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.

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“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.

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Hate Your 9-to-5? Start a 10-to-2!

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I was hungry in 2007. I had just given up on my childhood dream of becoming a film director, and I held a diploma in Motion Picture Production that I knew would never be useful. I’d just wasted two years, and all I had was an entry-level DSLR and no plan. I knew I needed to make money, and I sure as hell wasn’t gonna do it in a Burger King. Even at 19, I thought I was too good for that shit. I was a typical millennial, full of pride and not enough shame. I was on my way to being a fuckup.

One night, I opened Craigslist. At this point, I’d been a casual photographer for seven months and was halfway through Project 365. I always had my camera on me, and took at least one picture a day that year as a sort of visual journal. I thought to myself, “What the hell, I’ll try and make some money as a photographer. Everyone else seems to be doing it.” I was naïve, but Craigslist was the ultimate equalizer. Browsing through the postings, I discovered a couple: Sarah and Russell. They were eloping in Vancouver and needed a shooter on the cheap. I had no experience and asked for $60. They said yes.

From 2010 to 2013, I had bills to pay and had a day job in a high-end liquor store. By then, I was making equal amounts in both jobs. The only difference was my liquor store took up 40 hours a week – the proverbial 9-to-5 – and my photography was relegated to 10 PM and into the night, or what I called my “10-to-2”. A mental shift happened when I was fired in 2013. If I was making the same amount of money in 20 hours a week doing photography, what was stopping me from utilizing my other 40 hours doing the same thing and making even MORE money? Maybe I could even have time to myself! Holy shit. So I started doing that, and it all began with my 10-to-2.

This isn’t a new idea. Gary Vaynerchuk talks about working on your passion from 7 PM to 2 AM in his book “Crush It!”, but I don’t know how sustainable that is. Four hours a night after a leisurely dinner was what produced the best results for me, and I’m a night owl, so 10-to-2 was what stuck. Some people, in dire need of money, might suggest taking on a SECOND full-time job similar to their 9-to-5. I’m here to tell you that’s a great way to kill your dreams. 80 hours a week? Faced with that, I’d rather swan dive into a wood chipper. 80 hours a week at jobs you’re not passionate about WILL kill you. I used to do 40 hours at my regular job and 20 at my passion, so 60 hours a week. That was tough. Within three years though, I’d moved to 20 hours at a liquor store job I don’t financially need and 8 hours at photography. Hell, throw in the 2 hours I put in every week writing for this blog for an even 30! Where some people grind out 80 hours a week wanting to die, I work way less and work for fun! And the bills all get paid!

You don’t even need to do it for the money. I fully advocate that ANYONE should have a “10-to-2”, whatever the hours. If you follow your passion and have even an iota of business sense, you CAN make money, but that’s not the point. What matters is you’re finally realizing the potential inside you to do something you actually care about. Write that novel. Fix up that old car. Learn to code. Start that personal finance blog. You’ll even be happier at your day job, knowing you can work FOR YOURSELF later in the day! It’s exhilarating.

In the movie of your life, what would you like to see? Is your narrative arc really as a photocopy jockey, or do you see yourself building a startup in your basement that will take over the world? Do you want to make someone else rich, or do you want to strive for greater and eclipse your boss? The decision is yours. What will YOU do tonight?