JS Party – Episode #83
An honest conversation about burnout
with Suz, Feross & Emma
Suz, Feross, and Emma have an honest conversation about burnout. They ask questions like — How do developers deal with burnout? What is burnout? What are examples of burnout in open source? Plus they close the show by sharing tips for avoiding burnout and also how to manage burnout if/when it happens.
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Notes & Links
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Good day, and welcome to another episode of JS Party. I am your host this week, Suz Hinton, but I’m also joined by some excellent panelists, as usual, including one we haven’t heard from for a little while… Special shout-out to Feross, who’s back this week. Welcome!
Thanks! Glad to be here.
And for the first time, Emma and I are actually gonna be on an episode together, so I’m pretty excited about that, too.
Yay! It’s so nice to meet you.
So this week’s topic comes from a very personal angle… And some of us are gonna be sharing some personal stories about that today. Without further adieu, we’re gonna talk about the topic of burnout today, which I know is near and dear to the development community, so I’m really glad that we’re actually focusing on this, and talking about it.
If you’re not sure what burnout is, I looked it up on Mayo Clinic, so that I could give you an official definition of it. Basically, burnout is a special type of work-related stress. It’s a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and a loss of personal identity.
Now, you’ll find some of these things jump out in our stories today, but just at a high level, the causes of burnout can be everything from a lack of control in your job, unclear job expectations, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, extremes of activity - and we’ve seen that a lot with Crunch in the industry, especially with video games… A lack of social support, and also a lack of work/life balance. So at a high level, those are the kinds of things that cause burnout.
It can cause symptoms such as becoming cynical at work, having trouble just getting yourself to work, lacking energy, finding it hard to concentrate, and things like that. And it can leak into your personal life, where your sleep habits can change, and you can also just suffer from other physical illnesses as well as a result. So it’s a really serious thing, but thankfully there are a lot of people who I’ve seen online at least, on social media, starting to talk about burnout, and a lot of talks have surfaced at conferences as well… So I’m really excited about that.
[03:57] I wanted to open up this first segment where I want to ask Emma and Feross if they’re comfortable sharing stories of burnout. I know that all of us work in very different roles in this industry, the three of us, so I think that we could all share different angles of it. Emma, I’m actually gonna start with you - do you have a story that you wanna tell about burnout?
Yeah, and actually it goes back to the beginning of my career. I’ve suffered from burnout quite often, but at the time I didn’t know it was burnout. After I graduated college, I moved down to Texas from New York, and I started my first full-time position. I had studied Java all throughout college, so I was back-end primarily, and as soon as I moved down, they switched me to front-end. So I was there trying to juggle a full-time job with learning front-end development from scratch. I didn’t have a mentor. The only other jobs… They were already friends, so I was kind of like the odd one out, which is really hard, and I literally went home and cried every day, because how are you supposed to teach yourself an entire profession while being expected to deliver on sprint work, right?
So that was, I think, my first time really experiencing burnout, and I did not know that it was burnout. I was extremely cynical, and quite spiteful, and it just was not a good situation.
Now fast-forward to today, about 4,5-5 years later, and I would say that I’m getting burnout from all of my side projects, not so much my day job. Because when you enter this industry and you decide you wanna get started on side projects, for example, you say yes to pretty much everything that comes your way. And up until a certain point I think that’s really great. Then you realize quickly that you’re becoming overwhelmed to the point where you cannot deliver on all these commitments.
I moved to a foreign country, which was stressful in and of itself. I didn’t speak the language, so I was trying to learn German… I was balancing that with trying to run an open source project and doing podcasts, and teaching courses on Egghead, and working a 9-to-5 job, and so very quickly I realized this is not sustainable, and I kind of shut down… And additionally, I think this was amplified by the fact that at that point my social media on Twitter was growing, which was exciting, and yet at the same time it was a hindrance to my mental health, because when you’re bombarded by notifications 24/7, it’s like an infinity pool; it’s never-ending. So I spent the majority of my time on social media, and I think we all are aware of the negative implications of the internet, as there is no accountability.
So yeah, this was a really hard time for me. And even two weeks ago, I was actually supposed to be on JS Party, I was supposed to be a panelist, and I was so burned out by all of my side projects that I ended up messaging Divya and I said “Hey, can you cover for me? I’m so sorry.” Just me being me and not wanting to let down on commitments, that was exhausting for me mentally, to have to admit defeat. But when you’re in that position, you don’t really have a choice.
So much of that resonates with me, and I think that the hardest thing is knowing that you have to delegate things or stop things in order to recover, and it’s very difficult for you to let yourself do that when you’re already feeling bad about the high standards that you’re forcing on yourself.
Absolutely. And I think that being more - what’s the word… Like, when you do something intentionally. Being more intentional with the decisions that you make can help combat this, to a certain extent. Instead of just saying yes to everything, say yes to the things that you genuinely take an interest in, because otherwise you’re just gonna be overloaded with all of these things that you just maybe don’t really care much about.
[07:54] In the chat I can see that Kball has just given us this pearl of wisdom, which is “There’s two modes - yes, unless no, and no, unless yes. We all start in yes, unless no, where it’s default yes to every opportunity, unless there’s a significant reason to say no… But at some point we have to change to default no, unless there’s a significant reason to say yes.” That has probably been the hardest lesson for me to learn, especially given that I really resonated with what you said, Emma, about changing countries and having to learn how much to assimilate, what to assimilate on, starting a new job, figuring out being a non-existent person in the system of the country that you live in, and things like that.
