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)