It seems that all journeys begin with a life-changing event that pushes you astronomically outside of your comfort zone. For me, that was getting hired to work at X. Up until that point, my “career” felt more like a series of scattered steps towards an unknown destination.
I left college with two degrees; one English Literature and the other American history. Although I was well versed in the political turmoil and texts of the nineteenth century, I stepped out into the real world full of naive optimism and an unclear vision of who and what I was going to be.
Fast forward to two years out of college, and that same sense of untethered purpose lingered. I had stumbled through two jobs, which somehow lead me to working as an Enterprise Account Executive at a Marketing tech startup in the city. I had been at this company for about a year and was experiencing the first glimmers of passion in a professional setting. From those initial sparks, I was able to grow them into a much larger fire. One that was fueled by my curiosity and committed pursuit of learning the entirety of the start-up business.
After a few months of relentless absorption, twelve hour days followed by nights of homework for some extra-curricular courses I decided to take, I found myself experiencing burnout for the first time. Looking back on that now, I consider that to be Burnout 1.0. In its first iteration, burnout to me was working insane hours across a multitude of departments due to being a member of a lean and all male team. In an office full of ego, I had transformed myself from an unanchored ship into a corporate Sisyphus. Each day, I arrived at the office to fulfill my punishment of moving an immense force towards an unattainable goal, only to finish my day at the bottom of the mountain upon which I started.
I remember clearly one day in the Fall of 2017, where I decided that it was time to move on. I was on a trip with one of my colleagues visiting one of his customers, and we had just come off of a red-eye flight in which I worked the entire way there to help him prep for a presentation he was giving. I spent hours adjusting every diagram, every slide to make sure it represented our brand and partnership in the standard that I held us to. Not only did he not thank me for my work afterward, but worst of all, he took credit for my efforts in front of the customers and later in our internal debrief.
How I came across, and (eventually applied) for my role at X, is almost too serendipitous to believe. I had recently been recommended the book Lean In from a colleague, ironically which I had devoured in one sitting the plane ride back from that famous meeting (thankfully sitting next to complete strangers and not my colleague). The next day, as I was searching for tech roles in NYC I somehow came across the opportunity at X. As I scanned through the job and its requirements, I realized that I could confidently say that I was qualified for 9/10. The only thing missing was the “two years managerial experience”.
I sat there for an hour in conflict. Every minute the intensity of my feelings of self-doubt, negativity, and fear increased until every nerve in my body was tingling. This feeling spread through my body like an infection. It had taken control of my mind, my heart, and worst of all, my spirit. I struggled to fight back. In a moment, my heart had been cut open, and every crack had been filled with cement.
In the end, I pushed myself to take that leap of faith, realizing that the only regret I would have from the experience is to let my own perceptions of self be the final judgment on the matter. As hard as it is to admit, it took an hour (or so) for me to get there. Along the way, I rationalized that if the roles were reversed and it was my colleague looking at this application, he wouldn’t be the type to hesitate. He would leap.
And so I did.
I started X on January 22nd, 2018. My role (at the time) was the manager of a team that was being created on February 1st, 2018 and another team that had launched the previous year. In total, fourteen people, all of which were roughly the same age or older than me. I walked into my first team meeting in a state of shock. When I looked at the group in front of me, all I could see was a sea of faces that had already decided that I was out of my depth, under-qualified, and undeserving of the title I received. As I stood in that room, what I didn’t realize was that I was standing in front of was a rippling pool of my own reflection. It was my anchor, my essence, and professional worth all in one.
And just like that, once again I became a self- inflicted patient zero.
In those first months, there were only two emotions I could feel: one of gut-wrenching failure and the other of head-over-heels love. Each day seemed to bring more internal conflicts, technical malfunctions, and massive projects in need of completion. And yet, among buried deep under the ashes of corporate conflict lay the biggest contradiction of them all: for the first time in my life, I felt like I was in the place I belonged.
In an attempt to strengthen myself for battle, I became determined to be the subject matter expert in all things X. I returned to my grueling routine of absorption learning because I believed that at the end of that journey, I would regain the lost confidence I felt I needed to succeed.
What that resulted in is Burnout 2.0. The true burnout: the one where I lost more of myself than I gained. I was newly in love with my job, and like any new relationship, no boundaries had been set. I had gone overboard.
I was building, I was innovating, and for the first time in my life, I had complete and total ownership in those efforts. I became so focused on the quality and quantity of my work that I became completely encompassed by it. My work was an extension of self, which meant that the once mythic efforts I once exerted to push a force up a mountain became the crushing weight I carried everywhere.
At the eight-month mark, X’s Atlas shrugged, and ultimately, collapsed. I was on the brink of launching a new iteration of this young team, and the time to launch was quickly approaching. I hadn’t slept in weeks. I had spent all of my time managing the anxiety of those affected by the change by doing my best to map out every possible scenario that could come from this shift. It was an afternoon meeting where I was reviewing one of my “if-then” workflows that I started to feel this burning pain in my chest. I rushed to the bathroom and collapsed. I sat on the bathroom floor, with the fiery sensation creeping over my entire body that the only thing I could do was cry. I cried for forty-five minutes. To me, the world was over because this launch was going to fail and fail at the cost of my own personal brand I had worked so hard to build.
I hadn’t taken a single day off in those eight months because I had something to prove. At first, I thought I was fighting for the recognition of others when I knew that what I really wanted was the recognition of self.
My boss pulled me aside later that day, and our conversation is one I will never forget. He told me that it is in these great moments of inevitable change that one is faced with two options:
The first, non-ohmic resistance. I can exert all my energy in opposition to this current, and ultimately lose more emotional ground than I could possibly gain. The second is ohm. I can absorb and let the current of change flow through me, and be a conduit for change. I can accept that it will inevitable and focus on channeling that energy towards improvement and understanding around what occurs. I took the next day to myself, unplugged completely (last energy metaphor… I promise) to decide which path I wanted to take…needless to say, I chose ohm.
I still struggle with self-doubt, and the feeling that my work can sometimes be the only currency I use to calculate my self-worth. But, I’ve changed the way I place value on things like sleep, routines, and my list of non-negotiables that I need to be my favorite version of self. I have decided that being selfish does not mean you are prioritizing yourself above all others, instead it is a choice to invest in yourself in those moments of need. If you learn anything from this, it is that your definition of self needs to be one that includes all things that make up the fabric that is you. Be the sum of all parts instead of a fraction of one. Choose yourself, and the rest will follow.