Being able to know what to take on on top of all of those pressures - it’s a very hard thing. When you’re trying to start from scratch and you wanna make the best impression you possibly can, so it’s very hard to say no to anything when you really feel like you prove yourself, I guess.
You know, I’ve found through trial and error that if you’re honest to people about the fact that you can’t take on new commitments, and say “Maybe contact me again in several months”, they’re so much more content than if you were to say and fall through on these commitments.
Yeah, and another thing that I’ve found helpful is finding somebody to fill your spot immediately. So if somebody asks you to do something and they say “You’re a perfect fit for this”, that tends to be what makes me feel pressured to say yes, because they’re saying that they specifically want you to do it. I’ve gotten better at knowing other people in the industry that have the exact same skillset as me… And it doesn’t matter whether they’re super-experienced or not, it’s just that if I know that they’re a good fit, I can say “No, but…” and then give them somebody else.
I’ve only really started doing that in the last year, and it’s been so much better. Sometimes that other person will say no, but sometimes they’ll be super-grateful for the opportunity. And again, I have really high standards, so the person that I’m recommending is genuinely a good fit, and so that’s been very helpful for me, to feel like I’ve still helped that person, even if I didn’t end up doing the original thing they asked me to do.
Yeah, I think that it’s interesting… At the beginning of your career there’s kind of a dearth of opportunities, where if anyone ever sends you an email and gives you an opportunity, you’re so excited to jump on it… But then there’s a point in all careers - this goes to what Kball was saying in the chat - where you’re gonna get an abundance of opportunities, more than you can handle, and the transition can sort of sneak up on you. When you’re a teenager and someone sends you an email about being part of an interesting summer camp, you might obsess about it for a month, because it’s such a cool opportunity… But then when you’re at this point in your career and you have opportunities to go to conferences, or to be a part of this side project, or that side project, it’s just not humanly possible to do it all.
No… And I want people to walk away with the impression that we’re not saying “Don’t take things that scare you.” Absolutely go for those, but don’t just say yes to all these things because you feel obliged to, or whatnot. Just make sure that you don’t overwhelm yourself. It can quickly spiral out of control if you’re not intentional about that.
Yeah, my latest burnout has definitely been around that, and I’m totally happy to share the story of that too, just because it came from more of a place of excitement than (I guess) stress… Because there are so many different aspects of what actually leads to burnout. For me it was when I joined Microsoft, and I was joining to be in a position where I’m speaking to the dev community, but I’m also looking very closely at a lot of products in Azure, which is Microsoft’s cloud services… And trying to find the bugs and the rough edges and the experiences that could be better, and working to kind of smooth those out with product teams.
[12:13] So when I first started, when somebody gives you a bunch of cloud credits and gives you something like Azure, or AWS, or GCP, or whatever you’re actually looking at - you’re looking at all of these tools that are now literally kind of your playground, and I actually stopped sleeping properly for two weeks when I first started the job, because I was that excited about the potential of what I was able to do. I would just go down at night and my head would just be spinning with ideas.
I moved all of my open source projects, which were sitting in places such as AWS and Digital Ocean - I just moved all of it across to Azure. I tried to implement different architectural strategies, and refactor them at the same time, just to see what the platform was capable of, but also what is the one-to-one comparison of all of these different services, just so I know where there might be feature gaps, or where I know that Azure might actually do things better, for example.
And so I just had this flurry of activity where I was just churning out project after project, I was creating talk after talk, so that I could actually help people understand what a good architecture is, what is good best practice, and things like that… And the thing is that I thought that I was having the best time ever, and I was, but I think that after a year of just going super-hard, I didn’t realize that I was at a risk of burnout, mostly because of that enthusiasm. The way that I knew that I was burnt out was – I think that I just had a lull of activity for a month, where I was about to change into a different team at Microsoft, so things were winding down… And for me, the biggest danger is when you are not actually stopping. So you’re just running and running and running, and as soon as you stop, that’s when you fall apart, and that’s literally what happened to me.
So once I’d had all of this value at work, I looked back, and I guess because of some traditional politics at Microsoft, even though I had accomplished a lot in that year, I wasn’t really any closer to making an impact when it came to being recognized, or being able to improve my networking situation… So I just kind of all of a sudden felt this huge sense of apathy, because I had ran on the treadmill and gotten a lot of enjoyment out of it, but then all of a sudden my brain was like “You’re not doing any of this anymore.” It was the most baffling, but also panic-stricken time for me, because I was starting on a new team, and I thought “How did I just all of a sudden go from doing what I thought was impactful work, to literally sitting and alt-tabbing between programs and not doing anything?” And it was quite terrifying for me.
I didn’t know that burnout could be caused by enthusiasm. I never thought about it like that, too. But it’s really true… I mean, it’s caused by multiple things, one of which is stress, but when you’re so enthusiastic about something, you want to work on it 24/7, and that can also be a pitfall.
