Wednesday, September 07, 2016

more thoughts on burnout

I have mentioned before my serious love for podcasts. I have a long list of favorite podcasts and shows that I listen to regularly. One of them is called Millennial, a show about getting through life as a 20-something millennial. That probably sounds awful to a lot of you, especially for us cranky Gen-Xer's who are so disgusted by the Millennial cultivation of nostalgia for the artifacts of our 80's and 90's youth, which has effectively delivered the message that we are old. And that sentence right there shows exactly how old I am. I'm sure I annoyed Boomers in the exact same way with my love for the Doors, hippy skirts from India, and acid trips.

Anyway, I like Millennial quite a bit because the host, Megan Tan, is delightful, and smart, and shares the experience of being a 20-something in a way that is interesting and engaging, and reminds me to not judge Millennials too harshly. They are just trying to figure it out, like we all are. Millennials just happen to be younger and more energetic, which they totally take for granted, and that is the most galling thing of all.

One of the latest episodes resonated with me because it was about burnout. Everyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I have been in a back-and-forth battle with creative burnout. Right now I am in a good place, and have been for at least 2 1/2 years, but I also had to take a yearlong break away from pottery to get there.

Many of my friends are creatives in different fields. These are people who have worked for themselves for going on two decades blowing glass, making films, composing music, throwing pottery, making paintings, teaching and writing.  And almost all of them have experienced the same kinds of creative burnout I did, and some of them are in the thick of it right now.

Burnout in mid-life is especially difficult, because it comes with two questions: Do I want to do this thing anymore? And if the answer is "no", then what the hell do I do instead? Changing what you do for a living in your 40's and 50's is fucking scary. And it can also be the first real acknowledgement that you are no longer young, and just dropping one thing to try something else comes with real consequences that you may not be able to ride out easily.

I used to view burnout as an inevitable result of making a living as an artist. To be even marginally successful, you have to be obsessed, and work much harder than the average person is willing to work. That's the deal. Obsession brings imbalance, and with that comes the boredom, the indifference, the fatigue and irritability that are all hallmarks of burnout. Now that I've been to the dark side of burnout and back, I wonder if burnout is avoidable?

One of the things I like about Megan Tan is that she asks for help. Basically her entire podcast is about how to leap frog from lily pad to lily pad, and asking for help along the way. I didn't ask for help when I was in my 20's. I thought it showed strength to figure to out for myself, and as we all know, I like to learn things the hard way. If I can't learn it the hard way, then I don't want to learn it. Now that I know better, part of the reason that I still write this blog is so I can share what I've learned and make it easier for other people.

So here is my current list of things creatives should do to avoid or manage their burnout:

  1. Take a break. Obvious, right? But how do you take breaks when you are busy and really really into whatever it is that you are doing? I've started a practice of stopping work for the day while I am still in that space of wanting to do more. I leave the studio with desire in my heart, not with exhaustion because I worked for too long. Also, I take a walk around the block after lunch even though what I want to do is get back to work. I'm trying to cultivate a constant tension of slight hunger for my work. No more bingeing. Also, vacations. Go away and do whatever it takes to get your mind off work.
  2. Try new things, in your work, in other mediums. Go out of the zone we all set up for
    ourselves. Right now I am making some porcelain jewelry. It's something I've thought about for years, but I never made time for it. It is such a pain in the ass to switch gears and try new things, but it is so good for your brain and your work. Once I can get over the hump of pulling out different tools and ideas for a new thing, it's totally absorbing and fun. 
  3. Speaking of fun-- have some. Are you having fun in your work? If you are a creative not having fun in your work it's as painful as having a knife in your heart 24 hours a day. Even if you think you can't make any money off some harebrained idea you have, do it anyway just for the fun of it.
  4. Don't look at what other people are doing: We all know social media brings with it an urge to judge and compare. If you are dealing with feelings of burnout that urge can harden into bitterness and resentment at all the people in your field who are doing so great and live totally fulfilling lives. In reality, they struggle just like you but also take really nice pictures. Take a month or more off of social media. You won't miss anyone or anything, plus you will be welcomed back with open arms and almost no one will notice that you were even gone.  
  5. Take care of your body: This is what I do to take care of my body-- I go to bed early and try to get 8 hours of sleep every night. I exercise for an hour every day first thing in the morning. I meditate for 15 minutes 5 days a week. I drink too much beer every once in a while but I generally avoid hard alcohol and daily drinking. I eat good food. It's taken me years to put all of that together, and it's not perfect every day, but if I stop taking care of myself it has a cascade effect that eventually crashes into my work. I have to stay strong physically and mentally.
That's my current prescription for managing and avoiding burnout. Does this sound familiar? It's because I keep writing about these things over and over again. I can't hear it enough, and hopefully you can't either. Are you suffering from burnout? What are you doing of what have you done to manage it? Post your thoughts below.

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