Burnout Redux

Read­ing Time: 3 min­utes

Late­ly I have been strug­gling with career burnout.  Or maybe it’s exis­ten­tial grief, or bad bur­ri­tos, gas, and too many real­i­ty tele­vi­sion marathon binges.  What­ev­er it is, how­ev­er, I not­ed with some inter­est this arti­cle by Matthew Men­gel (@mengelm) over on the Pack­et Push­ers web­site.  Matthew is push­ing aside his career in the net­work­ing indus­try to pur­sue his true pas­sion in astron­o­my, after win­ning a schol­ar­ship to com­plete a PhD pro­gram in the sub­ject.

It is fair to say that I read his arti­cle with a fair bit of jeal­ousy.  After 22 years in the com­put­er indus­try, I nurse night­ly dreams (or delu­sions) of mov­ing on to oth­er things.  I said as much on Twit­ter, and found a sur­pris­ing num­ber of oth­er folks in my cohort who felt the same.  Long careers and hours had tak­en a toll.

More sur­pris­ing, how­ev­er, was what hap­pened when the dis­cus­sion turned to just what exact­ly we would all do, giv­en the chance.  There were a few out­liers, but far and away the answers were all in the fine arts or gener­i­cal­ly cre­ative space: art, film, writ­ing, and wood­work­ing were men­tioned.  And the num­ber one rea­son why was that these were all pur­suits that were start­ed dur­ing the naïveté of youth, before we all real­ized that the mon­ey was no good.

I know that I nev­er dreamed of a career in com­put­ers when I was a child.  My dreams were all root­ed in writ­ing, art, and music.  I ful­ly expect­ed to be a musi­cian, famous artist, or reclu­sive, well-read writer.  Obvi­ous­ly, that didn’t hap­pen.

I don’t know when I real­ized the imprac­ti­cal­i­ty of the arts as a career, but at some point in my lat­er high school years I decid­ed that the law would be a more prac­ti­cal pro­fes­sion.  Luck­i­ly, my uncle (a very suc­cess­ful attor­ney) talked me out of that, and I acci­den­tal­ly hap­pened into the world of pro­fes­sion­al com­put­er-wran­gling.

I had been pro­gram­ming and hack­ing since the age of eight, so when some­one offered me a job at what seemed like incred­i­ble pay back in 1992, I didn’t think twice.  In ret­ro­spect, it’s amaz­ing how low the ask­ing price for a person’s soul turns out to be.  Fast for­ward to the present, and we’re back to the con­ver­sa­tion about burnout and choic­es.

In talk­ing to the good folks on Twit­ter, and friends and cowork­ers, it seems as if there are a tremen­dous num­ber of peo­ple who would do some­thing else, if the mon­ey was left out of the equa­tion.  One of my best friends and I were talk­ing over the hol­i­days on this very top­ic, and it seems as if we’re all vic­tims of our own suc­cess.  “I’d move and change careers, “ he said, “but I can’t afford to start over.”

And there’s the prob­lem.  The same prob­lem every­thing always boils down to: mon­ey, or, more real­is­ti­cal­ly, food and shel­ter.  In all of human his­to­ry, we’re still slaves to our own abil­i­ty to sur­vive.  It used to be a cli­mate, or food-source, or shel­ter that drove us to wher­ev­er we end­ed up in life.  All we’ve done in the whole of our species is man­age to abstract that con­cept in the form of mon­ey.

Maybe I’m read­ing too much in to all of this, or being too dra­mat­ic, I don’t know.  All I do know is there are a hell of a lot of us out there, it seems, doing things for mon­ey that we wish we didn’t have to do any more.  I don’t know what that means, and I’m hes­i­tant to project my own anx­i­eties on the rest of you, but I think it at least begs a cou­ple of ques­tions:

(1) If the mon­ey was equal to what you do now, or what your career will ulti­mate­ly bring you in terms of earn­ing poten­tial, would you do some­thing dif­fer­ent?

(2) When were you the hap­pi­est in your life?  What were you doing?  Was it what you do now?

Feel free to send me answers and feed­back via my twit­ter han­dle (@someclown) or here in the com­ments.