I think that’s something that people don’t recognize at first. They think “I’m fine, because I’m really enjoying it.” I’d never run into that type of burnout before. It had always been the very typical Mayo Clinic definition that I talked about earlier, about a lack of control at work, or office politics, or not being supported in a role… And I was not prepared for that, and I think that’s what scared me - there was no way for me to see the signs, until all of a sudden I was looking at the symptoms in the face.
[15:51] That’s very similar to how I think a lot of open source authors experience burnout… At least that was my experience. This sort of enthusiasm at people using your – it sort of starts as enthusiasm, because somebody bothered to pay attention to this thing that you released into the world. Then it grows as people recognize your work, but then there’s some point in any successful open source project where you get this sort of transition, I think - at least, like I said, that was my experience - where you suddenly are like… Something happens and you start to look at it differently, and you start to see it as a source of obligation, or you get feelings of guilt around “Am I doing enough? Am I being a good maintainer?” and so on and so forth.
So yeah, I totally resonate with the idea that you can be really enjoying something and putting your heart and soul into it, and then at some point that still burns you out.
Yeah, for sure. I think my most recent burnout, I would say, I struggled a lot with, because… In the U.S. I knew what to do if I ever got into these places mentally; I would hang out with friends, or I would play the piano or do something. When I moved to Germany, I had to sell everything, and so I didn’t have a piano here, I don’t have a car that I can drive, friends were really hard for me to make… And so I’m in a foreign country where I’m not fluent in the language, I can’t really get around, and all of a sudden, like “What am I supposed to do?” That was really hard for me.
I ended up buying a keyboard, because I’m like “If playing piano is really the only release that I have, I need to alleviate it in some way.” But what I don’t understand is why we don’t discuss these things more publicly… I’m not sure why it’s so shameful to just talk about the fact that mentally I’m not in a good place right now. We don’t talk about it, and I really do try to speak publicly about these things, because I feel like so many people suffer with it… And even I feel like just knowing others are going through this, especially people who are maybe more experienced in the industry - it helps you realize that you will come out the other side, everyone goes through this, and you’ll be okay.
But if my co-worker says “Hey, I’m sick today. I have the flu”, you don’t question it. But when people are like “I wanna take a mental health day”, in the U.S. it’s almost like a stigma. I find in Europe it’s a lot better. In Europe people are so great - at least in Germany - about saying “Take a mental health day if you are not okay.” It’s seen as equal to a physical ailment. But in the U.S, the culture is “Work all the time”, and if you need a mental day, you’re at a deficit.
Yeah, totally. I’m at a point in my career now where I’ve realized that – it took me a while to realize this, because I always sort of feel vulnerable in general; you feel like you should always be learning, you should always be pushing… But I realized that I’m at a point in my career where I’ve been in this industry long enough to have bolstered a good reputation, and so wherever I work in different teams as well, I generally have good rapport with them. So if I’m in that position where I feel that I have privilege and leverage just due to my experience, I tend to be a little bit more open with people.
In previous jobs I felt safe enough, just because of the team dynamics and the fact that people respect me enough, to be able to say “Hi, I’m not coming in today” or “I’m gonna be taking the next two days off because of some mental health”, and then just have a little sort of reminder for people in that email as well, like “If you feel that you need to take some similar time off, please feel welcome to as well.”
That has really helped in ways that I didn’t think it would. I just thought people would read the email and say “Pff… Suz thinks she’s being holier than thou, and talking about mental health in the office…”, but I actually got a lot of private replies saying “Hey, thanks so much for speaking up about this. Even though I’m not comfortable saying something like you are, I feel that I can now take a sick day if I need to.” So that’s been really helpful, to try to help others not get to the point that I get to, where I need to take a couple of days off, if that makes sense.
[20:17] Yeah. And I think the question becomes “What do you do if you feel like you’re on the verge of burning out?” I think the first step is to kind of just take a step back and look at all of the priorities that you have. Me personally - so I’m not saying that this is how it works for everyone - when I burn out is because I get overwhelmed by the amount of things that I have to do… So the first step is to take a step back and say “Alright, what 110% needs to get done?” and then to prioritize tasks. Maybe pick two, maximum three big things to focus on, and everything else can wait. You’re not saying you’re never gonna get to it, you’re saying “This needs to be put off temporarily, until I’m in a better mental state.” I think that that’s helped me.
I’ve also turned off all notifications, because there’s nothing worse than being constantly notified of things going on around you, when all you need to do is focus on one task. So for me personally, by prioritizing and by working on my productivity skills, I think that helps me alleviate it. But I feel like once you’re already in that downward spiral, it’s a lot harder to get out of it.
I think that wraps up this segment really nicely, actually. Thanks, Emma.
Feross, you mentioned open source a little bit in our previous discussions… Do you have any stories to tell about burning out on open source in general, or any stories that you know of out there, in the community, that you can share?
Yeah, sure. I think my experience with burnout in open source - like I was saying before, it came all of a sudden. I started WebTorrent; that was my first open source project, and for many months it was just hard to get anyone to notice or care about it… So at the beginning, whenever someone opened an issue, it was like “Oh my god, yes, somebody cares about what I’m doing! This is so cool! Yeah, of course I’ll fix the bug, and we’ll debug it together”, and I’d pour in days sometimes to fix a bug for somebody, because it was just so great to have people care about your work.
