Being burnt out at work feels like this year’s life crisis. Almost every conversation I have with a friend in the industry lingers on the topic of struggling to focus at work. Last week, I was chatting with a friend and we diagnosed their core career ambition as the deep desire to spend several years sleeping. Reflecting on the chaos of the last year, that does, indeed, sound like a solid career plan.
When asked for advice, I come back to two core bits.
First, try to avoid making career decisions while in a bad mental place. Take a two week vacation. Get out of your house a few times if you’ve been living and working at home for the last eighteen months. Try to restart something you loved but have stopped due to pandemic concerns. You don’t need to find a sustainable long-term solution, just enough of a break to find some space to reflect before making life-altering changes.
The second piece of advice I offer is that great careers are often presented as linear growth stories, but if you dig deeply enough they often have a number of lulls embedded inside them. When you’re high energy, these lulls are opportunities to learn and accelerate your trajectory. When you’re low energy, they are a ripe opportunity to rest. It’s easy to forget about these pockets in retrospect, and I recently realized I’ve gotten so practiced at narrating my own career in a particular way that I’ve forgotten my own lulls that have made the faster periods sustainable.
Reflecting on my own career:
- Yahoo was a period of rapid growth and learning for me. While some folks on the team weren’t working very much, I was working very hard to ramp up
- Digg was a period of rapid growth for the first year, but got much slower as we moved towards being acquired
- SocialCode, who acquired the Digg team, was a much slower pace, and I spent time recharging energy. I also entirely stopped writing for about four years starting with the acquisition, largely because I ran out of energy to do it
- Uber was very intense as we doubled every six months, but stabilized after eighteen months once the organizational structure came together
- Stripe was quite intense early on, directly managing ~25 folks and several areas causing frequent incidents, but once again solidified as the organizational structure emerged over the course of a year or so
When I talk about my career, I’ll usually focus on the exciting times, but every career narrative hides the equally important pockets of rest that enable a sustainable career. It’s easy to look at these lulls as some sort of failure–they will often feel like a lack of progress–but they’re a key enabler of long-term success. I’m personally confident that I would have never accomplished the things I am most proud of in my career without these pockets of rest hidden throughout.
As a technical or people leader, I’d encourage you to reflect on your career and look for these rest spots. If you don’t see them emerging, then it’s worth spending some time thinking about what you could do to create more capacity in the teams and people around you.