On “Avoiding Burnout”

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5630618

I remember reading this published insight[1] from Marissa Mayer a few months ago:

Burnout is caused by resentment

Which sounded amazing, until this guy who dated a neuroscientist commented[2]:

No. Burnout is caused when you repeatedly make large amounts of sacrifice and or effort into high-risk problems that fail. It’s the result of a negative prediction error in the nucleus accumbens. You effectively condition your brain to associate work with failure.

Subconsciously, then eventually, consciously, you wonder if it’s worth it. The best way to prevent burnout is to follow up a serious failure with doing small things that you know are going to work. As a biologist, I frequently put in 50-70 and sometimes 100 hour workweeks. The very nature of experimental science (lots of unkowns) means that failure happens. The nature of the culture means that grad students are “groomed” by sticking them on low-probability of success, high reward fishing expeditions (gotta get those nature, science papers) I used to burn out for months after accumulating many many hours of work on high-risk projects. I saw other grad students get it really bad, and burn out for years.

During my first postdoc, I dated a neuroscientist and reprogrammed my work habits. On the heels of the failure of a project where I have spent weeks building up for, I will quickly force myself to do routine molecular biology, or general lab tasks, or a repeat of an experiment that I have gotten to work in the past. These all have an immediate reward. Now I don’t burn out anymore, and find it easier to re-attempt very difficult things, with a clearer mindset.

For coders, I would posit that most burnout comes on the heels of failure that is not in the hands of the coder (management decisions, market realities, etc). My suggested remedy would be to reassociate work with success by doing routine things such as debugging or code testing that will restore the act of working with the little “pops” of endorphins.

That is not to say that having a healthy life schedule makes burnout less likely (I think it does; and one should have a healthy lifestyle for its own sake) but I don’t think it addresses the main issue.

Then I finally realized how many times I’ve burnt out in my life, and I became much better into avoiding it. Which is really hard to do. And it seems to me that this is one of the many points that Ben Horowitz talks about on his What’s The Most Difficult CEO Skill? Managing Your Own Psychology[3]

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