My Creative Burnout
I’m ten days into the worst burnout of my life. I’ve discovered, in times like these, it’s a challenge to answer the seemingly simple question: “how are you?” The polite lie is what most people want, and that’s fine, but when you say enough polite lies you soon lie to yourself too. Out of my own frustration I’ve started surprising people with honest answers. Perhaps I’m just bored with the lie, or maybe I’m hoping honest conversations with people I don’t know that well can help free something stuck inside me. I know that burnout, like its older and more dangerous cousin depression, is a serious thing. And most people, most of the time, are terrified of talking about serious things. I want to talk about mine. I’m not afraid and I don’t want you to be afraid either.
Eleven years ago I wrote How To Survive Creative Burnout, back before my first book was published. I reread the post this week and there’s valuable advice there. If I think of my creative motivation as a horse, it must be rested in a fair ratio to how hard I work it, especially if I expect the horse to work well for many years. But somehow we imagine our minds as transcendent, free from the natural balance of work and rest. We know crops must be rotated and seeds take time to grow. But in our work centric culture to admit to anyone, much less ourselves, that we’re past our limit comes with shame. It’s part of the cult of busy we live in. And as with all emotions it’s the feelings we have about our feelings that do more harm that the initial feelings themselves.
My past burnouts have lasted just days. Two or three times a year I’ll fall out of rhythm with myself. I’ve been there enough times that I even have a routine. I stop all work, and reschedule meetings, so I can have a day or two where I’m doing as little work as possible, possibly none at all. Free to do anything, or nothing, as I choose. My chosen career requires some significant sacrifices, but a major benefit is on most days I answer to no one. When I need time for myself it’s there for me to take it. Sometimes I’ll spend more time with friends and try to recharge from their energy. Often I go see a matinee film or two, or perhaps a long walk or a marathon of video games. My wife knows I’m in one of these phases when she comes home from work and finds me on the couch, a place I almost never visit during the day, in a position so deeply nested into the cushions it looks like I was absorbed into the furniture.
But as I write this I’m more than a few days in and my standard routine has only had limited effects. I’ve thought about it hard and there was no acute trigger. Nothing specifically bad has happened to me recently. And this is where talking about burnout, or depression, with people becomes frustrating for everyone. We want a singular reason, a primary cause. Most people want to help you find the thorn in your side and take it out, and when you express there is no singular thorn, the script they know is useless. Instead of a bad day or a major rejection I simply feel a slow grinding away of something important has taken place. Something big and heavy that I need has moved and there’s no quick way to move it back.
But I am successfully past the judgements of myself: I stopped feeling bad about feeling bad. It’s OK for a time to be very far from my imagined potential and to be far away on purpose. It’s OK to grant myself patience. It’s OK to vacate. I don’t have to like it completely, but I do need to do it. Reading through my journals I realize I’ve been on my own as a writer for a long time now, without the morale benefits of working on a team, or the security of a steady paycheck. Maybe I need a new circle of creative friends. Or I need to do collaborative projects where I have a partner or two to share everything with. Perhaps there’s a five year or ten year habit that I need, something like what Sagmiester calls a creative sabbatical. I don’t know yet. I doubt there’s one thing alone I need to do. Perhaps this new challenge will just work itself out or I’ll have to find some new habits, short and long term, to keep on working towards my life goal.
Over this week I’ve thought much about who I am and what I’m trying to do. It’s a pleasant surprise that when I shut things down and take more deliberate time to play, rest, wander and ponder, that I slowly make realizations I’d be unlikely to make any other way. I hate the phrase “things happen for a reason”, but I do believe when something happens I can put effort in to make meaning from it.
I know that for most of my my life I’ve found it natural to care about ideas enough to chase them. I’m often described as intense or passionate and I take those words as compliments. My motivation is not accidental. I believe certain things should be done before I die and that belief sustains me. This belief has been my preferred fuel for the hard work of writing a book, preparing for a lecture or doing anything interesting at all.
But that fuel hasn’t been consistent lately. It fades easily. I’m more prone to false starts. Apathy is friendlier now and familiar. It’s a frequent struggle to stay motivated. And unlike the burnouts I’ve experienced before I find myself asking the question: “so what?” Why is working so hard important? Many people who are continually productive are miserable, or worse, produce little of value. Maybe it’s better to live a life where you work only as much as you need to, so that there’s more time left for living? I love to work hard but that’s not all that I love. And given I have a fulfilling, fun and comfortable life, I must decide if what’s going on for me is a problem, a blessing, or some of both. I don’t know yet what it means or what I’m going to do about it, but wanted to share it with you anyway. Knowing how many of you read my work for the honesty I offer it seemed only fair that I share this with you while I’m in it.
Thanks for reading. Words of encouragement are welcome. Better would be to share a story of your own burnout experience. We all, legends included, have our times with too much fire and not enough. And maybe if we share those stories openly we can help each other along.
(Read the excellent comments, or jump to part two)
Wow you say yourself that creativity and innovation are not solo acts, yet it seems you have been toiling away at the idea coal face on your own for too long. You need a change, you need to collaborate and try changing your approach. Even a small change will shift your engine into a different gear and alter perspective. But I think it’s fine to wallow a while. The best writers, thinkers etc explore their darker, less resourceful sides as it allows them balance. It’s impossible to perform in an optimum state all the time. Take some time, realign and you’ll resurface with clarity I am sure. But feel secure in the knowledge that the work you have already done has moved and inspired people like me. I hope you find your answers and I’d be happy to help in any way.
