Burnout and Shooting Zombies

Zombie hands wrapping around tree trunks

I just passed through the fifth anniversary of a career low spot: The day I was essentially pushed out of my design job for letting myself burn out. The Great Burnout, I’ve come to call it.

After five years, I can look back and see where the trouble began.

When the project started, I thought I could be the company’s savior. I could, with hard work and a focus on design-led product development, deliver the “way through” for an organization stuck with the hacked-and-grafted product experience of a monolithic code base trying to solve all the problems without truly understanding the problems.

That’s how it started. How it ended was a project that had to be rebooted and a handful of people nudged out the door, including me. In between was, well, zombies.

Imagine you think you’re the lone survivor of the zombie apocalypse. The zombies are coming at you day on day, and all you can do is shoot them in the head day in, day out. Survival requires good aim and unlimited ammo.

Now imagine you’re not really the lone survivor. There are others, living there in your encampment. But you’re still focused on shooting those zombies because if I don’t shoot them, who will?

This was the same malformed reasoning I ended up with on the project. I alone could save them. I alone could shoot the zombies.

When you think like that, the hero complex it induces is intoxicating. You really believe in your own heroism. This is the thing that drives the so-called “do what you love” attitude — I mean, you love design, right? Then work hard! Pour all the hours into it!

But it’s also toxic. It eats at your sanity, your ability to self-regulate. It becomes the thing you must control, or, when you can’t control it, the thing you’re sublimating onto something else you must radically control. You can become abusive to yourself and/or others. For me, it turned into an obssessive complex that drove my weight down. For others I’ve seen the opposite happen — their weight rises. Or they become negligent of friendships, abusive of others, micromanagerial of all the things.

Years ago, I argued that “hustle is hype.” And then I turned around and did it to myself. Nowadays, it’s more “hustle is a hell of a drug.” Like cocaine or other addictions, it can wreck you.

In the years since the Great Burnout I have met a lot of people who have dealt with similar situations, and I see in them that same tunnel vision I had at my bottom. They are living tactically, like people shell shocked and exhausted from the constant assault of zombies.

In retrospect, I would have done three things differently:

  1. Stop being a lone hero and ask for help. All I had to do was swallow my pride… and yes, that’s a lot to ask of a macho American white guy raised on “I alone can save us” myths. But there were other people there who could help. I had to trust in the others that they, too, wanted to be successful and would try their best to succeed. And the only way I’d know if they were good would be to let them do the work.
  2. Invest in a system to manage the work. In other words, I didn’t have a strategy. My day-to-day was the tactics of getting the next thing done so I could move on down the list, like a line of zombies. See zombie. Shoot. Repeat ad infinitum. I should have invested in creating a work protocol, building a design system, and doing everything to empower others to make good design decisions themselves without me needing to be there. The more I could delegate and automate, the more I would have been able to let go.
  3. Stay in my lane. This is probably the hardest one of all for me — I had to stick to the task at hand, rather than trying to solve everyone’s problems. That “hero mentality” makes you want to be the one making sure everyone is doing their job correctly, micromanaging them and overriding them if you have to. After all, there is a right way to do something. It must be done that way. If we’re not getting it done with quality then it represented a personal moral failing of my leadership. I was unwilling to respect that there was no way I could maintain that level of quality for everything going on in the project. It was literally impossible. I could, however, focus on what was in front of me. To quote Diana Gabaldon, “You cannot save the world, but you might save the man in front of you, if you work fast enough.”

Perhaps most importantly, there’s only one person responsible for taking care of you, and that’s yourself. Organizations will take all the work and productivity you can give them for what they pay you, and their job isn’t to make sure you’re not burning out; their job is to “increase shareholder value” or “change the world” or “save the lives of people in need.” The only way you can avoid the tactical tunnel vision is to set real boundaries, let go of the responsibility, and learn to say no. (And is it hard to say no and respect your boundaries early in your career, especially if you’re not a cis white male prejudged by this industry.) We have to learn to take care of ourselves first and foremost.

Because, and here’s the thing: We aren’t facing a horde of zombies we have to gun down. We are just facing the work that’s in front of us. It won’t kill us, not unless we let it. And maturity comes from learning to set those boundaries — and learning to not make the violations of those boundaries a normal habit. Sometimes, that means we have to walk away from work, even from a job that’s turned toxic. Regardless, it means learning to not let the work make yourself toxic. Doing that makes us groaning, mindless, and angry.

Kinda like zombies.

Author: Dylan Wilbanks

Dylan Wilbanks is a web roustabout, raconteur, and curmudgeon currently practicing as a user experience designer in Seattle. He’s spent nearly 20 years designing, building, and perfecting online experiences, and every once in a while does a good job. Occasionally, he speaks at conferences like SXSW and Webvisions. He created one of the first Twitter accounts used in higher education, but that was an accident, and he's really sorry about it. With Kyle Weems, he co-hosts Squirrel And Moose, a podcast about designing and building the web, when they remember to talk about it. He likes nectarines. You can read his tweets at @dylanw and learn more at dylanwilbanks.com.