If a project goes well, it’s this great thing where more people start to use it, and you start to get more contributors, pull requests, issues… And that’s super-exciting and thrilling and exhilarating, and it reminded me a little bit of Suz, what you were saying about at Microsoft, where you go sleep and your mind is buzzing with ideas about what you wanna work on next… And this is all reinforced by the social validation that you get from people on social media, and people inviting you to speak at conferences about your projects… And it’s just this great whirlwind that can happen to you.
[24:11] And then there’s just a point where – I don’t know, it’s sort of sad, but there’s a point where the magic is lost, and it’s hard to say why that happens. For me, I think – well, before I go into that, I guess I just wanna emphasize that it might sound to the listeners like we’re all complaining about our great problems that we have… I wanna point out - I think open source is great, and I’m definitely super-happy that I did it. I have friends all over the world, I’ve been to so many countries, my software is used by millions of people, and I’ve met all these great people and worked on WebTorrent with them, and I became a better developer… I hadn’t ever done proper Node development, where you modularize things, and you learn how to write a readme, and documentation, and you figure out how to properly do pull requests… All this stuff.
I became such a better developer. I’m so glad I went through this experience. I’m not trying to gloss over the positive parts of this… I don’t wanna sound like I’m ungrateful, or anything… But despite that fact, there does come a point - at least for me, there came a point where there were just so many issues coming in, and I got this feeling of helplessness, that no matter how much I worked, I would never be able to make the software perfect enough that the issues would stop… And I think that is just not a good feeling to have.
You know what’s interesting, actually – sort of a side note about the different types of open source packages that exist. There’s a type of package that can actually be done, actually at some point be completely finished; if its scope is small enough, you can easily see someone’s opening an issue asking for something, you can say “I’m sorry, this is completely out of scope”, and it’s very quick to sort of say no to features, the API doesn’t need to evolve, it doesn’t need to follow trends… Either the function does the thing it’s supposed to do, or it doesn’t, and that’s very clear. Those packages aren’t that hard to maintain.
But then there’s this other type, which is more – typically, it’s the kind of high-level thing that users first interact with, like a WebTorrent, or a Standard JS, or something with a bigger API surface, or where it needs constant work in order to follow the evolving browser standards, or it just needs new features because it’s clearly an incomplete thing in its current state. Those are the ones that it seems like they can never be finished. So I just had this feeling that I was getting constant issues, and a lot of them were oftentimes these sort of esoteric bugs on random versions of Linux… Like, “I use Arch Linux, compiled from source, with this extension. Your software is broken”, and it’s like… You know, at first you’re like “Yeah, sure, I’ll fix this for you. You’re a user, I really want to make my software work for you.” But I got into a mode where I was fixing these bugs constantly for all these nameless people, and I had very little to show for it. After a month of working – I could work super-hard and the software looks exactly the same for most people, but apparently now it works on these random versions of Linux, or something. So there’s this sort of feeling of futility that I felt like I was never gonna be able to fix all the bugs… And that I would be obligated to continue working on this project until the day that I die.
Then I started to question, “Why am I obligated to work for free, for all these random people?”, a lot of them who have full-time jobs that are actually paying them, while I’m just a kid who’s 24 (or whatever I was at the time), with no job, and I’m working for free, and I’m doing this out of passion… Why am I sitting here and fixing bugs for these people who – I don’t know, they should be fixing them themselves, or should be sending pull requests. It was sort of this feeling that the tables had turned a little bit, and I was looking at it from a new perspective. That was the moment when it changed.
[28:23] Absolutely. I think that’s been my biggest ultimate fear in open source. I look up to you a lot in open source, Feross, and I’m like “Wow, he’s really good at finding the things that matter, and also releasing things that are trying to be one step ahead of everything else.” It’s like “This is the future”, or “This is something we should be doing”, or “This is a huge feature gap in peer-to-peer”, or something like that. And I look up to you so much, but I’m also simultaneously terrified of having the same “success”, because it can lead to things like this.
I was thinking about this recently - I received a pull request yesterday and it was just so wholesome that I wanted to cry… And then I realized why this hasn’t happened to me yet in open source, and one of my tweets yesterday was basically “My good experience is due to a number of things, but a lot of it has to do with making nice things in the corner that only a handful of people care about.”
That’s so true.
For me, I’m solving edge case problems, or I’m exploring in a space where enough people care about it that I feel like I’m not just developing stuff in a vacuum, but at the same time – I think the scariest motivator that I’ve had in open source is that Arduino, the company itself, uses one of my packages. For me, I would not want to be any more successful than that, because that’s already terrifying for me… And obviously, the extrinsic motivation for me to keep that stable and up to date, and constantly be fixing issues… It’s just one repo for me, and because it’s low-level hardware stuff, that stuff just doesn’t really change. It’s usually just a panic of an operating system changes, or if a browser all of a sudden puts in an extra permission in place. That tends to be the extent of it. I just really value hearing this story from you, Feross, because it sounds like it’s just as scary as I think it would be.
Yeah, I felt at times like maybe I should just stop publishing new work, because every time I released a new package, it makes the burden worse, because it’s this sort of collective thing, where every new package causes its own influx – an obligation that it adds to the list of obligations.
