Recovering From Burnout

This text represents the long-form content from a conference talk I gave in Portland, OR at the 2013 ExpressionEngine Conference.

Blowing On Embers

2012 was a very good year for business for 16toads. Looking back it’s hard for me to believe that my gross revenue was up almost 300%. At one point, I had seven contractors toiling away on work for me. Work was plentiful. I was managing five large projects - three of my own and two for colleagues in the EE community, nine small projects, and a providing maintenance for another dozen clients. 

All the while trying to work on my own side projects. 

As if that wasn’t enough, six months into the year, I was wrapping up the legal proceedings for my divorce. My personal life was in a complete shambles.

On June 1, I moved into a temporary space, a spare room in a colleague’s office, with a minimum of personal affects and boxed my life into a storage unit. I moved twice in 2012. For the next five months, I buried myself in work. Long hours, weekends, anything to keep my mind off my personal troubles. 

Then between October and November things started to change. Rapidly. I wrapped up two of the five large projects. And I lost the remaining three big jobs I had been working on within a two-week period. One because the client blew their budget and decided to put up design contests on 99 Designs using my work as benchmarks for completing the project. I lost another because my internal contact got fired and the client decided not to utilize any of his external resources moving forward. And despite repeated followups, I have no idea why I lost the third. Such is business. 

The loss of these three jobs was huge. All three were supposed to have been multi-year projects slated to last at the least through 2013. As a result of selling these projects, I had to turn away numerous other jobs. The downside of being a sole proprietor hit swiftly and I suddenly didn’t have any work. 

By October 31, 2012 I was cooked. Done. Finished. I had flamed out. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. Completely unable to concentrate. What I came to realize after sorting through the mental rubble was that I had achieved burnout in spectacular fashion.

Day after day, for the first two weeks of November, I stared at the wall. I had lengthy conversations with no one in particular, allowed my existing clients to languish, avoided phone calls, and ignored leads. I didn’t so much as pick up a pencil, push a pixel, or edit code. I couldn’t do anything. I avoided Twitter like it was an infectious disease. And barely talked to anyone, even my best friend. 

Over the course of that month, I realized that I’d hit a brick wall and I had no idea how to find my way around the amorphous edifice blocking my path. I had no earthly idea how to deal with the crushing sense of “enough” that I felt deep within the core of my being. My sense of optimism had been battered and bruised beyond recognition. I didn’t know if I hated my job, loved my job, or simply no longer cared. I’d lost all sense of myself and of my accomplishments. My heavy foot fell squarely into the steel jaws of the bear trap we call “services” and clamped shut. 

I felt like I’d been through an industrial spin cycle without the benefit or lubrication of water. I had to do something drastic to right my sinking ship. 

Two weeks passed. I’d been nothing more than a lump of shit watching hour after hour after hour of Battlestar Galactica and Burn Notice and dozens of kung fu movies and barely watchable B movies on Netflix. I began making a nightly circuit of each restaurant and bar within walking distance of my temporary home. 

On Nov. 17, 2012, I clicked a link, got out my Amex and made a “fuck it” purchase that set in motion a plan I had been dreaming about for many months. A plan that I knew would provide me with the physical and emotional distance I needed to sort out my thoughts and get me back on track. A plan that would help me find Paul amidst the whirlwind of shit swirling about my head. 

I bought myself a ski pass not entirely sure that I would follow through and put it to use. It was initially an insurance policy for my ski season. A possibility without a concrete plan or sense of commitment. 

The first week of December, three things happened ... 

First, I somehow landed four illustration projects that first week. Two paying. Two favors. 

The second was the catalyst. I received a phone call from one of the colleagues I’d spent the better part of 2102 working with to develop a partnership. I was informed that the merger was going to be announced publicly. With one fairly significant change … I was no longer part of the team. No discussion or forewarning. I was out. And the only rationale that made sense was that a determination had been made to use cheaper, less experienced design talent. I handled the situation with as much aplomb as I could manage, but I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut.

