When I read Meg’s letter from the editor this month, I could relate to so much of it. The single-mindedness. The rage. The failure and the ability to keep going. Or, at least, I could relate to it five years ago. Three years later? Not so much.
For most of my life, that ambition, those goals, were who I was. Always climbing, always working toward what came next. And then a few years ago, I just kind of… stopped caring. And not in a “fuck ’em” liberating sort of way. I felt like I had gone from Type A to Type C. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was just tired. For no good reason except that pursuing every goal and every opportunity full-speed-ahead for twenty-five years without ever slowing down is tiring. Though the need to make more money in 2013 kept me going, and, coincidentally, had me working much harder than I had in previous years, something had shifted in the years prior. I was doing it, but I wasn’t necessarily loving it. I wasn’t sure, beyond making money, what I was even after anymore.
Around that time, I read Hannah Rosin’s The End of Men and came across this quote:
Many great working women reach the point where they stop and wonder whether the mad daily rush is worth it. Sometimes the moment is forced on them by some job frustration or layoff, but sometimes it starts to preoccupy them for no apparent reason at all. The typical male midlife crisis tends to hit out of the blue and take men by surprise, but for women it’s been lingering all along. They might have felt it during maternity leave, or on the day they walked into the fourth meeting of the morning and desperately wanted to walk back out and find some quiet place to sit and read a magazine. What they need is not a room of their own—they probably have one at home, even if it’s called an office—but just more room, in the crammed minute-by-minute calendars that are their lives. Maybe they think, I could get away with slipping away—not for an hour, with a magazine, but for good. There are, after all, usually children to tend to and a household to manage; it could be justified.
That’s me. I was the girl who just really wanted to read her magazines and be left alone. I, too, had found myself contemplating being a stay-at-home… adult? I didn’t really want kids, but sometimes in the morning as I got ready for work, I just wanted so badly to stay at home and hang out with my dog all day. I’d do some work, sure, but I’d also… I dunno, fold my laundry nicely? Snuggle with my dogs and read some feminist literature? Go to the workout class of my choice? Suddenly, I was fresh out of goals. I’d read what my peers were doing and briefly, half-heartedly, feel like I should do something too. Some days I’d do it. Other days, I’d just say Meh, and sleep in for an extra half-hour. I hadn’t reached the top of the ladder, but I had reached a convenient stopping point. I had been trained to always be thinking about what came next, but suddenly I had no idea what I should do next and I really didn’t feel like figuring it out. But just punching the clock without my eye on some prize didn’t feel right either.
For my whole life, I loved being active and involved. All my activities, all the camps, all the internships, they were my idea, and they were things I truly wanted to do and loved doing. It never felt like work. Until, suddenly, it did.
And I wasn’t alone in feeling this way; many of my friends, too, seemed to be just kind of over it all. Our collective exhaustion reminded me of this quote from Courtney E. Martin’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters.
We are the girls with anxiety disorders, filled appointment books, five-year plans. We take ourselves very, very seriously. We are the peacemakers, the do-gooders, the givers, the savers. We are on time, overly prepared, well read, and witty, intellectually curious, always moving… We pride ourselves on getting as little sleep as possible and thrive on self-deprivation. We drink coffee, a lot of it. We are on birth control, Prozac, and multivitamins… We are relentless, judgmental with ourselves, and forgiving to others. We never want to be as passive-aggressive are our mothers, never want to marry men as uninspired as our fathers… We are the daughters of the feminists who said, “You can be anything,” and we heard, “You have to be everything.”
And while part of me knows the pace to which so many of us have become accustomed is simply unsustainable for most normal humans, I don’t think I (or anyone) was wrong to think that you really do have to work that hard to get where you want to be. It’s easy to say, “Take some time off. Unplug on the weekends, do less, no one will care,” but in my experience people do care. And they aren’t especially kind to those who suddenly seem to lack motivation. If you believe that success and happiness is the result hard work, then those who aren’t willing to work as hard as they once did become less deserving. And I’ve bought into this idea too, accepting that the only thing standing between me and success is how incredibly comfy and cozy my bed is.
And it’s easy to say this is just a privileged problem, but I wonder if my need to do everything comes from being raised by a single mother. Of course I thought I had to do everything; that’s what my mom and my grandma both did—because who the hell else was going to do it? And for me, doing everything so I could be the best at something was my ticket out. I often think of the line from the season two premier of Scandal (the best line in the show’s history as far as I’m concerned), when Olivia’s father says, “What did I always tell you?” and she begrudgingly responds, “You have to work twice as hard as they do to achieve half of what they have.” I think every black woman watching felt her heart explode at that line.
I always worked hard with the goal in mind of getting a good job so, what? I could work even harder at said job? The point of all my hard work was just to earn… more work? Great. No wonder at the age of twenty-six, “getting out” actually meant relaxing. Pursuing the things I wanted to pursue that may or may not pay off by standard metrics of success. “Out” would be having the time to clean my pantry, binge-watch House of Cards, fuck around on Pinterest, work out, and write something I’m really proud of just because I felt like it. Is that so much to ask? Well, maybe. Maybe if you’re a woman, or have a shitty background, or are a person of color, or just work in a super competitive industry, it is too much to ask.
I’ve read “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” which is always brought up in conversations like this. I love a lot of what the author had to say in that article (particularly, “If your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary”), but I didn’t fully relate. Because while I agree that a perfect day is writing for four or five hours and then going to do something else enjoyable, I don’t know if that’s realistic for most writers, or most people. And I’m not sure I need some guy who is already writing for the New York Times telling me to just relax and write a few hours a day, like that’s enough to pay off my student loan debt and get me my own damn column in the New York Times. But I do know that if that’s my goal (and I do believe it is), I’m going to have to work my ass off for now to achieve it. So maybe that’s what I’m working toward: the ability to work less and/or do more enjoyable and flexible work, and sooner rather than later. But it’s not easy to achieve that without busting your ass for years.
To be fair, even Type C me is still doing pretty well for herself. My APW internship was the thing I was hungriest for in a long time, and working toward it and subsequently earning it was a huge gust of oxygen to my dying creative flame. And now as the editorial director at my day job (a contributing editor at APW), I’m working hard and happily again. But I’m honestly not entirely sure what I’m working toward, so I never feel like I’m doing enough. But the last lingering bits of burnout, the voice of “The Busy Trap” telling me that it’s okay to check out a little on the weekends, and my freaking amazing bed keep me from doing more.
Knowing how easy it is to burn out scares me. Not just because it threatens a part of my identity, but also because I know I’m not the only one, and I know it’s not good for any of us. The more of us burning out and opting out of the workforce entirely, the worse off we all are. If businesses start losing all their women when a generation turns thirty, that’s not good for business. If an industry loses a huge portion of its best people every five years, then who will be there to provide the kind of wisdom that only comes with experience? And if we decide to move at an average pace for a while, what happens in a few years when we’re recharged and ready to go hard again? Will it be too late for us?
So today’s open thread is about burning out: what causes it, and how to get through it.
Have you experienced this kind of burnout/exhaustion? Have you run out of fucks to give? If you have, how did you proceed? (i.e. did you say “fuck it,” did you make changes to your lifestyle/goals/etc., or are you pushing through it and staying motivated?) is this experience generational, gendered, or just thanks to specific personality types?