In September, I disappeared in Seoul and caused everyone who cares about me to think I was having some kind of breakdown. I deactivated my Twitter account, and refused to engage with anyone other than my closest friends. I got to the point where I felt I had to drop everything, and then I came back and chose things that could return, one by one. Some things still haven’t made it back. Maybe they never will.
What took me to that point was three team turnarounds in three years. The final one, with a fractured shoulder whilst buying and renovating a house (also a turnaround). But that is the big story – what took me to that point was a thousand choices, made at various decision points, that consistently put my own well-being last. What took me to that point was some deep seated need to act as-if I was some highly-optimized, resilient robot rather than a physically hurt human being with her own needs and life.
It was hard to untangle this, because the ways in which I am good at the turnaround are directly related to the ways in which I am bad at being a human in the world. I focus on the important – I let things that are not important go (but life is made up of unimportant things and it’s hard if none of them are “done”). I stop dysfunction like some kind of human shock absorber – I am afraid to let people into my own dysfunction, to the point of being willing to shut them out entirely. I have high standards – the standards I would hold other people to are nothing compared to the standards I have for myself. I see it as my job to live in the space of ambiguity and create clarity for other people – I don’t prioritize resolving ambiguity for myself. I am very driven by values – sometimes the values I hold conflict with what I need as a human.
In this space, when people expressed concern it was met first with bewilderment, then resentment. Bewilderment, because this was – as I understood it – what I had been asked to do. It was always going to be terrible for me, the real surprise was how badly my shoulder was injured and that renovating a house was extremely terrible too. Resentment, when that concern came as feedback, to which I wanted to respond, “I did what you needed, I’m sorry it didn’t look pretty, too.”
In a distributed environment, no-one needs to know how you really are.
Around the time I disappeared in Seoul. I was winding up on the third turnaround team, handing it back to the proper person. I was deeply burnt out, and my then-boss hadn’t decided what team I would go to, resulting in me drifting around without a clear place to go, unsure of what I could take on – my life in general feeling on hold around medical appointments and waiting.
At home, I found a therapist, finally unpacked and started living out of closets rather than boxes, did the work of building a life in the city I had spent the best part of a year calling home but didn’t feel like home yet, prioritized medical appointments above everything else (with some help from my mom). At work I covered a month of parental leave for one of my peers, and the engineer leading a huge project (the new editor) asked me to come help him. I joked to my peer leading that part of the organization that he had brought me to her like a cat with a dead animal offering. I “joked”. It felt true.
We rolled out the new editor. I moved to another team, reporting to the CEO again – I was grateful to him for resolving the drifting, but felt like I was doing what everyone else wanted me to do – although how could it be any other way, when I didn’t know what I wanted myself? I kept going to therapy, got to the place where I could confront some of my less appealing characteristics, spent time with friends, finally shared pictures of the house. Had moments where I could contemplate feeling okay again, even if that was definitively, absolutely, not right now. Always contingent on things outside of my control.
Today I feel okay, even happy. Things are not perfect, but I have a sense of direction and purpose, some kind of stability – some internal, some external. Various things came together, and it started to feel like enough to go on. I started to feel like enough.
Only the most perceptive people notice when you disappear
This was not supposed to be a story about burnout, this was supposed to be the things I learned working through it and being able to see the other side. But it feels dishonest to write about how to make teams more functional without some level of insight into what that process has done to me. It feels futile to talk about working through burnout, without some insight into the context that burnout was within. Only the most perceptive people notice when you disappear, especially if the Achievements keep accumulating because it’s easy to assume busy instead. Not everyone can be present when you’re a shadow, simpler and less confronting to say “let me know if you need anything” and disappear instead.
When I think about burnout, I always come back to the Maslach Burnout Inventory (there is a book, but it’s more succinctly summarized in this article). It is a helpful framework for thinking about burnout, in particular the five causes of burnout that are not overwork. They are: lack of control, insufficient reward, lack of community, absence of fairness, and conflict in values.
