Burnout. From Denial to Understanding

Upon listening to the longer form of the popular Buzzfeed article How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation on Audible, I wanted to add onto what I think is a crucial step towards finding a solution. For background, this book was a 2 hour Audible exclusive where the author interviewed ~5 out of the 7 million readers who live in different parts of the country, are from different backgrounds, work in different industries but have all experienced their own version of burnout.

Burnout has many sources, but a lot of them, come from the changing societal dynamics of our Millennial generation, which also explains why it’s become more pervasive than ever.

It’s about social media pervasiveness, and the need to continuously build and maintain a profile that adds so much superfluous tasks to our everyday lives. It’s due to the mounting student debt some of us have, way above that of graduates in generations before us.

Everything is more demanding and less stable. It’s truly the flip side of the coin to the “gig economy”– where one can work whenever, almost wherever, but not stably. As Uber’s victory in the contractor vs. salaried employee case has shown, also with fewer benefits, organization and room for personal development.

My personal experience with burnout is of the more traditional sort. Albeit, I am somewhat affected by another overarching theme the author comments on–the lack of focus and having to do too much on a regular basis (errand paralysis). I work 80+ hour weeks and barely have time to take 2 – 3 weeks off fully. In fact, I’ve never had a vacation longer than 2 weeks in the 5 years since I started my career in finance (investment banking and private equity).

I have been in denial of my own burnout. There were definitely moments over the last few years when I just wanted everything to stop. The e-mails to stop blaring, the calls to stop, and the instant need to respond and crunch numbers, fly to faraway places for 3 days at a time–to come to a halt. I wanted peace. I turned to meditation. Nothing was even that interesting anymore and everything (no matter how small the task) felt like a nuisance.

A classic case of burnout here, you think? Well, I didn’t think so. I and many of my colleagues and friends who complained of the same frustrations thought of just two resolutions (fixes to this shockingly common problem): 

1) TAKE VACATION (usually a few days off spent flying around in Europe so you can get a nice Instagram shot looking like you are finally getting to “play hard” and not just “work hard”); or

2) FIND A NEW JOB. The advice I hear, “something or someone must suck at where you are at now. Maybe you are just bored. A new place will jolt your energy!”

Why the denial of burnout? I think it’s because we find “accepting it” to be an act of failure–the fact that we can’t keep up with the hard work, or the mounting amount of stress. When others among us seem to be able to, this just shows us how even more of a failure we are! I remember telling myself that burnout is just for people who grew up in European societies where people worked to live and were used to balanced 9 to 5 lives, or that since I was making decent money, I really can’t complain.

How to begin to accept? Author of the Buzzfeed article, Anne Peterson recognized that “The problem with holistic, all-consuming burnout is that there’s no solution to it. You don’t fix burnout by going on vacation. You don’t fix it through “life hacks,” like inbox zero, or by using a meditation app for five minutes in the morning, or doing Sunday meal prep for the entire family, or starting a bullet journal. ” And yes, I have tried all of the above. I know I’m just not an inbox zero person in that I will read everything but I don’t have the patience to sort through them all and meal prep I can only do a few weeks in a row at a time before I start giving myself food poisoning from the lack of attentiveness. None of those things have helped me–in fact they probably added more “MUST-DO TASKS” to my already overloaded list, which to my detriment, actually left me with more errand paralysis.

The understanding” Part. It’s truly part of the solution. Instead of being gung-ho and unrealistic about timelines, how much work can be compressed into them and making “magic time” in each and every project as one consultant told me when I commissioned a 4-day deal turnaround workstream, we should make it part of the everyday vocabulary to recognize when these things could lead to burnout. To catch ourselves from 10+ item priority lists and trim them down to 1-2 must do’s and maybe 1-2 optional tasks. To recognize that the world won’t end if we don’t get to some on the list today. To accept and communicate when we have competing priorities that will make completion and our satisfaction challenging. Better yet, make our satisfaction a KPI in the project deliverables. Increasingly I have helped my group and firm make the team’s enjoyment in the staffing/project, a priority, a constraint, an important factor of consideration.

Not only do we individually need to part with our shame when we hear of or associate ourselves and/or colleagues and friends with the word “burnout,” but also society as a whole needs to accept that this phenomenon is indeed commonplace, and especially amongst studious, not lazy, members of corporate America.

