Why I Burned Out and How I'm Recovering
Sharing my experience with career burnout so that others might avoid my fate.
Hello! I’m Pat and Better by Design is my newsletter sharing pragmatic insights for creative innovation through the lens of design. If you’re new here, join our growing tribe of design innovators!
I left my job at the end of August, completely burned out.
At the time, I was dreading design work, anxious every morning before opening my laptop, and overwhelmingly pessimistic.
Definitely not my usual self.
Only now am I starting to bounce back, 3 months later.
Within my network, burnout seems more common than ever and I want to do my part to help people avoid the struggle that tormented me for the better part of the last three years.
Burnout doesn't strike in an instant; it's a gradual, insidious slide. Picture the classic allegory of boiling a frog: the process begins with the frog lounging in tepid water, oblivious to danger. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the temperature rises, inching towards an inevitable boiling point. By the time the water roils and bubbles, it's too late — the frog, caught unawares, meets its end without ever realizing the danger it was in.
That’s how I felt.
The pandemic dropped me into the pot of water and kickstarted a series of events that gradually rose to a boil over time. I held on until I couldn’t any longer (too long) and, in a simple twist of fate, got laid off two days before I planned to resign from my position. The universe has a funny way of nudging you in the direction you need to go like that. I hadn’t heeded its call, so it made the decision for me.
No single straw broke the camel’s back, rather it was a mess of situations, feelings, and actions that I’m still untangling. I wish I could give you a comprehensive breakdown of where I went wrong and what to avoid, but I don’t have that perspective yet. Instead, today I want to take a first shot at expressing why I think I burned out and what I’ve done so far to address it. I’ll check back in in a few months as the dust continues to settle.
Why did I burn out?
1. Replacing community with more work
Like many others, the pandemic blew up my social life and community. I struggled to piece it back together after many months in isolation. My friend group dispersed, leaving me alone and detached. My working relationships were relegated to video calls, making it more difficult to maintain the professional camaraderie I depended on. For lack of a better alternative, I sank deeper into my work. I churned out designs at record pace and brought in far more money than I could spend, but to what end? I had no one to share the success with and little outlet for the fruits of my labor which made my efforts feel pointless.
2. Doing the same thing and expecting different results
You know the old saying about insanity: it’s “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. It’s a sad but accurate analogy to summarize my experience working for three cybersecurity tech startups back to back. While I was well-compensated and got to do some work that I’m proud of, by the end of my six year run I recognized that each stop was just a variation on the same theme. My role as a cog in the machine was the same even as I shifted companies and got promoted. I mistakenly thought that the grass would get greener as I moved further along the path but it didn’t. I felt stuck and unsure for a long time before realizing I needed a new path altogether.
3. Losing agency
At each of the companies I worked for, design’s influence got gradually reduced over time until either a) we were left only producing UI dictated by other roles within the organization or b) the function was dissolved entirely.
I enjoy UI work, but the loss of agency was a difficult pill to swallow. As I’ve shared previously, I worked in branding, market research, strategy and software engineering before getting into design, so I have a deep bag of tricks I can pull from to support product growth. Getting reduced to merely “the guy who makes UI screens” was untenable for me. I wasn’t coming close to delivering the value that I knew I was capable of and it felt like there was no path forward for me as a designer.
What is helping me recover?
1. Operating on my own schedule
I might work for someone else again one day, but for now it’s been energizing to not have to operate my life on someone else’s schedule. Remote work life can quickly get weighed down by an onslaught of meetings and Zoom calls resulting in a heavily over-scheduled life. Setting my own schedule and leaving more space for spontaneity and serendipity has been helpful in recovering my energy and creativity.
2. Putting my creative energy into my own projects
I didn’t get burned out from working too much. I got burned out from:
Losing myself to projects I didn’t believe in
Selling the vast majority of my creative output to others for lackluster return
Now, I’m focusing on protecting my creative energy for either my own projects or projects that I feel truly excited about. I’ve saved money diligently for over a decade to give myself the financial flexibility to achieve this and I’m finally taking advantage of my preparation rather than continuing to chase the next big paycheck. That shift has been significant for feeling like I get to determine my own path rather than simply hope that others can provide me with what I’m seeking.
3. Focusing on community, both local and online
As I mentioned above, I lost myself to the abyss of pandemic isolation for far too long. I never want to experience that again, so I’m being more intentional and proactive about building and maintaining community.
Community endures and supports in ways that jobs and money never will. Whether I’m attending events hosted by other friendly creatives or hosting my own, there’s something special and irreplaceable about bringing likeminded people together. I felt like a misfit for most of my career, so connecting with people who resonate with my experiences and ideas has energized me profoundly.
As Better by Design continues to grow, I’m planning to devote even more of my time and energy to creating resources specifically for this community. My mission is to create a home for creative technology misfits like me on the web and provide the best resources to grow both professionally and personally in our practice. So, thanks for giving me this opportunity and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.
Until next time,
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