I think finding these packages which don’t change, or whether it’s a simple thing, it really helps… Not having ones that are constantly demanding attention and work. And you know, it’s important too that you are solving your own problems. There’s nothing nice about – well, yeah, I think it really is hard to work on a package when you’re not actually using yourself anymore, which sometimes happens. Then that makes that feeling of these bugs that are coming in really have nothing to do with my interests anymore, or they’re not solving use cases that I have.
One thing that actually happened to me was I would start packages as open source by default, because the thought was “Well, it’s gonna be open source anyway, so why would I start the repo as a private repo? I’ll just make a repo on GitHub, and then I’ll just start to commit code to it.” And then one thing that would happen is I would push up some barebones functionality, a version one of a package, and then I would – you know, I was in the middle of solving some problem, and that’s why I made this package, because I found some bit of functionality in the project that made sense to be a separate package…
[32:09] So I just sort of said “Okay, I’ll quickly go make a package and publish it, write up the readme, and then I’ll come back and finish what I was doing.” But often times I would start to get issues or pull requests within the first day. And it was like “That’s great! People are looking at my GitHub. That’s awesome.” But then it would be like “Oh my gosh, I have to support this use case, they’re right.” Or “Oh, they did find a valid bug. I didn’t think of that.” But the thing is I wouldn’t have ran into those issues. It solved my problem perfectly. So then suddenly I’m now fixing edge cases for other people, and adding features to support use cases that I don’t even have. It actually took me away from what I was in the middle of doing… So then I started feeling like maybe I should just stop doing this, or maybe I should ignore it, which is what I ended up doing.
And then the other thing about all this is just that it does feel a little bit like you’re a startup founder almost, but you have none of the upside.
Or you have some, but you don’t really – you’re forced to be this jack-of-all-trades, you have to do everything; you have to be the developer, you have to do the testing (QA), you have to design a logo sometimes for the project, so you’re doing graphic design. Then you have to write all the copies that explains why this package is worth your time, so you’re doing marketing. Then you tweet about it and you interact with people on social media, so you’re a social media manager. Then you have to deal with angry people, or people who are posting issues and they’re frustrated, so you’re doing customer service. Then you’re doing PR, and when sometimes things happen and you have to deal with a little bit of politics, or controversial decisions, so you’re really doing PR. You have to juggle it… So you’re basically a founder; you’re a founder of a startup, but you give away everything you do for free.
Yeah, that’s what I had to do with my project when I started. I think the biggest thing that helped with me not burning out was delegating and finding people that I trust to take over pieces of it… Because I had the impression that I was just going to develop this whole thing myself, and it was like “No, if you want this to succeed, you’ve gotta be the project manager”, and I also am the designer, which is hard, because I’m not a designer by trade. So finding developers that I could trust was possibly the biggest… But that’s hard; you don’t wanna give your baby away.
But to what you said as well, once you start building things that people are looking at, is when it’s your “Oh, crap…” moment. Like “Oh crap, I actually need to pay attention to not screwing this up now”, and then it becomes a little bit harder.
Yeah, they feel like customers, these people who are using your work. You don’t wanna break their builds, you don’t wanna cause them to have problems, so you feel an obligation… It can turn into a sense of guilt if you don’t feel like you’re doing your job as well as you could, if you’re letting the issues sit there for a while. So yeah, finding people is a great idea; I think I did an okay job at doing that, and I think – maybe this is something specific to the peer-to-peer space, but when you’re dealing with people who love the idea of torrents and decentralization, it’s very hard to get structure.
People don’t want structure, or hierarchy. I was uncomfortable with the idea of delegating honestly, because I’m like “These people are not working for me. They’re not my subordinates. I’m not a manager. I can’t tell them to do things.” Even ask them - I felt bad asking, because it’s like “What if they’re busy?” I don’t wanna put pressure on them. That caused this sense of a bit of structurelessness; it would have been better if we could find another way to – if I had talked to people more to figure out what their interest in the project was, or how much time they had, and done a little bit more of that interaction with people… I think I could have maybe figured out a way to work with people better.
[36:15] Maybe holding meetings once a week or once a month to talk about what everyone’s plans were and what parts of the project they intended to work on - that might have helped to ease the burden a little bit… But yeah, I didn’t do a good job of any of those things, so I think that probably made it a little bit worse, and caused a little bit of feeling of loneliness, too.
Jerod mentioned before that – his question was “Is there a difference between burnout and flameout, where people just never come back?” We’ve definitely seen that in the industry, both from a perspective of “I’m a public figure who got a lot of attention for good work that I did in the field”, and also just people who worked several tech jobs behind closed doors and just completely burnt out or flamed out as a result of just having a very unfortunate series of offices they worked in, where they were pushed to that point. You don’t have to answer this question if you’re not comfortable, but is that something that any of you have thought about? Has it ever been enough to make you not want to basically disappear…
…and withdraw from the community, or to withdraw from having a tech job in general?
Yes. I remember there was a day several months back where I literally just sat on my floor, in my closet and cried. I did not think I could do this anymore. I was really honestly debating what I could do with my life, because I just couldn’t be in the tech industry or the tech Twitter community or whatnot anymore. It was really hard. And I think I got lucky, because I reignited my passion for those things… And I wish that I had a finite answer that would help someone else in that position, but I can easily see why people flameout, in a sense. This is a very volatile industry in some many ways, and if you’re really not careful, it can definitely flame you out.
