It’s been over a year and a half since I left my previous full-time job and I still don’t have a new one.

It’s not that I don’t have the skills needed to be employed; it’s actually the opposite: even though I’m not actively looking for a job, people still come to me asking if I could work for them. My part time teaching and Rails “consultancy” gigs fall under this (i.e. I never “applied” for them formally), and I’m getting emails requesting for interviews from local companies once in a while.

The reason I’m not taking any full-time job offers is different:

It’s been over a year and a half since I left my previous full-time job and I still haven’t fully recovered from burnout. I’m not confident that I’d be able to do software development “grunt-work” at peak performance for more than a few weeks on end.

After a year’s hiatus, I guess it’s safe to say that I’ve suffered permanent damage from my burnout.

Looking back, the main turning point of my career was on January 2006.

I was supposed to be transferred to another project. Having endured a year and a half of working on a really difficult enterprise system that was going nowhere, I knew my best bet was to make my programs relatively bug free. This way, I could be moved to another project (since they don’t need me around anymore to fix my programs) and get a fresh start. One bad project should be offset by a good project, right?

As you might expect, my plan backfired. Not only was I pulled back from that new project, I was also assigned to maintain the programs of another developer in my module while he gets to be transferred to another project.

Best. Reward. Ever.

While the whole resource allocation FUBAR was eventually fixed (that developer was also pulled back), the whole incident was a turning point: that was the time that I was pushed beyond my limits.

I was never known to be a weak-willed individual. In college, I had the reputation of surviving (and thriving) in the face of adversity. I’m the guy who graduated with honors without joining a CS-related organization and without having more than 10 friends in the department.

This sense of pride and confidence eventually led to my downfall. I thought this “over the edge” thing was just going to be short and that I could just “hang on” and “bite the bullet” until it passes.

I didn’t know that I had to “hang on” for more than half a year.

In hindsight, after reading management and psychology articles on burnout, I’d say that the things I did back then to deal with the problem were the best things you could do in that situation.

Too bad they all failed.

Probably the best thing you can do to deal with burnout is to get a “lifeline”, a person or a group of people who can support you. By listening to your problems and giving sound advice, they could either prevent you from hitting rock bottom, or help you get back up from burnout.

I tried getting lifelines, but there’s this sad fact in the way: In my groups of friends, I’m always a lifeline. I’m the guy you approach when you’ve got problems, whether it’s computer problems, financial problems, or random life problems. Not the other way around.

And this made asking for help really awkward. One notable instance was when I tried approaching a friend that I was sure was good enough to be a lifeline, but then she mistook my “subtle cries for help” as “lame attempts at courting”. That didn’t end well.

So with lifelines out of the question, there’s the cliched advice: “find a way to release your frustrations”.

Nope, didn’t work. The scars on my knuckles prove that venting your anger violently to concrete walls doesn’t help much when you’re burned out.

Then there’s the “exercise will give your brain happy chemicals to help you get out of depression”. And so I hit the gym. Sadly, unlike normal people, those “happy chemicals” don’t work on my brain as advertised. But hey, at least I lost 15 pounds in 2006!

So I gambled with stuff that would have solved my burnout but I lost. Was there anything else I could’ve done at that time?

Well, there is one thing that I didn’t try back then:

File for resignation that day in January.

Looking back, I would never have considered doing something as drastic as resigning. But also, hindsight tells me that that move actually makes sense: all of the reasons why I hung on were for naught.

Pride?
The pride you’ll save is nothing compared to the passion that you’ll lose.

Personal redemption?
Thanks to your burnout, you won’t be able to redeem yourself. You won’t get that big project that would compensate for your failed first project. You won’t even get promoted.

Chance to save others from the same fate in the future?
You won’t get promoted. Ergo, you won’t have the opportunity to affect how the management does things.

That cute co-worker you’ve been fond of?
She’ll just shoot you down before you even get serious with her.

I’m not saying that the second half of my stay in my previous company was entirely useless. Even as a burned out employee, I still learned a fair amount of new skills and knowledge in those two years. Things like full-time teaching and interviewing, Linux administration for project deployment, integrating payment into a system, design patterns and refactoring, and so on.

