A few years ago, after shooting up the career ladder as a media reporter and editor, I quite suddenly quit my very well-paying—if not dream—job at a top website. And then, for a long time afterward, I did nothing.
When I did leave my house and venture back into my social circles to attend a cocktail party, or a book release, or a business dinner, I would tell people who inquired (and they always did. I live in New York City, where what you do comes after your name but before your real estate vitae) that I did nothing. Then I would step back and, with a sort of perverse satisfaction, watch them squirm. It turns out folks don’t really know what to do with people who are so nakedlyunambitious. It was a little bit like I was inviting them to my funeral. For a long while, this little party trick was my favorite part about going out.
Very likely I should have been the one squirming—at least after the first few weeks of this life stasis. Not being independently wealthy, my relatively small savings account was clearly only going to last me for so long. When I did seriously consider looking for work, usually after a morning spent paying my bills, the thought of returning to a life in which I was shackled to the Internet, hostage to the news cycle, and routinely sleeping with my Blackberry in hand (frequently I would be awakened by its vibrations only to discover an intrepid commenter had Photoshopped my face onto a porn still and thoughtfully sent it to me) was simply too awful. I couldn’t face it.
Instead, during those weeks, and contrary to all common sense, I turned down two high-profile jobs, and remained in my apartment where my mornings were spent away from my computer watching Golden Girls reruns on the Hallmark Channel. How I coveted those ladies’ pre-Internet, Florida retirement lifestyles.
Who was I?
I wasn’t sure anymore. And I was even less sure that I cared, which was actually both the strangest and most terrifying part of the whole ordeal. I’d been supporting myself since high school and had always been grounded in and by certain financial realities. And yet even as I watched my bank account dwindle to numbers not seen since I was a teenager, I couldn’t muster the sort of reliable panic that would have hightailed a saner person back into the work force. Worse still, far worse, was that I had grown to hate, and even see as punishment, the thing I cherished most: the act of writing.
Related: How To Love Your Work
I was badly burned out. Which, as it turns out, is not the same as being tired out, stressed out, bored, or in need of a vacation. It’s more like all those things wrapped together, times ten, plus a lobotomy.
“Burnout happens when you’ve been experiencing chronic stress for so long that your body and your emotional system have begun to shut down and are operating in survival mode,” says Dr. Sara Denning, a clinical psychologist based in Manhattan who specializes in dealing with stress and anxiety. “You numb out because you can’t think. You can’t even make decisions anymore.”
Unfortunately, it’s also one of those terms so overused that telling people you’re burned out, particularly in a country that fetishizes work (Americans work morethan any other country in the industrialized world) and in a city that runs on ambition, does not exactly engender much sympathy. Mostly it’s hard not to sound like a whiner. And yet, the real thing—actual, life-stopping burnout—demands to be noticed.
A few years ago, Marissa Mayer made headlines when she declared that she doesn’t believe in burnout. Here’s Mayer’s reasoning:
“Avoiding burnout isn’t about getting three square meals or eight hours of sleep. It’s not even necessarily about getting time at home. I have a theory that burnout is about resentment. And you beat it by knowing what it is you’re giving up that makes you resentful…I had a young guy, just out of college, and I saw some early burnout signs. I said, ‘Think about it and tell me what your rhythm is.’ He came back and said, ‘Tuesday night dinners. My friends from college, we all get together every Tuesday night and do a potluck. If I miss it, the whole rest of the week I’m like, I’m just not going to stay late tonight. I didn’t even get to do my Tuesday night dinner.’ So now we know that Nathan can never miss Tuesday night dinner again. It’s just that simple.”
I’ve given a lot of thought to this as I’ve pondered what happened to me and why, because in some ways Mayer does have a point: learning to say no is an important part of professional growth (also personal, but that’s another article). Would I have flamed out quite as spectacularly if I’d made sure to check out for a dinner once a week? Oh Marissa, I wish it were that simple. The problem was, like for so many of us, my priority was my job. And for a long time, I was resentful of anything that caused me to miss work, including, but not limited to, people who expected me to hold uninterrupted conversations over dinner. But at some point my lifestyle went from overdrive to overheat and when it did, not only did I not know where the brakes were, I wasn’t convinced there were brakes.
