I remember the first time that I experienced “burn out”, the manifestation of not physical but mental exhaustion that is alluded to but often not described in the tech industry. I had completed my first semester as a Computer Engineering student at Texas A&M and was an absolute wreck. It was after dinner on a Friday, I had picked up some McDonald’s, Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, not because I liked it necessarily but because my friend Bill had told me it was the cheapest and most calorie dense thing on the menu. He was a junior and wore a calculator watch for purely practical reasons, so I trusted him on these sorts of matters. I finished my abomination of a meal and decided “if I don’t get the fuck out of this town, I’m not going come back next semester.”
It was probably 9pm and I threw some junk in the back of my parents’ suburban and started driving.
“Fuck this place”
In my first semester, I had an ambitious 18 or so hours. The engineering program being predictably rigorous and intense. I chose two Computer Science courses for my first semester. Both of which concluded with a sizable group project, for a sizable portion of our grade and, unbeknowst to me at the beginning of the semester, would command a sizable amount of my time and effort.
An excitable, passionate freshman, I ended up being grouped with a few sophomores in each class who couldn’t construct a Java class to save their lives, let alone make a simple physics engine to bounce a ball from left to right on the screen. I, being too young and too stupid to know any better, accepted the programming part of the project.
I ended up doing the majority of the work in between my normal class and finals workload. Not a particularly adept programmer at this point, all of my evenings were consumed with two discrete projects, each meant for a group of four students, both being brought to completion by one frustrated, caffeine and nicotine fueled freshman.
By the end of the week I had submitted both passably functional programs with source code, and went to pick up something to eat; the sheer amount of Coca-Cola I had drank had left its usual acidic emptiness in my stomach.
Rocketing down the Texas highway to my parents’ house, a boring straight-line with nothing remarkable to look at. I set the cruise control at 72, the fastest I felt sheriffs and state troopers would let me get away with, and settled in.
I was still pissed off, at my group mates, at myself, at the school, at everything.
“Fuck that place”
I started to get tired, being physically and mentally exhausted from the week, I cranked the radio. I lit a cigarette and cracked the window. The brisk December air opened my eyes a bit more and the cigarette gave me something to think about other than how much I hated everything; a generous amount of “fuck everything” swished around between the ears.
Cigarette’s done. My throat hurts, I’ll leave the window cracked though, this will help keep me awake.
I woke up a split second before my parents’ old suburban plowed, at 72 miles per hour, through a 60mph speed limit sign on the right shoulder. The suburban exited the road at a slight angle so the speed limit sign sliced from right to left and took the driver’s side mirror with it. Before I could react the suburban hit a little bluff and felt like it went airborn for a split second. The wheels returning to the grass, I immediately applied the brakes and slowed to a crawl.
I returned to the shoulder and stopped. My heart racing, I don’t think I got out of the car to inspect the damage but instead continued the remaining hour back to my parents’ house. Heart still pounding and scared to touch cruise control again. I slowly pulled into the driveway, went inside to take a piss and called my step-dad.
Terrified, upset and feeling lucky to be alive, I dialed the phone.
Choking back the tears, I explained what happened.
I didn’t really explain why it happened.
The second time I experienced burnout, it happened slower, over the course of almost a year. I likely would have recognized it sooner in the form of a large SUV departing the highway at near-terminal-velocity, but this time it snuck up on me.
In 2013 the team I led executed a herculean effort and shipped a brand new product on brand new infrastructure. Truly a testament to the talent of everybody involved. We returned from Christmas break in early 2014 and were asked to “do it again” and ship another, even more massive, brand new product. Having helped build and deliver multiple products in my career, I took a deep breath, rolled up my sleeves and got started. Many of my coworkers did the same.
Among my many flaws, is the amount at which I throw myself into my work. I enjoy building things, I like to ship things, I enjoy it to the point of my own detriment. I threw myself into this project, like so many before at this company. Not to say I was neglecting my marriage or my personal life but I simply did not stop thinking about the project that we were tasked with.
“This is the most important initiative at the company right now” was said in various forms throughout the project lifecycle.
I was commanded to build an ark, so we set out to build an ark.
Burnout first started to show its face in interpersonal relations. I could continue to work, but fuck-all if I’m going to work with that person any more. Regardless of whether that person was the source of all my frustration, I mentally declared that person as persona non-grata and changed roles within the company.
I have always had a, let’s call it, pessimistic and self-deprecating sense of humor. Where I might point out how ‘broken something is’ and say “it’s funny how much this thing fucking sucks.” Ha ha.
As my burnout festered, the humor receeded and I ended up feeling like things fucking sucked all around me. I couldn’t turn my head without noticing something that, whether it involved me or not, was just wrong. I could rattle off how much was broken, how badly it was broken and what a big fucking problem this was. Plenty of things were broken, and probably still are, but there’s nothing constructive about such toxic negativity.
For a variety of reasons, my new team failed. Our work had largely failed; I had failed. For the first time in my career I loathed waking up in the morning and coming into the office. I did not want to be there; I even took a day off for no other reason than to not-be-working-there and sat at home, avoiding the inevitable.
I went into a tail-spin. I was angry at everything, I felt like not only my work was being attacked but that I was being attacked. Don’t you people know how important I am to this company? All the things that I’ve built? Fuck, I’ve interviewed most of you!
“Fuck this place”
I decided to leave the company, after consulting with a few people who I respect, and ultimately decided that I simply could not be happy while working there. Forget changing positions or moving once again within the company, I had so much resentment and frustration I couldn’t even conceive of any position, even one tailor made, where I would be happy.
This is when I finally recognized that I had burnt out and, despite my investment and belief in the company’s goals, left.
A couple weeks later I found myself walking through San Francisco and I couldn’t avoid a hoard of tourists walking towards Union Square, smiling and laughing, looking just pleased-as-punch to be there. I found myself vicariously happy with them. “Isn’t this great!?” I wished I could have asked, about nothing in particular.
For the first time in over a year, I wasn’t angry.