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.

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?

If You Have to Pay for It, You’re Doing It Wrong

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What’s fun for you? Is it travel? Maybe it’s fine food or wine. What about entertainment? Maybe you love going to concerts. Maybe you want to meet celebrities. Maybe you love playing with the latest gadgets, or driving nice cars. What would you do more of if you had unlimited resources? Got a mental picture? Good. Now, what if I told you you could have all that for free? It might seem like a pipe dream, but it’s entirely possible once you start doing just one thing: choosing your Career not based on pay, but your passions.

If you’re reading this blog, I’m gonna guess you make okay money and aren’t looking to be a wasteful spender for the long haul. Hopefully, that’ll translate to more money saved. Let’s say you sock away $5,000 in disposable income. You’ve already maxed out your RRSP and TFSA, and this is cash you can have some fun with. You’ve been busting ass at work and it’s time to let loose, so you book your trip to Santorini and stay for two weeks. Flight and accommodations eat up $2,500 and $1,000 goes into food at ritzy restaurants. You take a few day trips, ride a few donkeys, and rent an ATV to zip around the island. You find their brewery and drink the best IPA in Greece. You even hit all the clubs along the water. It’s great. Before you know it, you’re $5,000 poorer, but with once-in-a-lifetime memories. I think that’s a fair trade.

Well, I went to Santorini in 2012. It was free.

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I’ve been an arts nerd all my life, and never really gave a shit about money. Being a doctor or a lawyer never interested me. Those were office jobs, and I detested office jobs. I wanted to explore the world, go to concerts, and drink expensive wine. I would’ve taken “starving artist” over “fat guy in a red BMW” any day, and since I knew that early on, I started taking steps to build a life I could be proud of.

In 2008, shortly after I became a photographer, I got into shooting conferences. The jobs were small at first, but they were always out-of-town. I was 20 when I visited Victoria, BC and shot ICCA 2008 with my colleague, Jon. A year later, I was in San Francisco for WCLC 2009. I stayed in the Westin St. Francis on Union Square, a $350/night hotel. I even had a per diem for meals. Eventually, more travel opportunities came up. I got into weddings. I saw Toronto. I saw China. In 2012, I was in Santorini for a week to shoot my friend’s wedding. I saw it all, free.

Back home, I started a music blog. I would go to shows and write reviews. I’d give them the best damn concert photography they’d seen in Vancouver. Soon, I was given access to the artists. I met Bat For Lashes and Lykke Li. I interviewed Alexisonfire. I photographed R.E.M. and The Pretenders. I even made money selling my shots.

Meanwhile, I also got geeky about beer, wine and whisky. My side jobs in liquor stores gave me access again. Whisky festivals, brewery invites, wine courses; all paid for by someone else.

I’d done it. I turned everything that would’ve cost me money into something Free. Work was no longer a grind to get to the thing I wanted to do, it WAS the thing I wanted to do. All it took was reframing Work as something other than “work”. It was just another awesome part of my awesome life because I chose to have a non-shitty job!

You can do it too.

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Follow your passion.

You’ll probably be a little poorer if you take my advice, and I know that. I know most of you can’t just abandon your $75,000 annual salaries and become Hollywood screenwriters, but wearing a pair of golden handcuffs is still wearing handcuffs. Do you want to count down the days until your next vacation, or do you want to be on vacation all the time? Do you want to spend $5,000 for a fleeting moment of happiness, or do you want to make $5,000 every time you leave the country on some exotic job? Do you want to be the fat guy in the red BMW, or do you want to be the starving artist who got so good at his job, he eats like a king for free?

Money can buy experiences. How you live your life can render money irrelevant though, and the moment you don’t need to worry about money anymore is the moment you become truly Free. That’s what we all want, right? Give me a call when your life and experiences are FREE.

In the meantime, I’m gonna get packing. I’ve got another trip to San Francisco lined up.

It’s honestly too bad I’m paying for this one like a sucker.