Lack of Control
Lack of control was a huge factor for me. Both on a personal level (the healthcare system and builders), as a human at work (what is my job now?) and in a work context (these things are not working well, but out of my remit to fix). This is really what triggered my disappearance in Seoul, when I realized going with the flow was leaving me completely miserable, and even (in a certain context) triggering an existential panic where I wasn’t sure if I existed at all. It was a topic that came up again and again in therapy.
Letting go of everything allowed me to focus on things within my control. The relationships I was confident were good, the appointments and calls I could make to move things forward, the remit I had at work. I refused to engage with the ambiguous or bad, and demonstrated to myself that most things continued without them. As I let them back in, I was very deliberate in giving them an appropriate place in the hierarchy of importance, and any supporting structure needed to be manageable.
I learned more is within my control than I thought, and that I need to accept and manage the impact of things outside of my control. The result of this is that I feel more centred and less blown about by uncertainty or ineptitude. I change what I can change, influence what I can influence, and when neither is an option, I aim to contain it and move on.
One way to look at the situation I was in – drifting – was that the reward for doing a good job was the ambiguity, because the only decision that had been made was that I wouldn’t go back to my previous team. I understood (and agreed) to this, but it definitely left me living in a space of uncertainty that got harder and harder to manage over time. I felt less confident – did my boss really value me? Would other people think I had been demoted? Would what I ended up being given be something I even wanted?
In response to this, I searched for validation elsewhere. Focused on shipping things: internal blog posts, progress reports, external articles. Hoarded complements. And with people I trust, admitted that I felt terrible and straight up asked for the validation I needed. These things helped in the moment, although fundamentally they needed to come with a change in mindset too – one of looking for information that supports a positive hypothesis, rather than a negative one.
Lack of Community
It is a truth universally acknowledged that leadership positions are lonely. In many ways, I got myself into this situation by so badly wanting my peers to be a team and being prepared to do things in service of that. At the lowest point, though, I did feel disconnected from them in terms of tempo – they were busy and focused and I was drifting around. They had direction and I was lost.
This was a time to lean on the community I had worked hard to build. When I left our group to move to the new team, one of the most meaningful things was the support and enthusiasm of my peers in seeing it as a positive move – even as I wasn’t sure – and as I left the channels, one of them veto-ing my departure from our backchannel and peer support call.
other people assumed I felt the most confident at a point where I felt the least confident
It was also a time to build community. On my new team, and with other groups of people who it’s in our remit to help. Peers in other parts of the business, all engineering team leads, everyone involved in our hiring processes. This work is just beginning, but I am genuinely excited for it.
Last week I was at a leadership offsite where we had an intense development week. A coaching exercise with a colleague I don’t normally have much interaction with surfaced that other people assumed I felt the most confident at a point where I felt the least confident. This is one of the dissonances that can arise when people don’t see each other, and I think in the absence of other cues, can make it easy to assume someone is busy and not reach out. I’m not totally sure what to do with this, but I can at least model the behavior I want, and make more effort to check in.
Absence of Fairness
There was one situation in particular that really got to me – a lot of my time was wasted, I was denied any kind of input, and a situation was forced onto the team that I felt negated much of the effort I had made. It felt like a situation where “assuming best intent” and trying to be helpful – usually a good thing and a strength – in the wrong situation feel like an attack vector.
I’m not confident in what I’m taking from this, yet. On a concrete level, the importance of documenting and being direct. I think it’s easy to assume that “other people notice” but if they don’t this can lead to a cycle of frustration. Usually little things are just that – little things. However sometimes they are a product of something much bigger and much more problematic. If no-one flags the little things, the patterns take much longer to surface.
On a meta level, it’s reminded me to ask, “how much is this is my problem?” and accept that sometimes the best we can do is manage the impact of failure, because we do not have the power to prevent it.
Conflict in Values
This came up, and particularly when people’s stated values differ from their lived values – creating a compound effect. This is a concept that has come up a lot in coaching for me – for every turnaround project – the question “what values is this hitting for you?”
so much of good management seems to be about being a decent human being
I am personally very values driven; so much of good management seems to be about being a decent human being. Of course, being decent is rarely the easiest path in the immediate frame, and often a lot of work. This is the kind of dissonance that will escalate a disagreement to existential crisis for me.
