Sometimes You Just Gotta Bounce a System.
I believe in rituals, one of mine is that I get a hot dog (everything, no peppers) and
fries from Portillos at the end of my summer vacation, which usually happens in June. But this year, I am
posting this picture in August because I decided to take an EXTRA long holiday this year.
In March, I hit a wall, caromed off it, smashed into a few trees, and found myself face down in
a ditch, metaphorically speaking. To say I was exhausted is to understate how I felt, so I decided to leave
Reddit and take an extended break. My then state of exhaustion is obvious in retrospect, my energy levels were
so low that I spent a lot of time watching TV, and as I got worse, I could only watch YouTube (as it removed the
decision of what to watch.) I could not focus on anything, work, household tasks, exercise, nothing.
Facing my Fears
I knew something had to change, but quitting and healing without an income was terrifying.
Would I ever find work again if I left? Could I even afford to leave? I brought enough mental capacity online to
work through what was happening one weekend in March.
This particular weekend, I reasoned about my career. If I left, would I ever be able to find a
job like the one I had? Meta, Amazon, and others were laying off people like crazy, and the market would be
flooded with people with my skill set. As I age, I worry about my hireablity. I read a lot about others who
struggle with this.
As all worries bounced around in my head, I realized, I had been helping others deal with their
imposter syndrome for years, letting them know that they were, in fact, good at their jobs. And that I, of
course, am impervious to others telling me the same thing, but I decided to believe them for a little bit.
I have not had more than two weeks off in 36 years. The few times I had been laid off, I found
a new job before the WARN period ended. I have an incredible network, and if I took them at their word, they
would all help me if I wanted to find a new job. I had been interviewing people at Reddit, so I knew I could get
through one elsewhere. I was not coming in at the bottom of the labor market, and while there might be others
with my experience and skill set, we are rare and highly sought after. I had some cash sitting around that I
could live off of. And finally, things would not end well unless I took a break.
My natural tendency is to catastrophize. There are glass half full and glass half empty people.
I am an if that glass falls off the table, the water will hide the shards of glass, and someone is gonna cut
themselves kind of person.
At work, decisions don’t affect me like life decisions do. At work, I am decisive and fearless,
a habit borne of a realization that the WORST that can happen to me if I mess up at work is that they will fire
me. I don’t actually have to pay the company back all the money I cost them. In my life, however, I am also
decisive, but I tend to keep doing what I am doing when I have a choice I don’t want to make. My default is no;
let's maintain the status quo. My fear of making mistakes causes me not to act.
I had been seeing a therapist about this, and I decided to sit with the decision to quit for
the weekend instead of reflexively saying “No.” That first night was terrible, and I went round and round about
all the bad things that would happen. But instead of just saying, “There is too much here, I am going just to
knuckle down and hope for the best,” I addressed them as they came up, deciding if they were real problems and
coming up with putative solutions for the ones that were. That next day I felt a calm wash over me, and I talked
to my wife, who was immediately on board (she is better than me in almost every way.)
Rest means Rest
When I left Reddit, I set a deadline of six weeks. I would take six weeks off and start looking
for a new job. Six weeks was a month and a half. I had never been unemployed that long in my life. Because it was six
weeks, I realized I needed to figure out what I should be looking for, and I started to contact people in my
network. All of them told me I needed to figure out what I wanted to do. One of them, who helps grow leaders for
a living, gave me a bunch of homework which I started to work on.
I threw myself into this new exercise. Also, I looked at my free time and decided to start a
blog and develop an education product. Very quickly, I felt bad that I was not performing up to my usual
standards doing these exercises, and when I was talking to my therapist, I realized that I had NOT, in fact,
stopped working. I no longer had deadlines (except for the six-week one) and was sleeping more. But I was still
filling all my time working on other things. And I was not healing.
