Burnout taught me my biggest life lesson
A look into why we're so quick to neglect ourselves and mis-manage our energy
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Hi friends, I’m writing to you from Dubai! It’s 4:30AM as I write this. I’ve been pulling the oddest schedule, so apologies in advance for any typoes (lol—made this one right away and found it amusing so imma just leave it).
In the last two weeks, I’ve had three team members indicate signs of burnout. Each for very different reasons.
I used to believe that burnout was always a result of high stress work environments—it’s often the context most people discuss burnout in. But after personally experiencing burnout and helping many colleagues, friends, and family manage theirs, I’ve understood that burnout is not that simple.
Given the frequency of it coming up over the last few weeks, I began questioning, what is burnout, really?
Going to spend today’s newsletter reflecting on my own experience with it and sharing the principles I’ve embraced to prevent burnout from every happening again.
My first burnout happened when I was 21.
I was working 85+ hour weeks, juggling a full-time course load at USC with two internships and bootstrapping my first business. I was also managing a long-distance relationship and if that wasn’t enough, I experienced multiple family emergencies that same year with both of my parents getting hospitalized. I also got into my first car accident.
Needless to say, I was overwhelmed and exhausted. The worst part? I had been working so hard to contribute back to my family, but couldn’t actually support them when they needed me most.
I found myself hiding away in my boyfriend’s empty apartment. I didn’t go to class. I didn’t show up to work. I didn’t pick up any calls. Not because I didn’t want to, but I genuinely felt like I couldn’t. I had no energy left. So I laid on a couch for two weeks, sleeping for most of it and watching mindless TV. I remember feeling nothing.
Two weeks later, I got the energy to pick up a call from my best friend. She talked me into going for a hike at my favorite place—the Culver City stairs. I got in the car for the 8-minute drive to the stairs, only to find myself in a car accident moments later.
I lost it.
I remember crying soooo hard and profusely apologizing to the woman whose car I had just t-boned—she was probably just as shocked as I was at my reaction.
It was the first time I had cried the entire year. I remember so clearly, it was in that moment that I felt like my brain turned back on. What the hell are you doing, Shireen?!
I got home, grabbed my laptop, and put in my resignation to both internships. I withdrew from the classes that made no difference on my ability to graduate.
I had neglected myself for way too long. And I was mis-managing my energy because I had an inaccurate understanding of my reality—shaped by the status quo:
I thought resigning from the “prestigious” internship would ruin my reputation but in reality, no one really cared—my manager gave me a solid letter of rec and we stayed in touch for years
I had heard horror stories of withdrawals looking terrible on college transcripts but in reality, no one has even asked me for my transcript since I graduated…
I was told my business would die if I didn’t show up every day during the early days, but in reality, I was able to re-work things when I returned and grew the business to 7-figures
I had spent months giving precedence to things I was told mattered. And up until my burnout, I had never made the conscious effort to question, how much do these things really matter? What are the trade-offs?
In this case, the major trade-offs were my well-being and ability to function.
Once I realized that most of what I was told didn’t serve me to be my best self, I began creating my own principles for managing my energy and never neglecting myself again. Here are three of them:
1. It’ll never feel convenient to take time off. But burnout feels more inconvenient.
Coming from the startup world, I’ve had to come to terms with this reality. We can always be doing more, moving faster, talking to more people, etc. But after years of pushing myself beyond my limits, I’ve learned firsthand that it’s more inconvenient to NOT take time off. By refusing to take a few hours to rest, I’ve found myself needing two weeks to recuperate.
You can only go so long without refueling yourself; is it better to go a few miles out of the way to get gas, or push through only to have the car halt in the middle of a highway?
At first, I struggled with guilt for taking time off but my burnout experience always served as a reminder to do it anyway. Now I’ve felt the real rewards of taking time off enough to know it’s worth it and only leads me to be better (although I do still struggle with guilt—the programming is deep y’all).
2. Hope for the best; prepare for the worst.
Keeping up with the car metaphor, you know how your car is programmed to keep some gas in reserve even after the gas light turns on? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself on a road-trip with very little gas left, just having passed a sign that says “Next gas in 28 miles.”
But fortunately, I’ve never gotten stranded. The reserves have never failed me.
I embrace energy reserves in life. I take immense responsibility for the commitments I’ve made in life—from Edvo to my personal relationships—and the last thing I want is to not be able to handle life’s inevitable curve balls because I mis-managed my energy.
A few years ago, I took an energy-management course and discovered the importance of play for refueling. Now I have allocated time in my daily schedule to invest time doing something creative and fun. Adult coloring books help with this a lot! So does my pup, Lilah:
3. Embrace self-management—you don’t need permission to take care of yourself.
At my last company, I had mandated at least two weeks of leave for every team member. My intention was to normalize taking time off, but instead, I inadvertently normalized seeking permission to do so.
Now I strive to normalize self-care and empower self-agency. I’ve learned a lot from confronting my own battles with guilt and giving importance to self-management. Understanding how to manage my own energy, getting comfortable with “feeling into it,” and redefining productivity were all results of me taking ownership of my self care.
Unfortunately, there are still too many work environments that dictate when people can and cannot engage in self-care. If you find yourself in one of those environments, I encourage you to reflect on what your options may be. Some times a simple conversation with a manager can go a long way. Other times, we have to make hard calls.
Burnout has impacted almost every single person in my life. And with how often it’s come up over the last few weeks, I wanted to share my experience in hopes that it can be insightful and preventative for any of you.
Would love to know your thoughts. Have you experienced or seen signs of burnout in others? As always, I’m only one email away. I write to foster connection, so please don’t hesitate to reach out.
🎁 PARTING GIFTS
A round-up of hand-picked, highly recommended tools, and inspiration to help you live your best life.
“The more you do good things — the more you respect yourself and love yourself. Every time you lie, you lie to yourself. And you gradually start to love yourself less and have low self-esteem.”
A beautiful conversation on Play and Love:
“There is nothing more gratifying than being able to help someone else who is in a worse situation than you.”
The Human Behind this Newsletter
❓ Got a question you want to unpack together? Tweet me, @shireenjaffer_.
🎤 Want to share your story? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org—I’d love to feature you in an upcoming newsletter.
💜 This newsletter was crafted for you while fighting jet lag in Dubai. Share with a friend who you can’t wait to travel with—and let them know it.