Bout with Burnout

Oct 19, 2020

Amidst the lockdowns of a global pandemic, the sounds of life have changed. For the first time in a century, the hustle and bustle that fills our streets has gone quiet. In this eerie silence, the song of the birds echoes louder than ever before.

Even our deepest thoughts have amplified their volume. These existential provocations used to be drowned out by the busyness of our lives. Now, they relentlessly bang their drums in the chambers of our minds.

Listen for a moment. Can you hear them?

The noise of our inner questions

Are these the people I want to see?

Is this where I want to live?

Is this what I want to do?

…Is this it?

These questions terrify us, but we can’t seem to evade them. Our lives have become confined to one block, one room, one screen. It’s impossible to escape ourselves.

Like it or not, we need to face our own music.

Here We Go, Again

The discomfort of deep reflection feels familiar to me. As I follow the path of my inner questions, I see the faint outlines of my own footprints.

I’ve been here before.

Once upon a time, I was a startup founder struggling with burnout. It felt like I was an asteroid, crashing and burning into the atmosphere. I was lost, confused, and utterly exhausted. I took some time off to travel and see family. Upon my return, I went to meet a good friend. He asked me what I wanted to work on next. Until that moment, I hadn’t thought too much about it. My answer shocked both of us.

“Honestly, I have no idea what I want to do. My last run wasn’t pleasant. I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to do it all over again. Frankly, I’m not even sure I want to work at all.”

My friend was taken aback. Both of us learned something that day — I was clearly not ‘rested and recuperated’. If anything, I came back from my break far less ready to work than when I left.

This wasn’t how I thought this would play out. After all, I had diligently followed the tried-and-true recipe for burnout recovery. I traveled. I visited family. I relaxed. After some weeks had passed, I was ready to come home. I figured I’d jump right back into the swing of things.

I was wrong. The recipe didn’t work.

But if a break didn’t solve the problem, what would? I was in uncharted territory. I knew I needed to work eventually to survive, but thankfully I still had a little buffer to figure it out. More than a decade of working my ass off in startup-mode had afforded me that privilege.

So I made a “freedom list”. If I had this period of time to myself, I wasn’t going to waste it. I would do all the things I had always dreamed of doing. That could be my work, at least for a little while.

Weeks turned into months. I stopped traveling on planes, and instead explored the far reaches of the galaxy with my mind. I dove into the world of meditation and developed a daily hour-long practice. I learned a ton about illustration, animation, character design and drawing comics. I read more than sixty books. I dove into technical subjects at a depth I had never done before.

Despite having no structure to my day and few commitments to keep, I found myself more productive than ever. I was driven purely by the search for wisdom, and the pursuit of my curiosities.

For a brief moment, I felt truly happy.

Finding Balance

Soon, I was ready to dip my toes back into work. I tried doing some independent consulting on a part-time basis. I wanted to create a structure for myself where I had some income while still having space to explore curiosities.

It was a struggle. Finding clients and marketing myself was difficult, especially since at the time I had virtually no online presence. It was also quite a lonely pursuit, and I missed working with others. I had greatly underestimated how much I cherished collaborating with a team.

Eventually, I went back to work full-time at a big company. I was tired of the uncertainty of a solitary pursuit. I wanted structure. I got it in spades. Throughout my time there, not a day went by where I wasn’t plagued by the same questions. I had tasted the freedom of independent pursuit, and I missed it.

I decided to try an independent route again, but with a twist. I secured a part-time job at a friend’s startup. I structured my work so that I’d be putting in a fixed amount of time for a fixed income. I’d get the structure I needed, along with the opportunity to collaborate with a team. The rest of the time would be free to explore creative pursuits.

I’ve been working with this setup for about six months now. It’s still early, but so far I’m really enjoying it. I feel well supported by the part-time job, and my creative work has been flourishing. I just published the 35th edition of my weekly newsletter. I’ve been regularly publishing essays like this one on my blog (one of which went viral on Twitter and HN). My Twitter following and engagement has been steadily growing. My drawing skills continue to improve, allowing me to draw comics like the one in this post. I’ve started a YouTube channel publishing monologue-style videos. I’ve been growing a digital garden of notes. Most importantly, I’ve built so many wonderful relationships with folks who’ve engaged with my work (this includes you — thank you!) It’s an incredible feeling to know my creativity has inspired and helped others.

All of this has happened in less than a year, which makes me really excited for what’s to come. I’m just getting started!

Embracing Questions

I’m privileged to be able to make a setup like this work financially, but I’ve also had to make my share of sacrifices. I’m really glad I pushed myself through all the questions to get me to this point. I’ve realized this period of self-exploration was a form of Awakening. It changed me forever. I look back now at the burnout that triggered this whole journey, and I’m thankful for it. Without it, I would never be where I am now.

Friends who met me after a long while joked that I’m now “Salman 2.0”, as though I’ve become a different person entirely. Perhaps there’s some truth to that. I’ve discovered a new source of contentment and happiness: myself. I’ve developed a new lens through which I view the world, my life, and my purpose on this planet. Most of all, I’m grateful for having developed resilience in embracing life’s deepest questions.

There’s more to life than finding answers. What we really need is to develop comfort with questions.

The more questions we ask ourselves, the more we allow ourselves to grow.

Thanks to Alex, Ayomide, John, Julia and Nikita for their feedback on an early draft of this essay.