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Luke Mayhew

Front-end dev. Mentor to struggling developers. Pursuer of growth, wisdom, and a life well-lived.

Curing developer burnout: obsession, obligation, and harmony

Luke Mayhew

August 07, 2019

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

My parents once said that I was like a light switch - either "on" or "off", with no in-between. Since then I've been called "intense", "obsessive", and "relentless". I was even told once I had "an addictive personality" - not in the sense that people just love me that much, but "it's a good thing you don't drink 'cause you'd be a binger for sure". My wife is a tad more kind - she just says, "Well, you're definitely a 'passionate' person." I like the sound of that - passion is good, right? Wrong. Turns out passion has been poisoning me for years.

For a "passionate person", I have to confess that I don't really have many passions. The ones that I do have, though? Oh boy, I'm an eleven out of ten for sure. When I like or want something I go all in, full-bore, and I don't back down, like that psycho dog just savaging the hell out of the chew toy.

Take when I was a kid for example. My oh-so-extensive list of hobbies was: reading novels, playing video games, the end. When I was in Grade 4 my school made us track how many minutes a week we spent reading. Turns out I was already clocking in at 2000+ minutes per week. That's over 33 hours a week, in Grade 4. So I didn't just enjoy reading, I loved the heck out of it.

But that's a good thing right? Reading makes kids smart and stuff - how could that backfire? Especially when all the awesomest people in life did the awesome things because of that level of drive and passion. Surely now as an adult I must be conquering mountains, founding corporate dynasties, or solving world hunger, right? Um, nope. Actually I'm recovering from burnout in starting a business, which I did while recovering from burnout as an employee, which I did as recovery from burnout in social work, which I did while recovering from burnout in retail sales. See the theme yet?

Burnout. Funny thing about burnout - passion doesn't protect you from it. In fact, the wrong kind of passion can push you into burnout (and stunt your career). What it comes down to in the end is not so much what you do, or even how you do it - it's about why you do it.

Three modes of doing

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Your alarm is going off. Oh god, morning? Again? Already? What day is it? They're all such similar drudgery it's hard to keep track. Friday?! Sonofabitch - feels like a Saturday. For a moment I'd had hope... Ah well. An agonizing roll over, a blind swat at the alarm, and it's time to peel yourself out of bed to another day of work. Again. Why do you still do this to yourself five days a week? Oh yeah. That paycheck. The one that feeds you. Right. That.

gif of person at desk slapping themselves to stay awake

Welcome to the hell that is Obligation. We've all been there. We all know the drill. Doing something because you "have to", and hating every minute of it. Maybe it's that job where no one gives a shit about your ideas and you've got to listen to Morgan Mouth-breather one desk over as your daylight hours burn just to pad someone else's pocket. Or maybe it's just the never-ending stream of laundry or dishes. Or trying to eke some semblance of health out of your body - doctors, tests, treatments, lifestyle changes, and on and on it goes. In other words, it's all those times you "have to", or else. But at least it's not that way all the time - after all, there are those rare moments where you actually get to do something because you want to, and that's always a good thing, right? Well, only a Sith speaks in absolutes. True living has more complexity than that.

Click. Scroll, scroll, scroll. Click. You're window-shopping houses like a boss. Only, it's not actually window-shopping any more, is it? You've been at Better Corp for a month already and you still can't believe the number of zeroes they're dropping into your account each month. Zeroes that have opened up a whole world for you. All those things you've wanted for so long are finally yours for the taking (better make sure that house has a money vault so you can swim in your coins like Scrooge McDuck). Sure, Contrary Carson argues with everything you say or do, and goddamn is that legacy codebase ever a mess. But hey, for that kind of money...

This, folks, is Obsessive Passion, and it's been my friend through many dangers. However, unlike Shadowfax, it's not as pure and noble as it seems. I mean, sure, it can be the fuel you need to get through the tough spots in life. The reason you dig in and carry on and make those good things happen. And actually wanting to do what you're doing - whatever the reason - is a huge step up from just suffering through an Obligation. It's always nice to be able to feel good about what you've done, and feel like it was worth it in the end.

But that's the key phrase - in the end. It reminds me of a joke I heard once about someone hitting themselves in the head with a hammer over and over. Horrified, an onlooker asked why on earth they would do such a thing. The reply? "Because it'll feel so good when I stop."

gif of person being handed money while running

Um, what? That's crazy, right? Except unfortunately that's what's going on with Obsessive Passion. It's all about the result. The motivation is in getting to the result, the enjoyment is in getting closer to the result, the satisfaction is in achieving the result - the result, the result, the result. And what if we never get that result? What if that bug is actually coming from a closed-source dependency that you can't fix? What if that promotion you've been working so hard for goes to someone else? (I can tell you from experience - all the pain you went through to get there suddenly comes crashing down like an Acme anvil)

For almost three decades I thought this was just how life worked. Passion was when you were motivated by some goal to push yourself through any amount of stress, pressure, and pain to get there. And then one day, I heard of a better way.

