Burning Out at Both Ends

I think it's fair to say that if I make the statement "2020 was a shitty year", I'm just another voice in the echo chamber of people struggling right now.

It's not even that 2020 was the worst year of my life - I've had worse! - and some good things happened in it, too. I got married. I got a baby nephew (he's so cute). I moved into my own business freelancing. I honestly spent a lot more time with my friends than less, because we've all been lonely so we hang out on voice chat a lot. I'm an introvert, so I don't generally want to go out and hang out with people, but voice chat doesn't steal my energy in the same way. Even so, I still miss my favorite hangout spots and restaurants.

I miss my friends at Offroadcode, and I miss Offroadcode existing as the entity that it was (for those of you who don't know, our award-winning agency focused on travel just didn't make it through the hit travel took with COVID). That might be one of the things I miss the most, even though I actually really enjoy freelancing and I've taken a lot of solace in the flexibility that it offers me by being my own boss. It's something I swore I was never going to do, and I've found that it's working much better for me than expected. I guess college me that couldn't finish her homework to save her life if she wasn't sitting in a class room has leveled up in the "time management" category.

So, when I sat online with a can of White Claw in hand chatting with my friends while one of us streamed Rimworld to much hilarity on December 31, I had a lot of mixed feelings about 2020. And I have a lot of mixed feelings about 2021. I'm not generally one to make New Years resolutions, so I didn't have something on my list come January 1st. In fact, if you asked me what my goal is for the year, I'd tell you "getting through today, and let's not even think about tomorrow yet". It's a rough spot to be in, when I really like to be positive, proactive, and a go-getter. I struggle knowing my biggest goal is today and only today.

That, my friends, is what I would like to not-so-affectionately call "burnout".

Wait, can MVPs suffer burnout?!

"Can MVPs suffer burnout?"

That's the question I've been asking myself for the past few months when trying to figure out if this terrible struggle I'm having is SAD (seasonal affective disorder, very common here in the dark, cloudy, wintery Pacific Northwest), pandemic trauma, or general lockdown listlessness. After all, depression and burnout have similar symptoms - feeling tired all the time, not having interest in things you want to do, spinning in your chair and feeling listless. They're really close, so why burnout and not depression?

I'm getting to it, I promise.

In truth, I've come to the conclusion that the answer is definitely not only can we MVPs suffer from burnout, but I daresay we're more likely to suffer from it. In my case, I spend a lot of time in Umbraco not just for work, but for Skrift: writing/organizing the newsletter, putting together Around the Web items, helping Erica reach out to authors,  and maintaining the website and upgrading it with new features. And there's a point even for those of us with boundless reserves of energy where the constant work on top of work ultimately takes its toll. We only have so much creativity and problem-solving to give, and when we keep tapping that pool without refilling its reserves, it will eventually run not just dry but turn into a desert where we wonder how we had any energy to begin with.

The problem with passion

So here I come with a controversial - but I believe accurate - opinion that the reason burnout is suffered comes from the root of not only having passion but requiring it.

How many interviews have I participated in where one of the primary questions asked is "What are you passionate about?" and the expectation in response to that should be tech related? "I am passionate about Umbraco, C#, something something current JavaScript Framework I have 12 years of experience in even though it's only been out for five, and CSS Grid. I love to code on all my spare time and also I have a cat and sometimes she cuddles while I'm coding and isn't that great? I'm passionate about my work."

Because if you're not passionate about your work, then you're not going to get the job. So, what happens when passion isn't actually passion but instead it's a requirement for paying your bills, putting food on your table, and making sure you have a roof over your head? The answer is burnout.

And here's the real crux. This is made doubly worse when you are actually in fact passionate about your work. When you love what you do, but it's also required to love what you do, you push yourself even harder because you care. You want to not only be the best but share it with everyone else, so you burn the candle at both ends until there's absolutely nothing left. And then the passion fizzles and you're left wondering where it went and asking yourself "I do love this... don't I?"

So many people quit the tech industry after this push because when they've done everything they can and put everything they have of themselves into their work and they ask themselves "I do love this... don't I?" the answer upon reflection is suddenly "No. I did love this, but I don't any more." The passion - including the desire for it and the fulfillment of the expectation of it - is gone.

How do I get my passion back?

I'm going to be honest with you. I've worked a really long week. I put in fifty hours last week. I'm getting this article written literally minutes before I promised my team - my friends - that I would have it done, and I'm so tired I'm on the verge of breaking into tears at any moment. Passion seems like the furthest thing from my mind, and at the moment I'd like to throw my job out the window and go do something else. And I work for myself.

But I'm not going to, because my answer is "I do love this, I really, really do", and I don't want to give up on all the hard work I've put in and all the hard work I will put in. But my passion? Well, that might be a bit more difficult to reclaim at the moment because I can barely think about it let alone follow-through.

So here we go:

The first step to getting your passion back is to stop expecting it to be there, and to stop requiring yourself to have it. Forgive yourself, let it go, and even if you lied on that interview about wanting to code 80 hours a week (you're allowed), let it be a lie.

This brings us to step two, which is don't force yourself. You can't make passion happen simply because you want it. I look at all these other excellent Umbraco MVPs and the work that they're doing in the community and I so badly want to be doing more. But if I do more, I'm going to snap, and it's better to sit back and ride it out until the moment has passed and step in when I have that passion to do so.

Step three is to not hide the fact that you have burnout, and even beyond that, talk about it. Remove the stigma that passion is a requirement and let passion instead be a love. If the requirement to have it is removed, then you're free to choose to be passionate again, and that freedom will renew some of that missing energy. Any time we are stripped of the concept of choice and feel trapped, we'll suffer. And suffering directly effects our ability to be passionate and proactive.

Finally, I would argue that you need to be passionate about more than your work. Love something else deeply. Do other things with gusto. Don't code your entire weekend every weekend and only do it when you want to do something fun, not because you feel like you need to. Play. Playing is so important to working.

In conclusion

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" is a proverb that has existed since 1659 when it was written in James Howell's Proverbs. And the other half of it, which is quoted so much less these days, is "All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy". Everything requires balance, even our passions. So when we push our passions too hard, we end up burning out. This doesn't only apply to working, but working having a requirement of passion means that we see the burnout even stronger because we lack that choice to pull back from it.

So today, I'm telling this to myself and to all of you: Give yourself a break, take a breath, go have some fun. It'll come back, I promise.

Janae Cram

Janae Cram is a co-creator and the code behind Skrift. She's a bit of a perfectionist and likes her code to look as pretty as the front-facing applications she creates as a senior developer for ProWorks Corporation. She has an odd collection of My Little Ponies, loves to play video games and dress up like a geek for LARP on Friday nights, and is a VTuber on twitch. Her D&D class of choice is Bard, because if you can kick ass and sing, why wouldn't you?

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