Burnout

If you hang around technology companies long enough, you or someone you know may experience “burnout” – a state of emotional exhaustion, doubt and cynicism.  Burnout can turn productive employees into emotional zombies and destroy careers. But it can also force you to hit the pause button and perhaps take a moment to reevaluate your life and your choices.

Hitting “burnout” changed the trajectory of both ends of my career in Silicon Valley. This post, which is divided in two parts, is the story of the first time it happened to me.

Zilog
Zilog was my first Silicon Valley company where you could utter the customer’s name in public. Zilog produced one of the first 8-bit microprocessors, the Z-80 (competing at the time with Intel’s 8080, Motorola 6800, and MOS Technology 6502.)

I was hired as a training instructor to teach microprocessor system design for the existing Z-80 family and to write a new course for Zilog’s soon to be launched 16-bit processor, the Z-8000. Given the hardware I had worked on at ESL, learning microprocessors wasn’t that hard but figuring out how to teach hardware design and assembly language programming was a bit more challenging.  Luckily while I was teaching classes at headquarters, Zilog’s field application engineers (the technical engineers working alongside our salesmen) would work side-by-side with our large customers as they designed their systems with our chips. So our people in the field could correct any egregious design advice I gave to customers who mattered.

Customers
The irony is that Zilog had no idea who would eventually become its largest customers.  Our salesmen focused on accounts that ordered the largest number of chips and ignored tiny little startups that wanted to build personal computers around these chips (like Cromemco, Osborne, Kaypro, Coleco, Radio Shack, Amstrad, Sinclair, Morrow, Commodore, Intertec, etc.) Keep in mind this is still several years before the IBM PC and DOS. And truth be told, these early systems were laughable, at first having no disk drives (you used tape cassettes,) no monitors (you used your TV set as a display,) and no high level programming languages.  If you wanted your own applications, you had to write them yourself. No mainframe or minicomputer company saw any market for these small machines.

Two Jobs at Once
When I was hired at Zilog part of the deal was that I could consult for the first six months for my last employer, ESL.

Just as I was getting settled into Zilog, the manager of the training department got fired.  (I was beginning to think that my hiring managers were related to red-shirted guys on Star Trek.)  Since the training department was part of sales no one really paid attention to the four of us.  So every day I’d come to work at Zilog at 9, leave at 5 go to ESL and work until 10 or 11 or later.  Repeat every day, six or seven days a week.

Meanwhile, back at ESL the project I was working on wanted to extend my consulting contract, the company was trying to get me to return, and in spite of what I had done on the site, “the customer” had casually asked me if I was interested in talking to them about a job.  Life was good.

But it was all about to catch up to me.

Where Am I?
It was a Friday (about ¾’s through my work week) and I was in a sales department meeting. Someone mentioned to me that there were a pile of upcoming classes heading my way, and warned me “remember that the devil is in the details.”  The words “heading my way” and “devil” combined in my head. I immediately responded, “well that’s OK, I got it under control – as long as the devil coming at me isn’t an
SS-18.”  Given that everyone in the room knew the NATO codename for the SS-18 was SATAN, I was thinking that this was a witty retort and expected at least a chuckle from someone.

I couldn’t understand why people were staring at me like I was speaking in tongues. The look on their faces were uncomfortable.  The VP of Sales gave me a funny look and just moved on with the agenda.

VP of Sales?  Wait a minute.. where am I?

I looked around the room thinking I’d see the faces of the engineers in the ESL M-4 vault, but these were different people.  Who were these people?  I had a moment of confusion and then a much longer minute of panic trying to figure out where I was.  I wasn’t at ESL I was at Zilog.  As I realized what I had said, a much longer panic set in.  I tried to clear my head and remember what else I had said, like anything that would be really, really, really bad to say outside of a secure facility.

As I left this meeting I realized I didn’t even remember when I had left ESL or how I had gotten to Zilog.  Something weird was happening to me.  As I was sitting in my office looking lost, the VP of Sales came in and said, “you look a bit burned out, take it easy this weekend.”

“Burned out?” What the heck was that? I had been working at this pace since I was 18.

Burnout
I was tired.  No I was more than tired, I was exhausted. I had started to doubt my ability to accomplish everything. Besides seeing my housemates in Palo Alto I had no social life. I was feeling more and more detached at work and emotionally drained. Counting the Air Force I had been pounding out 70 and 80 hour weeks nonstop for almost eight years. I went home and fell asleep at 7pm and didn’t wake up until the next afternoon.

The bill had come due.

Recovery
That weekend I left the Valley and drove along the coast from San Francisco to Monterey. Crammed into Silicon Valley along with millions of people around the San Francisco Bay it’s hard to fathom that 15 air miles away was a stretch of California coast that was still rural. With the Pacific ocean on my right and the Santa Cruz Mountains on my left, Highway 1 cut through mile after mile of farms in rural splendor.  There wasn’t a single stop-light along 2-lane highway for the 45 miles from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz.  Looking at the green and yellows of the farms, I realized that my life lacked the same colors.  I had no other life than work. While I was getting satisfaction from what I was learning, the sheer joy of it had diminished.

