Burnt out and Lonely? What We’re All Really Missing

Do you feel that heavy weight? Maybe you sense a fatigue that’s different, not in your muscles and bones, but in your brain and heart. Do you say “meh?” more than you should? Maybe we’re all burned out.

I talk to people in digital every day. These are people that are doing the stuff at work that’s supposed to be fun: making new products, leading product teams in large enterprises, running marketing departments. It’s creative work, at its core, and that work is supposed to be energizing, right? But more and more, the folks I talk to are having a hard time reconnecting to the motivation they used to have.

A couple recent articles might shed some light on what’s happening. Trish Warren at the New York Times normally writes about faith, religion and culture, but in a recent essay she took on burnout and she touched on some potential root causes. Look beyond the christian themes woven through the essay, but pay attention to the gist of the conversation she has with Curt Thompson. A couple key ideas:

  • We’re getting atomized – At work, at home, out in the world we’re moving away from each other. It’s easier than ever to isolate ourselves (via our phones, headphones, computers) on purpose, but the pandemic made it even worse.
  • American Individualism – America’s weird preoccupation with individual identity (note: My thesis was on “Song of Myself”) is running through us all right now, making it harder than ever to find commonality, making it harder to be part of something bigger than ourselves
  • Loneliness – No one wants to talk about this, but there’s a real crisis of loneliness happening in America right now. The irony in our tech saturated world is obvious (haha “we’ve never been more connected! haha), but it’s real. We’ve all been working in our basements too long.

“We know that the brain can do a lot of really hard things for a long time, as long as it doesn’t have to do them by itself. We only develop greater resilience when we are deeply emotionally connected to other people.

https://curtthompsonmd.com/

In order to feel momentum in our lives, we need to move things forward. We need to make, we need to create and we need to help others. But, it’s harder than ever right now and the work of trying has burned a lot of us out. It’s not just you.

How good can work be, when most of the people in your group or on your team are feeling the same way you are, when everyone is sort of fatigued. When everyone is “over” the idea of work in general?

The Opposite of Quiet Quitting

Its easy for me to sound like an old-timer, talking about the good old days. But, I found myself nodding along as I read the first half of Brie Wolfson’s piece on her early days at Stripe. She wrote nostalgically about the high commitment, highly intention, quality-focused culture that everyone was working to build at Stripe. “Big Mood”, she calls it. “… and we were all in. On all of it.” Its the exact opposite of “quiet quitting”, and for a lot of workers, it built a sense of belonging, purpose and focus. I think a lot of people are missing that right now.

“I can say with confidence that nothing great in this town is built without the whole team linking arms to build it together. And, that true collaboration makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. And, that getting there requires working your butt off to do work you’re proud of and leaning on and supporting your colleagues to do the same. At Stripe, we had all that pulsing through our veins. “

Brie Wolfson

She goes on to lament what seems to be a passed era, a time when everyone she knew felt fully committed to their work. And, while acknowledging the many, many negative aspects of a demanding, go-go, “hustle bro” culture, she’s eloquent about missing that shared commitment, that shared sense of purpose, the faith that the team was building something that would make a difference in the world.

I hate the effect, but I like the term she introduces: “lgtm culture.” Looks Good To Me is a mode where “good enough” is what you’re aiming for, a mode where your colleagues aren’t holding you to a higher standard and are ok with letting things go out the door that are “fine”. It’s hard to do your best work, to feel the sense of satisfaction when your team puts out “fine” work, but your ambitions point higher. But, conversely, it’s hard to feel isolated and alone when your whole team is expecting you to help them deliver something truly great.

I’m not sure what business leaders can do to address this stuff. But, as team mates, as co-workers we can do two things.

1) Make an effort to connect and draw people out of their isolation. Maybe it’s just a quick convo after the zoom, maybe it’s coffee. But, make a point to find some shared interests.

2) Help each other lift the work. Make supportive, actionable, constructive feedback. Help your team aim a little higher, so they can build something they’re proud of.

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