The clincher came the very next day when I was told that my temporary living arrangement would be coming to an end sooner than I had anticipated. And I realized that if I stayed until my lease ran out, I would have to find a new place to live and move smack in the middle of ski season. This potential disruption was untenable.

The very next day I notified my colleague that I would be moving out of his downstairs office space on Dec. 31 and began packing up my things to transfer into my storage unit. 

After languishing for an entire month, decisions came fast and furious. I decided that I would be taking a sabbatical and leaving Atlanta for two full months.

I would need a larger storage unit. I started seriously looking at trading in my Prius for a more comfortable and practical winter car, notified my clients of my plans, booked the first hotel room, and confirmed my intentions with friends across the country. And slowly began clawing back to my sense of self.

During the last week of December, I finished moving the last of my belongings into my storage unit. I enjoyed an unexpectedly fantastic Christmas that lifted my spirits immensely. Nonetheless, 2012 came to a close with the unceremonious cancellation of the illustration project I had just finished that I was most excited about.

I felt the need to leave everything behind in the marrow of my bones. 

On December 31st, I was homeless.

The morning of January 2 arrived with a magical flourish and a huge, vibrant smile. I met a potential client at 10am for coffee and quiche. By noon I was heading west on I20 at seventy miles per hour with an exciting new client in my back pocket and a project start date of March 1, 2013. 

Certain of what lay ahead geographically and determined to drive to Seattle and back, but entirely uncertain how this forthcoming saga would play out. All I knew for sure was that I would not be returning to Atlanta until March 1. For two months, I would be following a figure eight path around the west from Tahoe to to Portland to Seattle to Idaho to Wyoming to Utah to Aspen with a single-minded purpose. My goal was to ski at least thirty days in one season for the first time since 1991.

I drove just under 9,000 miles. Visited 22 states. 18 Ski areas. And managed to bag 26 days on snow. And it turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made. Despite the fact that I really couldn’t afford the expense. 


Clinically speaking, I experienced "job burnout"

The Mayo Clinic describes job burnout as a condition resulting from a variety of potential causes:

  1. Lack of control
  2. Unclear job expectations
  3. Dysfunctional workplace dynamics
  4. Mismatch in values
  5. Poor job fit
  6. Extremes of activity
  7. Lack of social support
  8. Work-life imbalance

The Mayo clinic lists stress as a consequence of job burnout, but it’s really the root cause. I experienced items 1-8 on this list to one degree or another. And it’s worth noting that my experience with burnout didn’t end the moment I left for the trip. I dealt with the aftermath the entire time I was away and well into 2013 after I had returned. Finding motivation proved to be very difficult. 

And the consequences are:

  1. Excessive stress
  2. Fatigue
  3. Insomnia
  4. A negative spillover into personal relationships or home life
  5. Depression
  6. Anxiety
  7. Alcohol or substance abuse
  8. Heart disease
  9. High cholesterol
  10. Type 2 diabetes, especially in women
  11. Stroke
  12. Obesity
  13. Vulnerability to illnesses

What's the best way to handle job burnout?

  1. Manage the stressors
  2. Evaluate your options
  3. Adjust your attitude
  4. Seek support
  5. Assess your interests, skills and passions
  6. Get some exercise

"Job burnout" isn’t considered a disorder by the medical establishment. You won’t find it in the DSM-V. It is, however, a condition that traces it’s roots back to our parents generation when working 9-to-5 jobs for corporations on the road to pensions were the norm.

The term "work-life balance" also came into being around this time. And the whole idea was that it was necessary to separate one’s work life from one’s personal life. 

So how does an average person strike an optimum work-life balance?

  1. Track your time
  2. Take advantage of your options
  3. leave work at work
  4. manage your time
  5. Bolster your support system
  6. Nurture yourself

The problem as I see it is that these ideas don’t apply to our industry. But especially people who work for themselves or own their own businesses. The vast majority of us have friends in the business, hang out with industry people, and view work as being something akin to a passion. 

So how then do we find that perfect balance?

