Recently, I was fascinated – and troubled – by an article from Polygon about burnout among high-profile YouTube creators. Dozens of YouTube stars in the last few months have posted about their choices to take a break from YouTube for mental health reasons.
In one emotionally charged video, YouTuber Elle Mills told her fans:
This is all I ever wanted. And why the fuck am I so unfucking unhappy? It – It doesn’t make any sense.
This narrative of “why am I deeply unhappy with getting exactly what I wanted” is one that is achingly familiar to me. I suspect it’s familiar for many highly ambitious people. According to the Polygon article, the YouTubers were driven towards burnout by “unhealthy obsessions with remaining relevant […] and social media pressures.”
But in my experience, the core cause of burnout isn’t working too many hours or having external pressures (though these can certainly be contributing factors). Consider the fact that many prolific folks throughout history have been able to work long hours without crashing and burning. Likewise, many people have been able withstand the social pressures around them and hold onto their beliefs with ease.
In my experience, burnout occurs when we forget why we chose to do what we’re doing. It happens when we lose our handle on why we were originally drawn towards the endeavour, or we spend so long operating on autopilot that our daily tasks no longer resemble the things that made the endeavour fulfilling to begin with.
When this happens, it’s only a matter of time before we realize that we’ve had this gnawing feeling deep down for some time. The exhaustion, the long hours we’ve spent, and the work we’ve produced seem all for nothing. Burnout comes crashing down on us.
The Importance of Defining Why
Here’s a corollary to the cause of burnout: If you define and remember why you’re doing what you’re doing along the journey, you will be fulfilled, regardless of the outcome.
Not long ago, Jeff Bezos weaved a compelling reflection on human nature into his annual Amazon shareholder letter.
[…] expectations are never static – they go up. It’s human nature. We didn’t ascend from our hunter-gatherer days by being satisfied. People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary’.
Bezos was talking about customer expectations, but this is also tends to be true about our expectations for ourselves. If you don’t have a firm handle on why you’re working on something, each milestone is simply another expectation, waiting to be satisfied. When you reach it, the expectations only grow in number and scope. You’re left constantly chasing the next milestone: the next promotion, the next ten thousand subscribers, the next project completed.
I’ve been doing this for seven years without stopping, without being able to see how I am living from the outside. I always have in my mind what’s going to be next; the next trips, the next project […]
– Rubén Gundersen, YouTuber with 30 million subscribers, on why he’s taking a break
With a clear purpose in mind every step of the way, these milestones are a means to an end – a deeply satisfying and personal end. When you hit a roadblock, your purpose is your anchor. Without that purpose, these milestones become the ends in themselves. And they tend to feel meaningless in themselves.
Exercise 1: Find your why before the journey
Before you take on an endeavour of significant scope, spend some time alone with your thoughts. Define why you’re deciding to invest your time and your emotional efforts into this project. Writing this down helps a lot, both in articulating your thoughts and in leaving an archive for you to come back to later.
I’ve used some of the following questions to help guide me in this process:
- What about this project excites me?
- How will this project help me grow as a person?
- How will this project help the people I’m serving or creating for?
- How will this project improve the lives of people in my life?
- How will this project help shape the world into something that’s closer to what I’d like it to be?
- What is the best-case outcome of this project? Worst-case outcome? In either scenario, how would I feel about undertaking the project in hindsight?
Exercise 2: Build reminders into your journey
Next, you want to set up a system that deliberately pushes you away from the default, autopilot state of being. It’ll periodically remind you to revisit your purpose, so you can gauge how well you’re staying true to your original goals and recalibrate your everyday activities accordingly.
- Set twice-weekly or weekly reminders on Google Keep or iOS Reminders for you to revisit your answers to the questions above.
- Create a physical or a Pinterest vision board for visual reminders of your purpose. For example, if you want to start a travel vlog to inspire people to cultivate a love for travel, you can fill the vision board with pictures that remind you of your own love of travel.
- Build a habit of considering project decisions you make against your purpose for the project.
- Journal regularly on a set of prompts that help you reconnect with your purpose.
- Polygon: YouTube’s top creators are burning out and breaking down en masse
- Start With Why, Simon Sinek [Amazon] [Goodreads]