Yeah. There’s been examples of people in the industry who’ve hit the Delete button on all their work, because they couldn’t take it anymore. I would say I haven’t ever felt that hopeless about things, but it is something that I kind of understand why somebody would do that… Especially because in programming you often – I mean, software rots over time, so there is this feeling of like “What is all this gonna come to in the end? My stuff is gonna be replaced by other people’s stuff. Does all this work amount to anything?” The industry moves so fast… So when people wanna just delete themselves off the internet, I kind of understand where that feeling comes from.
Yeah. The example that was mentioned before was why the lucky stiff; it was such a huge deal when they successfully basically deleted themselves off the internet… But that was such a beloved figure in the Ruby community, just because of their approaches to make it more accessible, just the delightful and charming projects that they created too, and I think that that opened up a lot of vulnerability for other people to discuss why it might have happened, and any sort of parallel feelings other people had had around wanting to do that, as well.
I think part of this intensifying of burnout is due to the way that open source has actually changed over the years, too. There was a time when you would go to a website, read about the project, and then send emails to a mailing list, and you had to figure out the specific procedures for that project, and every project was different. And then to contribute, you had to follow (again) some specific process for that project, and usually email a patch to the mailing list…
[40:11] It was this much slower process, and there was a bunch more barriers to entry for people to contribute and to get started, which - you know, obviously there’s downsides to that approach…
The GitHub approach has made it so that any developer - because every developer has a GitHub account - can now open up these issues and can add… Basically, anyone on the internet can add tasks to your to-do list for you. They can just literally pop tasks onto your to-do list, and you don’t even have to know who they are. This change has made it a lot more stressful and a lot more – a lot more pressure is being put on the maintainers.
There’s usually still a similar number of maintainers as the old days; usually for some projects it’s just a few people… But now, suddenly, all the developers in the world can add these tasks to the workload of the maintainers, so it’s really changed it a lot, made the problem worse.
I don’t want this whole episode to be doom and gloom, so I wanna cover the topic of how to actually avoid burnout in the first place, but also tips for managing burnout if and when it happens, and maybe how to spot burnout when it’s happening.
So coming back to the workplace, Emma, do you have any insights about just how you ended up being able to pull yourself out, or things that you would have done differently next time, if you feel like you might be approaching burnout?
Yeah, I think the biggest thing that I did for myself was confide in my coworkers, who are also very great friends… Because as soon as you admit to people that you’re not in the best mental place, that helps me personally alleviate a lot of these feelings, and at that point I kind of have an ally in this situation, who encourages me to take time for myself.
If I don’t talk to someone, I kind of just push through it, or attempt to push through it, and at that point it just becomes so much worse. I think confiding in someone at work that you trust is a big one. Additionally, they’ll also probably offer to help you in some way, if possible. I don’t like to ask for help on things, because I like to try to do everything myself… So I think extending that olive branch is really helpful.
And spending time off of screen is a big one, too… Because we work on computers all day, every day, and I spend a crap ton of time on my phone. At this point it’s becoming a second job… So I think that spending time off of devices, getting outside is a big one. Finding hobbies that are completely outside of the wheelhouse of what you do day-to-day at your workplace - I think those help.
[44:05] They’re all really good points.
Someone mentioned earlier that social media can feel like a lot of pressure, if you’re thinking about conferences, or working on side projects, and stuff like that… One thing that’s helped me with social media is to use it as a write-only medium. I actually don’t read the timeline, I just – I use this app called Buffer to just write a tweet whenever I think of something that I wanna say, or link to a project, or something… I’ll just put it in Buffer, and then it’ll just go out at some point in the future, automatically, and I just don’t have to ever open up the Twitter app.
So if social media overload or the stress from that is causing problems, that’s an approached that’s worked for me.
Yeah. That’s definitely been something that I was surprised by recently. I love computers and I love tech, and I just can’t stop thinking about that stuff a lot of the time… And I took a vacation recently, because I saw myself approaching burnout. I was super-proud of myself for seeing that, and so I took some time off… But I went to Japan, which is in a totally different timezone to a lot of the people that I see in my Twitter timeline, a lot of the time.
When I lived in Australia, I followed a lot of Australians, because they were tweeting during my timezone, right? Then when I moved to America, my timezone just kind of dropped out during the daylight hours, when I was reading social media, so I started following Americans, or people just in the same timezone - people from South America, people from North America, and also just parts of Europe.
When I went to Japan, all of a sudden there just wasn’t a lot of super-active conversation from the tech community, because it was mostly smaller tech communities that were having those conversations… So I took that opportunity to just be like “Well, I feel out of the loop. I really love reading tweets about tech, but at the same time maybe I should just make my Twitter write-only.” So during that entire few weeks that I was in Japan, I was like “I’m just gonna tweet really happy photos of my vacation, without context at all”, and not in a way where I’m trying to rub it in or show off to people, but just saying “This is what I’m currently seeing right now, and these are the nice places that I have been enjoying, and this is the peace that I have found in this place, just by taking some time off”, and then just kind of didn’t really engage with everybody.
