On burning out

26 June 2015

The first tattoo I got was a phoenix. As tattoo concepts go, it gets high marks. Visually striking, symbolically significant and just common enough to avoid constant questions asking, “But what does it mean?” It also brings with it more than a respectable amount of mythological implication. I believe in myths as tools, and, as tools go, the phoenix is a powerful one. The cycle of destruction and rebirth. One of the oldest, most essential stories humans tell. It’s always relevant. It’s always good to be reminded of it.

My phoenix lives on the back of my neck, and, in retrospect, its role as reminder may have benefited from a spot I could see without a mirror and deliberate action. But I didn’t intend for it to be a reminder. I didn’t yet know enough to know I needed a reminder. I’ve grown into its role with age and experience, and, with each year and incident that passes, it grows more powerful.

Last year, I encountered the experience of feeling burned out. It was a feeling so profound and complete that I didn’t understand what it was until I had put some distance between it and myself, some months later. Although, what do we really understand about it means to be burned out? It’s a term that we use often, and with a terrifyingly increasing frequency in the tech industry, but what it describes is a lack of something rather than a thing itself. It’s a combination of physical and mental overextension, misaligned expectations, misdirected communication and an unsatisfied hunger for a certain kind of nourishment. Much of its pain comes from the fact it’s perceived as a broken bargain. If we pursue this career, if we put our energy into these paths, these people, these promises, we’ll be rewarded. The problem comes in not necessarily when we’re not rewarded appropriately, but when we realize we’ve established the wrong rewards, as a result of the wrong values, and that what we’re getting back is not balanced in proportion or in nature with what we gave out.

Last year, I burned out and, a few months later, I came to the conclusion I needed to let many things go. Obviously, it’s no good to burn out, recover and then return to the same routines and methods that brought you to burnout in the same place. But letting go is no easy process. Even if you’re being hurt more than you’re benefitting from that career, that path, that person, that promise, without it, you have nothing. So, even after realization of the hurt, we tend to hold on to pieces, and return to rearrange and fix them, and, more often than not, repeat the cycle all over again.

Burning out is not dangerous because we burn, but because we don’t have the courage to burn completely. Once we’re aware of fire, we generally smother it and continue on, and all the remaining flammable material comes along with us. If we let the fire go, though, it cleans. It turns everything to ash, levels the land, and then we can build anything we want, without any past structure in our way.

Destruction and rebirth go hand in hand and one doesn’t exist without the other, but they’re both painful and difficult, and so we have to keep creating stories to remind ourselves it’s a cycle worth going through. One could do worse to go through a painful and difficult process of having the reminder tattooed into one’s skin, a process that in itself is a microcosm of the reminder’s message. Which is why I still get tattoos. On the other side of that pain is new identity, and every tattoo, no matter what it visually depicts, is like the phoenix, saying that security is the true myth, and we should always be reaching out for more than that.

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