Burnout—Part 1: Why We Burn Out

“Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.”
– Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)

It had been a dry, dry year in the forests of Northern New Mexico, and we had many, many tens of thousands of acres burned out by forest fires. Viewing some of these burned out areas, it’s hard not to think about the thousands of burned out writers. I wanted to write a column about burnout, but I was too burnt out from evacuating our home in the Santa Fe National Forest, then moving back when the immediate fire danger had passed (within one mile of us).

Dani Weinberg's Teaching People Teaching Dogs

My wife, Dani, trains another kind of professionals—dog trainers—and they burn out, too. Dani also writes a column for Forward, the award-winning magazine of NADOI—the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors. She, in fact, did write a column on burnout, and I had a great idea. I would steal her column (not really stealing, since this is a community property state), and see if I could adapt it for writers. In fact, some time ago she and I agreed that it would be fun to switch columns once in a while—though I still haven’t figured out what a writer would have to say that would interest obedience instructors—except perhaps some tips on cleaning up messes.

If you’re a new writer, or if you’re converting your speciality from one genre to another, you probably don’t know much about burnout. Switching roles (like switching columns) can help prevent burnout, so you might even doubt that it’s possible for someone to stop loving what they love so much, as you do now. Be assured: burnout happens!

Burnout is most likely to happen in mid-career. You’ve been a somewhat successful writer for a few years now. You’ve mastered some conventional methods, and developed your own variations of those methods that work well for your stories. You’ve worked out the logistics of writing—how much work to take, what help you need (marketing, legal advice, administrative support), and the basics of working all by yourself and adapting quickly to new work assignments. In sum, you’re very good at what you do, and you have quite a few years of experience under your belt. Suddenly, you find yourself devastated by burnout!

How do you recognize burnout? How about apathy, sluggishness, lack of interest, low energy, frustration, helplessness, boredom, fatigue, hopelessness? Technical problems seem much more difficult and unrewarding. Editors and first-readers seem stupid and stubborn. A dog instructor colleague of Dani’s, seized by burnout, put it succinctly: “I’m sick and tired of teaching people how to get their dogs to stop pooping on the living room rug.” A writer colleague of mine reminded me of this statement when he said, “How many more times am I going to have to recover key files that were I backed up, but the software messed them up?” These statements capture the sense of trivialization of what once seemed so important and valuable.

There are some obvious reasons why people burn out—for example, working too hard, trying to do too much, going too far beyond our own physical and emotional limitations. Yet these are only the effects of some underlying issues that are the real source of burnout. Understanding these issues can help us understand why we overwork ourselves and drive ourselves into this unhappy place.

First, we’ll look at the “Shoulds”—all the requirements and constraints that we feel are imposed on us from the outside and that eat away at our self-esteem. Then, I’ll consider what happens when we are trapped in our own success and afraid to change. Then, in the second installment, I’ll examine some ways to turn these things around to our advantage—by actually cultivating the Chaos that they produce in our lives.

The Dreaded “Shoulds”
When I feel that I’m being forced to do something I don’t want to do, or when it seems as if my options have been reduced to zero, or when I cannot see a way out of what appears to be a very tight box—that’s when I’m heading for burnout.

Think about times when you’ve felt your autonomy was seriously threatened, when someone else was calling the shots—and those shots were nowhere near your own. I have a colleague who allowed 40 people in his writers’ workshop designed for 12—”because of our high dropout rate” (I wonder why!). Another one reports all the bad reviews to the reviewers with bad attitudes—”because there’s no one else who will work with them.” Now, it is possible that he might thrive on large classes, and that she loves working with nasty people. But if they’re not such people, then they’ve bought into some activities that will very likely lead to burnout.

I learned a lot about burnout when I was in college. I was working full time, washing dishes because that way I got free meals (if you could call them that) as a perk. I was taking an overfull load of pre-med courses because my mother wanted me to become a doctor. I was pledging to a fraternity that believed the more abusive grunt work they assigned, the better frat brothers the pledges would become.  Eventually, I wound up dropping out of school and dropping into the hospital. That’s burnout.

My problem was rooted in the “Shoulds.” I felt that I Should be a pre-med because my parents wanted it and because doctors had helped me, so I Should repay the world. I believed that I Should settle for a career in medicine, rather than pursue computers, because I Shouldn’t be selfish. I thought I Should belong to the fraternity because a friend there had encouraged me to continue school. Of course, I Should work my way through because I Shouldn’t take money from other people. And, once I started, I thought that I Should finish what I had started, as painful as it was. I was trapped in my own Shoulds.

