me–both the scientists who work under me and my other colleagues–to enjoy their work and achieve fulfillment.

  8. Lester Burnham

    Some might think I’m being silly when I say I deeply admire stoners. But I’m very sincere. It’s no mistake they’re also called “burnouts”.

    We make all this noise about happiness, productivity, fulfillment — pick your favorite word — but I think the more genuine among us simply acknowledge that we are several jolts of electrical activity, and then we aren’t. Our angst is fueled entirely by our burning need for it to mean something.

    We often speak about how complex and impenetrable the universe is. And I suppose it is, or at least was. But it’s also extraordinarily simple — laid out bare for all of us to see through our telescopes. Value, significance, and meaning are old fashioned inventions, born from a moment in time when they were the only reasonable explanations we had. I suspect, though, even way back when, the quiet among us felt the same emptiness you feel today, Scott. The accepted answers just don’t support the weight of it all, and they never will.

    1. Nancy

      Your thoughtful post brings to mind a couple lines from a song by The Script. “You won’t find faith and hope in a telescope, you won’t find heart and soul in the stars.” I agree we are energy (which science shows can never die), but believe joy is a natural byproduct of a fulfilled life. Can’t that be enough?

        1. Nancy


          Always makes me smile and it’s on my permanent airplane playlist. If you ever get the chance, catch them live.

  9. Eric Nehrlich

    This post resonated with me. After hitting a wall a few years ago in my career, I checked out of the rat race. I’m still employed and I’m still productive, but I’m no longer willing to sacrifice my whole life to getting the next promotion or raise or hoop. And the last two years have been among the happiest of my life – I have spent time on old and new hobbies, I have expanded my social circles significantly, started mentoring others with unconventional career paths, and have generally been taking the time to enjoy the life that a couple decades of hard work had earned me.

    And part of me (the part that has been conditioned by society) keeps asking “But shouldn’t you be doing more?” It’s never clear what “more” is – more impact? more money? more recognition? And that’s the challenge – when the goal is “more”, you can never reach the goal and get that satisfaction of accomplishment. Much better to have concrete goals and hit them like riding my first century (100 mile bike ride) last fall.

  10. AJ

    I love your writing and your honesty. When I taught video editing, I referenced your articles about Writing is Easy because it was a great example of people using video effects because they were “cool” instead of using them because they helped tell the story better.
    I don’t follow your blog closely enough to know if you’ve talked at length about what you do besides writing, so please forgive me if you’ve already addressed this. You do a lot of work with your mind but what do you make with your hands? Maybe your brain and hands want to put something together that you can play with or take pictures of and say, “I made this!” If you do make stuff, maybe you aren’t making the right stuff. I looked for years and years to find the medium that was my voice and I finally found it (quite against my expectations) in working with steel.
    I’m pleased to see that you are being kind to yourself. No matter where you end up from here, you will be better off for not beating up on yourself now. Best wishes.

  11. Ravi

    Thanks for the update Scott. When I read your latest update, I thought about “Campbell’s book – The Power of Myth” and this passage.

    “A hero ventures forth form the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

    I can’t wait for you to share what you’ve learned after this period of self-discovery.

  12. John

    Scott, if I’m understanding this all correctly…. it looks like you have a classic case of “what’s the point”. I’ve had that too. And I get the desire to want to withdraw – you don’t want to spend energy in the wrong direction, you don’t want to keep working and working on something that is the wrong thing, so you just detach and chill for a while. But of course, you don’t really want to sit and do nothing, you want to want to do something passionately and then devote all your energies to it. You just have no idea what that is right now.

    For the most part, it does sound a bit like burnout. You’re tired. Not in the “I need a good night’s sleep tired” but more from the accumulation of years of work. So, sounds like a good idea to me to take off a few weeks and go somewhere new (new environments stimulate so well) to freshen up.

    For real results, it sounds like a “process” (which exists in certain psychology/counselling circles) could help. So, it’s not therapy, it’s a sort of guided session where someone helps you to really feel (and my experience is that when I’m in a rut like this, what I’m not doing well is feeling).

    Other than that, when I get stuck my wife tends to sit me down and ask me “what do you need now”. And when I think about it, and answer it, and she tells me to give it to myself. That feeling of having that extra room is in itself so satisfying, that I can just get back on the horse and keep going.

    Hope that helps a bit (and hope it’s an accurate reflection of what you’re going through). You’re the man! Have faith this will all pass.

  13. Lukasz

    This post reminded me of a book, “Leisure: the basis of Culture”.

  14. Fendy

    I just get this blog linked from other article today and read this post. Surprisingly for me, even though I’m just in my mid-20’s, I think I’ve experienced the same with what you have written.
    Yes, it is very different with burnout. Burnout is like more exhausted brain and morale, which will be recovered overtime. I often define this case as something as “lose of interest/passion” or “lose of personal goal” or “loss of self-actualization”.

    According to “Maslow hierarchy of needs”, we have the biggest motivation when we try to do something that involving self-actualization. That self-actualization is our current goal and interest. After we have achieved them, or after some time has passed, we will lose our interest/passion about it, creating the exact same feeling like the one you have described.
    So your condition will be better after you have found other goal or achievement that you want to pursue and be passion at. Or it can also be when you have get another point of view about your original goal.

    And to clarify, the goal I’m talking about is not “the modern version of a rat race”, where the “success” criteria is set based by the society. It’s our personal desire. I believe in our inner self, we are still a kid. A goal that we want to achieve is just a playthings / toys in our current age.

  15. Jonna Gibbs

    Hi. I’m late to the party but I really enjoy reading your blog. I have been struggling with myself and believing that I truly do have great ideas to offer the world, but at the same time, I also recognize a glaring lack of credentials. All I am is a person who loves the world and wishes to improve it (in my own small way) and loves to write (and is fairly good at it). So how does one overcome the fear that nobody cares what I have to say?

  16. Lukasz Bartnik

    I’m happy to see what came out of that. I think of this great idea from the Bible – whatever you give your heart to, this will become your life. And the only thing worth giving your life to is love – for others, for yourself. It’s also interesting to see how our brain and its psychological adaptive mechanisms could our self-understanding and in result make it so hard to see through lies of modern culture, like the lie about being productive.


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