How I can sympathize. I’ve been in a similar place for over a month. So tempting to attribute it to the long winter. Or a little “bout” of depression. Your final conclusion resonates with me. What matters is not what brings on the burnout feeling – but how you react to it. Stopping to listen and to ask questions without judgment is a great way to get past it. And I know you will! Take care – Debbie
Hi Debbie! Sorry to hear we seem to be on the same bus. I wish you well in getting off at the next stop :)
I’m in a similar place right now.
It’s not like the crippling depression I experienced a few years ago, but I do feel like I can’t move. Weapons-grade inertia. A silent scream. Something like that.
I should be writing the book that I’ve just opened for pre-ordering. But I’m stuck. I’ve outlined a few chapters but can’t write.
Conventional wisdom might suggest that it’s imposter syndrome, writer’s block, or perhaps procrastination due to fear of failure or success.
Maybe it’s lack of play? Sometimes I feel the urge to do something ‘fun’ and draw a blank… doing nothing should count as doing something.
(Apologies but can’t seem to formulate this into a coherent comment)
I’m both happy and sad that you’re in a similar place. I do like company but then again I wouldn’t wish these kinds of feelings on anyone who didn’t want them.
*Should* Is a fascinating word. Says who? I ask. We carry around many unexamined shoulds and they can be dangerous.
In my case I’m experiencing a different kind of burnout. I’m not unhappy. I’m not frustrated in the usual way. I just don’t entirely see the point of working so hard, and I know if I don’t want to work that hard there are some things, like writing books, that I can’t do.
Thanks for the comment. Appreciate it.
Having gone through something similar, partly fulled by a change in circumstance, it was strange seeing this article, and then seeing a name I recognised as our paths/social circles have crossed in the past…
I’m still figuring out my own solution, although improving my diet, and getting out for more exercise (ironically including rediscovering cycling) have helped, as well as looking at what I’ve still found the time and motivation for – it’s telling that even at the lowest points, I still had some ideas for personal projects or client projects when I could barely think about others…
Sorry to hear you’re going through a bad patch. One thing to add to your paragraph on judging yourself: it’s OK not to be working towards your life goal. Maybe for a short while, maybe for longer. Don’t go seeking those new habits too soon. Your books and talks are great and I enjoy them very much, but if they stop for a bit we’ll still be here when you come back.
My mental health has also been suffering recently. Like Debbie, the winter hasn’t helped, but I haven’t been helping myself either. I’m making much slower progress than I expect to with my projects and have really been struggling to find the energy to take each subsequent step, even using all the usual tricks for keeping myself going. It’s been bad for a few months, perhaps longer.
Fortunately things seem to be improving – some combination of more exercise, more daylight, a bit of counselling, less hard work and a deliberate shift of perspective has helped. I’m becoming tempted to get back on the treadmill already, but I know from past experience that it’s too soon.
Take care of yourself, anyway. Best wishes.
You’re right about it being OK and that’s where I’m at right now and thanks for saying so. I’m not depressed or even frustrated exactly, although I was a few days ago. There’s something I need to sort out that will take some time and it’s ok if it really does take some time (weeks? months?) to sort through.
Glad to here you’re so self aware and finding some success in the changes you’re making.
I know only too well what you’re experiencing. Ironically you’ve written an excellent post while burnt out!
I also work in a career that sees me alone at a computer much of the time. Burnout is often a sign I need to connect and engage with other people in the real world. I do this through volunteer work with a local charity and find it’s really helpful at resetting my brain.
Good luck mate. If nothing else be glad burnout never lasts forever.
Thanks Dave – I can still write it seems, I just don’t want to as much as I usually do.
I’m struggling too. I woke up Saturday in a very dark place. There is absolutely nothing wrong, but I’m moving through something, and it is sucking energy.
A friend recently suggested a book called Feeding Your Demons by Tsultrim Allione. I am just starting it, but the idea is that you quit fighting and struggling and welcome these times. Instead of running, ignoring, overcoming, you feed the difficulty bits of your love, attention, and spirit until it is satisfied. I’ll let you know how it goes.
I also have to remember that rest is an essential ingredient to creative work, any good work, really. I always think I can skip it, and then I start to fall apart.
Thank you for writing this and inviting us to say it out lout too. Somehow just doing that makes it smaller and less overwhelming.
Thanks Heather – that book sounds like what I’ve sorted out for myself. I’m not upset or angry, I’m actually in good mood of a kind. I’ll be patient. I owe it to myself to be at least as patient as I’d be with someone else I cared out.
I follow your blog and so enjoy your writing. While I am in a peaceful place right now, I’ve experienced the type of “flatness” in my life — not bad or good — loss of flow.
I will add another book to Heather’s suggestion – Care of the Soul, by Thomas Moore – perhaps adding another dimension and focus.
Wishing you peace and a new awakening this spring.
Nice to hear from you Sarah. Flatness is a good metaphor – thanks.
* hugs *
Stepping away from a routine without any intention or goal or fixed time, to just go with it and do some activities you enjoy. During this time, reflect on the body of work done as you seek your next adventure.
In other words, be kind to yourself, its good for you :)
I’ve found as I get older I need more time doing different things, and more time on non-work things like spending time with friends and family. As the older years bear down, it forces me to reprioritize and life starts seeming too short and I want to fit so much in, good work, quality time with friends, exciting adventures, reading, art, … I could fill ten lifetimes!
Specifically regarding burnout: I find starting a project that is completely and utterly different from what I’ve just been working on invigorating. Sometimes that’s a short work project, usually it’s a volunteer thing or an art thing or a gardening thing… I usually try to take one art class a year because it spurs my thinking in new directions, which can also be invigorating.