Every time I went to write a tweet that I thought was gonna get a lot of responses, I just deleted it. So I have all of these weird drafts, where I would start tweeting something and just be like “It’s not worth it to me right now.” And even though I don’t feel that I have a problem with social media, that still actually helped me a lot to just be like “You don’t always have to be thinking about computers, Suz. You can just take a picture of a nice garden you saw in Japan instead.”
Nice. I like that a lot.
Someone mentioned in the chat that a good way to help burnout at work actually could be pursuing open source, which I know sounds super counter-intuitive, given that we talked about both topics of burnout in open source and burnout in the workplace… But I would say that anecdotally I’ve had a good experience with that as well, where I was feeling super out of control at work, I wasn’t feeling supported, I wasn’t engaged with the work we were doing, because I didn’t agree with the direction that the technical architecture was going in, but I didn’t have the (I guess) agency and power to change that… So my first foray into open source came about because I wanted to just code on something that mattered to me, that was solving a problem for me, and that was also teaching me something new… So I’ve found that enormously helpful, and I think that that’s probably why I’ve had a good experience with open source, because I still continue to work on niche stuff that nobody else cares about, which helps me out a lot.
[48:13] Those projects are the best, the ones where it’s just like exploring something new, and something kind of out there, and you don’t know if it’s gonna work, and you feel like you’re on the frontier of new things, and… Totally, such a release. Yeah, I love it.
There’s a book that I am slowly working through, because it’s incredibly dense - it’s called “POC or GTFO”. It’s about the reverse-engineering and also the hacking community sharing stories about how they’ve exploited something, or even just came up with a neat way to do something with computers… And one of the chapters in the book was about building your own birdfeeder. It’s stuck with me ever since, where a lot of people will come up to you and they’re like “What are you working on?” and you tell them about your little pet project, and they’re like “Oh, that’s been done before”, or “Oh, you could just use this thing to do it”, or “Why do you think that that’s actually interesting?”
The response in that chapter is “Just leave me alone, I’m building my own birdfeeder. I’m doing it for the sake of doing it.” And it doesn’t have to be ground-breaking and it doesn’t have to be super-smart. It can be silly and not lead to anything, but it just keeps my faith in everything else that I’m doing around tech, because I have this little piece of joy. Do we have any more tips for this…? [laughter]
I apologize, I’m melting here; there’s no air conditions, so I’m slowly deteriorating… [laughs]
No, it’s totally okay. Can we share any tips on how to maybe spot burnout before it happens?
I think one of the things is finding yourself – if you’re a normally positive person, I notice that I become cynical when it comes to most everything, if I’m on the verge… That, and having no motivation to do anything, including the hobbies that I love, that are irrelevant to my day job.
That’s really interesting. The cynicism is a really good indicator, I think. In life in general, actually, it’s always a struggle to not become cynical. With age, everybody becomes more cynical… But to me at least, I try to not let that happen. If you notice that happening in yourself, that’s totally a really good warning sign.
Yeah, the Mayo Clinic mentions some of the questions that you might wanna ask yourself, and one of them is very topical to that, which is “Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?”
It’s very true.
I think for me the biggest sign that I can spot now is either waking up with some anxiety about starting my day; that tends to be a very early warning sign for me, that I got really good at ignoring, because it felt like it was noise, and there wasn’t a lot of signal around that… And the other thing is just a sudden drop in productivity. If you imagine that your colleagues from the outside would just be like “Suz is just out there kicking butt, and then all of a sudden she’s not.”
For me, the sudden drop in productivity is the sign that it’s too late, but maybe waking up with a little bit of anxiety, or just feeling a bit lethargic about the idea of starting your workday - that to me should be the early signs that I’m looking for, before the really big ramifications happen.
Yeah, that makes sense. I think it’s just important to notice when your normal personality or your behaviors are starting to deviate/diverge from your normal personality. It’s a big one.
Yeah. And I think that having enough people close to you in your life - and it doesn’t have to be colleagues, because not everyone works in a workplace where they’re privileged enough or lucky enough to have colleagues that look out for each other…
[52:14] I think that making sure that you’re always checking in with people in your life who can personally support you - they tend to pick up on those signs before you do as well, and so making sure that you surround yourself with people who are willing to sort of put themselves out there and say “Hey, I’ve just noticed that you’ve been talking about your job differently recently” or “Hey, I’ve just noticed that you seem to look stressed out when you’re sitting on GitHub late at night and scrolling through the issues”, and things like that.
For me, I’m very stubborn and I’m not always willing to – I’ll get defensive sometimes if someone brings those things up… I’m like “No, I’m fine!” But I think it’s really good to ensure that the people in your life are aware of what your warning signs are too, because they tend to spot them well before you do.
Yeah, that’s true. That’s hard for people, especially – like, I don’t like to be vulnerable with people… So you always need one or two good people on your side.
A couple of things that I’ve read online about also addressing the symptoms of burnout, and trying to come out of burnout… I think the biggest struggle that I have with some of this advice is that not everybody can do the things to try and pull out. So it’s really about trying to analyze your current situation, and trying to do the things that are within your control to do it.
If you have the opportunity to switch to another job, if you think that it’s the job that’s causing it and you don’t have any resolution, then that should be something that you should feel you can do. If you can’t do that, it could be something such as if you’re able to do some light exercise, or do some mediation or something like that; if you have the personal time to be able to invest in that, that could be the right thing for you.