I’ve stood at the brink of burnout many times since those days. For example, I would receive an unfavorable review of a manuscript, and I would catch myself in the Believe-the-Expert trap. You know that one: “He’s the expert, so I Should do what he says.”

As a teacher, I’ve risked burnout by agreeing to do what my best judgment told me was not right for me—for example, allowing too many students to take a class (“I Should accept everyone”), tolerating students who never did the homework (“I Should not force anyone”), using techniques I didn’t care for that were requested by the class sponsor (“I Should be flexible”), and on and on.

Unfortunately, one of the symptoms of burnout is the inability to reach out for help. That means that, when I most need emotional support and new ideas, I am least likely to look for it (“I Should be able to do it myself”). Burnout is fundamentally a state of very low self-esteem. When I’m there, I see myself as not deserving. Asking for help and support seems, in that state of being, to broadcast my own worthlessness and incompetence.

Competence Can Lead to Burnout
Over the years, I struggled to become more competent, so as to avoid some of these Should-traps. But competence itself isn’t a sure cure for low self-esteem, and, curiously, it can even become a precipitator of burnout.

When I’m good at what I do, I usually get lots of reinforcement. I get really wonderful course evaluations, my teaching offers and class loads increase as my satisfied students spread the word. Also, I attract much more interesting and better paying clients. When something goes wrong—such as when an instructor becomes sick, or a writer fails to turn in an assigned piece in time for an anthology— I’m the first one my clients think of to step into the breach and fix it.

The first consequence of this kind of success is the “Pile-On” dynamic. The more successes I have, the more work I get, and the more work I get, the more successes I have. My clients are more likely to offer assignments first to me, and they’re choice assignments that I have a hard time resisting. Pretty soon, I’m loaded beyond my ability to sustain, but because it’s so flattering, I struggle to sustain my efforts long past the time I should have started saying, “thank you, but not this time.” Then, I burn out.

The Pile-On dynamic works its evil consequences because I respond to reinforcement. Dog-training instructors understand that, whatever training methodology they use, reinforcement is an important element to increase the behavior they want in students and their dogs. Reinforcement is an essential part of the learning process. The same thing works for human beings, and particularly for those of us who work on contract. I’m not motivated much by dried liver treats, but I sure respond to money, interesting assignments, and praise.

If the rate at which I get such reinforcement is too low, I don’t experience enough feeling of success. As a consequence, I tend to shut down and maybe even give up—this is burnout from lack of reinforcement. Having learned the hard way about this brand of burnout, I now know I have to seek reinforcement.  I make sure I get paid enough, and work on interesting assignments. When I’m done with an assignment, I ask my clients if they’re satisfied with my work. So, being as experienced as I am, I ought be getting enough reinforcement to prevent burnout entirely, right?

No, not right, because it’s possible to garner too much reinforcement. For one thing, if my competence is over-rewarded, I’ll doubt and discount the value of the reinforcement. Interestingly, this is especially true when I become really good at what I do and begin to reap the fruits of success.  Because of the high rate of reinforcement I’m getting, I begin to hesitate about changing anything in my books except maybe the color of the cover. I become overly sensitive to any chance comment that might be critical, and I worry about the slightest confusion a student might display when I make a suggestion. I begin to pick and choose clients and situations more carefully until my clients are all true-believers. I become more and more risk-aversive. After all, it’s working, so why change anything?

Soon, I’ll notice that I’m not looking forward to assignments any more. I start criticizing and making fun of my students to my colleagues. I lose patience more easily and find myself  more often in a grouchy mood. I no longer invite fellow writers to read my work and give me feedback. Why bother? Things are going well, and there’s no need to change anything.

And yet…something is not right. I don’t feel good about myself or about my work. I might even start to have health problems, be more accident-prone, start canceling asssignments more easily for “health” or “weather” reasons.

This is the sad story of burnout. Is it necessary or even inevitable? Not if you understand what’s going on.  That will be the subject of the second half of this column.

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A special appreciation to Dani Weinberg for co-authoring this article, and for everything else.
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Why Software Gets in Trouble

To Learn More About The “Pile-On” Dynamic: read my eBook
Weinberg, G. M. (2010). Why Software Gets In Trouble <http://smashwords.com/b/25884>

Gerald M. Weinberg is a member of Book View Café and blogs here more or less regularly. His science fiction novel First Stringers: Eyes That Do Not See by Gerald M. Weinberg is serialized for free on the front page rotation.

For more about him and his fiction please visit his bookshelf here on BVC: http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Gerald-M.-Weinberg/ Or, visit his personal web page, http://geraldmweinberg.com

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