There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond and to know one's
self. - Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard's Almanac, 1750
As I pointed out in the last post, job burnout is real. It is powerful and has lasting effects if not dealt with. It does not discriminate by vocation, age, job role, or intelligence.
And yet, "burnout" is not a clearly-defined term. It can describe a broad spectrum of ailments, from mild annoyance to a profound sense of anguish. This is why, though hard, it's so important to "know one's self." If we don't, we miss the initial clues that we are heading towards burnout. We chalk them up to life's normal ups and downs and forge ahead, often repeating the very actions and behaviors that started us on the road toward burnout to begin with.
But there's a second reason why knowing yourself is such an important part of coming back from burnout: it keeps us from trying ready-made solutions that don't actually address the sources and severity of our particular experience of burnout. I completely understand the desire for quick solutions and ready-made prescriptions – burnout feels horrible in the moment and has consequences for our lives. However, we all know that in our information-saturated world, there are a multitude of voices claiming to have the prescription for burnout.
Eat better, exercize more, get better sleep, take "time outs" at work, do one thing you enjoy every day, have better time management, and so on. These are all prescriptions I have read about solving the issue of job burnout. And it isn't that they are necessarily wrong as much as they suffer from two shortcomings:
- They are impersonal and might not address your unique experience of burnout.
- (And this is the important one) They tend to treat burnout as something that you are going to outrun by having more "good stuff" coming in than going out. The problem is that this approach can add a bunch of to-do's for which we already don't have bandwidth. And, in this approach, we might not actually be solving the causes of our burnout so much as just trying to counterbalance them.
Therefore, before offering any suggestions, tips, laws, steps or advice, our first recommendation is only that you pursue some important questions. Answering important questions will keep you from trying solutions that don't apply to you. And even better, they might give you insight into where your burnout is coming from – so that you can actually address the causes and fill up your tank. Good questions to start with:
- How long has this been going on?
- How would you define the emotions beyond just "burned out"?
- Do you feel this burnout is tied to one particular part of your work? Or does it come from a couple of related dynamics? Or is it broader than that?
- Is it possible that how you are feeling is linked to something outside work, and the job is just one place where it manifests itself?
These aren't the only questions you can ask yourself, but they're a good place to get started. Plus, they have the two-fold benefit of helping you discover the real feelings of vocational burnout, while simultaneously helping you to "know yourself" better.
Great questions don't have the immediate (though often empty) sense of relief, but the deeper work of knowing ourselves and naming precisely our ailment can be the necessary starting point for coming back from a season of burnout.