Things such as seeking support from co-workers or friends - that’s something that most people should feel that they can actually do… And then things like sleep. Sleep, especially if you’re a new parent, can be really difficult, but I’ve found that sleep, and getting enough sleep, and getting good quality sleep for me has always been the biggest influence on my well-being in general, and how effectively I can pull out of burnout as well.
Sorry, there’s a conversation going on in the chat, because we’re just quickly discussing the culture differences in the U.S, and how in general you get penalized for saying anything other than “Good” if someone asks you how you’re doing… And my take on this, especially now living in Europe, is like - that’s just such a passive greeting; it’s not even a genuine question anymore. People in the U.S. actually don’t care about your problems, which is ironic, because we tend to be come best friends very quickly… But “best friends”, they generally don’t care about you, and then if you were to say “I’m not doing so hot”, they’d probably be like “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that”, and that would be the end of it. Versus in Europe, people are honest, and it’s very interesting culture-wise.
I definitely ran into this when I moved to the States. People would ask me about my weekend, and I would tell them, and then there would be stunned silence… And I’m like “But what did I say…?” I would say something like “Oh, I got really into this thing…”, and I realize that sometimes I will just go into some nerd rant… But even if I said something simple such as “Oh, I went hking at Red Rock for the first time. It was super-interesting, it was really pretty”, and then I’ll be digging through my phone to show a photo, and I can tell they’ve already disengaged with the conversation…
[55:55] It was so, so confusing to me, that even if I was sharing upbeat news, I just didn’t get that – if they ask, it doesn’t necessarily mean they want to know. And that is still one of the most confusing concepts to me. I’m a very literal person, so if you ask something, I assume that you actually want the honest answer to it… So yeah. I think that is a real struggle when it comes to trying to break through people’s barriers in order to have these deep conversations about the fact that you’re struggling to begin with.
Yeah, I don’t know why it’s such a taboo to talk about, honestly…
I feel like the question “How are you doing?” or “How was your weekend?” is more like a heartbeat ping; it’s like “Are you there?”, and then the answer is just supposed to be “Yes, I’m here.” Then you can say what you really wanna say after that. People don’t really want to hear when they ask that question, for whatever reason.
Yeah, they don’t.
But I think being positive is super-important. Just in general in life, not – I know this is cliché and obvious, I guess, but I feel like the world is so negative in general, and social media is so negative, and people are always focusing on the way things can be better… And it’s good, that’s how things improve, but as an individual, I don’t think it’s healthy to be steeped in that… So whatever you can do to remove yourself from that and to put yourself into a more healthy environment, and to do things not looking at a computer, outside in nature, and to take a break, and all these things that can remind you that the world is actually a beautiful place, and it’s amazing, and the sun is usually out - at least in California - and it’s a beautiful place to be, and there’s all this great stuff you can do… I mean, I’m so glad I’m alive today, and not hundreds or thousands of years in the past. Things are great.
I have a book recommendation, if that would be helpful to anyone too, on just helping to manage these feelings from day to day, that I’ve found really helpful. The book is called “No hard feelings.” I don’t know if any of the other panelists have seen or heard of it, but it is just such a beautifully illustrated and well thought out book… And I would highly recommend it. I’m just looking up the author.
What would you say the overall message is from the book, or the thesis, I guess?
Yeah, so the book is by Liz Fosslie and Mollie West Duffy; they wrote it together. It’s called “No hard feelings: the secret power of embracing emotions at work”, and so pretty topical to today.
I would say that the biggest takeaways are just they share the causes of the initial emotions that happen… Does that make sense? They help set up a bunch of mental models that stop you from ending up in the pit of despair in the first place, and being able to be much more mindful and spot patterns as they occur, and apply different mental models to being able to handle that.
For me, the thing that I like about too is that you don’t have to read it all in order. You can sort of dart around and just find things that you really relate to. That’s definitely the most helpful resource to me recently, when thinking about politics at the workplace causing burnout, or just your own expectations you have on yourself as well, and then how you can sometimes project them on others… So that’s definitely a book that I would recommend for people.
Oh, it looks so cute. It’s illustrated.
Yeah, the illustrations are just beautiful… And you might have actually seen some of them posted on Twitter. They’re very shareable.
Oh my gosh, that’s so cute…
So do we have any other parting thoughts?
I don’t think so. I think we should leave people with the thought that it’s okay if you’re feeling overwhelmed, and there’s no shame in taking mental health days, and trying to remediate the situation before you get too far down your spiral.
I was gonna say maybe one piece of advice is to just make a change in your life in some dramatic way, if that’s what it takes. It’s silly to think that something will change if you keep doing the same thing, so being brave and doing anything that’s different can help… Deciding you’re not gonna look at your issues for a month, or quitting your job, in an extreme case. Going somewhere else, doing something different. I would encourage people to not be afraid of making a big change like that, if that’s what it takes to do it.
That’s great advice. I wanted to also thank you two for sharing your personal stories today. I know that they’re usually very difficult to talk about, and this is going out to a large audience too, but I’m hoping that our anecdotes today will be very helpful to people to take away with them.
Totally. It’s not easy to talk about this stuff, that’s for sure.
But it’s important.
Hopefully this wasn’t too solemn for people…
Our transcripts are open source on GitHub. Improvements are welcome. 💚