You're setting up the build and dev tools for a new repo at work, and it's forcing you to finally learn about Webpack properly. Normally this is the sort of work you'd hate, but it's felt pretty painless so far. Almost fun, actually. There's been something strangely enjoyable about getting this all set up and running, even with all the docs to read and strange behavior to troubleshoot. It feels good to be building up your knowledge and expertise and personal capacity each step of the way. And now that you've got that proxy working, it's time for a pull request. Wait, what? It's been 6 hours already? And all those commits were just today? Yikes, time sure does fly when you're having fun. Wait - did you just say fun? Since when was this kind of work fun? Isn't it normally supposed to be stressful, painful, or least uncomfortable? Only, it feels like you could do this all day. In fact, you actually want to do this all day!

This, my friend, is Harmonious Passion, and it's every bit as wonderful as its name makes it sound. It's when work stops being work. When work's something you want to do not because it will be worth it, but because it is worth it - right now, here in this moment. Unlike Obsessive Passion, which focuses on what you'll get out of the results, Harmonious Passion is all about finding worth in the process.

person saying "It's what I love to do. It's never going to be a waste of my time"

This dude knows what's what. (I have no idea what this is from, but it fits)

"Ok," I can hear you saying, "so what's the big deal? Passion is passion, and if there's two different types then big whoop, why not just stick with Obsessive Passion?" Sure, but I notice you aren't saying that about Obligation. "Why not just stick with Obligation instead of having Passion?" said no one ever. And yet Obligation and Obsessive Passion both share a common core - they make the process the enemy.

Think about the stuff you have to do out of Obligation - maybe it's the housework, maybe it's that crap your boss keeps putting on your plate (heck, maybe it's listening to your boss at all!). Chances are, that's the stuff that you hate. The stuff that you really don't want to be doing. Now take one of those things you've been putting off and procrastinating on. Imagine someone would pay you a million dollars to do it, as long as you could get it done under a tight deadline. What would that look like now? You'd still not like doing the work, but you'd certainly be passionate about getting it done!

That's why Obligation and Obsessive Passion both lead to burnout. The whole time you're engaging in them you're still at odds with whatever you're having to do. In other words, you're fighting against your own experience of life. But your experience is what it is, and being "not ok" with that is like having a psychological autoimmune condition - your psyche literally tears itself apart, with one part fighting the other. I don't think I have to tell you that that's a bad situation, so let's just point to my decade-long history of burnout after burnout instead.

Learning to See

So is it possible to learn to tap into Harmonious Passion more, instead of Obligation or Obsessive Passion? You bet - in fact, that example of Harmonious Passion was actually a real experience I had earlier this week of turning Obsessive Passion into Harmonious Passion. Like most good things in life, though, it doesn't come easy. The first step is awareness. You can't work on what you're not aware of, so it's critical to start seeing Obligation, Obsession, and Harmony in yourself, and understanding what's going on there for you.

Here's what you need to do. When doing something, start identifying whether you're engaging in Obligation, Obsessive Passion, or Harmonious Passion. Then start digging into why it's that one for you. Why are you only Obligated? Or what is it about what you're doing that you enjoy and is leading to your Harmonious Passion? It's all about learning what's working or not working for you. Then, once you know what makes you tick, you'll be able to start working on how to hack the system, and start finding ways to "upgrade" your normal mode of doing.

Try these techniques to uncover what's really going on for you:

  • Ask yourself "Why am I doing this?" (if the answer starts with "I have to [something]" or "I need [something]", chances are it's not Harmonious Passion)
  • "Am I enjoying myself?" (if the answer is "no", it's not Harmonious Passion. If you're surprised it's a "no", it's probably Obsessive Passion)
  • Look for signs of stress (for me it's burning, tense shoulder muscles. Noticeable stress is a good sign it's probably not Harmonious Passion)
  • Can you step back or walk away and leave it unfinished, or do you "have to" reach a certain point? (the latter is more likely Obsessive Passion)
  • Would you still want to do this even if you never accomplished anything? (if "yes", it might be Harmonious Passion!)

These are just a handful of techniques I've found helpful, but there's plenty more information out there on Obsessive/Harmonious Passion, with lots of good ways of identifying them. Use whatever works best for you, but make sure you start cultivating that awareness, because the next post will be all about how to leverage your awareness to upgrade Obligation and Obsession into healthier, more productive alternatives! In the meantime, drop me a comment and let's talk about what's worked and not worked in your journey of cultivating awareness!