In hindsight, it should have been clear there was a problem when I began fantasizing about being a garbage truck driver. I would sit at my desk, Gchat windows exploding, no less than 40 tabs open on my screen, my Blackberry within arms reach like a small tethered child or, perhaps more accurately, like a contraband substance, my television set tuned to the morning shows, and gaze out my window overcome by a sharp longing—a deep envy—of men who toss cans of refuse into a rumbling truck before continuing on to parts unknown. Parts free from the Internet.
“You were looking for permission to go home,” Patty Forbes Pedzwater, a practicing psychotherapist in Manhattan tells me when I relay what I assume is evidence that there is something deeply wrong with me. “I hear it all the time,” she notes, somewhat reassuringly. “It’s simply a fantasy of something we perceive to have a beginning, middle, and an end. There’s a timer on it. You work someplace, the whistle blows, and you’re out.”
When Pedzwater says this to me I nearly burst into tears, because OH MY GOD, YES, this is exactly it. I am also suddenly reminded of the opening of theFlinstones and think the days of being able to “go home’ are equally as archaic. In the last ten years, the Internet has essentially become the worldwide Hotel California for anyone with a connection. Sure you can check out, you can check out all you want—there are entire movements devoted to checking out—but you can’t leave. Barring some sort of Zombie apocalypse, none of us are ever leaving the Hotel Internet ever again.
So how do we learn to go home? Because there is mounting evidence that we desperately need to, especially the under-thirty set, who have never known a digitally unconnected adult life. I was midway through my thirties, only half of which had been spent on the Internet, before my lifestyle began to catch up with me. But recent conversations I’ve had with women ten and fifteen years younger than me, some of whom are barely out of college, often make them sound alarmingly like old men dragging themselves home from work, forty years into a career, and suggest our professional practices may be running counter to our professional lifespan.
When I mention this anecdotally to Denning, she tells me it’s not my imagination: In recent years, the uptick in younger patients availing themselves of her services was such that she has had to refocus her practice to deal specifically with clients between the ages of 22 and 35.
“I was starting to see a lot of young women around 32-33 that had already crossed into that burnout state,” she says, noting that one of the reasons she went younger was that she was hoping to head these women off before it got too bad. Instead, she’s now hearing patients complain of burnout symptoms as early as their freshman year in college. “That’s new.”
Indeed. Everything is new these days. Sometimes this digital age seems strangely analogous to the unknowns of the birth control pill, an invention that has fundamentally altered the way we live, but whose long-term effects are yet to be fully understood. Of course, my case may have been an extreme one. My life for many years was about chasing the news cycle, a cycle that shifted into wild overdrive with the advent of social media. The thing is, that lifestyle is no longer so far off from what most people deal with every day: Nearly everyone in possession of a smart phone is tied to some sort of information cycle, often comprised of social media feeds and a heavy dose of work in the form of e-mails that, like the chocolates in this old clip of Lucy on an assembly line, come faster and faster no matter where they try to hide them. Add to this the non-stop highlight reel that so often makes up most of what we see of other people’s lives–even Garance Doré, who appears to be living a life most of us dream about, recently revealed that she’s not immune to the pain of the discrepancy between real life and Instagram–and keeping up with the Jones’s (or the “likes”) is proving professionally dangerous.
So what is the solution? As nice as it was to check out of my life and into Blanche Devereaux’s, it wasn’t exactly a long-term plan (though I did give it my all for a while). Nor was it short-term recovery. I still sidestep the Internet and most things that require me to always be on call, even just socially; earlier this year I went so far as to delete my Instagram account. Denning echoes Marissa’s advice and says it’s a matter of “watching your stress and knowing what your behaviors are. Know what you are doing and learn how to prioritize your own needs over anything else that is going on.” Again, this is all very well and good. But how exactly does one phrase that in an e-mail to her boss?
I suspect the answer may be less of an individual decision and more of a collective one. At some point, when enough people fall down on the job five years into their careers, maybe we’ll start rethinking how we define availability. And that day may not be as far off as we imagine. A friend of mine was visiting her college freshman niece the other day, or trying to. Ironically, she was having a tough time pinning down the visit as her niece had neither a Facebook account nor a smart phone. Availability, it seems, may soon be a thing of the past. Something we lived with before we knew better.