Career Burnout and What To Do About It (Pt. 2)

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For the first post in this series, click here.

“A” wrote in: It was about 3 years into my second job in the engineering world so 8 year’s total. I was having trouble focusing, I was easily irritated, I wasn’t taking care of myself like I should have been (food and exercise wise). I ended up having appendicitis for over 1 year (yes crazy I know) and that only impacted my health more. It got to the point my bosses where being super understanding and letting me work when I could because they didn’t want to lose me. But I would delay deadlines, feel sicker then I actually was and make excuses not to go. I just wasnt happy and it was hurting everyone. When I finally was allowed to switch (a pay decrease of nearly half and, I now work in retail) my life improved drastically. I’m 100% happier, life is going well, I’m not looking for drama and my relationship is the best it’s ever been. My health is getting my better and I’ve lost weight!” (Editor’s note: This isn’t our artist friend, “A”. Totally different people.)

I heard lots of responses like this one. “A” here was bogged down with “Drafting, data entry and project management” and just wasn’t feeling it anymore. She didn’t include numbers, but we figure she was making decent money. If working retail gives her roughly half what she used to make and she was eight years into an engineering career, let’s pin that around $50,000. Let’s also assume she makes and lives off $25,000 now. First off, good on her for keeping expenses down enough for a career shift. Even assuming she spends everything she makes, she’s on par with how much I spend in a year. (I spend roughly $20,000/year now, but I don’t have rent. She does.) If she’s managing to save money too, she’s kicking my ass! Second, it’s awesome that she knew when to walk away. Here’s why.

This article suggests a “stressful workplace could take 33 years off your life expectancy”, but if you read the article, they’re sensationalizing a little bit. For our purposes, let’s say half that – 16.5 years. Average life expectancy in Canada is 81.24 years, so what happens when we take 16.5 years off that? Uh, it looks like people subject to a stressful workplace drop dead just before their 65th birthday. So much for that RRSP! Clearly, workplace stress will not only kill you, but it’ll also make your financial goals moot. After all, you want a long and prosperous life, right? Anyway, “A” decided to look after her health and mental wellbeing, and her life has improved dramatically. I maintain that no matter what field you choose initially, there will come a day when you may want a change. For that to become even a remote possibility, you’ll want to start saving ASAP.

This is what happens when you’re frugal and/or have savings to fall back on: increased life flexibility, and keys to the golden handcuffs.

“A” escaped.

*****

Everyone is going to be different, but I quit shooting weddings 2 years ago (after 15+ years) and no longer take paid photography work. I could not be happier.”

“J” used to shoot weddings with me. It’s been years since we’ve done one together, but we’ve had some wild adventures. Because of photography, we’ve ended up in car accidents, kink dungeons, and more than a few situations I can’t talk about on a PG blog. I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences for the world. That’s why I was sad when he announced he was quitting wedding photography. I thought, “Why give up?”

I was wrong, of course. He wasn’t giving up. In talking with entrepreneurs who have “burned out”, sometimes the dream jobs we craft for ourselves aren’t much different than the trappings of a day job. The only difference is we “own” our jobs, but they’re still jobs. I think of my photography career as my day job, for example. And just like any other work situation, sometimes you need to step away when your career isn’t in alignment with what you want anymore. Even I’m sometimes tempted to leave photography because regular pay at a regular job is FAR EASIER than running your own business. Entrepreneurs are a weird bunch. For every success story that lasts for decades, there are some who didn’t quite attain their ideal, yet soldier on anyway. Sometimes, we build our own prisons.

The romantic notion of creating our own work based on our passions is a great story. I love shooting weddings, but I don’t publicize the bout of depression I dealt with last year and how it set me so far back in my projects, I gave partial refunds to my customers out of my own pocket. People don’t see the months we go without work at the beginning of our careers, living off ramen and unhealthy amounts of alcohol. And yet, us entrepreneurs are proud motherfuckers great at self-promotion, shouting “LOOK AT WHAT WE BUILT”, believing that creating our own work is somehow better than what Safeway Joe does for a living. For some of us, clinging to a business we created, whether or not it meets our goals, is the only thing we know how to do, and that’s how we ACTUALLY burn out.

Some jobs are objectively better than others, but there’s a myth that self-employment is better than regular employment as long as you can pay the bills. It’s not. I say find employment wherever you feel most fulfilled and, if possible, take money out of the equation by living on less and saving as much as you can using the advice on this blog. It’s quite possible that avoiding burnout is as simple as changing gears every few years and going back to our passions only when it feels right.

