Trying: A Post-Mortem Examination of My Burnout
August 21, 2021
“She’s learned to relax (a bit) and not put so much pressure on herself.” It sounds like a quote from my therapist. It’s not. It’s a comment my second grade teacher made on a report card in 1987. I found it this year when I was unpacking an old shoebox in my new apartment. The teacher’s comment was reassuring. I’ve always been this way.
Until the end of 2020 when burnout hit me like a ton of bricks, trying and its attendant pressure was my modus operandi, my identity, at work. Okay—I’ll be honest—it still is. But I reflected on 2020 and learned a few things about trying and how I work. This story is the post-mortem on my burnout.
Who knows why we are the way we are? I won’t pretend to be able to explain how I ended up this way. Here is what I know. When I was a kid my main job was to do what my parents told me and go to school. My parents rewarded me when I completed my chores, came home from Kick the Can on time, and earned good grades at school. It might be that simple; I don’t know. What I do know is that by the time I was 8 years old my propensity for trying warranted a comment on my report card. Trying was deep-seated. I put pressure on myself. I was afflicted.
What does it mean to try?
Merriam-Webster provides a few definitions. My trying affliction is comprehensive, so let’s go one by one.
I make attempts. Before I had a job, the funniest attempt I made (I think) was when I tried out for the role of Sylvia the Witch in the Junior High School musical, “Dracula, Baby.” I know that I’m a stranger on the internet to you, but anyone who knows me and reads this story will laugh. (I am tone-deaf.) My mom tells me that she can’t believe I went through with it, and her disbelief lasted until the moment she saw me on stage. My long-suffering little sister who shared a room with me knew better. She helped me practice my lines.
I subject myself to strain and hardship that test the powers of endurance. I could tell you about the time I ran a marathon, but it doesn’t count. My trying affliction didn’t get me into that situation; it was too much wine, peer pressure and an inflatable unicorn horn. Law school––now there is an example of strain and hardship. Strain because law school is a huge volume of work combined with a pressure cooker environment. At my alma mater 75% of the final grade for most classes rode on one exam. Hardship because I chose to go to a school that cost 40 grand per year which I funded myself with student loans. (But this story isn’t about questionable decisions.)
I seek to fit or finish what I’m doing with accuracy. According to a 2014 CliftonStrengths assessment, “[My] Responsibility theme forces [me] to take psychological ownership of anything [I] commit to, and whether large or small, [I] feel emotionally bound to follow it through to completion.” It goes further to state, “this near obsession for doing things right [ . . . ] combines to create [my] reputation: utterly dependable.” This may explain to my mom why I didn’t back out of the Sylvia the Witch gig when I realized that it involved a solo song performance. That’s good though, right? Not necessarily. My 2011 Insights Discovery assessment noted a blind spot: “Because of her self-containment, she has difficulty sharing her reactions, feelings and concerns with others; it seems unnecessary for her to do so.”
Finally, I seek to demonstrate and prove. After I graduated from law school, I recall my dad reminiscing with a laugh, “once you decide to do something, you just dig in and do it.” We were talking about how I became a lawyer. How I made it onto the law review. How I got an A on a paper about jury nullification that told the story of his refusal to be inducted into the draft and subsequent People v. Henry Hawke case. (Does this make us more similar than I thought?)
I tell myself that this compulsion to demonstrate and prove is because “I have grit.” But I know now that’s not the whole story. Maybe I do have grit, but I also try. I try a lot.
It sounds less pathetic to say “I have grit” than it does to say “I try so hard that I break in silence.”
Startup Case Study
In 2016 I got an opportunity to attempt something new. I moved to San Francisco for a job at a tech startup. Over the next several years in this job, all the facets of my trying affliction would be firing full bore.
Looking back, I approached my new job with a gusto for trying that was previously unmatched. I was in a new industry at a small company. There was no shortage of things for me to attempt. I found this so invigorating. I loved the opportunity to create projects from scratch and put things in place that helped the company grow.
The startup job trying cycle harkened back to a familiar reward system. It went like this at work: learn something new, create (attempt) something new, put my creation to use, and see the creation pay off. I realize now that this is a lot like: go to school, complete my homework, receive a good report card, earn praise from my parents and get $10. That was bus money to Thayer Street in Providence where I bought thread to make friendship bracelets. I still think that making attempts is the best part of trying.
Strain and hardship at startups is common, just like in law school. But at a startup it’s fun (well, it can be, I know I am one of the lucky ones). The strain resulted from how much work there was to do and not because of the environment itself (unlike law school). All of my attempts were obviously going to result in some strain. This was acceptable to me, even enjoyable. Remember, I was deep in the attempt-reward cycle, my endurance was strong.
“Ownership” and “impact” are common buzzwords people use to rationalize why they join startups. I’m no exception. As time went on, I had opportunities to expand my work on several fronts, resulting in oodles of ownership to prove and impact to demonstrate. I took on managing new subject areas requiring me to research, teach myself new things, and learn from others on the team (on repeat). I expanded some of our programs resulting in certifications that helped grow business. I became a people manager and then a manager of managers.
It didn’t stop at work. I volunteered for a nonprofit to learn more about the industry and connect with other women, ending up in a leadership role. I accepted speaking engagements and writing assignments for industry events, podcasts and publications (none of them paid, for the record). I became a mentor. Accuracy and quality of my work, whatever it was, remained extremely important to me. I was unwilling to compromise.
My burnout arrived with all of the hallmark signs: I was anxious and felt a sense of failure no matter what I delivered; I couldn’t sleep; I lost my motivation and the lack purpose left me feeling helpless; I had emotional outbursts in the form of crying on Friday nights when my husband asked how I was doing; I had an increasingly cynical outlook. I was just done. And I knew it.
The realization that I could not continue what I was doing was both crushing and freeing—probably my only experience with catharsis. My dad will be pleased when he hears that I didn’t need peyote buttons to achieve it (I was listening!).
I could have asked for more resources and support to help me. I could have spoken up earlier about the strain. I could have politely declined more outside engagements. Looking back, my trying affliction stopped me. Specifically, my need to demonstrate and prove. My blind spot. My “grit.”
Trying morphed into a fixation on continuing to demonstrate and prove to the world that I could do the job. The demonstrating and proving facet of trying influenced everything. The attempts I made. The amount of strain I was willing to endure. The sheer volume of work requiring accuracy and dependability. Put simply, I cared too much about proving that I was capable of doing the job.
But I didn’t want the job. It sounds simple now, but it took me a long time to accept the realization that all of my trying had culminated into a reward that I didn’t want. When I realized this towards the end of 2020, I was freed. Well, not totally (I still have to work), but freed from the guilt and fear about moving on.
I am still trying. Trying is ok. Trying is actually good. Trying is who I am and that is never going to change. But I learned to be aware when a situation turns the multiple facets of trying into a singular desire or need for demonstrating and proving.
These days I focus a lot more on personal interests and I pay attention to how I try at work. There is so much joy to be found by spending trying energy on your interests instead of only your work. In January, the month of my fresh start, I set a goal to read 52 books in 2021. I’m two ahead of schedule.
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