And I agree with you and the commenters that being part of a team – even if it’s ad hoc and temporary – can help tremendously. I too work alone most of the time, so finding a volunteer project where I can work with others is awesome! (I’m in the middle of one of those right now).
Maybe your burnout is the equivalent of a 10 day meditation retreat. You’re forced to face all kinds of things – from itches to mental turmoil – and realize that all things pass, as this will. :-)
Enjoy the ride…
Interesting, seems to be burnout season…
Writing a blog post about burnout looks like a good first move in resolving that burnout.
What helps me is sport.
Shut down that thing between and above your ears and work on the rest of your body. Mens sana in corpore sano, I guess. I do not know where you live (interesting tidbit: impressive list of achievements on https://scottberkun.com/about/, but no clue where that guy lives), but I am pretty positive that there are great hiking or biking opportunities near you.
And else: I do not know you, but I think you are a positive person, and I am confident you will get over this situation.
“Why bother?” is a great question. I may have a lot I want to say, but 10 years after my death (or in this information and personality saturated age, 5 years before I retire) no one will remember it. So why expend the energy when I could be living life?
I used to be motivated by money and ambition. I hit my goal, approached 30, and started to think “Why bother?”. I have enough to live on, enough to buy a house and take a holiday each year — so why slave away hard each day doing something you only enjoy 30% of the time?
18 months on I’ve not yet sourced more motivation – or found something I enjoy more to do. “Why bother?” is a very hard question to answer.
Being able to overcome the guilt of saying “no” (especially to myself) has been one of my greatest achievements.
When you are mentally sat in the darkness, just imagine all of the people you have helped each lighting a candle to help you see. Welcome the light and warmth.
PS: [candle lit]
Sounds to me like you’re on your way of the deep, dark hole. You’ve recognized your problems, done self-analysis, and that’s the first step in the right direction. Good luck to you. I hope you find your muse soon.
Thanks once more for your honesty and vulnerability, Scott. I certainly had a major burnout about 6 months back and have made changes to my life because of it. Closed my business, put my arts salon on hiatus, put my stuff in storage, ended my lease and am now in Europe writing in the mornings and walking in the afternoons which, as I’m currently in Germany, requires eating apple something and drinking coffee. The walking isn’t easy, as I badly sprained my foot 2 days after I got here, but I’m working that into the narrative :)
I’ve had a lot of down time to reflect and a theme that is breaking through for me is that my idea of who I am is at war with who the universe thinks I need to become. It isn’t as if I’ve avoided all responsibilities here – I still have bills to pay, etc. – but by putting some distance between who I was in L.A. and who I am here has helped lift the brain fog I’ve been under for far too long. Of course, I’m not suggesting you move.
The other night I went to an improv event here and found myself walking up on stage with 4 other people to participate, something I would have never done at home. The suggestions being thrown at us were all about getting rid of the “buts” and embracing the “yes, ands.” I’m not suggesting you do improv, either.
What I’ve realized over the past two months is that I am slowing working my way towards my next phase. I’m allowing myself to let go of what no longer works for me, even if I’m really, really, good at it. You are right, that brings up issues of shame, but no one is more amazed than I am that I just don’t seem to care about that. This is how I like to interpret the phrase “everything happens for a reason,” not as looking for the good even in the bad, but as realizing the place I am in at the moment is the right one and everything else will come from that.
One final thought that came to mind as I was typing this. When I was going through my very ugly drawn out soon to be comedy novel divorce, my doctor said to me, if you need to sit on the couch and stare at the walls, do it. Some of the best advice I ever got.
I hope some or all of this makes sense and I’m wishing for you a soft landing after the turbulence.
I was sorry to read about your burnout. It came as a surprise to me that such a thing would have occurred to you, of all people. I say that because I have enjoyed your blog (and some of your books) for quite a few years now, and looking at the quality and range of your work, you made it seem effortless.
I don’t want to prescribe advice as I would be presuming too much about someone I don’t know. So, if it were me advising myself, I would suggest that – once I have got the video games out of the way – the solution involves getting outdoors and hard physical work, to get away from my over-thinking things. Swimming in a squad three times a week works for me.
While I’m also uncomfortable with the phrase “everything happens for a reason,” I do believe that while sometimes you can move toward your goals with applied effort and consciously, at other times the process is oblique. At these times you have to leave it to your adaptive unconscious to work it through. Once that is done, profound beneficial changes will occur, with fresh creativity and new growth just as soon it is worked out, seemingly just effortlessly “popping” into your head. But all that said, these are frustrating times: all the while the adaptive unconscious is profoundly uncommunicative and gives the impression that nothing is going on.
These are the “hard yards”. Keep going!
Thanks Mark. There’s a zen proverb I like that states: “chop wood, carry water”. Life goes on no matter how you feel about it and it might just change how you feel about it to go on with life. So I agree.
This time around it feels different and that’s part of why I wrote the post. There’s something deeper at work here that will require more time to sort out or work through. It’s my patience that might be the thing I need to rely most on this time.
Output requires input. I recommend reading some books, taking in some information, until you come across that idea that next idea that compels you.
Ah Scott, if I was with you in person…
I think it’s charming when two creatives are helping each other by excitedly giving suggestions to each other, then silence to ponder, then more ideas tossed out quietly and hopefully. I mean they do this when they are both stuck. As they talk, they both know that they won’t use any of the other’s suggestions, but they still talk as if their suggestions are indeed useable. And somehow they go away refreshed and come up with their own usable idea.
Scott, I can see you conversing with, say, someone like Nancy that way.