I don’t think we do. I prefer to think of work life balance as more of a blend, a "work-life blend". I don’t recall exactly where I heard this term, but it rings true. It resonated with me. There is simply no possible way for me to separate my work life from my personal life. There is too much crossover. So the best approach in my mind is to find the right blend. And this is what each one of you have to answer on your own. 

The danger of trying to find a perfect blend of professional and personal is that it opens the door to burnout. This is the catch-22. You are constantly immersed in your profession.

How many of you have experienced burn out? I’m going to guess that few, if any of you have experienced burnout to the degree that it potentially harms your career or interpersonal relationships. In fact, I’m going to say that what you experienced was project fatigue, not burnout. Just the basic feeling of ennui we normally have when a project has gone on a month too long, or dealing with a difficult client, or we are working on a project that no longer excites us.

Most of us are keenly aware of the ebb and flow of our individual work-life balance. When times are busy, we all too often push the boundaries at the expense of our loved ones or our health or interests. And we justify our frustration with all manner of excuses. 

Burnout is cumulative. It's not simply exhaustion. It's straight-up debilitation.

What does it mean to burnout? I always thought I knew when to draw the line in the sand. When enough was enough and I had to take time for myself. I always thought I’d be able to identify the precise moment I had to back off working and feed my creative soul. 

What I’ve come to realize is that burnout is not a clear delineation of time and place. It isn’t a mile marker on your career path. And this is where I disagree with clinical diagnosis of job burnout because clinical descriptions view it as an isolated event. 

But it’s not. Burn-out is cumulative. It's not simply exhaustion. It's straight-up debilitation that can lead to destruction ... resulting from a constant cycle of working yourself to exhaustion without truly understanding the consequences to your larger self. It is a state of being that grows like a tumor until it manifests itself when you least expect it. It's not an easy thing to recognize the warning signs. I believe it is safe to say most people don't possess the self-awareness to grasp the totality of their circumstance. How it all fits together. And no one truly does until the breaking point is in pieces. Despite regular exercise, getting out of the office, and everything else I did to manage time and effort and stress, it hit me like a sledgehammer. 

All of the frustrations, mistakes, annoyances, even successes of working over twenty years accumulated to the point that it eventually imploded during a time of personal distress. 

I realize this is a generalization, but for most of us what we refer to as "burnout" is actually nothing more than a state of dissatisfaction. A temporary place we get to when we realize we haven’t seen our kids in three days. Or when we have a friend who tells us “dude, you need a break”. And we combat the fatigue with a weekend “away” ... when we disconnect from the electronic world and spend time with our families. But we aren’t really addressing the core problem. We cover it with a bandaid and move on.

Burnout isn’t a definitive place. And your dissatisfaction is not simply a measure of working too much. It's not something that can be covered with a bandaid. Burnout guts you. It hollows out your core. It is a measure of not understanding that the accumulation of ALL stressors in your life push you past the breaking point. In other words, your work is a stressor, your family is a stressor, your friends are stressors — for example, no matter how much you love spending time with your kids, they are still a job. And the thing you lose on the road to burnout is your sense of self. You forget to feed your soul. You forget to take time for you and only you. 


I had thousands of miles to ponder my situation and my headspace. Thinking about where I was. How I got here. All the mistakes I’d made. And what I needed to do to make it right. To salvage a ship that I felt was sinking. I felt like I was standing neck deep in rising water. 

2012 was, by all measures, a very good year for my company. But looking back on it now, I would be hard-pressed to call it a successful one. 

Barely two weeks into the trip, while sitting on top of a mountain, basking in brilliant sunlight, staring off into the distant snowcapped peaks, I answered the question that had occupied my thoughts for nearly 2500 miles. It was an answer I have avoided for years. Justifying my decisions to support my lifestyle. “Am I happy doing what I am doing?” 

And the answer was definitive. No.