Written by Anna Wang

What does good look like?

High-level summary: As we progress in life, leave our structured university and job settings, it becomes more difficult for us to assess where we are, and what the benchmark for “good” actually is. I’ve thought through three methods of gathering guidance or feedback on where we are (i.e., top-down guidance, sideways peer comparison, and looking up at successful individuals/companies that we hope to emulate). My thoughts are that while retaining the big-picture perspective that comes from “looking up” is most important in guiding us, we can and should leverage all three methods to get accurate guidance and feedback on our progress toward our goals.

I sometimes think about how hard it can be to determine what good actually is or looks like. For example, when we are still studying in a school or university setting, we have very clear guidance for what good looks like – good grades, good test scores, and so on. Beyond this, we also have our peers to compare against – we can see who around us is considered good (i.e., in terms of intelligence, grades, having the right answers in class, etc), and we can take that as an implicit measure in our minds. As we progress and enter our first jobs, which often tend to be in larger and more structured organizational environments, we also often have very clear indications of what “good” is — we have ratings, reviews, and more.

However, as we progress forward, leave the realm of our academic pursuits and structured job settings, the question arises: what does good actually look like? As we branch out and have a less standardized path to follow, with less clear direct comparisons to ourselves, that answer becomes more unclear.

We no longer have our classmates or colleagues from work to compare ourselves against. We may or may not have crystal-clear guidance from work that tells us what good actually is. And we may not even have a view of what direction to actually turn to find the clear examples of what good is.

I’ve been thinking about these things as I consider starting my own company in the future, and branching further off the relatively clear path that I have followed thus far. I see three primary methods to getting input on performance and path (both on a personal level and as a company): guidance top down, sideways comparison against peers, and looking up. My thoughts are as follows (and by no means necessarily correct):

1) Receiving guidance top-down: By this point, I mean receiving feedback and guidance from someone who has done something similar before, or has input to provide from a stance that provides a bigger-picture view than what we may current see (i.e., for a company, this may be an investor; for an individual, this may be a mentor or manager).

-Pros – Personalized: Because we are receiving this feedback from someone who knows us or our situation well, this method can provide more personalized feedback, with direct and actionable input that is applicable and tailored for our unique situation and where we may be at the time.

-ConsMyopic and reactionary: However, it is worth noting that the feedback received via this method is limited to the knowledge or experience of the person providing the feedback to us, or of the mental model that they have of what good looks like, and therefore may be too myopic. Furthermore, this sort of feedback can sometimes be more reactionary (i.e., “you did this, and this didn’t work well from my perspective, so my advice for you is to do this differently next time”), rather than proactive.

-Overall: While personalized, this method of feedback can sometimes be too myopic, and therefore, it is important to receive feedback from multiple points of view when following this method, so as to avoid the bias of only receiving one point of view.

2) Looking to the side (Comparison against peers): By looking sideways, I am referring to referencing what other individuals or companies are doing that are at a similar stage or point in progress as us.

-Pros – Not falling behind: By looking sideways at our peers, we can get useful, real-time information for not falling behind, in the sense that we remain aware of what others around us are doing, and make sure to emulate that, or at least, not stray too far away from that. If we can identify who is doing best out of the peer set we are comparing against, we can also try to follow that path more closely

-Cons – Limited-term information, and regression to the average: While a comparison against peers provides real-time input that is useful for not falling behind, I believe that it is less useful for helping us to become the best. After all, if we are comparing against others alongside us, we would get a more “average” view, which is helpful for remaining average, but not for rising above this. Beyond this, sometimes we don’t even know whether our peers are actually good or not, or whether their methods are actually working – that information often comes over time with feedback from results, and is hard to gather in the moment. Unlike in a school setting where we receive grades very shortly after doing work or taking an exam, feedback loops in the real world often take much longer. Furthermore, a pure peer comparison can turn into more of a competition (a race to stay ahead), rather than something that actually guides us in the direction that is most accurate or productive, because as mentioned, we often simply don’t know what actually works or doesn’t until more time has passed. 

-Overall: While a peer group comparison can be useful for helping us remain “in the range,” it will not necessarily take us beyond this, so it is important to have a bigger-picture view than just looking sideways at what our peers are doing.

