Fight Burnout, Go For a Run

Friday, February 19, 2016

Here's something we don't talk about enough: burnout sucks and it can happen to any one of us. We need to talk about it. We need to know how to deal with it and recover from it. And we need to recognize that everyone can come back from it, stronger than ever.

In the software industry, we are subject to lots of pressure, long hours, and emotionally taxing work1. These are stressful and very difficult to deal with, and can ultimately lead to burnout. I hope those reading this have not had to deal with it, but I sadly suspect that most of you have (or will). I know that I have, and more than once.

The first time I experienced burnout was in 2012, when I ambitiously chose to take on not one, but two, undergraduate research projects simultaneously. Some people may thrive in this environment, but it ended up reducing me to tears and ultimately leading me out of academia and into industry2.

The second time I experienced burnout was in 2014. I was working for a startup which I believed in 100%3. Any job comes with stress and can have long hours (especially for a young software engineer who does not know how to set boundaries), and since I believed 100% in the company, I sacrificed too much while having no other outlet for my stress.

This stress culminated in me lying on the floor of my house, in tears, broken. Something had to change. Either I would find a way to deal with the stress, or I would have to find a new industry to work in, because this was simply not sustainable. Almost without thought, I walked over to the door, laced up my Nike running shoes, and went and ran the first damn mile I had run in a long, long time. The more my feet hit the pavement, the more my stress melted away, and by the time I was done I felt like a normal human being again. The repetitive, meditative nature of running melted it all away (and the endorphins didn't hurt, either).

It took me a long time to recover from burnout in 2012 and in 2014, but I did it, and I came back stronger for it each time. I now know how to set boundaries, how to relax and have a life outside of work, and I've adopted a hobby that will keep improving my health for a long time. And I joined a great company doing some stuff I really care about, but I'm also really sure that the changes I've made will ensure I stay a strong, healthy engineer for years to come.

Unfortunately, my experiences here are not unique.

If you are fighting with burnout right now, please, join me: go for a run, or a bike ride, or a long walk (no phone allowed). Your mind will be clearer and it will be one small step on the road to recovery (if not, at least you still got some exercise!). (And if you need someone to talk to, get in touch.)

If you have gone through burnout or fought with mental illness, I beg of you: post your story and share it wide. As an industry, we have a responsibility to protect each others' health, physical and mental. A big part of that is sharing our stories and our coping mechanisms so no one has to feel alone, trapped, or hopeless.


1 Personally, I find programming to be nearly constant emotional whiplash: the successes make me feel really great, and the roadblocks and failures make me feel really awful. Anecdotally, many of my coworkers have felt same way.
2 I recently revisited this decision, and tried out grad school. Fairly quickly, I determined once again it was the wrong choice for me, but it was good to make this decision again when not experiencing burnout.
3 It is still my belief that GraphSQL has essentially the best graph computing platform out there. Adam, please make a public release soon! I want to play with it again!

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