But thinking about it, I probably would have learned all those skills better had I resigned in Jan 2006, took a 3 month break to recharge, and took a job at another company. The teaching and interviewing practice might come a bit later, but that’s a small price to pay when you take into account that I’ve already lost around 2 years of my life to burnout.

To sum things up, burnout is a race against time. Once you start having the symptoms, you only have a short amount of time to come up with a solution before you get a full blown case.

What you do in that span of time will decide whether you’d save your career or lose it.

My suggestion? Build strong relationships with lifelines before you set out working yourself to death. You might fall into the same trap as I did and not be able to find suitable lifelines in time.

IMO, getting lifelines from people on your own project is a bad idea. Since you share the same problems, you’re a lot more likely to drag each others down to depression than to drag each other out of it.

Also, consider resigning if the situation becomes unreasonable. I don’t usually give this advice as I’ve seen a lot of friends and colleagues resign prematurely. But given my experience with burnout and depression, I’d come to realize that resigning too late is even worse than resigning too early.

TL;DR

I don’t want to work full time for anyone anymore.

After my first job milked me for what I was worth, I:

  • never got promoted
  • ruined any chances of getting a love life
  • got fired for insubordination
  • was eventually forgotten by my friends and forced to make new ones
  • lost my reason to live

The last part is important: everything that happened in the past 5 years shook the foundation of my being, and I am struggling everyday to keep myself from succumbing to my existentialist-driven depression.

So until I find a way to fix this crippling mental illness, I cannot work full-time as the risk of committing suicide is just too high.

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8 Responses to Permanent Damage, a retrospective

  1. Joe says:

    I think it’s a good decision to not have a job, especially if it’s not doing good for you.

    http://www.farbeyondthestars.com/27-reasons-why-you-should-never-have-a-job/

    Nice thought about having lifelines. 🙂

  2. Bry says:

    Thanks for the link!

  3. Jaydz says:

    Damn… And I thought I was the only one who experienced the same shit that you’ve experienced. Mine was way back 2007. I didn’t get fired for insubordination though. 🙂

  4. Gani Mendoza says:

    I take inspiration from Holstee Manifesto (http://shop.holstee.com/products/holstee-manifesto-poster)

    It says among other things:

    IF YOU DON’T LIKE YOUR JOB, QUIT

    Employment is one option. Entrepreneurship is another. I chose the latter and I am not looking back to being employed either.

  5. tonyr says:

    It’s rather unfortunate that I.T. attracts a lot of mean spirited money hungry, controlling individuals. Squeezing the last drop out of people kills creativity and can certainly cause psychological damage. It’s to your credit that you haven’t just walked away from the industry altogether. It takes courage to live your life on your own terms and accept the consequences.

  6. Ronald says:

    An antidote might be to channel your energies into doing a tech startup or other entrepreneurial activity instead. Even if you manage to survive the experience it is still a Pyrrhic victory.

  7. Tonyr, I cannot agree more. Also in the IT industry, I have experienced the same, not because of a specific work incident, but years of working ridiculous hours under pressure with depression episodes getting worse every year and eventually ending up in severe burnout. Since I have continued my work with effort – memory also damaged, very little energy and a very low level of stress tolerance.. At present I am worse than ever, not knowing what to do.
    What does one do if you are on your own, dependant on your job, but struggling so hard to keep things going? My performance is still fine, but it takes everything out of me and the rest of my life is non-existent. Regardless all the talk about employee wellness, companies still are not informed about depression and the serious damage burnout can do.
    Gani Mendoza, I want nothing more than to quit, but how do I create a new career if I am not an entrepeneur of nature, but have a lot of other skills?

  8. Wandacat says:

    it has been along time since this article was written and since the last comment. That in inself is sad – it shows up just how much burnout is still not acknowledged…

    I would say be really careful of entrepeneurship – working for yourself can be punishing. It aws how I ended up in burnout. I was an successful sculptor working to punishing deadlines for years just ot “build my career”, with tiny finacial reward… I did end up doing OK but I also got burn out and had to stop… and I still have it 3 years later… I have just taken on a 3 day a week job for 6 months managing other peoples’ art projects for a Council. 3 days and 6 months is all I can manage and yes as Bry says you loose your reason to live – it is painfully sad.

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