So I stopped it all. I told myself each day I had nothing to do and would goof around, I still
could not read, but I did watch some TV, but I was watching way less TV than I had been watching. I thought
about garage projects I could do and decided these were work too. I spent time with my wife. I went on walks,
arranged meetings with friends, and rode my bike. I went to the middle of nowhere Illinois with my father and
two brothers to watch vintage go-karts race. I did not plan my days at all. I just did what felt right at the
And slowly, I felt myself return. I remember the day I picked up my Kindle and started to
reread a book for the first time in a long time. It was no longer a labor where I would read a few lines and
then have to put it down. Mind, it was fiction, but still, it was something I had not done in a very long time.
I reread Shogun in a few days because one day at Reddit, the CEO and CTO shared that they considered this an
underappreciated masterpiece of business literature.
As the six-week deadline loomed, I realized I still wasn’t ready. I had been talking to
recruiters about opportunities very low-key (it turns out my inability to find work was utterly unfounded. Many
people were interested in me.) So I said I am not going to go to work until I feel like I am ready. I reasoned
that I am a person who likes to be busy, and as soon as I was not active enough, my body would tell me, and I
would then start to look.
Even though I was not actively looking, people knew I was taking time off and reaching out to
ask me how things were going. One friend I have wanted to work with for quite a while called me with an offer. I
wasn’t ready for it and did not want to work there full-time. So we started to talk about a consulting
arrangement. He had me talk to his boss and others in his organization. And I was feeling much better and said I
was willing to come on, but I did not want to do it as an FTE. One thing that has always held me back from
starting my own business was I did not know if I could survive without having an employer. Since I had done much
of that work to take time off, now was as good a time to figure this new thing out. And he agreed.
TakeawaysSo next week is my first day at the new company, it is a hot August day, and I am outside
eating my end-of-vacation hot dog. And reflecting on how I got here and what I learned.
First, I should have spotted the signs of burnout much earlier than I did. Honestly, I should
have taken a break before starting at Reddit. I did not realize how stressful Reddit was going to be, and I did
not arrive in a good frame of mind. Looking back on my tenure, I would do so many things differently if given
Second, you don't feel it once you have crossed the burnout threshold. I remember reading about
lifeguards discussing how drowning people don’t look like you might think drowning people look. I was drowning,
and it did not look like that (nor did it feel like that.)
Third, rest really is rest. I had so many plans for the time I had off. I planned to take
twelve weeks total off, six weeks of recovery, and six weeks of job hunting. The first week was sorting out
insurance and the like, and then I filled that time with projects which was a bad idea. But I was able to pivot
and rest, which did wonders quickly.
Fourth, I have a fantastic network of friends and colleagues. They are supportive to a person,
I reached out to them to talk about things, and they were happy to talk. I asked them for favors, and they were
happy to give them. I have always been this way. If people ask me for a favor, I am always happy to accommodate
if I can. And I will always take time to talk to a friend. And this has reaped so much more than I have possibly
Fifth, sometimes you must listen to what people say about you, good and bad. I hate hearing
good things about myself. I look at others, see the gaps between their best and my best, and find myself
lacking. I rarely see where I shine, and I am dismissive of it when people tell me. I have a prevention mindset,
and I am running to the future that hurts me the least, but sometimes I need to run towards the future that
holds the most promise because sometimes I might be able to do it.
GratitudeI find myself grateful for so many things, grateful that my wife and I had been careful with
our money so I could take some time off. Grateful for the people who talked to me as I worked through this.
Grateful that I was able to glimpse how others saw me and realize that I am not really an imposter. I am
grateful that while this collapse diverted me, it opened up new vistas.
I hope if you feel burned out, you can find ways to take a step back. Listen to your friends
and find a way to rest. Find out how to do less and recover. It has been a difficult few years for me. But I was
able to recognize it and recover. Things seemed pretty bleak but they worked out ok. And even though I spend my
life looking for the worst thing that can happen to a person and trying to avoid it. I also know that things
will probably work out okay if you are looking for the good in life.