Again, it is a strength, values scale much better than people or process and creating values on teams is part of how I have been effective, and able to hand things off. However, the downside is clear and intense. I think this is true for a lot of effective people who burn out – we are good because we care, but the downside is that care is for a reason – often values – and we struggle when those values are violated. It can seem like the path for success is to be more self-serving and care less, but that just creates the situations that we claim we don’t want. If we want things to be different, we have to make them different as we can, but in a way that isn’t self-destructive, or requires changing the core of who we are.
This is not a concrete takeaway, so concretely, I seek to support people rather than systems, make sure my work aligns with and communicates clear values, and ask questions and seek clarity on things that are open to interpretation or are potentially problematic.
Of course, in all of this, working a lot was a factor. I worked long hours and regularly over weekends (even if “just” travelling so as to avoid missing a weekday). In many ways overload was a multiplying factor, though; I used working to avoid things I didn’t want to deal with (like the building site or the medical system), and the fact that I had worked so hard compounded the existential problems of reward, fairness and values.
The first thing I changed here was working to make the time I did take off better. Moving to a place where I could have a separate office (I work from home), and organizing my living space and containing the mess such that I could have a place to relax without seeing a physical todo list in the form of things not yet done or tidy. The better my physical space has been, the better I have felt. The first time I had a weekend where I didn’t have any domestic stuff I needed to do was a milestone.
Within that, I made more effort to stop work by 7pm, and then be deliberate in spending my time on what would make me feel better. E.g. making an active choice between the gym and bringing some sense of order. When I needed to work a weekend, I made a point to balance that with other things I needed – like working in a coffee shop for some human contact, and breaking up delivery points with things for me. And also making sure I didn’t make the exact same mistake the following week and have to work a subsequent weekend.
The second thing was a resolution to take statutory holidays. These are not super meaningful to me – as an atheist, I don’t celebrate religious holidays, and in a distributed environment there are always other people working. However coming to see them as like weekends – arbitrary days that we have agreed as a society not to work – has been helpful. Yes, I could take a three day weekend any time when flights to Paris are cheaper, but I can take that three day weekend and the arbitrary one too (and using the arbitrary one to play video games is completely reasonable).
Similarly, I started taking time off for medical stuff. This wasn’t always possible (it’s unfortunate if one is in hospital on a day that is supposed to be release day, for example), but overwhelmingly has been. If I have to go to the UK to see the doctor, I take the entire period, rather than trying to work around flights and transit and appointments, to do what is going to be best for me. This was a bit of a culture shock for me, at the Conglomerate when people were sick they “worked from home”, but in an environment where people already work from home people actually take sick days. Including me.
Finally, I think it’s always worth taking time where there is opportunity. I took an extended break between ending my last job and starting this one (I fulfilled a life goal and went to Tuvalu). I made two weeks of space between the first team and the second, even though I had some work to do, I was free of responsibility and had two amazing long weekends (one in London, and one in Paris). Winding up on the second team made space for the disappearance in Seoul – where I had many positive experiences (including meeting a raccoon!) even though I didn’t feel particularly positive in myself.
The Other Side
The TL;DR of this is perhaps that I have spent a lot of time lately confronting the shadow side of my strengths – the personal cost of the professional “success”, and how that manifests as burnout. It’s hard to understate how confronting this has been, how difficult, and it’s still far from done.
I know, though, it’s something I am far from alone in. Burnout is the epidemic of millenials, and the epidemic of tech, particularly in those of us who genuinely and deeply take on the work of inclusion, of trying to make the functional environments we have never, or rarely, experienced ourselves. A while ago I wrote that the third shift of inclusion work is to heal ourselves and more than ever I believe this is true. Broken leaders cannot create functional environments – especially if we have power, we owe it to the people we work with to do the work on ourselves that makes us safe and reasonable people for others to show up to.
Thanks to my colleagues who engaged so openly in our leadership training, which helped me break out the other side of this, my boss who looked out for me at the worst point, and the amazing community in our engineering managers slack, who started the conversation that made me realize I was ready to write this, and inspired me to do so.