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A Note About Burn Out

Some of you already read my original blog post and reached out after I took a break, so you’re probably not surprised about this, but I thought it would be worth talking explicitly about this, because it’s something that affects not just me, and not just tech folks, but a lot of people overall.

Burning out, is a real thing.

It does not matter how much you like doing something, and how good you are at it, there comes a time that just by continuing to do what you have already been doing, you start getting more tired than ever. For me, while spreading knowledge is one of my favourite things to do (as you may have gathered from the fact that I blog about absolutely everything), it came to the point that juggling being an intern manager (walking the walk), supporting a possible newcomer to the team, coaching one of my teammates, and trying to spread more knowledge in the form of Twitch streams turned out to be, well, too much.

As such, I think it was a good idea for me to take most of August off. I say most, but truthfully it was just a couple of weeks, but that alone was good. One of those weeks was going out of London for the first time since before the pandemic, to “test the waters” and had us visit Southampton, which was quite nice, but also a bit of a disappointment for not managing to see red squirrels in the Isle of Wight.

I think the important part ot point out here is that I’m here for the long run, and I shouldn’t be trying to cram myself, particularly if it risks burning me out. But this needs to accept that the whole “fear of missing out” is real, and it even applies to the fear of missing out not only on events, but on prestige and “ego strokes” too.

As I said before, it’s been a long time since my blog and my open source contributions have been my main outputs. They are still my main public facing outlets, since at work I prefer working on backends of backends – the only ever publicly visible change I made to a Google product was removing references to Google Reader and Yahoo! Pipes from the Fireburner mailing list unsubscribe landing page – but they are no longer what bring me the customers, and thus pay the bills.

If they were, then I know I would be spending a lot more effort, and a lot more money, to get the streaming part down a lot more. Given enough cash flow (or savings), I would be using something like Restream to make sure I would be reaching a wider “live” audience, paying someone to add captions to the recorded streams, probably hire an artist to add graphics and logos and all kind of cool stuff to make it compelling. And it would get is dedicated setup with a “safe” desktop so I don’t risk streaming the wrong information while still feel natural as I use the computer.

There’s more that I could do with the blog, as well. I have been considering a couple of times to figure out how expensive would it be to hire an editor, and have them work with me not only on reducing the rambliness of some of my posts, but especially to set down a “style” of for the blog as a whole. This is something that honestly still tempts me simply because I feel it would teach me so much more about writing, but it also is an unreasonable expense for my amateur self.

Similarly at work, even discounting the whole “people management track” (no, I won’t be a manager any time soon — I can be an intern host every few years, hopefully doing at least a passable job at it, but the whole calibration and career conversations drain my soul to a husk), I’m sometimes envious of the colleagues who are easily recognizable as large-scale architects, or who can single-handedly fix a broken organization from the individual ranks. But for that to happen, you need to sacrifice something — most of the people I know who manage those roles end up working a lot harder and a lot longer than me, while I don’t feel I’m ready to make those sacrifices.

So instead, I think I need to internalize that there’s things that I don’t care to achieve, because they are not what I’m aspiring to for real. I will not be the streamer that teaches a mass of people how to reverse engineer glucometers, bringing in an era of open protocols for medical devices. I will not be the opinion writer that directs the discourse around open sourcing critical infrastructure. I’ll never be any Photographer Of The Year, no matter how many shots I take.

The people I worked with, though, know that they can call on me when they are dealing with a complex system that needs simplification: no matter how haunted a graveyard is, I built a fame of being able to slowly pick away at all the complexity, the organically grown modules that people forgot about, and set the pace for a fresh, ghost-tour friendly system. It’s something that I have a knack for and one I can deliver on, and while it’s not always appreciated, when it is it makes my day. I love when I hear back from former colleagues thanking me for having left breadcrumbs on how to continue a long-term deprecation, or for having written a document explaining a particular issue, or for having left a script that takes care of the most annoying steps in upgrading a codebase to Python 3.

And this has been the case many times before in my FLOSS “career” too. I’ve not been out there publicly speaking about build systems, and I have not involved myself in any of the modern replacements directly. But for many years, people came to me with problems with any build system, because they knew I could dig around the many corner cases to find an answer. I sometimes wish I could still be up to date to do that, but honestly that’s been so long out of my view that I have barely managed to update unpaper.

So how does this relate to burn out? Well, I guess I need to remind myself to set reasonable goals. Not just in terms of being reasonable choices but also in terms of being reasonable to myself. As I said above, there’s a long list of things that I will never become. There’s also a list of things that I have been, but can’t be again: much as I miss the time doing FLOSS for most of my day, that has never got to the point of paying the bills for me, and right now I prefer having the stability than the excitement — and I don’t think I’ll ever hit it big enough to get the pile of money needed to retire at 40 and then spend the rest of my life doing only stuff that pleases me. Not because it’s not an achievable situation (I know a number of people who did manage that), but because the emotional, psychological costs of aiming for that would burn me out.

Instead, I think I’m going to keep doing what I have been doing for the past ten years or so: spend my free time trying to make my world a better place, even if it’s just bit by bit. One glucometer at a time. One random home automation solution at a time. One stream at a time. One squirrel at a time.

And in doing that, I want to make sure I give back to the community, not just in terms of leaving breadcrumbs for the future, but also in terms of supporting the creators and toolmakers that I find the most positive and world-improving. And this starts obviously by supporting more of them on Patreon, but also trying to come up with better ways to spread and share the best content.

And, you know, if you think that I know something or have an opinion you think I can elaborate on, you are the most welcome to reach out to me! Either through comments, email, or even Facebook Messenger!

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