On March 1, 2018, out of nowhere I woke up at 4:30AM and left a voice memo to myself. I sat straight up in my bed, with a head full of confused thoughts about the job I had left 6 months prior to that. It felt like the wooly left-over bits of a dream barely remembered. An anxious, awful dream about working your hardest and failing to meet the bar. It was about a job I had quit 8 months prior to that; the job where I had my first experience with real burnout. It was devastatingly meaningful, and that meaning was that everything was broken, wrong, desolate, and failed.
The voice memo was rambling; “woah, why am I awake”. The real emotional content was a wake-up call that despite quitting, I was still deeply ego involved with that job, what I did there, and how it fit into who I think I am. I had escaped the job and moved on, and somehow…not.
I know these things so well, I’ve committed the same mistake several times in a row. I wrote about that previous experience with burnout. I’m drawn to the topic again because I start feel like I am re-recognizing the problem.
But this time is going to be different, because I’ve grown and changed since the last time I worked through this. This post, and what I’m going to relate is setting an intention to learn and grow. I want to remind myself of what I have already learned, and embrace this with a bit more empathy, rather than “tackle the problem of overwork” (notice the change in language) like I did last time.
Seeing Doing from New Angles
About a year ago, I was talking to a family friend who was in the 7th grade. He was telling a story about a really cute girl he wanted to ask out. This boy was trying to devise complex strategies to influence her friends, get the perfect gift, script the right words, force the stars to align, and so on. I offered that a great way to go about it was the simplest: pay her a sincere, honest compliment, tell her you think she’s really cool, and ask her if she wants to go get a snack or something together. He looked at me with crazy eyes, laughed and said, “Oh wow, no, that would never work”. It was just too…simple. It couldn’t possibly work.
My first take on that experience talking to him was essentially, “haha middle school love; they over-complicate”. With a couple of months of stewing about my own situation I re-framed that conversation: I had been trying to give someone I cared about honest feedback and advice, yet I tend not to listen to my own.
I needed to hear my own empathy. Here’s what I saw:
Relaxation, and even just relating to other people in conversations is in some ways so simple that effort actively screws it up. What would happen if you grabbed a fistful of sand, and used all of your strength and might to hold on to that sand? It would slip between your fingers. Your effort would actively make your goal harder, and your results worse.
There is a certain personality though, or set of experiences earlier in life, where this just doesn’t compute. Social structures generally really reward hard workers with praise, pay, responsibility, and so on. And sometimes, the lesson that hard workers learn is to hone that one skill – just keep working harder. Which works great, right up until it doesn’t anymore. Eventually you redline, and you find that no application of hard work will get you out of the consequences of hard work; it’s like trying to put out a fire with a torch. No amount of torch will get the job done.
I imagine when I put it like this it must seem so blindingly obvious, but this is a frame that it took me years to win.
There are a certain set of problems in life that I’ve come to think of as “holding sand problems”. The only way to work through the situation is to do less, to work less hard; like holding sand.
A loosely cupped hand effortlessly holds sand without much attention, focus, and no strength at all. Applying attention, focus, and strength to the task makes you worse at it, not better.
Once you know what to look for, you see these “holding sand problems” everywhere. Comforting a baby, asking a girl out on a date, treating yourself with respect, and setting boundaries on your work time. You cannot be white-knuckle devoted to success, or devastated by failure. Effort can undo itself! Ayyy lmao.
You know what’s funny? Realizing that you love other people, that you have empathy for them, that you try to give them caring advice and that you will not let yourself hear your own advice. Realizing that when you give advice to loved ones, you are inadvertently pleading with yourself to listen. Ayyy lmao. Maybe a few years ago, I could’ve been angry at the cosmic obviousness of it (how could I be so stupid not to see it?) and now I can almost have a tear come to my eye at the funny beauty of how one can come to know by living through something in all the wrong ways.
All the effort we expend at our jobs, is generally about changing and transforming things. Things aren’t right, and they need to be better: the project needs to be pushed along, the department doesn’t function correctly, whatever. All forms of work put you and me into the role if judge & manipulator. We judge what’s missing or wrong, and we manipulate and change through work to make them better.
I think a lot of us grown men lionize those activities and put them in very noble clothes: we fix things and improve them when we work hard, and we should, it’s part of our role. Real men build. But real men also aren’t one-trick ponies; inability to disengage from that judging and manipulating mindset leaves you permanently dissatisfied. The world is not perfect and there will be no end of things that need fixing.
If the challenge is burnout, you don’t want to go read 20 books about how to be healthier, or start a new task organization system. There is no transforming and manipulating that gets you out of transforming and manipulating. The prize for winning a pie eating contest is that you get more pie.
But how? Be simple, not complex. The breath is simple and free. When you’re healthy you don’t have to work for it. You simply let it exist: not judging or manipulating it. This is a nice reset point: when your mind is telling you that you want to engage, to work, to do, to do more, to do even more, you can always simply return to the breath. I’m not talking about capital-M “Meditation”, just observing how it comes and goes, like waves rolling into a beach. There is nothing simpler than what is already there. There’s nothing to be done. It’s just there. The breath doesn’t need help going in and out, any more than the waves need your help getting into the beach.
It’s easy for me to feel like an imposter writing this article, because I am actively not good at any of the things I’m talking about in these last sections. You are not reading wise words of a guru who has been through hell and come out to heaven on the other side; you’re reading the words of someone who is in a kind of hell trying to learn something. This too is another opportunity for the smallest bit of loving kindness.
There is no use in shouting at yourself, “try harder and you’ll be able to relax!”. There is no way to judge and manipulate your way to a healthier relationship with work. Even the process of learning to hold sand is like holding sand. It isn’t logical; don’t work or judge your way through, love your way through.
This is my new frame: love, with a dash of “ayyy lmao”.
If you struggle with burnout and over-work, this is for you: an opportunity to notice the dynamic, re-frame, and simply love in the moment. Don’t do. Just love.
I choose grace and love in this moment.