Talking about burnout, again

I’m currently reading Jonny Sun’s latest essay collection Goodbye, Again. Throughout the book he mentions his attachment to work as a measure of his self-worth and the lingering burnout that ensues from this pattern. Before reading this I had finished Anne Helen Petersen’s Can’t Even, a nonfiction title expounding on millennial burnout—how it happened, how pervasive it is, and how we grasp at straws to solve for it individually when it is a societal problem. Last week’s “article of the week” was Adam Grant’s NYT piece on “languishing”, a fuzzy umbrella term to capture the combined feeling of slight burnout and slight depression, a word that anyone could feel safe to claim without fear of comparison (“my suffering is greater than yours”).

Compared to last year pre-pandemic, the discussion around burnout has proliferated. The word cannot be escaped—so many friends are feeling burnt out more than ever, either working more while stuck inside their homes or working less because they stopped giving a shit but feeling too drained to look for new jobs. Employers are offering seminars to employees on strategies to handle burnout, and managers are encouraging time off “if you need it”. Looking at Twitter or Instagram there are lots of mini-viral posts pushing back on the “work hard play hard” mentality, previously the gold standard way of life.

These are all great things! I’m thrilled that a portion of society is acknowledging burnout as a major problem, even though it mostly comes hand in hand with advice oriented around individual actions (my article from last year is guilty of this). I don’t find this to be bad, as long as there is also the acknowledgement that burnout is an issue much greater than one person, and that it can only be fixed equitably with policy changes, unions, and the like. What feels lacking from a lot of anti-burnout advice, however, is questioning what we should be replacing work with, if we cannot live sustainably by putting it on a pedestal. Sure, we can rest, go on vacation, set boundaries and schedules. But after we feel recharged, what will we go back to if we haven’t determined other important things in our lives besides work?

On The Cut’s podcast, therapist Esther Perel suggests diversifying one’s values and priorities with things like “art, nature, community volunteerism, activism. There’s lots of ways to connect to something bigger than you.” These are great suggestions, but can we really approach our newly defined priorities in a healthy way?

In my last newsletter I mentioned I had been pouring in a lot of energy towards art. Really I had been treating my art practice as a job, something I needed to track and measure and share to “get feedback” but also for self-promotion. I have since grown tired and have barely made anything this month. In years past I would have wondered if I was giving up in fear of success or failure. I would have assumed I wanted a creative full-time job. I know now that I’m content with my work as is and that I was genuinely tired and questioning, what’s the point of doing this? Yep, that’s burnout.

Capitalism—specifically the stock market—has encouraged constant growth. To have a year of no profits (but no losses!) is seen as a bad sign to investors. We know and abide by this system so much that we are now waking up and seeing that we also expect constant growth of ourselves. I can diversify my priorities all I want, but if I am chasing and stressing and ultimately deteriorating over each new priority that I deem, the harm remains the same. The hardest component of combating burnout, one that I still struggle to see as acceptable, is to allow myself to be dormant (thanks to Austin Kleon’s blog post on this).

If I have figured out the ways in which I like to spend my time, can I just do these things with no expectations? Can I let myself change by intuition rather than a regimented, productivity-oriented schedule, following wherever my energy flows? I know the answer is Yes, Why the Heck Not, but to do this feels like a reckless act upon my future self who could be worse off than I am today.

Jonny Sun captures this sentiment in his essay “A Waste of Time and Energy”:

I cannot imagine a world where I do not spend my whole life working. Work is perhaps the closest thing to a universal language that I know… And I cannot imagine a freedom in no longer working because I cannot imagine a reality where I no longer need to work to survive.

And so there is perhaps some small freedom, then, or perhaps just a tiny bit of relief, in directing our time and energy to something that we ourselves choose to do, with people we choose to be with.

I may never stop working. Maybe that’s not ideal and we want to dream of a society without labor, but I’d argue that most people appreciate and value work, even if their current working situation is not optimal. This doesn’t mean I have to let work and my mindset towards it seep into all other areas of my life. I can, and I want, to put my intuition on a pedestal, to trust the deeply embedded voice inside that says, you don’t have to always be growing or striving. Not moving forward doesn’t mean things will fall apart. You can stay here, take in what’s happening, and let things brew within you. They’ll come out when they’re ready.

I hope you believe the same can be true for you too.

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