When I arrived at college, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I knew two things for sure: I wanted to be a businesswoman, and I would surely find my future husband. (Because that’s the sorta thing an 18-year-old Bible Belter dreamt about back then. Spoiler alert: I didn’t).
I didn’t become a businesswoman, either. Mostly because I had no specific aims in business. Nor did I particularly like my business classes — at least the ones that involved the finer points of the field. “Quantitative” this and that. Bleh. But still, I persisted. Just like Romy and Michelle at their high school reunion, I wanted to dress the part and get respect. Who caaares what I’m being respected for?
No, I never told anyone I invented post-its. And yes, I did eventually wind up in a career: freelancing as a copywriter. Even though the attire was “at-home sweatpants casual” rather than “corporate business,” I found it suited me just fine.
That is, until it didn’t. One morning in late March, I woke to find myself very disgruntled. I was frustrated, tired, and overworked. I hit major burnout and had zero clue what to do. In full panic mode, I hit the “eject” button and took a BIG step back (sometimes it’s the best way to see the whole picture).
I spent the next several months working very minimally while I “found myself” and got re-gruntled. I cooked good meals, took up the drums, sang in a band. I earned an independent study doctorate in glitter (LOTS. OF. GLITTER) alongside my 6-year-old, allowing myself to go full homeschool mom.
All was well. For a few months, anyway. But suddenly, I started feeling intermittent waves of regret. Phantom pains that woke me in the middle of the night and made me wonder, OMG — do I actually MISS working?? An inner voice was calling, a familiar longing to feel economically productive. And it couldn’t have come at a better time, as I was just a hair shy of becoming that kindergarten teacher in Billy Madison, slathering my face in paste.
So, I dipped a toe back into the world of copywriting — and ran smack dab into the real-life Romy and Michelle, a.k.a. Stacey George and Sasha Spivey, fun-loving founders of Franki Ray (kickass apparel for rebels). These were two sophisticated women who, like me, woke up one day amid wildly successful careers and thought, Nah, this ain’t it. And now, they’re chasing their ultimate fashion and lifestyle design dreams into a stunning sunset.
I share all this because you, too, may have fallen asleep at the wheel for two seconds and awakened to find years had gone by. Suddenly, you’re in a career you’re not so sure about. And your heart’s desire is nowhere to be found. That’s when it sets in: BURNOUT. You’re plumb out of gas and fresh out of fucks, sputtered out on the side of the highway to God-knows-where.
I can say with confidence: doing the first thing that pops into your burnt-out mind is not always the answer (;
And the trick is really to avoid burnout before you’re a hysterical mess, lighting up matches to torch the whole enchilada. Because it isn’t always your job that’s the problem. Sometimes — and I say this with love — the problem is YOU. Having peed on both sides of the yard (the “blow this up, I’m over it” side and the “oh shit, what have I done?” side), I’ve gained perspective enough to know that infusing joy into your labor isn’t anyone else’s task. It’s yours and yours alone.
Here are some ideas to help you do just that (before you explode in a spectacular shower of glitter):
- CUT BACK JUST A LITTLE. Burnout is often the result of working too much, especially if you’re in remote/freelance work and there’s no one punching your timecard. The key? Set some better boundaries. AND KEEP THEM. If it’s difficult to step back, for fear of disappointing yourself or others in this productivity-focused culture of ours, think of it this way: you’ll produce better work when you adequately fill your own cup. A win/win for everyone.
- DO SOMETHING NEW. I’m not talking about a new job. Pick up an instrument. Try painting. Take flying lessons. Do something to inject a bit of inspiration into an old, tired routine. My partner is always saying “you have to balance all your pillars” — work, relationships, self, etc. Whatever your personal pillars, if you build one up too high… the whole roof caves in.
- GET A GIG. If you suspect that perhaps the grass really is greener in another field of work, why not try what a growing number of people are getting hip to: test out a few side gigs before you commit? There are multiple platforms to help with this, from Patreon and Medium to Fiverr and Upwork. While the idea may seem exhilarating, there are few things more terrifying than jumping ship without a safety net. (Trust me).
If you’re experiencing burnout, it may also be that you took a laissez-faire approach to your career. The 18-year-old “businesswoman” in me can certainly relate. In that case, perhaps a Romy and Michelle-type exit strategy is in order, and I wish you the very best on your journey. But I also wonder whether joy isn’t so much found in WHAT we’re doing as HOW we’re doing it. You can be miserable on either side of the fence. You can also be happy on either side. Like so many things in life, it depends on your perspective.