For years, I have traveled a path in business that lead me away from my passions. I’ve come to realize that my decision to not expand my business and hire employees, after twenty years in business mind you, had as much to do with my lack of interest in creating an agency as it did with an unconscious voice telling me that if I made that move it would take me yet another step, probably the final step, away from my dreams. In short, I now believe that I have purposely sabotaged my business potential in order to save myself. Three cheers for the unconscious self. 

My realization seems simple enough. How could I possibly not know I wasn’t happy in my day job? Web design is a great job. Even on the front end, we get paid to create amazing little engines that function in a digital space. But it’s easy to lose sight of your dreams when you are making money and being “successful”. It’s easy to forget where you are when you wrap up a fantastic project with great clients. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of the work-to-live cycle. This trip was meant to reverse that degenerative cycle. I wanted to live to work, not the other way around.

But it’s also easy to overlook some obvious facts. 1) for every great client you have, you have ten mediocre clients and a couple you should fire. 2) for every awesome project you get to work on, you have twenty that merely pay the bills. 3) for every step you take to improve the business, another “professional” erases your good intentions with bad decision-making. And that is why our industry is mired in the status quo.

I pondered these thoughts deeply. Weaving webs of logic in my head that pulled together concepts and ideas that I’ve been mulling over for the better part of the past decade. Sorting through the good ideas to get to the great ideas. Piecing together an amorphous puzzle, attempting to find the cohesive a’hah! I knew it was in there somewhere. I just didn’t know where it was hiding.

Along the way, I shared some of my ideas with friends and colleagues to gauge the viability of the concepts. It wasn’t until I was sipping a fine single malt in Seattle at Tini Bigs with a good friend that my best ideas finally achieved clarity. And it took a keen ear and collaborative idea swapping to get to that moment. I left feeling energized in way I hadn’t felt in years. And this satori had only required thousands of miles, days of heavy physical activity, vast open spaces, hour upon hour of reflection, and meeting numerous people over drinks - essentially disconnecting from the life and routine I was accustomed to in order to make that moment happen. 

Theo Chocolate

Over the previous two days in Seattle, I had had the good fortune to tour Theo Chocolate, the only“fair trade” chocolate factory in the United States, and have drinks with the owner, Joe Whinney. In a nutshell, he’s one of the most inspiring individuals I’ve had the pleasure to have a conversation with. I listened intently as he shared his experiences of sourcing cocoa beans from the Congo and various locations around the globe. His passion and purpose were etched into his face and weighted every word that passed through his lips. As fascinating as the stories were, there was one question that I wanted to have answered. “Why chocolate”, I asked. 

He paused and described how he had been lucky enough to travel widely as a young man and he explained how he had noticed a connection between the people and the land that caused him to rethink his own views about commerce. The connection he recognized was the cocoa bean. 

His vision has created a company that directly sources ingredients from farmers, improves their lives, protects their habitat, and produces a fabulous product that generates recurring income. He created a small cycle of life. 

Fifty Shades of Black

Another remarkable individual I met this past year is Carlton Mackey - He’s an artist and scholar and serves as the Director of the Ethics & the Arts Program at the Emory University Center for Ethics in Atlanta.

Fifty Shades of Black is a project he launched this past year that explores the dynamic between sexuality and skin tone in the formation of identity in contemporary society. 

It’s a phenomenal project that grew out of an idea and a simple graphic. And it lead to the publication of a coffee table book, development of an online and offline community, and has raised awareness by fostering communication.

I’m not suggesting that either one of these stories have direct relevance to web design and development. I offer them today as examples of what I consider to be valuable experiments in creating real, lasting value. What are you not "seeing" that could lead to potential opportunities for collaboration or as sparks for your own ideas?

My own dreams have languished in excuses for years. My exposure to Joe Whinney and Carlton Mackey jumpstarted an excitement that I only feel when I have a pencil in my hand. 

These experiences caused me to rethink everything about my career path. And two thoughts that stood out are relevant to everyone in this room ... web designers and developers alike.

The first realization is that very few of us are working anywhere near our true potential. We do what we do because we can. And we must to support our lifestyles and families.

