Three updates on my burnout

i) should is shorthand; ii) exploration & excitement is an orientation; iii) irresponsibility is the key to my burnout recovery

Note: One fourth, general update is that burnout is ill-defined and very individual, so I wouldn’t want you to apply any of my takeaways to your own situation unless you understand my context and resonate strongly.

I talked about burnout with my new therapist and, oh boy, it’s really reinforcing my perception that so much of the value from therapy comes from noticing and questioning things-you-might-be-getting-wrong. Here are three ways I updated today:

Should is shorthand for strategic

TL;DR: When I say I ‘should’ be doing, all I’m doing is positing a hypothesis. It doesn’t justify beating myself up for not doing something I think I ‘should,’ because it’s not an obligation or value judgment. I’m simply choosing which experiments I want to run right now.

I’ve been saying that I ‘should’ take a full break: go on a vacation, stop seeing EAs, go on a road trip. But what does this even mean?

Emotionally, it means I feel guilty because I don’t think I’m doing what is best. But in this context, applying a judgment like “best” is only useful if it points me towards the most effective way to recover from burnout. So when I say I ‘should’ take a full break, I am claiming that taking a full break would be strategically optimal for…

  • Energizing me
  • Imbuing my life with a sense of regular joie de vivre
  • Raising my baseline mood

All of these are testable! So when I say ‘should,’ I’m really making a claim (positing a hypothesis) that can be confirmed or falsified.

I will also say something like, I ‘shouldn’t’ be upskilling or talking about EA. Yet, sometimes, those things also

  • Energize me
  • Raise my mood
  • Imbue my life with a sense of excitement and wonder

So guess what—things that I ‘shouldn’t’ do provide evidence for what may be strategically better/worse for me. Why shouldn’t I do these things, then? Because people who have no access to my internal experience recommended something different for burnout recovery?

Similarly, when I say I ‘should’ be trying lots of different activities to find an energizing hobby, I’m positing that an energizing hobby will be crucial for my burnout recovery. When my therapist questioned this, I broke a little (in a good way). What do you mean, maybe I don’t need to find a consistently atelic hobby to recover?1 Maybe—alternative hypothesis—becoming energized is more about my mindset than whatever I’m doing?

Finally, nowhere does saying ‘should’ break down into…

  • I am obligated to do this
  • It is moral to do this
  • I am failing if I am not doing this

Rather, ‘should’ just represents the claim I hold the most credence in at the moment.

Exploration & excitement is an orientation

TL;DR: As a meditation guru might say—it’s all about your mind. Maybe I can make activities exciting, rather than finding exciting activities?

Searching has been a theme throughout the past month (even after my job search), as I’ve been seeking adventure and excitement and freedom! Let’s call what I’ve been seeking, “zest for life” (what I consider the English version of joie de vivre). Naturally, this brings to mind escapist fantasies of going on a road trip, skydiving, or just taking a complete break.

  • One hypothesis is that exciting activities are what generate a zest for life.
  • Another hypothesis is that my mindset is what generates a zest for life, such that I can find a sense of exploration and excitement in many ordinary activities, like chilling with my friends or listening to music.

I’m not sure which is more accurate, but I hadn’t even considered the latter as a possibility. My therapist questioning whether I necessarily had to find a hobby to recover from burnout, however, has opened up a new approach that I’m excited about. What if the core issue is my mindset, such that (a) I might not find a reliably energizing activity until I address my attitude & (b) I might not need a reliably energizing activity, because I can turn anything into this with the right mindset?

Based on my previous therapeutic experiences, this direction seems promising.

[Embracing] Irresponsibility is the key to my burnout

TL;DR: I want to feel gleeful about not doing what I ‘should’ be doing and/or what the average person is doing.

For the past month, I’ve felt sheepish about my efforts to address my burnout. Specifically, I would feel insecure and ashamed when I was asked, “What are you doing?”

Me: “Trying to recover from burnout.”

Them: "What are you doing to recover?"

Me, internally: Wow, they can't find out that I have no idea, because then they might think I'm dumb/not serious/incompetent/un-strategic etc. And that would reflect poorly on me, and my commitment to this community, and my impact.
Me: Oh, I'm doing a pretty bad job. I'm generally just chilling and ... trying a bunch of activities to see if I can find a hobby I reliably enjoy...

The funny thing is, I would still express loads of uncertainty and confusion—I wasn’t really trying to hide it, but I would feel down on myself for feeling this way. My therapist suggested that I assume that others are by default critical, which does seem accurate.

But even if people are, or even if I come across someone who is more critical than average, I should embrace what I’m doing nevertheless. I call this embracing irresponsibility: who cares if other people think I’m doing fuck-all? Let them be confused! Let them be judgemental! It doesn’t change that I’m leading my life the best way I think I can.

I’ve only really tapped into this sense of irreverence once before—when I was rejected from all but one of the T20s to which I applied. Interestingly, that also came with a sense of shame and failure—I was just able to get over that and feel defiance, instead. I’m not sure how to tap into this again, but I suspect I can brute-force it with enough practice!

  1. I still think ‘find a reliable hobby’ is a good hypothesis, but I feel less justified in getting down on myself for not making enough progress on this. Maybe not making progress is just a sign that my hypothesis was wrong! ↩︎

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