Only in that spirit would I brainstorm-offer ideas. But I won’t brainstorm just now in this comment box.
Thank you for your honesty in this (and all of your posts). You have an amazing discipline and I wonder if this is a funk that is common to any high performing individual, like the pure shooter who goes on a stretch of bricking shots or the musician who suddenly loses their magic for a series of concerts.
In my own life, distraction has often been my biggest enemy and best friend. Unlike your very structured flow on a single topic, I find myself drawn to about 50 places. The downside is that I get less accomplished in any particular area, but the upside is that new settings and contexts often lift my creativity.
The fact that you wrote a coherent post like the one above tells me that you probably aren’t as deep in the burnout as it might feel from the inside.
Good luck on finding new ways to bring out that which is inside of you! We appreciate your work!
My personal view and experience is that when you deal year after year in long running creative endeavors (as I would imagine book writing is), these types on burnouts aren’t uncommon. I too like the word used in an earlier response, “flatness”.
For me personally, I’ve had success working out of that flatness by finding completely unrelated short-pay off creative endeavors. I’ve gone in wide ranging directions – wood carving, learning basic cake baking and design, mixology classes and learning to perfect certain cocktails, making the perfect homemade marshmallow (well worth the effort), Lego projects, home construction projects, etc. The feedback on success of creation is “immediate” and satisfying – and I can iterate, improve, share with friends & family, etc. It’s invigorating and my slight OCD/passionate tendencies love the effort of working towards perfection and craftsmanship. The hands-on nature of those types of thing is fulfilling.
I find that shortly into, or after, a cycle like that, I walk into my profession and the pilot light is re-ignited to pursue and put the enormous amount of work that goes into longer running creative initiatives.
Anyways, that’s my experience. I wish you the best in getting back into the “zone”, as others have said your work is very much appreciated!
Sorry that you’re going through this; it really sucks to feel like this. I’m reluctant to offer advice since I don’t know you personally. But I’ll echo what some others have suggested: if pushing through this isn’t working, try something different. When I go through periods like this, I try to turn my brain off a bit (e.g., take long walks in the day, read biographies and other not-intense material), but you know better than me whether this works for you.
No need to post this. You might want to read some Mark Salzman. I just read this and it is excellent:
The other book of his that really resonated with me that you might find interesting is this:
It made me reassess my career direction and how I viewed it.
As in the large life transitions described in The Way of Transition by Bridges.
Just because huge life paradigm shifts are often triggered by a notable difficult life event, doesn’t mean they always come packaged that way. You are self introspective enough for you to realize a pattern or habit isn’t right anymore without a traumatic external event to force you to see it.
Perhaps it’s as simple as you have got to the useful end of your current paradigm and it’s going to take the usual time and feelings of loss and discovery for your psyche to make your next paradigm.
I don’t mean to prescribe, rather just throwing it out there for your consideration. Translations I have experienced are not always depressing or sad. But every transition has started with things inside me feeling like things are off and I have needed alternating reflection and escape (discovery of the new) as I work it out. This reminded me of what your article appears to be describing.
Also of note- it’s spring, time where the energy of the world gets to focus on new beginnings, so maybe it’s just spring fever. Boredom and restlessness are often a forcing motivator to make new discoveries. Like kids in the summer start with ‘nothing to do’ which forces the creative process in them to make up a fantastic new game.
Whatever the cause of your current state, I wish you the best of luck to find the things you need.
Thanks for writing about this.
I tend to value myself for what I’m currently producing or have just produced.
The feeling of not being productive for a while gets me really nervous.
It is as if I were trying to put some things on the top of the equation so it results in having produced something over a certain period of time.
I may be just thinking out aloud, but time shouldn’t have any place in the equation.
Just remembering what I was able to do, what things I was lucky to participate in… these things have value within, and I don’t know if dividing them by their duration is doing justice to them.
Likewise, I better not look at time now either, when I’m not “producing” anything.
There’s a line written by von Balthasar that I love: “show me your empty hands… otherwise I cannot fill them”.
All the best
Love that quote. Thank you.
Yes, we like you honesty, Scott. Once again it has resonated with me. I’m 2 1/2 years past the worst burnout of my life. At one point toward the beginning I was ableto take off 4 full months to decompress. It was very rich gift, and I believe it saved my life. I lost 50 unneeded pounds, regained mental sharpness, and became more “me” than I’d been for many years.
At first I had very difficult time letting myself be “off.” But I soon discovered my soul had been craving that exact thing and I was able to rest and receive what I needed. Just relax, do only what is needed, and give yourself time. Take walks and naps, do a project that is “brainless,” and in so doing give your soul room to breathe.
I heard somewhere that Tom Jobim didn’t care for music anymore, at a certain point of his life. He was fed up, after spending so much time immersed into it.
I certainly don’t know what you need right now, as all people are different. I wish I could write something that would make you feel better or help you with this, and I’m sorry that I don’t have much to offer.
You have read so much in your life, so I won’t recommend a book. Maybe you’ll find some inspiration watching this talk:
I always admired your work, and hope you find your (new) way soon.
All the best.
Lots of love and thanks. Very glad you are giving yourself the time to understand your feelings, motivation, and burnout. Even with your experience, I doubt this gets any easier over time – I would guess it gets harder. I don’t have a specific burnout story to share, but I feel that when I’ve experienced periods of burnout, I’ve come out of these periods realizing there was some personal need I was neglecting but totally capable of providing for myself. Would love to have coffee and hear your thoughts anytime.