3) Looking up: By looking up, I refer to finding someone (or a company) who has done what we aspire to do, or is at a point that we would hope to get to (can be quite far ahead of where we are), and using them to provide some level of guidance. It may also be more than just one person or company — it can be multiple — but the key point here is to look for individuals/organizations that are farther ahead than we are.

-Pros – Big-picture view, and incorporating longer-term success criteria: I believe that this method works best for enabling us to look up to someone or an organization that has truly had success over time (rather than looking at peers, who may or may not achieve success in the long-term). Of course, our vision may be different, but we will adapt it to ourselves as we go, and having this far-off “guiding star” can help keep us centered on what it is that we most what to achieve and what the best actually looks like. Beyond that, I believe that the value of looking so far ahead (and maybe getting advice and input from such a person or set of people, who have managed to get so far ahead) is more useful than looking to the side, because someone who has already walked this path has far more experience with trial and error than our peer set does. Our peer set simply knows what is the current reality, and will, of course, learn over time, but does not have the big-picture view that someone who has already gone down this path would have. Thus, keeping this “guiding star” view will also help us  to actually understand what it may take to get there, in a more real rather rather than hypothetical way.

-Cons – Not always directly relevant for the present – While extremely useful for providing a big-picture view, this method sometimes does not take into account the current reality, because sometimes current situations have changed significantly from what worked when the “guiding star” example(s) were starting out, or at a similar stage in growth or development. Thus, this method sometimes doesn’t provide the best “current” situation guidance, which is where peer comparisons can help.

-Overall: I believe that this method works best for enabling us to take matters into our own hands, retain a bigger-picture view of what has worked for truly successful individuals/organizations in the past, and retain the perspective of what we can do to actually get there as well. However, we should keep in mind that we should still look to our peers or closer mentors to give more real-time guidance.

Overall, I think that as we leave the structured path, there are actually more ways than initially come to mind to gather the feedback on where we are and how to get to where we want to go. We likely would benefit from a mix of all methods mentioned above, with each of them providing different points of input — feedback “from the top” provides some level of direct input, but is limited to the feedback giver’s own point of view, looking to to the side prevents us from getting behind, but doesn’t help us to become the best, and looking up gives us a “guiding star” to keep in mind and big-picture guidance on how to get there (although of course, our own path will still be unique). Ultimately, I do believe that “looking up” toward someone or a company that has accomplished what we hope to accomplish provides the most unwavering guidance for us to progress towards, while supplemented by the other methods. This provides intrinsic motivation, and is a better benchmark for excellence. 

Creating order out of chaos: Archetypes and systematization

How can we create order out of the chaos that is our disorganized world? Recently, I’ve been thinking about two concepts that can help us to do this, related to organizing ideas, systems, and businesses: archetyping and systematizing.

I. Identifiying Archetypes

A couple of years ago, I read Ray Dalio’s book, Principles, which detailed his principles around life and work, and among many topics, one stood out to me in particular: his focus on finding patterns, or archetypes, in the world around him. He explained that he applies this principle across much of his work and life, including hiring, investing, and making predictions. For example, Dalio applies personality testing in his hiring process at Bridgewater in order to determine what potential hires’ natural strengths and weaknesses are, and what sorts of roles people are best-suited for. As another example, he studied the history of the rise and fall of empires to determine what the high-level patterns are that take place before, during, and after an empire’s rise and fall, thus being able to apply forward predictions for our world today.

In his belief, most things in life can be categorized into archetypes – people, problems, situations, and more. The concept is that even though problems/people/situations in our lives may seem unique to us, once we have enough experience or information over time, we can see that certain sorts of these problems are actually repeated multiple times, many people fall into certain archetypes of personality, and patterns of events and situations repeat over time (ex: debt crises, rises and falls of empires, etc).

Once we realize that these patterns exist, it opens the door to actually start looking for these patterns in our own personal work, interactions, and experiences. This concept was quite interesting to me, and since then, I’ve been looking at things from that perspective as well. Around me, I see various experiences, but I constantly ask myself – what is the big picture behind this? What is the bigger pattern underlying this? How can it be systematized?

