M-Theory: Working for health, working for harm Melanie Baker January 5, 2017 Columns, Communitech, Ecosystem, Featured, M-Theory, Small to Mid Size, Startups On a recent Saturday evening I listened to a guy swearing at pies. At least that’s the gist I got. He’s a chef, and it had something to do with an unexpected marathon dessert-making session. He usually loves to cook, but a mutual friend commented to him that he sounded pretty burnt out. After all, what normal person could be angry at pie? Burnout is hardly unheard of (or un-experienced) among tech folks. Nor are exhortations to get away from the keyboard, go outside or take up a non-digital hobby. (Or quit your job, sell all your stuff, and travel the world!) A while back I read this Medium piece: Only You Can Prevent Tech Burnout, and a lot resonated. Maybe pie wasn’t the problem, but the circumstances around the baking of it. The parts of the Medium article that I found most interesting were the ones focusing on meaningful work as a way of avoiding burnout, since we still tend to be more reactive than proactive about managing burnout. Can having something else that engages you and your life really be enough to inoculate you against the drudgery of collating TPS reports from Monday to Friday? Of course, meaningful pursuits are completely subjective, which is good and bad. For some people, meaning is found within their day-to-day work, or in similar technical pursuits. For others, meaning can only be found as far away from the keyboard and the industry as possible. Why is this possibly a bad thing? It can be hard to get others to understand what you need to thrive, or at the very least maintain sanity and functionality. Especially if those people are the management to whom you report. It can really depend on what your company’s values are whether your work environment helps you thrive or drives you to want to escape. If you’re fortunate or have made very specific choices, your job may largely involve work that is meaningful to you. Of course, every job will have some grunt work that just needs to get done from time to time. Certain aspects of that can be managed, again, within the strictures of your company culture. Some people, however, have little choice but to seek meaningful pursuits entirely outside their jobs, if they have the time or resources to even try. Some jobs are pretty much all grunt work. The “meaning” and “reward” for those who perform them is basic survival. It’s important to recognize there is a level of privilege in having any opportunity to do other, more fulfilling things. We also gain the benefits of meaningful work through helping others, whether within a company or in an extracurricular capacity. Building something yourself can be very satisfying. So, too, can coaching, teaching and mentoring. Meaningful work can exist in simply doing something hard. Whether physical or mental, we do need hard work. We are designed to improve by regularly engaging in a challenge, whether building muscle or cardio stamina, developing new neural connections or broadening our community ties. Whether you’ve just run a marathon or completed a marathon coding session, you’re tired afterward. You’ve burned a lot of energy and applied a good deal of focus in pursuit of a goal. Taking a break to recover and coming back to the work later helps you bring a sharper focus and more creative thinking. Our bodies and minds are designed to reward hard work. Hard work builds strength and skill. After hard work you feel good, accomplished. These are hallmarks of meaningful work. A key indicator of burnout, on the other hand, is physical and/or mental stagnation. Wearing ourselves out with a big challenge will bring us more energy and it takes less to recover than it does from burnout. When you’re burned out, however, even doing nothing or being completely bored can be utterly exhausting. And there’s no way to recoup that energy. Hard work doesn’t cause burnout. Digging deep into real, meaningful, productive work doesn’t cause burnout. Meaningful work stops at a sane or logical point and maintains a small flame of connection to return to. As noted, we tend to be reactive about finding purpose and meaningful pursuits after we’ve failed trying other things. Odd that we accept limits and break-ability in the machines we build, but often not ourselves. But happy, well-adjusted people produce more and better quality work than worn-out drones. So why don’t we teach people to seek meaningful work, whether within or outside of their chosen professions, when they enter the tech world and embark on their careers? People who do other (meaningful) things are more creative, more resilient, more able to connect and collaborate with others. This is a benefit to companies, even if they don’t all recognize it. We all have a sense of purpose, even if buried, which manifests differently for different people. But it needs feeding and expression in everyone. In an industry so enamored with excellence and innovation, we seem hard-pressed to figure out how to achieve it in ourselves as much as in our companies and technologies. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.