Thank you so much for sharing yourself and your knowledge so openly and deeply. You have encouraged me in my career as a Microsoft PM and an Amazon TPM, you have encouraged me to take time to write and discover myself, and your work inspires me to continue to grow my skills and share my knowledge and myself with others.
Thanks Aaron. To your point about neglect, Dylan Wilbanks suggested that burnout is a trailing indicator, not a leading one. It’s a reflection of something that’s been overlooked for awhile that has finally caught up to you (or in this case, me :) The work is to patiently sort it out and writing this post, and reading your comment, is helping me to do that – cheers.
Very cool, totally agree.
BTW, Happy Birthday! To new beginnings!
I saw you speak in Boston about 7 or so years ago, and I came away impressed with your knowledge, enthusiasm, ability to present a very clear message without “preaching” and seemingly boundless energy. Since that time, you’ve successfully published something on the order of 5 books, complete with tours and endless promotion all while regularly posting on your blog. I don’t know that any of us here can really fathom the level of activity and stress during that period.
So, it seems to me you’re due for a bit of a sabbatical. Maybe take a look at your finances, decide what you can do without and then give yourself some time to recoup. One of two things will likely happen: 1) You’ll be completely re-energized and ready to dive back in full-speed or 2) You’ll decide it’s time to do something completely different.
No matter what route you choose, I hope you’ll keep us all posted – and I wish you the very best!
Thanks Matt for following along all these years and for the comment. Boston is one of my favorite cities in the world – I wanted to move there after college but couldn’t find a job. Who knows what my life would be different had I found one there then!
Well, thank goodness you didn’t land a job way back when! Boston is an awesome town – but no fun to drive or park, especially in wintertime. We live in NC now and love to visit our friends and relatives up north, but certainly don’t miss shoveling all that snow :)
Very sorry to read that, and thanks for your openness. Your blog and some of your books have been a continous source of inspiration for me for the previous years.
I’ve also gone through phases where an answer to ‘why bother?’ would not come to my mind immediately. What works for me is that rather than trying to resist that feeling and attemping to get rid of it, I acknowledge it as part of me and trust that eventually I’ll get out of the situation even stronger and more motivated than before.
Wish you good luck!
Burn-out! Ouch! Been there! Some of it, you’ll just have to “walk off”, like getting hit with a bad pitch in a baseball game. Then again here are some things I did that helped.
1. Get more social interaction – When i isolate, it’s easy for things to seem worse.
2. Volunteer – When I do things for others, without focusing on what’s in it for me, I often experience joy or at least see others finding joy and purpose, which I find inspiring.
3. Self-talk – When I go for a walk or exercise, I usually feel more positive and it’s at that point I record little encouraging talks on my phone’s voice recorder. I play these little pep talks back when I’m blue and they really seem to help, especially because no one knows what does and doesn’t work for me like I do. Worth a try.
4. I found this book, written by a women who’s struggled with bi-polar depression, extremely inspiring. If she can get herself going and write a book while struggling with her illness, there’s hope for me. https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1592577067/scottberkunco-20/
Hang in there! This too shall pass. If you’ve been through some tough, emotional times, some of it just has to be lived through one day at a time. Find something that makes you happy every day, no matter how small.
BTW, I love your essays. You’ve got so much to contribute, I hope you find your way to offering more insights in a way that’s fulfilling to you. Take all the break you need and re-charge. Best to you!
i wish you well and hope you’ll get better soon (whatever that means).
I’m lucky – I so far never had bad burnouts or depression – but two years ago I realized that this is far from normal and I see many people around me struggeling very hard with both.
There are two things that work for me with my own (rare) bad-mood days.
One one hand, I’ve learned to do a simple thing: go see a doctor. Actually I’ve done so last week because I’ve been feeling more tired than usual and asked my doctor to do a simple blood test – just in case I’m missing vitamin D (very common in the western world) or iron. I don’t think this is the case for you, but it may be worth considering.
Also, considering how people in other times dealt with the same problem has helped me. We rarely realize how much our behavior is shaped by our society. Realizing that a part of the pain is universal and has happend to people for thousands of years, but also that their response has been very different through history works for me (recommended reading: Eva Illouz: “why love hurts”).
Best wishes, Daniel
I know you’ve probably met tons of people in your days of speaking and writing, but we’ve met a few times in the past and I’ve always enjoyed your presentations, your blog and your books.
I understand the “funk” you’re feeling… As a developer who has been at it for over twenty years or so now and I’ve hit this burn out many times in the past. I imagine yours is a bit different, but also similar in many ways.
About the only thing I can say is, speaking from personal experience, at the end of the day what really matters is your family and those who are close to you and you love and live with on a daily basis. No level of work or effort you exude will ever change the fact that those people will love you regardless. As such – it seems to me a perfectly valid question of: “Why bother?” – I’ve poured countless hours into start ups only to be screwed by the founder later in my employment with him (all the while he feigns ignorance of the fact that he’s done this) and it seems no matter how much time, energy, care or compassion I poured into my development career, there is always the question of: “Why in the hell would I sacrifice the limited time I have with my wife and kids for this?”
At the end of it all, you can’t take any of it with you, what you can do is instill your work ethic, your values and your passion in those that matter to you and thus your legend lives on, but at no point should you self-sacrifice for that as the people that love you will no matter what.
I have no idea if this is of any consolation, but as someone who kind-of knows you and can relate to your feelings, I wish you the best in this journey. Others have mentioned it, but perhaps this is a good opportunity for you to grasp this and use it to channel something completely different and interesting to you? :)
Wishing you all the best my friend,
My great down time leads to great up time.
Long ago, I learned to embrace my “learning plateaus.”
