As I prepare for the start of a new semester, I have mixed feelings. I do love teaching and have some new ideas that I am excited about. But I also feel a sense of trepidation, in large part because I feel increasingly intolerant of being too busy.
Last semester, as I felt myself starting to worry about burnout again, I had a new insight about burnout.
I think that one of the causes of burnout is when we put extraordinary effort into achieving what is merely ordinary.
Now, the merely ordinary is a fine accomplishment--I’m not denying that. If our lives are spent achieving the ordinary things that contribute meaningfully to the functioning of the world, that is a life well-lived. We can derive a great sense of satisfaction from such work.
But when we continually push ourselves beyond the limits of personal health and well-being to do so (which we are doing when we are chronically “too busy”), our lives are out of balance. We suffer; those around us suffer--the cost exceeds the benefit.
There are times when it is noble and heroic to put forth great effort. Those times are times of crisis, and responding to crises is extraordinary. Those times, then, are times of putting forth extraordinary effort to accomplish something extraordinary. The cost is proportional to the benefit, and so, while tired and depleted after it is all over, we still are likely to feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that aids in our healing and recovery.
But those times are rare, intense, and relatively brief.
When extraordinary effort becomes a way of life, the norm instead of the exception, that’s a problem. It is not really a sustainable way of life. You work too hard without time for recovery and renewal. And while you are accomplishing something, your accomplishments are not extraordinary enough to result in either social appreciation or a sense of satisfaction proportional to your effort.
If you are a humble and modest type of person, you may say, "I don't work hard in order to gain appreciation from others, anyway," and that's commendable, but this is not a question of the purity of your motivations, but rather almost a physics question related to the law of conservation of energy. We cannot keep putting out energy without renewing our energy as well. And so if our efforts are extraordinary, our ordinary methods of taking care of ourselves will no longer be enough to keep us going. Net result: burnout.
7 years ago