As the road rolled on, it dawned on me that there was no one looking out for me. There was no one who was going to tell me, “You’ve hit your limit, now work less hours and go enjoy yourself.” The idea that only I could be responsible for taking care of my happiness and health was a real shock.  How did I miss that?

At the end of two days I realized,

  • This was the first full weekend I had taken off since I had moved to California
    3 years ago.
  • I had achieved a lot by working hard, but the positive feedback I was getting just encouraged me to work even harder.
  • I needed to learn how to relax without feeling guilty.
  • I needed a life outside work.

And most importantly I needed to pick one job not two. I had to make a choice about where I wanted to go with my career–back to ESL, try to work for the Customer or stay at Zilog?

More about that choice in the next post.

Lessons Learned

  • No one will tell you to work fewer hours
  • You need to be responsible for your own health and happiness
  • Burnout sneaks up on you
  • Burnout is self-induced.  You created it and own it.
  • Recovery takes an awareness of what happened and…
  • A plan to change the situation that got you there

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14 Responses

  1. Ya, unfortunately I have experienced, know and understand the feeling, but until I read your account I never would have said (admitted) I had been burned out. Admitting (that I was burned out) is very difficult. Thanks

  2. Good post.

    At a particularly busy/stressful time years ago I found that sliding down a flume at a swimming pool helped reset me at the end of the week.

    I’m scared of heights and a dreadful swimmer so the rush really flushed out the over tired brain cells.

    Seemed to help.

  3. Nice lessons. I have sympathy for people who burnout, but only so much.

    I think any professional has to know their limits and play within them.

    “Are ya hurt or are ya injured?”

    If you’re injured, it’s better to say so than to let down the team.

    I’ve gotten pats on the back for clearly saying “I’m burned out. I’m going home this weekend. I’ll see you all on Monday.”

    As one boss said “I’d much rather hear that over the phone than in an exit interview.”

  4. Love reading your blog, Steve.

    My burnout was when I was still finishing my C.S. while doing 2 jobs. I had resolved to get myself back by taking a 2 week-long vacation at a Zen center in Los Angeles. That has changed my life.

    Keep it coming..

  5. Oh man. You left us with a cliff hanger. Bust out that next post and let us know which job you chose.

  6. Good story. I like your style of using parables, anecdotes, and narratives to convey lessons.

    A question in my mind: were you working that hard because you enjoyed the work, or were you working that hard because you enjoyed the act of working? That is, what was the source of your “sheer joy of it”?

  7. My “Burnout” caused me to switch professions. I was working and going to school for a second degree in my field; I was spending 14 hours a day dedicated to my job, plus a three hours of commuting, and homework on the weekends. I was overworked and under appreciated. I completely agree that burnout is self -induced! I hope that I have learned my lesson and will not let that happen again. Everyone needs a life outside of work. Thanks for sharing your story.

  8. As a young professional looking towards the future and trying to cut my own path, I love hearing about how others built up a stable work-life. Would you be where you are now if you hadn’t worked so hard then? By learning these lessons early am I denying myself future opportunities? I hope to someday reach C-level positions, whether at my own company or through other means, do I need to log 80-hour work weeks to hit my goals?
    Thanks for the great insight, I’m so glad I found your site!

  9. [...] by Steve Blank's post] Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Update on ProjectJobs_ and On Picking a NameA [...]

  10. Agreed with The Chad. I’ve been working 45-60 hour weeks and over the past two years (the first two of my career) I’ve been promoted 5 times, given 4 raises, and taken 3 days off (2 graduations, 1 wedding). I’m exhausted and have zero social life apart from the occasional phone call to my parents. I will leave work on Friday and go home, and not speak to another person, and not leave my apartment again until Monday when I go to work again. Tonight I rationalized why “paid vacation” makes no sense, and am contemplating requesting one day of unpaid time off for the wedding I am attending next month instead of using any of my 10 vacation days this year. It’s 4am and I can’t sleep. Its awful.

    Help? I HAVE been promoted 5 times but I don’t even care about the job anymore. I used to LOVE the company I worked for and now I just don’t care.

    The Chad poses a very good point. If you don’t kill yourself, you won’t get anywhere in your career. That sucks but that’s just the way it is.

  11. I have never experienced burnout, but I never knew it could influence your physical perception this much

    I work in the show business (I’m a life sound engineer) and got married 5 years ago. I quit a job as road manager, because it had meant that I was gone 9 months out of the year and my job was any waking minute. I’m still in the local life sound business now, but have tried to really cut down on the time worked (essentially, I’m working as much as I need to support my life). In return this now gives me enough time to do other things (ie: starting silly little companies that have not gone anywhere yet) and I hope to get out of that crazy business on the long run completely.

    I grew up in Germany, and Europeans seem to take life a little bit easier. I am definitely enjoying time with my wife and my two little baby girls.

  12. It’s sad that I came to the same realizations that you listed the hard way. When I first got burned out I didn’t have anything to fall back on. My entire life revolved around my career. I still get burned out but when I do I have a family and other hobbies that are the center of my life. I pay the bills with my job but my life is outside of work now.

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