If I hadn’t heard the term long ago, I think I would have mis-attributed how I was feeling. I’m OK w/”flat” because it always turns into my springboard.
If it lasts too long, I watch Bruce Lee movies or something along those lines to remind me what it feels like to push past my limits — in either pain, or going for gain.
Sounds like you need to exercise your inner Stoic. You can’t want to be prolific and not want to be prolific at the same time. I do what I feel compelled to do and if I’m not doing it, then I didn’t want to do it.
Scott, thank you for opening this space and sharing your own process. After many years of working with poor communities nonstop, I burned out. Suddenly I could not function. I felt like a bag of feathers; the last feather that came in broke the whole bag. Suddenly, I was all over the place and in despair. My mind was blank, my body was hurting, and my heart was broken. Daily life was too much for me. Just like the bag of feathers, I collapsed. I felt helpless and hopeless. I learned that working with poor communities and having limited economical income had become an accepted everyday reality; creativity was my only life saver in a sea of daily demands. I was confident I could do many things with limited resources and marginal income, however, when I realized that I had used creativity to survive, I knew I needed to change my belief system; one that had been embedded in my bones most of my life. I needed to deconstruct my belief system and connect with creativity as the source and flow of life itself. I knew in my heart I could not do this alone or in an environment where I would be easily distracted. I also knew I needed time alone and an environment that could support and hold all the feelings that were bound to rise up like unearthed memories in a long ago buried time capsule. I enrolled in Julia Cameron’s Artist Way Workshop.
I began to write first thing in the morning before getting out of bed. In the afternoons I walked; spending time by myself not around other people. At least twice a week I did one thing that nourished my heart; ate at my favorite restaurant, went to a matinee movie, took a long bike ride, soaked in a hot tub. I learned the discipline of taking care of myself and in return I discovered more about who I was and what I needed and wanted. The group in Julia’s workshop supported, encouraged, and inspired each other. Starting with acknowledging “burn out”, accepting I was burned out, committing to deconstruct an old belief system, and following through paved the way for a totality of experiences; personal, interpersonal and spiritual transformation. Now I am truly connected to my creative self and able to bring my new connection into my work; passionately.
It’s a phase. I get them, too: I have periods where I write frenetically; others, sometimes for years, in which I can’t be bothered.
I’ve nearly finished writing a novel – it’s been nearly finished for ten years. One day I’ll get around to finishing it – when I’m in the mood. It’s not going anywhere: it’ll wait. I’m in no hurry to finish it, and I don’t feel as though I’ve abandoned it – in fact, leaving it alone for a decade makes me see it all slightly differently. Perhaps I’ll rehash bits to say what I would’ve wanted them to say had I known when I wrote it all the things I know now. In any event, there’s nothing wrong with the fact that it’s taking me years to get around to dealing with it: it’s just the way it’s turning out.
Perhaps you’ve realized subconsciously that ambition is a trap: it implies a time limit, and is thus death-oriented. Perhaps you’re not feeling especially didactic lately: there are, after all, more things to life than continually preaching at people (and I mean that in a good way) – sitting on the couch, doing nothing, is one of those things. I do that a lot. I don’t think I’d be able to do anything else if I didn’t do that very regularly… perhaps you just need a vacation…
…or maybe you’re just happy. Happy people don’t feel the urge to do much of anything: they’re already happy, and thus don’t need to.
Hey bugger. Its tough love going on here. Please read Ephesians 2:8–9.
Take an art class.
I’ve been a computer guy for a long time, and on the “must learn new things” treadmill for several decades. This past year I started to re-evaluate how I prioritize learning, and more importantly, what I had missed out on because “learn new stuff” was my task master. Josh Kaufman’s blog post today resonates with me. What if my goals change over time, do I slavishly follow the same process as before? http://joshkaufman.net/explore-exploit/
I’m finding life, and grace, absent learning. I still love to learn, but I hate being driven by it.
Agreed. You should never be driven by anything, really: you should be the one driving. Glib, but true…
I’ve had times like this in my life before. I call them gestational periods. You are taking things in but not putting anything out. They are good times. Just enjoy it for what it is. Take the time to enjoy each moment. Read books. Look at art. Take walks. Visit with friends. It eventually ends. For me, I’ve always had these periods before I make a big leap forward.
What I love most about this post (and where you are at right now) is that, through it all, you continue to write and post. And that in itself is invaluable to all of us in the Scott Berkun community. I had a huge creative burnout happen in my career, part of the reason I left Microsoft 10 years ago. I spent a long season working on various related projects and waiting for my technical career passion to rekindle – including the brief time that I spent assisting you with YWP. You know what I found out? I was done, D.O.N.E., with technical work. My solution? A 90 degree career change.
Since we’ve last talked, I’ve completely let go of Tech Comms and TC program management. What am I doing now? Getting a Master’s Degree in Fiber Arts and teaching the same at an incredibly hip little yarn shop in Carnation WA.
It’s interesting to read all the comments to you so far. My thoughts? Yeah, you might just need a vacation. It might be a “phase” you have to man up and get through. Maybe not. Knowing you, probably not. Instead, you might be on the verge of a new thing. I hope for your amazing brain and talent (and for what the rest of us will reap as a result) that it IS something new that is calling you. Whatever it is, I encourage you to ride it, get deep down into it, and live it. Which I have no doubt you will.
Best wishes to you as you’re in the middle of this, and am looking forward to what comes next. And to what comes after that.