We can take the chaos that is the constant influx of ideas, situations, conversations, work, events, and more, identify a pattern, and then create a narrative and understanding of it.

For example, I’ve recently been looking at my own work and trying to identify areas that may seem different and varied, but actually have a variety of similarities. What came to mind was due diligence work. Private equity firms often do a large number of diligence efforts as they analyze a variety of acquisition targets, and they often hire consulting firms to run them. Although each target and diligence effort may have differences, when we zoom out and look at the bigger picture, there are actually a variety of similarities. For example, they often require building a market model, doing a customer survey, running ex-employee/ex-competitor interviews, identifying trends/growth areas, and more. When we think about these elements, there are many opportunities to standardize and maybe systematize. I’ll continue with this analogy in the next section.


II. Systematizing

Building upon a concept in Michael Gerber’s E-Myth Revisited, it is important to build in standardized sets of practices and systems for conducting certain processes. Once an order or pattern has been identified, I believe that this is where there is a lot of opportunity to address it by creating systematized solutions for the situation at hand. For example, let’s say that we have identified a set of archetypes for a particular problem, situation, or type of person that we may interact with. Once we have the archetypes laid out, we can determine how to go about appropriately addressing each archetype based on the bigger picture and unique circumstances/requirements of each, and can create a more standardized solution approach.

Let’s return to the due diligence example. As we said, there are often a variety of types of analyses that need to be run in due diligence settings, regardless of the type or topic. Let’s go deeper into one of them – conducting interviews. There are often a variety of types of interviews that need to be run, for a variety of topics. However, maybe if we think further into the types of interviews that we need to run (e.g., ex-employee, ex-competitor), the particular topic (e.g., understanding competitive landscape, understanding key buying factors, understanding trends, etc), we can think of the types of questions that may need be asked for each, and how they would differ (by leveraging past successful examples of each type). We could then construct a base set of questions that would be asked based on the particular type of interviewee, topic, and add further specificity as needed.

Now, we could argue that this wouldn’t be useful because we would need to adjust the questions that we are asking in real-time as per the interviewee’s response. However, maybe we could actually build that in. Let’s say that we anticipate that a particular question would have response type A, B, or C – we could then actually create a set of follow-up questions based on the response that the interviewee provides, dig deeper into that area with several questions as long as needed (maybe as long as we have specified as per the parameters), and then go back up several levels to the overall set of questions.

Ideally, we could create this base skeleton of questions to be asked as per several parameters set at the beginning (i.e., length of interview, type of interviewee, type of topic, level of detail desired which could govern the depth we enter for follow-up questions, and more), with certain data plugged in to customize to the situation (e.g., name of competitors trying to assess, key buying factors we are assessing between, etc).

In this way, we could actually create a customizable skeleton of questions for conducting interviews across a variety of situations. Of course, all this isn’t to say that we can create a perfect guide 100% of the time. However, what we can do is at least minimize level of effort expended to create new solutions every time, and rather, get the team ~70-80% there with little effort by creating a base case version customized to the situation, which can then be further adjusted.

This is a very particular example, but the concept is applicable in a very wide variety of ways. For the diligence example, we can create 70-80% skeleton versions for the other areas as well, including for building a market model, building a survey, and finding growth opportunities. Outside of the diligence example, we can think more broadly within consulting about the archetypes of projects that come up, and the standard elements that may be included within each.

Thinking more broadly, we can also find countless examples in other domains, from writing an essay, to putting together a brief, to designing a building as an architect, to doing a company valuation, and more. In every single situation and domain, there are currently many complex tasks that require a great deal of mental energy because people often start from scratch for the creation process, when in reality, there are countless past similar creations to leverage, and complex thought from scratch may not be necessary. If we could create 80% versions as a first step with very little effort and then only some minor adjustment required thereafter, we could take out the requirement for heavy thinking in these areas, and instead focus our and our employees’ mental energy on more complex tasks.

III. What this means

I think that as we progress as a society and continue in our desire to grow and enter into new areas, thinking about our work and experiences from the perspective of archetypes and systematization can be immensely powerful in simplifying much of our current mental load.

I’m going to continue thinking through this in my work, experiences, and daily life, and I encourage anybody reading this to do so as well, because there is an immense amount of potential within this.