Burnout comes from working extremely hard towards a goal other than the one you’re passionate about.
There’s no one single factor that can cause it, but pile enough stressors on top of one another and it can happen to anybody. It takes a perfect storm. But in every case, there will always be one common ingredient: misalignment.
It could be a good goal. It can be an exciting goal. You could be pursuing it with many smart, creative coworkers. The pursuit of that goal could come with great pay, perks, and benefits. All of these things could be true, and you could still be in danger of burning out if you pursue a goal that does not align with your passion.
You don’t have to actively oppose the goal you’re pursuing for it to burn you out. You just need to support it with something less than your whole passion.
Choose your goals carefully to avoid burnout.
Are you passionate about the goals you’re pursuing?
Too many people choose their pursuits based on what looks good in their twitter bio. They don’t want to do a thing, they just want to be the person who did it.
Any goal worth reaching will take sacrifice, so be sure you’ve chosen one that you’re willing to sacrifice for. Be honest with yourself about what you want.
Even the slightest misalignment creates friction. And friction causes wear. And over time, enough wear will result in a catastrophic failure. When that happens, there are always plenty of complicating factors that get the blame—long hours, bad boss, toxic workplace—but all of that is trivial if your passion and goals are in alignment.
In his book, Success is not an Accident, Tommy Newberry offers this litmus test: “Will the pursuit of this goal make you more like the person you want to become?”
Notice, he said pursuit. You don’t even have to succeed. Just the pursuit of the right goal is fulfilling and makes you burnout-proof.
And the converse is also true. Pursuit of the wrong goal has the opposite effect—it’s draining and makes you burnout-prone. Even a runaway success on the wrong goal can be dangerous.
Thomas Merton famously put it this way: “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”
Realign Your Goals Often.
How often do you re-evaluate your goals? Your employment?
Both need regular realignment.
Goals are both a destination and a vehicle. They are something you work hard to achieve, and a device that carries you from your current position to a future state. As you travel, you’ll get a better vantage on the goal itself. The closer you get to accomplishing a goal, the clearer it becomes. The more time you spend in a particular job, the better you’ll understand what it’s leading to.
As you progress, your vantage improves, and you accumulate new information, it’s useful to re-evaluate decisions you made everything was less clear. To borrow from Merton, climb for a bit and then stop to look. Doublecheck that your ladder is taking you where you want to go.
But don’t confuse misalignment with subsidy.
In pursuit of big goals, you may walk through seasons in which your day job and your passion seem wildly disconnected. That’s not misalignment. That’s a passion subsidy. The work you do during the day, though it may have virtually no connection to your passion, buys you the opportunity to invest in your passion at night.
A season of subsidy might be hard, exhausting, and lonely. But it won’t cause burnout unless you lose sight of your goal or if it never really aligned with your passion in the first place.