Out of all the conversations I have had with colleagues over the past 15 years about burnout, one stands out. I was stuck on that question of what one cause was primary, because I figured if I could address that, it would be easier to get back on track. My friend challenged my assumption, and said that all the little things that had been wearing at me over the previous year were like the heat of spring and summer melting the ice underneath the iceberg of life I had been traveling on. Suddenly, enough icemelt happened that a huge crevasse opened up, and I couldn’t avoid falling in. Knowing that the sun was the primary cause of the melting wasn’t going to help me in climbing back up about the crevasse. Giving thanks that I had fallen but survived the fall, calling a few friends who I knew would help me no matter how far away they were, and reaching out to anyone who wandered nearby to ask if they could throw down a rope… those were the things I needed to do in order to climb back.
The other thing I have learned is that the causes of burnout for me are not always mental or conscious. Slight physical issues, such as deviation from my exercise and eating routines, jet lag, allergies or a cold, can add together to put me into a funk and if I don’t realize what is happening, that physical downer can become a mental downer.
I hope you find something that makes you feel hopeful about the future.
I’m sorry you are feeling burnt out. I’m fascinated that your writing shows not even the slightest singe. If there is a place to sign up to be part of that “new circle of creative friends” please put my name down. Traveling through the seasons of work, especially the fallow ones, is so much better with company. For now, I pray you have peace and rest and grace in the apathy.
When I read “I simply feel a slow grinding away of something important has taken place. Something big and heavy that I need has moved and there’s no quick way to move it back.” I thought it cannot be just a coincidence that this is happening to you right after publishing your book about your father…
Anyway, I can personally relate to “Maybe it’s better to live a life where you work only as much as you need to, so that there’s more time left for living?” If I could afford it, I’d take two years of holidays as of tomorrow. But I can’t.
Don’t have any burn out story to share. Don’t think I’ve ever experienced it. But then again, I have probably never done anything as creative and demanding as you have. Although I tend to think I work too much too hard, hence the two-year vacation plan.
I have enjoyed several of your books, man, and would like to thank you for them.
I love that you shared this. I read it just at the right time.
It seems that even when you are searching and refining, you are always relevant and inspiring.
Best wishes :)
At a time when success is shared so publicly it’s so valuable to read your story. Success doesn’t guarantee certainty. Many would just plough through this time without allowing the mental space to reassess. “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself” — Matsuo Bashō
I’m sure we’ll see more inspiring words from you in the future.
All the best until then
I find it interesting that being such an influential and public figure like shares a post that was “all about you”. While I feel for you and have empathy (and truly I am not slamming you), you have set yourself out there as a beacon that many of us follow. I value and trust your honesty about your burnout, but I rely on you to get through it. I met you years ago at one of your first conferences and found you so inspiring that I have been an avid follower ever since (read every book and blog, sent them out to my more intelligent friends to read). In a way I aspire to be you. I work at a Fortune 50 company in a pretty significant job (like you did) but unlike you I have never found the courage of confidence to leave and strike out on my own to live my dream. Please don’t tell me the dream has a dead end or had failed. You don’t know how many of us out here, that are mostly silent, live vicariously through you. So while you may lack the daily interaction that you crave as a part of the natural nature of humans you have that to the extent I think you don’t even realize. You are truly an inspirational leader and we don’t want to lose you.
Scott, I have great respect for your ability to be so open in how you feel.
Changing your environment can help you recalibrate. I’ve always found travel as the best way to help me ‘find myself’ and work out where I want the next path to take me.
Best of British!
Scott! Welcome to the “midlife crisis”, to call it something simple. Beautiful changes are coming up, leave space to listen to the new and unexpected, experiment, enjoy, suffer the necessary and try not to hurry to conclusions. I promise you it´s for the good. I’m open to have a skype conversation if you feel like it.
I am a public speaker who works for state government, and I feel very burned out. I have to hustle to get speaking engagements, create the seminars (fraud awareness), but the administration of the job keeps multiplying due to budget cuts, and that part exhausts me. I’m multi-tasking as fast as I can, then have nothing left when I go home (other than run errands, etc.) I had a meltdown last night, then took a terrible fall when I went to put trash in the dumpster! I have a national conference I really want to atttend, set to leave Sunday, and am trying to get a doctor appt. to make sure my elbow isn’t fractured. Perspective shift!
There is an interesting little book called THE WAR OF ART, and it spoke of a negative force or energy that works against the creative force. I believe there is something to that, and I recommend that book to anyone in a creative profession. Scott, I know you will find your way to a new path, and your reading public will be all the better for your insights. P.S. You are one of my favorite writers, and I learned much from Confessions of a Public Speaker.
Took a look at that book THE WAR OF ART. It really looks interesting.
Here is a link with quotes from the book:
Scott, thanks for writing this blog post. I’m sure many people can relate to the feelings you described.
For me, a lot of this comes down to what motivates us. We feel a certain way everyday, and then, what do we do with these emotions…what kind of output do we have with them?
It seems there are two major forces that motivate us…fear on the one hand and fearlessness on the other. Both are very powerful feelings that to get us moving. Fear can be debilitating or empowering to get us moving. Fearlessness can get us in trouble or help tackle something no rational person ever would and go for it. I have found that each can have a positive or negative output. But what makes us have fear or what makes us feel fearless? that is the real question.
By getting to the root causes for these feelings we can understand where our emotions might be coming from. We can learn to harness these emotions and energy and turn it into the kind of output we want.
Scott: You never know when, where, how, or under what circumstances someone will read, hear, or be exposed to what you say, have said, or have written that will chnage their life forever.
Keep on making a difference…it DOES matter!
