Society has primed us to care about ego and status. Here's how to get past that.
Earlier this year, Anne Helen Petersen wrote an essay for BuzzFeed entitled “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” The basic gist was that millennials, people between the ages of 22 and 38, tend to suffer from a combination of low-level anxiety, fatigue, and dread caused be a feeling that they should always be working. “I couldn’t figure out why small, straightforward tasks on my to-do list felt so impossible,” Petersen wrote. The answer she came to was “millennial burnout.”
The essay went viral and after it was published, there were a lot of articles written about millennial burnout—both its causes and potential remedies. These pieces have raised important points about student debt, the gig economy, the latest recession, and how America fails to provide adequate health care, childcare, and paid-time-off. It’s a quick route to burnout if you’re constantly struggling to meet your basic needs.
And yet, as recently detailed on the popular podcast The Ezra Klein Show, even if millennials have their basic needs met and enjoy their work, they still often report feeling burnt out. Research from Gallup backs this up, as does my own experience as a millennial—I’m 32—and that of my closest friends. We’ve all felt intense waves of burnout even while doing work we love—or at least work we thought we loved.
I’ve been reflecting on this over the last six months and I don’t think the problem is the work itself. It’s the addiction to ego, relevance, and self-worth that gets linked to the work and that our culture implicitly and explicitly promotes. Here are three ways to conceptualize and remedy this variety of burnout.
Control Your Passion so It Doesn’t Control You
Psychologists break passion down into two types. Harmonious passion is when you are enthusiastic about something because you love doing it. Obsessive passion is when you are excited about an endeavor because you love the external validation and recognition it brings. This is the difference between loving writing (harmonious passion) and loving all the retweets, likes, and buzz your writing brings (obsessive passion). Research shows that the former is associated with lasting performance and overall life satisfaction; whereas the latter is associated with anxiety, depression, and burnout.
One of the main findings in researching and reporting my new book on this topic, The Passion Paradox, is that many people start out with harmonious passion and then subtly, often without even realizing it, shift toward obsessive passion. While no one’s passion is purely harmonious—it’s human nature to feel good when something you do is well-received—it’s important to keep the majority of your passion focused on the work itself. Being focused on external results that you can’t control creates a volatile and fragile sense of self, the consequence of which is often burnout.
I catch myself slipping into obsessive passion all the time. As a writer, the allure of the measurable validation that the internet offers (followers, book-sales, retweets, clicks on articles) is strong. I almost always feel burnout coming on when I spend more time working on, worrying about, and checking this peripheral stuff than doing the core work—in my case, the writing—itself.
It’s no surprise that a big part of harmonious passion is coming back to the activity you love; especially when you notice yourself craving external validation. Here are just a few of the practices that foster harmonious passion I learned about in researching my book:
- Follow the 24-hour rule. After a big achievement or a tough failure, give yourself 24 hours to celebrate the success or grieve the defeat, but then get back to work. Doing the work has a special way of putting both success and failure in their respective places.
- Don’t judge yourself against others. Judge yourself against prior versions of yourself and the effort you are exerting in the present moment.
- Focus on process over outcomes. Evaluate yourself not on whether you accomplish an external end-goal but rather on how well you execute the process of going for it.
- Regularly reflect on mortality. Think about the fact that you are going to die. This tends to make very clear what actually matters and is worth spending time on. It’s probably not increasing your social media footprint.
This isn’t to say you should never focus on the external elements of your work. Building a brand can be necessary, whether you’re trying to sell books or trying to get promoted. Just be careful when marketing yourself becomes a core—or even worse, the core—part of your job. That’s often a quick route to obsessive passion, suffering, and burnout.
Prime Yourself for Flow
One of the best sources of nourishment and love is flow, or the state of being totally in the zone, completely immersed in whatever it is you are doing to the point that the distinction between you and it disappears. The peak of flow is basically self-transcendence. But you don’t get there if you are worried about your ego.
Judson Brewer, a neuroscientist, psychiatrist, and professor at Brown University who studies flow says that a huge problem with the current ethos is that it “tells us to look for love, to look for flow, in all the wrong places.” (Full disclosure: Brewer is one of my mentors.) If you want to spend more time in flow you’ve got to spend less time worried about relevance. Worrying about relevance, he says, creates clinging and a kind of longing that is unstable and frenetic. It’s only when you let go of this that you can tap into flow.
The challenge, of course, is that so many of the activities that feed the ego, and therefore prevent flow, feel really good in the moment because they provide an acute (but usually superficial) sense of relevance and meaning. I’ve written before that social media, email, and other sources of fleeting external validation are like candy. You know you probably shouldn’t indulge in it but there’s just something about it that’s so enticing. You tell yourself you’re “going to have just one”—one more check of your notifications, one more scroll, one more tweet or post—but the next thing you know it’s been over an hour staring into a screen and you feel some combination of sad, empty, and maybe even ashamed. Repeat this cycle enough and you end up feeling burnt out.
I’ve found that one of the best resets is spending a day (or more) in nature without any devices and with no plans to share your experience publicly upon your return. It’s also helpful to set aside regular blocks of time to do the work you love without distraction. At first this might be really hard, especially if you’re in the habit of constantly looking outward for little pulses of feel-good validation. You may even feel some anxiety. Just keep at it. Eventually you’ll realize that deep work is the conduit to flow and the lasting satisfaction and fulfillment it brings.
Lay Down Roots That Keep You Grounded
A few core principles support harmonious passion and flow over the long-haul. If you cultivate and nourish them, you become much less likely to be blown around by the changing weather patterns of your life. Think of these principles as the deep roots that sustain lasting performance and wellbeing. Adopting and nourishing them can be challenging because they run counter to so many of the prevailing cultural forces. But it’s worth the effort.
- Start where you are. Not where you want to be, not where you think you should be, but where you are.
- Be present. Being there, both physically and mentally, for what is in front of you. Being fully in this life, not in thoughts about the future or the past.
- Be patient. Giving things time and space to unfold; not expecting instant results and not quitting when they don’t happen. Going from being a seeker to a practitioner. Staying focused on what matters instead of perpetually chasing the next bright and shiny object.
- Embrace your vulnerability. Eliminate the cognitive dissonance between your workplace self, your online self, and your actual self. This builds trust in yourself and gives you the freedom to devote your energy to what matters most to you.
- Prioritize true belonging. Nurture genuine connection, the supportive space where life unfolds, through ups and downs. True belonging to even just a handful of close family members, friends, and neighbors is far more powerful than virtual or workplace celebrity.
I don’t write about this stuff because I have it figured out. I write about it because it helps me to figure it out. No one has got it all together, and certainly not me. If you try to adopt any of this, go slow and be kind to yourself. Think of it as an ongoing practice. The worst thing you could do is try to be perfect on all of the above at once. That, too, would be a surefire route to burnout.