The second thought is the one that really resonated with me. Embedded itself and wouldn’t let go. And it begins with this statement, 

“We don’t need another fucking todo app.” 

[graphic - refer to slide deck]

Take a look at this: Every icon on this page represents a different todo or list application. And this only represents a fraction of similar apps available. Why are we wasting so much time trying to reinvent the wheel? Does anyone else find this absurd? 

Taking this thought further, you can replace todo with CMS, or calendar, or GTD process or any number of applications. 

[graphic - refer to slide deck]

Can anyone tell me what this is? 

This is my todo list. I write a note on this with a pen or pencil. Then stick to something like my monitor or even my phone. And it reminds me to do something. When I’ve finished the task, I remove it and throw it away. 

Now someone will argue, that’s great, but how would teams work with post it notes? My response: How much time do you invest in creating highly detailed lists of things you need to do for every step in a project? Even if you can duplicate lists, by annotating every single step in a process you’ve created the perception that the step is critical to your process. Why do you think it critical that every member of your team needs access to this list? And it’s virtually guaranteed that someone in this room hired a dedicated manager to handle generating these hyper detailed lists. 

[graphic - refer to slide deck]

As a community, we regularly pat ourselves on the back for helping “create the internet as we know it”. Designing and building the tools we all use to help others achieve ROI through their web or multimedia investments. We create apps that promote communication, community, and efficiencies. We help people improve their lives. We round corners and apply gradients. And marvel at clean code. Right?

But how often do any of us consider the consequences of what we create?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we haven’t done the world any favors. I’m not even suggesting that the aforementioned tools don’t have their benefits. Quite the contrary. However, I am suggesting that we simply are not working to our highest potentials. 

I am suggesting that all the time we spend developing and redeveloping the same ideas and repackaging them as “new” solutions can and should be better spent. 

What I am suggesting is that our business and the steps we take to advance our careers, on the whole, have very little consequence to the larger world. In reality, all we do is create tools for one another to buy and utilize to streamline our businesses. Ephemeral claptrap that will be replaced in a month or six months. How much time do each of you spend looking for the perfect project management tool or bookkeeping tool? The latest and greatest tool we use to revolutionize our business is only the latest and greatest until something “better” comes along. We aren’t actually creating anything of any real value. We create expensive content managed web sites for clients who never utilize the full potential of the systems we build. We rewrite the same book on how to run a freelance business, CSS, content management, responsive design, and whatever over and over. We create templates and frameworks and icons and web design assets and all manner of shit to sell to our colleagues to help make "designing" easier. We produce podcasts so we can interview the same twenty people ad nauseum. We attend conferences that regurgitate exactly the same information we heard at the last conference. Then we post to Twitter magical platitudes from talks as if it is the first time we’ve ever heard it.

Why are more of us not working to create solutions for real problems? And by “real”, I am referring to problems that affect the world outside of our bubbles.

I’m not excusing myself from this cycle either ... quite the contrary.

Our collective talents are so deep and so passionate, yet we spend all of our time attempting to come up with the next, greatest web-based subscription tool. Why are we not dedicating, at least, a portion of our time positively* working to support environmental issues, education reform, poverty, renewable energies, and on and on and on. It doesn’t matter what the issue is that you hold dear to your heart. 

We have the skills to help solve these critical issues. Or at least contribute to solutions. We simply don’t do enough to take advantage of the position we have as designers and developers to foment change.

Instead we engage in a myopic arguments and flame one another on Twitter like a bunch of whiny little bitches. We argue about what desktop design application is no longer relevant. We spend countless hours eroticizing the latest gadget and iPhone app.  Or arguing the merits of design styles like “flat design” as if it wasn’t an art movement that originated in the 1950‘s. Or we accuse people of certain behavior because we don’t like their opinion.

The only question(s) I see as being relevant any longer is this ...

  • Does my mother understand or care about what I am producing? 
  • Does my father understand or care about what I am producing?
  • Does my son or daughter understand or care about what I am producing?
  • Do my friends understand or care about what I am producing?
  • Does my neighbor understand or care about what I am producing?

