Smells Like Burning Out

I wrote this post a couple of years ago, and found it this am while looking for another post. Given the reaction to my post from yesterday, Just Stop, which I never expected, I thought it would be useful to repost.

To everyone that I spoke with, tweeted with or emailed me. Thank you. It is clear that there is a larger problem in our community around depression and all the darkness it brings. Let’s continue the conversation.

Over the past week or so, I have had two friends burn out.

Like most professions people choose, entrepreneurship isnt all play time and money. Startups arent filled with foosball and Mac Pros.

We read about layoffs and think to ourselves “Well, its a startup. They arent making any money. I have no idea why they employed so many people. Whiles its horrible, its probably for the best.”

Or we read about the latest funding and think to ourselves “What? They got $5million? Its just a ‘me too’ company. They will never make any money.”

What most people dont understand if they havent been in a startup (even those that cover startups really dont get it), is that a startup’s culture always has a few key components (not success components necessarily, just that they exist).

A general belief that what the startup is focused on is unique, interesting or better than current offerings in the market place (the old better, faster, cheaper argument).

That startups have an end.

And at that end, there will be some sort of reward.

That working at a startup gives you a greater ability to have a bigger influence on the product, brand, business direction, whatever.

That you, the employee, can do whatever is placed in front of you, better than anyone else.

And while its easy to intellectualize the long hours and hard work to get to the end of the rainbow, most people dont understand how the startup lifestyle truly effects them emotionally and mentally.

You can get fired/laid off at any time.

Often decisions are made based on the money in the bank, or the expected out of case position, rather than on the true needs of the organization. Often, there is little determination of the effect less people have on overall workload.

A mistake can be magnified.

Because each person has a large affect on the outcome of the business, mistakes are magnified. Code something wrong? It could push back the next release. Push back the next release, and lose a big deal. Lose a big deal, and miss the numbers you expected. Miss the numbers and the world turns on you. Because most startups run extremely lean, it is imperative that each person is competent. Extremely competent.

All the best work can be for naught.

Do everything right, get the product out the door on time and under budget, make the greatest thing since sliced bread, and watch it wither on the vine. Sometimes, for no reason, a great idea/product just dies. Its a sad reality of the risk/reward game of startups.

All of this leads to high level of expectation and stress.

Which leads to burnout.

Successful entrepreneurs and long-time startup employees understand that burnout is part of the lifestyle they have chosen. Everyone burns out at some point.

So what do you do when you feel a burnout coming?

Most people dont. They work and work and work until they fizzle. Their production decreases and mistakes increase. Soon, they have been let go, and dont understand why.

Here are some early warning signs of burnout:

Often the signs of burnout are subtle, and the important thing to realize is that working at a startup is a continual ebb and flow of “completely burned out,” to “almost burned out” and back.

What do you do to make sure you dont completely burn out?

Pick a project that is just for you. Work it at your pace. Work it in your space. Don’t “re-grout the tile” or “pull the storm windows.” Remember your passion. What got you going in the first place. Do that, but do it for you.

Take some time every day away from the office. I make sure it always take a lunch. 30-60min where the focus is on anything except work. My first boss told me, “The concept of a job is that there is work. When there is no work, there is no job.” 30-60min a day will not put you so far behind that it causes issue.

Laugh. A lot. There is nothing wrong about finding humor in your day. If its a quick trip to Reddit or a joke with a co-worker, make sure to laugh everyday.

Learn. A lot. Often, we get so caught up in our jobs, we forget that there is always a lot to learn. It doesnt have to be big. It just has to be something. Ask a co-worker a question. Look something up on Wikipedia. Try some different code.

Engage. The great thing about startups, is that the team is small enough that you can engage with most anyone. There is no reason to go at it alone. Ask a co-worker to review your work. Get involved in something outside your job. Find a team that you can add value to, and get on it. You can also engage outside the company via a blog, Twitter or some other social media outlet.

But most of all, reach out.


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