You don’t “work for someone”. You work for you. Seriously, just save some cash and do whatever the fuck it is you want to do, even if that means being a barista. Climb the corporate ladder, or don’t. Start your own business, or don’t. Retire early, or don’t. As long as you do what’s right for you, you won’t burn out.

The only imperative is you save enough money to afford your own freedom.

*****

Continue the discussion on Facebook. I heard from dozens of people on career burnout, so give us a like and chat with us there.

Career Burnout and What To Do About It (Pt. 1)

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This article took weeks to write, and is coming to you in parts. In researching for it and wading through hundreds of reader messages, I was forced to reexamine certain assumptions I’d made about career choices and burnout. I learned lots. For the sake of keeping this post concise, I’m making “burnout” a catch-all spectrum ranging from “losing passion in a job” to “being unable to do a job because of exhaustion”. In all cases though, burnout WILL most likely happen to you, so here’s how to manage it. That’s what this post is ultimately about.

I heard from a wide variety of people on burnout. Some were entrepreneurs like me, who’d found their dream job only to realize it wasn’t all sunshine and ponies. Others went down the more practical route and chose a well-paying job over their dream job, only to regret it. Others chose very lucrative day jobs that ended up taking a major toll on their health. One respondent almost died when job stress drove his blood pressure to 240/120, and stories like that were COMMON! As we go on, I’ll be peppering my insights with reader messages. Enjoy.

*****

“I used to be an engineer and now I’m a train driver and hate it”, “M” wrote. “it has ended up where I have to work very anti social hours which I hate. I’m at work on Friday night until 1 am Saturday morning which is my day off. Then straight back to work at 5 am Sunday. Also I have to deal with a lot of very horrible people. Just yesterday someone literally took a shit on the train. Have to deal with drunks, fighting and I’ve even had an attempted suicide. Also I find my work very boring and unrewarding.”

I asked him how much he made.

“Minimum wage for someone over 21 in this country is £7.50 per hour before tax which is 20% at the moment”, he said. “I trained for many years as an engineer. I worked for various companies where I enjoyed the work but couldn’t find somewhere that paid enough. I was earning about £20k. I now earn £34.5k”.

Ah, fuck. Another case of The Golden Handcuffs. FYI, £20,000 is $33,000 in Canadian dollars and £34,500 is $57,000. Now, you MIGHT anticipate my response being my usual condescending arrogance, but given what I’ve learned, I’m actually NOT recommending “just live frugal and go back to engineering”. Granted, $33,000 is TOTALLY LIVABLE, but here’s the catch: I’ve now heard from people who burned out at their dream jobs too. What’s stopping that from happening to “M” if he goes back to engineering, and for less pay too?

I recommend building up some “Fuck You Money” first to afford extra flexibility. “M” is burned out now and maybe other jobs to recharge are necessary, but he needs a cash cushion to fall back on. One reader wrote in, feeling as though her job cost her her personal life, and she now longs for “a simple coffee shop job”. Fuck, do that! You know how millennials are now notorious for job-hopping? IT’S BECAUSE WE(‘RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO) SEEK SELF-ACTUALIZATION AS OUR FIRST PRIORITY. I say work where you’re at while the money’s good, save all you can, and when you have enough to fuck off and change gears ENTIRELY for a few years, do it. Life wasn’t meant to be lived doing the same thing every day for 40 years. The most interesting people I know have had 5+ jobs. No matter where you work, you’ll inevitably run into some form of burnout given enough time. When you can’t take it anymore, get out and do something new. It doesn’t even have to be a total departure from your job. Maybe scale down your hours and work on that 10-to-2 on the side.

My life story has already involved MANY career changes, and I’m only 28. I burned out when I worked in the film industry, and at one point, that was my dream job! I’d wanted to work on movies since I got my first job at a video store, and there was literally a point in time when I could walk down the aisles and go, “worked on that, worked on that, worked on that”. It was pretty goddamn cool. I rose up in the ranks, from starting as an indie film PA to working on NBC’s lighting team during the 2010 Olympics. I even became an IATSE 891 permittee. And yet, the long hours made that job unsustainable. I left a job that paid $400+ a day, five days a week, in order to work less than 30 days a year as a photographer, DRASTICALLY cutting my income. Why? I had the Fuck You Money to do it. Build up your FYM. Think of it as your Freedom Fund. It’s your freedom to work wherever, for whatever, whenever!

