About five years ago, I was working on an intense project at work. I took more responsibility than I ever had before, and the project was of major importance (so I thought, at the time). By the end of the project, everyone had basically collapsed exhausted from so many 10+ hour days at the office and the stress.
In an Dilbert-like pep talk afterwards, management gave us “attaboys” and gave us all coffee cups with various sayings on them as a reward. I remember being so angry at this. 9 months of work – for a coffee cup. I left the company soon afterwards, too angry to think straight.
I used the coffee cup for a few years, and get irritated every time I looked at the damn thing. After a few years, it developed a crack. Here is the cup itself, you can see the thin grey line just right of center. It goes all the way through, and now the cup slowly leaks. Drip, drip, drip.
I didn’t know it at the time but I was still holding on to a lot of anger about this. The bastards hadn’t even given me a good coffee cup, after all of that! Looking back, these times were near zero internal accountability, and that anger drove what happened next.
It had to get worse before it got better. After leaving that company, I went to another where I repeated the same set of behaviors that got me into the first situation. Picking the most challenging thing I could find. Taking too much responsibility. Not placing boundaries around work hours. Frequent travel that had me spending empty hours, alone and isolated in airports, apart from my family and the routines that kept me sane.
It took another two years of relentless grinding like that, but I burned out. It felt like a kind of crushing depression that I knew wasn’t me but I still couldn’t shake. Everyone was useless, nothing was worth the effort, and we were doomed to failure no matter what. Things couldn’t be reformed or improve, and every day I woke up I was tired and just going through the motions.
If you’ve ever woken up for work 2 hours early and sat in bed obsessing about the things you can’t change that are going to happen in the coming day – that’s a sign. You have made a big mistake somewhere. There is no use playing the victim, you had better find that mistake, own up to it, and fix it because that is no way to live.
One warm May evening, I was out for a run (of course didn’t have any time for exercise anywhere else other than after an 11 hour day). Obsessing about the situation during what was supposed to be my relaxation time, I just cracked. I broke down in tears, and could not keep running.
I remember the cicadas were chirping. It was pleasantly warm, and I was approaching the bottom of a steep hill on my run, that I would have to slog up one more time. Somewhere in that moment, I knew I had to stop. Everything.
The process of bringing myself back from this was something I might write about at more length later, but it began with going “cold-turkey” and choosing to be unemployed for three months. That was a first in my entire life, and made me realize that it was the first time in my adult life I had spent more than 2 weeks not working. I did slowly emerge from the funk, but that will have to be a story for another day, about some serious level 3 adulting.
The Coffee Cup
This simple give-away coffee cup has come to represent more for me now. I keep it as a reminder to me to try to keep balance at work. When I over-do it, I won’t break, or disintegrate, or fall apart in some epic fashion. It’s rather worse than that. If I would break, I could get help and put yourself back together, and that’s not how it happens.
No, I will crack. I will go on doing what I always do, while not really serving myself or others. The crack will change who I am and what I do. I can’t stop this process because every material, whether ceramic in a mug or a person – has certain limits.
Two years ago, every time I looked at that coffee cup, its message was “How dare those bastards abuse us and not give us any recognition”. I got anger and contempt out of it. Now, every time I look at the coffee cup, I get three simple words: respect your limits.