We all go through similar stuff in our own way. The purpose makes a critical part in defining what we do? how we do? when we do? … I think you may like to catch some reading at http://madhyasth-darshan.info/ and see if it relates. Best wishes. Life is living accordance with coexistence leading to mutual happiness, prosperity and continuous happiness.
My two cents: I think there are a LOT of people who love your work, even if you didn’t tweet or blog post so much. (Or at all.) Count me in that camp; I love your work. So, if it helps you to cut back on blogging or tweeting, then confidently do so. You’re awesome because of your PRIMARY work — your books, your lectures, your friendship. I sincerely wish you the best of luck.
It took me a while to read your post, even though I was curious to see what it was about. I have been weaning myself off of 5 years of over the top workload. Like you, I have gone through many “adrenaline hangovers” after finishing an extended period of hard word and deadlines. During those hangovers, I feel like I’m swimming through molasses. I walk the dogs, watch movies, cook. The hangovers typically last about 3 days.
Funny though, as the years pass and I get older, I finally realized a couple of important things.
1. I simply can’t push myself the way I used to. My mind and body aren’t as resilient as they used to be. I can’t mutlitask the way I used to. I tell people I’m becoming a diva (tongue in cheek). The reality is that I need to plan my work schedule more carefully. I can’t work as hard so I need to be smarter about what work I do and when I do it. I push back on the requests from my publishers and other clients and tell them when I can do the work they want me to do. It actually works. I have most of my work schedule laid out through April 2016.
2. Everyone I do work for loves me, but my friends were forgetting about me, because I was always so busy. I decided that I need to have more fun, spend more time with friends, let them know that I actually exist. I didn’t want to die and have people remember me only by the work I’ve done. I’m making progress on that and it’s totally worth it.
One last point. Someone suggested that I read Buddha’s Brain which is a fascinating book that covers neuroscience and meditation (primarily mindfulness). It explains so much. And I can see that it is going to help me with my path forward.
I know you will find your way out of your burnout and figure things out. I’m looking forward to hearing more about this from you.
I just wanted to take a moment and thank you for this beautiful line in your comment:
“I have gone through many “adrenaline hangovers” after finishing an extended period of hard word and deadlines. During those hangovers, I feel like I’m swimming through molasses.”
I really resonated with the way I feel. Also, thanks for the book recommendation, it is on my to read list ;)
I’m glad that resonated with you. i am also happy to report that I haven’t over-committed to work in more than a year.
I struggled with this too. My google-fu was running short of options, but today I miraculously got on this here post (it’s awesome by the way!)
I realised that some causes of these burnouts could be because of perfectionism, or because I am forcing myself to love the only thing I was good at in order to become better at it (graphic design, yep.) Sometimes it helps to imagine a mini argument in your head between the good, positive, hard-working you and the evil, negative, persuasive you. I’m a student at the moment so I haven’t lived far enough to come up with good answers but this is all I got.
I too am suffering from creative burnout. My thoughts are scattered and fractured, I’m tired and bored with everything. I’m wondering if this is only a natural state when living a creative life? Did Jung or Nietzche experience this emptyness suddenly and unexpected, where you’re sick of looking at your workspace and the thought of being creative completely dismays you?
Or is it conditioned by limiting beliefs and and memories of failures and things left undone?
It actually helps to write this.
I worked for 12 years doing graphics for a company where I was underpaid and underappreciated. The only saving grace was that I worked alongside two of my best friends and that the informal atmosphere allowed for a lot of fun times. But the stress I pushed away finally piled up until one day I had a panic attack and (literally) ran out of the office screaming. I never went back. That was a little over a year ago.
I totally stopped doing anything artistic for months. I got a retail job and cut off all freelance.
It’s been a year and the creativity still isn’t back. I find myself asking “why it all matters.” I tried a few freelance projects, some super easy, and my brain just won’t focus enough to get them done. Even my artists friends (who have been super supportive) don’t really understand.
I read your original article and this one and there are some great tips. My “well” is not empty; I have managed some personal artwork. But I think I will try out a few of your suggestions to see if I’m ready to create for someone else again.
Good luck with it – I wish you well. One person I know was a creative and talented lawyer, one of the best in her field. As the work and politics and pressure piled on, her performance suffered. She left the organisation around five years ago, made adjustments, and is now back to her creative and talented best. While she is happy now, it was not always an easy or pleasant journey and, in hindsight, a person’s feelings are not always the best guide as to whether they are progressing. Sometimes it feels like progress and sometimes it doesn’t, but keep going regardless.
It’s almost like the idea that fuels you needs to stay fresh to keep you going. But if you dedicate your life to a certain goal and that goal becomes less of value or less possible over time – e.g. because it wasn’t real enough and you see it now, or it wasn’t really what you wanted – then the motivation dies out. But if you don’t understand it, don’t see inside yourself deep enough, you’ll start shifting from following a passion to forcing yourself. And then you burn out.
I think I have burned out multiple times – fashion designer, textile artist, and most recently as a sculptor: over 10 years I built a successful practice and won some major awards and sold some big works but all the work came with massively difficult very public and set-in-stone deadlines followed by the subsequent adrenaline hangover, with each iteration harder to come out of…
I slowed up the sculpture work when I bought a house in the bush that I wanted to renovate but that now has become burdensome and after 2 years is not yet finished. I have the best art studio I have ever had at my new place but it is still not set up and is filled with junk. I have no emotional energy to set it up. I have not made any artwork for over a year now. I just started working for an organization to project management some public art projects but I am not sure I can do it – 4 weeks in and if I am already shredded.
That complete lack of motivation is such a horrible feeling of ineptitude and loss and confusion.