I did some quick searches on burnout before starting to pound the keys on it with my own thoughts and quickly turned up that the World Health Organization somewhat recently laid out this definition of the word:
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
Hackles. up. Because really – there's so much to unpack here. For starters…successfully managed by whom? Because surely we aren't putting this entirely on the sufferer. Who knows that this goes so much deeper than these three surface level dimensions. And who knows – if he or she has delved deeply into any other area of life – that burnout is in no way limited to occupational contexts.
So – to the extent that it matters – what is burnout and why do we care?
I'll put it simply in my own words and experience: Burnout is the state of no longer caring to learn about or grow within a field where you show (or once showed) promise and skill. It is a state of no longer finding satisfaction or joy in an endeavor that once interested you intensely, sometimes resulting in a slow loss of expertise. Burnout takes a once strong desire to master a topic and relegates us – often in an effort just to survive – to doing only the bare minimum to get through the tasks of the day.
As the WHO suggests, it often comes with exhaustion, cynicism, and loss of personal efficacy. But that is not the tragedy. The tragedy is that our passion is sucked dry by the circumstances of our efforts and we no longer feel a drive to put our talents to valuable use.
All of this takes me back to college. Back then, my rule was always to study any topic until it became interesting. Until the information became so ingrained in my mind that I was free to begin to develop my own opinions on it. No matter how obscure the topic, I wanted to delve into it so deeply that it became fascinating.
And it's true – any topic in the world is fascinating if you study it enough. But still. I know now that in some respects this was the goal of a young twenty-something with the luxury of time.
Because the great tragedy of burnout is losing that passion. It's knowing that you could be the master of a topic but just not caring anymore. And when that happens, it's not just us that loses out. It's everyone that might benefit from our passionate expertise. It is a state that we and our workplaces need to guard against if we want our fields to continue to grow as a whole. Our passions need time and space to breathe.
I don't know if my legal career would have taken a different turn had I not experienced this sort of burnout. I don't regret walking away from it – but I will admit that I felt great sadness as I felt my interest slipping away. Because I knew I could have done more. I've moved on and have no regrets about where I am now – but I remember how it felt to battle exhaustion against the demands of my day knowing that there would be nothing left to feed my interest in the end.
I worry about what the commonality of all of this will do to fields that require ongoing passion and learning but tax their youngest associates to the point of sheer survival. And I'm glad to have gotten out.