Burnout Buddies

First written on May 22, 2014

5 min. read

I went to a private full-time university where you go to class at least 40 hours a week and generally spend between 60 and 70 hours a week working on learning things.

In late 2009 a few months after I had started school, my classmate and friend Zachary Nicoll and I co-founded our first little company. Although we were still both in school, by the summer of 2010 we had worked on three professional projects together.

We were doing some sub-contracting work for Envy Labs at some point and we had our own clients to deal with.

During that time, I would wake up at 8 AM (which is ridiculously early for me) and drive to the Envy Labs office in Downtown Orlando. Around lunch time I would head back to Full Sail University to attend a lecture from 1 to 5 PM.

After that, Lab could last between one to four hours. When lab was over, I would head home, do some work for school then start working on our client project.

That sometimes lasted until 3 or 4 in the morning, at which point the exhaustion would lead to really strange arguments about things that really didn’t matter that much. I remember us looking at each other and saying something like “Why are we yelling at each other? Let’s go to sleep.”.

We were burning out. I was burning out even worse than anybody else. I was upset at my closest friends for a project that we had painted ourselves into a corner with and wasn’t even earning us any money.

The most important thing I learned from this experience was the value of a friend’s perspective when you need it most. Zach noticed how bitter things were becoming and I’m pretty sure I was pushing him to do even more. One day, he sent me an email. A long, heartfelt email in which he dragged me back down to earth in kind and calm words.

He said he didn’t sign up for this, that we couldn’t neglect school as much as we had. It made so much sense, but I couldn’t see it before he wrote it down.

Zach was my Burnout Buddy™ that day.

I’ve been trying to be one for the people I work with ever since.

When I started working on Code School in early 2012, another friend from Full Sail had started just before me. It was Adam’s first Ruby gig. After months of courtship the year before, I had finally managed to have him try the language out. He’s one the best programmers I know and I knew Ruby would give him wings, and it did.

In early 2012, there were less than a handful of people working full-time on Code School. Adam and I were both in trenches doing customer support every day along with whatever else we were working on.

During that first year I definitely went through burnout a few times and I saw him go through it too. There were moments when I had to tell him to relax and I hope it helped.

Since I think I’m pretty good at hiding my problems, I don’t think too many people noticed I was spreading myself thin. But then, once in a while Nick Walsh — a very tall front-end wizard at Envy Labs — would arrive at the office ridiculously early (which is “normal” for him) and find me still there from the night before.

He would stand there in front of my desk, cross his arms, and say “Go home!” in a very serious tone. I would laugh and brush it off because: “I was just trying to get that one thing done. I’m fine. I’ll go home in a little bit.”

And I did go home. But then those “stunts” put me out of whack.

First, it fucked with my sleep cycle which is of course fertile ground for more late nights. Second, it sometimes made me resent people who went home regularly every day, seemingly regardless of how busy they were.

Then, and it took some time, I learned from them. Many had kids, a wife, a baby, or pets to go home to. During my worst burnouts I was single, and I didn’t have any pets so it was easy to let the clock run.

Time was this rubber band I thought I could stretch as much as I could. But doing that didn’t lead me to more actual work. It didn’t make me more efficient or better at what I did. It just made me better at doing busy work. Better at staying there, overwhelmed, instead of actually producing something and going home when it was done.

When I eventually got better, thanks to the good examples around me, I made it a point to start checking in on my co-workers to make sure they were okay. This can mean allowing a conversation to run a little longer so you can arrive at more important topics. Nobody tells the truth when you ask them how they’re doing, it often takes bit of bluntness.

When someone shows up to work with circles around their eyes, instead of pretending it’s normal, I sometimes use my cover as a loudmouth to tell them: “Hey, you look like shit. Are you sleeping enough?”.

With the right kind of people, in the right situation, this can be an arrow that shatters their facade and lets you peek into the true state of their mind. But it’s not a panacea, there are many other ways to get people to talk. Some people are like cats, you need to let them come to you. Make yourself available, and please, don’t say “my door is always open”. If it actually was, you wouldn’t need to say that. People would be stepping in already. But are they?

Recently I’ve been taking on more Burnout Buddies. Not just my co-workers but other friends and acquaintances. It feels great because helping someone else can equip you to deal with your own problems better. Or the people you helped can help you back, or pay it forward. It’s a virtuous cycle.