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

On Investing: Greed, Pride and Optimism

Is it like a rondeau that never ceases or an intricate Mozart which one willingly plays on repeat to be stroked by its melodious intrigues?

Investing has taken on so many forms, with strategies evolving from both psychological and technological innovations. Whether it is behavioral methods of predicting the next black swan, market turning event, or optimizing the arbitrage that exists between two very similar stocks in pairs trading, the goal remains, to make more money by outsmarting the market.

And what exactly is this market? Its constituents consist of sophisticated and highly unsophisticated retail investors. On one spectrum you have the PhDs pitching complex strategies set to exploit some underlying market inefficiency and on the other you have retail investors strapping on old and new names, or picking based on one metric, or being wooed by investor presentations. When an investor thinks about a stock, are they really thinking about the underlying company that share of ownership represents, the management, the board, the strategies, and employees? (I reckon when said unsophisticated investor thinks about the word stocks, they could be alluding to real apples and pears or that cash tree which will grow under the right sunlight conditions or whither away if an untimely long winter freezes its growing capabilities. It’s merely a seasonal effect, just got to pick the right tree in the right place and extradite its roots before the winter hits).

The underlying principles are the same and they are A) the market is indeed inefficient, despite the theoretical arguments back and forth as it is something that practitioners acknowledged whether they grew fat or poor from the fact and B) there is both real and perceived randomness.

A) Is just how the real world differs from what economists and finance academics believe is true about this non-physical financial world of money that we have created.

B) Now that I’ve worked with a dealer and on the buy-side in private equity, I know how some news can move prices in ways that are much unbeknownst to the knowledge or care of the general public. Intraday trading and technical trading merely try to capitalize on some of this signal in the noise.

To say that the world is but a stage and we are all merely actors in it would be an understatement. We are merely puppets. The real puppeteers are our own, very raw human emotions of greed, pride and optimism. 

All of these three emotions must be infused together in one. One can’t be called greedy just for chasing high returns. Especially if the stock is down 20% and the person still doesn’t sell, well that just pride. Now, hoping it will go back another 40% to reach the initial 20% upside if everything goes right, now that’s just optimism.

When all is said and done, what exactly do I want to do with this money built upon greed, pride, and optimism?

There are only two choices. Reinvest it into the economy or hoard it.

The hiding of wealth under the mattress (literally, and completely out of the system not even in a bank) provides that luxurious safety net the size of a small country for the few. After all, if the world turns upside down who wouldn’t want their own country to jet back to?

And does this hoarding really sap and suck from the economy?

Won’t what is sapped just be displaced by more free printing? Hey, people won’t even notice this 50 billion missing once it’s injected on the other end by some central bank. Aren’t they the true equalizers of the world, redistributing the invisible clinch as that excess will only be noticed in the future, once it’s spent on the funding of a whole new country.

And by then what’s a minor economic quake of unspent excess when the whole world has already been hit by the magnitude-9?

That’s only the traditional sense of Robber Barons and their style of wealth creation.

What about the venture capitalists of today and the budding entrepreneurs?

Devoting their undying love to impact creation and bringing the world to more sophisticated promises of the future.

Again, greed, pride, and optimism.

That 200 million dollar valuation from the mere $20k savings, scraped during college or the first few years thereafter, represents merely a byproduct, an additional benefit of introducing a popular app to the world?

What of the celebrity status that comes with having been enormously successful at having sold your “company” which has yet to make a buck. As if almost an extraordinary Van Gogh was auctioned off with the promise that the artist will soon die upon the signing of the change in ownership on the dotted lines.

The hope that Google or whoever buys your company will even continue its operational legacy passed the first year is the optimism you need to have.

Thus, the real music that drives the beat of investing is really that of a Ba-roque (n.) record. Refrain and repetition followed by high shrieks and baritones designed to steer the crowd of lavishly dressed into cathartic outpours of their primordial emotions.

The above is a satire on the world of public markets investing and venture capital investing.

A dichotomous world.

We live in this world of dichotomy of tension and chaos and the pursuit of orderliness.
We are constantly battling conflicting goals and priorities, irrational prioritization of human desires, motivations, and impulses.
Everything in my life, for example, can be viewed from the lens of satire. Or the seriousness lens.

Satirical work life:
As an investor, even in private equity, I am sometimes, in fact almost always, far removed from the real action. On this one particular deal over the past few months, I feel as if I’ve been trying to look through the tinted glass of two buildings. I see shadows of activity, and once in a while (mainly on a weekly scheduled basis) I can call someone in the first building to pull out their binoculars to help me peak more into the activities of the second building further away.

During meetings I feel as if I’m witnessing every bias, that starts from a to z in the first few chapters of my behavioral finance and/or psychology classes, presented as quintessential examples to reinforce my learning. We all try to call some out. However, just 100% more vocally offline than during the moment. However, the feeling that decisions may not always be the most logical and deliberate, is one I can’t shake.

Saving the world one memo at a time! How much impact does consider the right diction make? I still remember one of the first reactions I got from former investment banking colleagues when I switched over to PE “We were excel and PowerPoint monkeys solely, but now you have the pleasure of being a word memo churning monkey too!”

They say satire is the only way to capture hearts and attention for boring subjects like finance and economics. I don’t disagree—double, but oh so frequently used in finance, negative. It shows skepticism, but the inability to prove the converse. We are paid to be critical. You can’t have critical judgment without “critical”. Some of us are just more silent on it than others. It’s a super judgment focused field. Judgment with a little bit of judgment derived algebraic and statistical math.

Now the “seriousness” side. It’s hard to keep these up though…

“We use logic to decide on main issues.”
We are fancy. We write with dogmatic prose. Sometimes the benefit is that they can make anything “sound” professional and plausible. Or they get buried on page 48 out of 79.

And the purely dichotomous examples.

We put on an outwardly critical and questioning poker face on when conducting diligence. We then sell the same idea internally with beaming pride, as if it is the best. They all are.

…countless others exist.

As ridiculous as these “stories” sound, the laughter they erupt, in my mind and those of my colleagues keep us sane.