writing / Burnout happens

Story of when I was burned out as a manager

I love long road trips and letting my thoughts drift while I drive. It can be really creative and energizing, and I often ask my wife to jot down an idea and text it to me so I don’t lose it. But sometimes my thoughts drift into rough waters. I get stuck on something and start turning it over and over in my mind, getting more and more worked up.

This happened when Courtney and I drove to Oregon to ski in July. Over the last year, my team grew rapidly, split into three, and I was managing two other managers for the first time as well as a team of engineers. The engineers were great but the charter was unclear, making it hard to find impactful work. On top of that, my processes for building connections and staying on top of everything were overwhelmed.

I was out of my comfort zone, doing new hard things, and the stress was reaching new heights as we drove to Oregon. Our destination was a charming cabin surrounded by trees and ferns in the lush Mt Hood wilderness. The plan was to alleviate some stress by being in nature and skiing in the morning but still have time to work in the afternoon to cover everything I needed to handle.

I was in a burnout-induced fugue state so my memories aren’t clear except for one afternoon. On my one-on-one day I had a meeting scheduled with my skip (aka my boss’s boss). It was the last meeting I planned for the day and it was going to be my plea for help. But before that, I had my normal slate of one-on-ones for the day.

It was a generic day of management until the final one-on-one of the day. Most of these meetings are an emotionally neutral combination of casual conversation, tactical work, planning or riffing. However, in this case, my report needed to share some intense reflection they were having on their own role as they aimed for the next level.

I immediately knew it was going to be an emotional conversation and not necessarily a quick one. When the 30 minutes we had ended, I couldn’t cancel my lifeline call but I knew my report and I needed to keep talking. We agreed to meet again in 30 minutes to finish the conversation. I switched to the call with my skip. I explained how much I loved my team but I just couldn’t keep going the way things were and broke down in tears. For the next half hour, I spilled my guts and he patiently listened. After we wrapped up, I took a minute to blow my nose and took a few deep breaths to compose myself then jumped back to the call with my report to be the listener again.

After everything, I felt like a towel that’s been soaked wet and then completely wrung dry. That sequence of needing to receive my reports’ feelings and be steady, then flipping to being vulnerable about my burnout, then switching back to be supportive with my report is one of my most deeply human moments at work.

Principles of burnout

Burnout is human and it’s unfortunately a part of work (at least as an engineer at a startup). One of the greatest joys of this line of work is diving into a new idea and creating something amazing. But it's hard and stressful. Stress is a natural part of growth, but when it's excessive, sudden, or prolonged, we can get lost. Finding your way again is an important skill.

Getting out of burnout is about finding joy in the work again. Rediscovering that spark requires space and perspective. It means active work in a few different areas:

Avoiding burnout isn’t about occasional breaks. It’s about finding balance and doing what energizes you. The balance and energy source are unique and change over time.

Key takeaways

Everyone gets burned out at some point.

When you have people depending on you, it makes burnout even more emotionally taxing.

To escape burnout, slowly rediscover the joy in the work.