How many of your moms and dads and even friends who work outside of the web community ... care about a new app that allows you to organize Basecamp Todos?  Or a new CMS? Or a subscription tool that allows you get a sign off from a client. I’m willing to bet that none of them give a rat’s backside about managing todos in something called Basecamp.

How do any of the things we build matter to the world outside of our bubble? 
 

For years, I have supported environmental causes with yearly donations. But I’ve never followed through on generating the ideas that could really make a difference. That would allow me to participate in a positive way instead of just sending them a check. This is where I am extremely critical of myself because for the last twenty years I’ve excused myself by saying such things as “I don’t have the time” or “I have to put food on the table”.

I determined that my goal over the next five years will be to cut the stultifying cord of web design and development. I have a multitude of reasons for this decision, but at its core is a deep dissatisfaction with the web/tech community. And the realization that “value” means exactly nothing in today’s commercial landscape. Value is what we try to convince ourselves we offer to clients because we can’t justify our rates in a competitive environment. Whether I like it or not, I am nothing more and nothing less than a commodity. I am a commodity to my clients. I am a commodity to my colleagues. And this goes for developers too. I am only as valuable as what a potential client or colleague is willing to pay for my services ... nine times out of ten, they will settle for “good enough”.

The second huge realization is that we are rapidly putting ourselves out of business. Every tool we develop that makes it easier to design and build a web site diminishes our ability to sustain our businesses. The truth is that web design and web development is not sustainable. Not even close. Think about it. There were twenty-three web site building tools on that graphic that allow people to design and build web sites for free or for low monthly fees. And, again, there are dozens if not hundreds more similar apps on the market. 

[graphic - refer to slide deck]

With tools like Squarespace which does a bang up job in the realm of good enough, why would any potential client pay me $15k to build them a custom site? I can’t even justify recommending myself because I know I can get the job done so much cheaper. That’s the reality we have created for ourselves. 

Here’s statistic for you: Twenty years ago I was paid, as an untested professional, $1500 to build a table-based HTML website. Twenty years later, the average amount of money a potential lead wants to spend to build a website is $1500. 

Now you can argue that that represents a specific market segment. And I can argue that it may be the largest market segment. And I can argue based on twenty years of experience that you are deluding yourself into believing that there is so much work available for 1000’s of web dev companies that everyone will be able to maintain businesses that do not rely on volume. That’s why Squarespace is doing so bloody well.

So where to now?

My intention is to take the hardest road possible and focus exclusively on my illustration and artwork. And to dedicate a healthy portion of my efforts and proceeds to organizations whose only charter is to preserve what remains of our natural heritage and brethren in the animal kingdom. My goal will be to create products that will help me become a voice in issues that matter to me. 


Conclusion

Taking steps forward in business only happen when you make the time to feed yourself. I don’t believe that job burnout is avoidable. I believe that we all are working toward eventual burnout. Some of you, will, like me, work for twenty years before reaching a breaking point. Some of you will cope better than others. Some of you will will not. Many, if not most, of you won't recognize the root causes of the changes occurring in your life. 

Clinically speaking the cure for burnout is “rest”. In reality, the cure for job burnout is rejuvenation. 

This can only happen after you’ve rested. I realize that few of you would ever be able to take two months off to reset your mojo ... that’s not the point. Take time for you. Whether than means meditating for five minutes, going for a walk, taking a weekend away without your family. It doesn’t matter. Just set aside time to focus on yourself.

Tenacity is the quality displayed by someone who just won't quit — who keeps trying until they reach their goal. 
 

For me, getting past the lowest point in my career was the stepping stone for doing something great. I haven't forgotten the lessons I learned. And years later, I'm still dealing with the after effects of burnout. 

Sooner or later you will all find yourselves asking a similar question, “Am I happy?” or “Am I doing something worthwhile?”

My question for you is this: 

What do you want your legacy to be?