Now, here’s the scary thing: I -know- I’m gonna burn out with photography someday. I already kinda have, since I say no all the time now. Yet, I’m not worried. One reader mentioned that burnout doesn’t have to be permanent. You can take a few years off to do something different and go back to a career, whether you love it or not. Now, that’s an important point. Our career lives now are different than career lives in the past. Millennials have so many options now, it’d be silly if we didn’t at least explore SOME of them. My point? Here’s your TLDR:

Build up Fuck You Money. Use it to explore job opportunities you think you’d enjoy. Burnout isn’t permanent, and you can jump back into an old career anytime you want. Don’t be scared of change, and beware of golden handcuffs.

In the meantime, I’m preparing for the very real possibility I may hate photography someday, even though I love, love, LOVE it now. Crafting a Plan B as we speak.

More insights coming your way in Part 2.

My Secret to Hyperproductivity

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A few days ago, I had all of the following done by 12 noon:
– took 15,000 steps
– listened to 90 minutes of “The 48 Laws of Power” on audiobook
– wrote ‘Why Eating Out Makes Me Sad’
– read Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” cover to cover
– grabbed office supplies for my photography business
– and most importantly: even had two beers at the pub!

At no point did I feel rushed or stressed, and I’m happy to say mornings like this are a regular occurrence for me now. I exercise, expand my personal knowledge, do a bit of work, and even take time to relax… All before some people take their lunch break.

Sure, Ben, you’re probably thinking. You can do all that before 12 noon because you’re an entitled douchebag without a day job. Try working for 8 hours a day like the rest of us.

Uh, well, I do. By midnight that day, I was up to 28,000 steps with a 7-hour liquor store shift behind me. Even then, no rush and no stress. I felt more productive than ever, and it was all due to a simple idea I like to call “compound tasking”. Here’s how it works.

Compound tasking and multitasking are completely different beasts. The first distinction is that compound tasking comes into play when you have both a professional goal and a personal goal, and want to work on both at the same time. Multitasking tends to be all about work. Examples of multitasking include Elon Musk’s version of productivity – “he sends emails while scanning invoices, holds meetings and takes care of business on his phone at the same time, and even texts with his children on his lap”. (One could argue he’s also spending time with his family in the last example, but let’s come back to that in a bit. There’s only one hard no-no about compound tasking, and we’ll talk about that at the end.) On the other hand, compound tasking looks more like this – I get my exercise by walking 5 kilometres to the office supply shop while answering business texts on my phone, and I listen to mind-expanding audiobooks at the same time. My work obligations are taken care of, I’m looking after my health, and I’m actively learning… ALL AT THE SAME TIME.

I try to adopt compound tasking in all my activities. Even my shifts at the liquor store involve it, and I deliberately chose that side job with compound tasking in mind. For one, it expands my knowledge of beer, wine and spirits, which is a hobby of mine. On top of that, it provides me great exercise as I unload the weekly orders. It also gives me just enough downtime to actually stop and think about things. The job isn’t very mentally taxing, and I often formulate new business ideas and write post drafts as I work, usually while pacing the store to burn calories. And SOMEHOW, I’m getting paid for it all just by being present and stocking the occasional shelf! Compound tasking even reinvigorates me as I work because I’m working on a personal goal at the same time. I volunteer for the most physically active tasks to get more in shape, and end up looking super productive in the process! You can do this too!

Can you do double duty on your goals and attack personal accomplishments during your workday? Harvard Business Review suggests that “walking meetings support cognitive engagement, or focus, on the job”, but maybe you just want more Fitbit steps like I do. Look into them. Maybe you’re a security guard and most of your job involves just staying in one place. Can you listen to an audiobook or podcast instead of just throwing on Top 40? Trust me, the Adele lyrics never change. What if you’ve got a side hustle in addition to your day job? Write down ideas for your 10-to-2 while you work your 9-to-5!

Ever wonder why achieving a personal goal seems so hard? IT’S BECAUSE YOU PRIORITIZE THEM LESS THAN YOUR GODDAMN DAY JOB. STOP THAT.

A final note: Don’t attempt compound tasking with your friends and family. They’re not “a task that needs to be done”, they’re people. Spend time with them fully, and engage them with undivided attention. If you follow my advice on compound tasking, you’re gonna end up with more time anyway. Don’t forget to use it wisely.