Exhausted. Overwhelmed. Continually stressed. Running on fumes. Maxed out. That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach starting on Sunday afternoon, knowing that your work is piling up for Monday and the week to come.
These feelings aren’t uncommon. We all can have off-days or off-weeks—those occasional periods of stress or pushing to meeting a high-pressure deadline. We may be dealing with family stress, grief, or illnesses. The slippery slope towards burnout is when these feelings start to become the norm; when they persist over weeks, months, or years. It’s not healthy for humans to be in this chronic state of stress—we make more mistakes, our performance suffers, and eventually we hit a wall and burst.
Bouncing back from burnout is much easier if we catch ourselves heading down this slippery slope before hitting that maxed-out point.
Putting a name to swirly concepts can lead to insight. Naming things can uncover enough uncomfortable truths to provoke behavior change. I recently listened to a brilliant podcast where Brene Brown interviews Simon Sinek on his latest work, The Infinite Game.
From his book blurb, Simon Sinek summarizes:
In finite games, like football or chess, the players are known, the rules are fixed, and the endpoint is clear. The winners and losers are easily identified.
In infinite games, like business or politics or life itself, the players come and go, the rules are changeable, and there is no defined endpoint. There are no winners or losers in an infinite game; there is only ahead and behind.
So how does this relate to burnout?
Burnout in tech most often happens when you’re working for a fast-paced corporation or startup with high expectations, short deadlines, and a continual need to scale & grow. Most companies, and the people who work there, are playing a finite game.
Performance reviews are a prime example of a finite game. There are a clear set of winners (e.g. the top 20% of people reviewed) and losers (e.g. the bottom 10% of people reviewed) along with the gradients of people in between. At larger companies, performance is often stack-ranked and on a curve. This means that even if the majority of people have been model employees doing highly impactful work, only the top 20% will be rewarded. It’s a zero-sum game that only a minority of people can truly win, whether it’s with money or a promotion.
Anecdotally, performance reviews and their associated rankings, are one of the leading sources of stress for employees. There is resentment if you’ve been working around the clock, and don’t get the limited number of available recognition or reward slots. There is jealousy of your teammate’s achievements because of this win-or-lose system. And there is resentment from the misalignment when you think that you’re doing a lot better than your review shows. Burnout is caused by this finite game of performance reviews and thwarted expectations.
A different perspective, one that helps prevent burnout, is to treat performance reviews as an infinite game. This job, and this six month or yearly review, is simply one moment in a career that spans multiple decades. Focus on the feedback you’re receiving in the review. Focus on the learning and skills that you’ve gained or can gain on the job. This starts to transform your mindset into playing an infinite game rather than the scarcity mindset of competing with your teammates for a limited number of prizes. Read more on how to approach Winning at Performance Reviews.
Short-term vs Long-term Thinking
Finite games, by their definition, have a clear end-point and are focused on the short-term. Performance review cycles are every six months or every year. They are built for showing immediate value to shareholders or investors for short-term financial gain. There’s many benefits to short-term thinking. We get more affirmation faster. Setting and hitting short-term metrics or goals makes us feel good. We love getting gold stars and checking items off a list. We get dopamine hits from that and want to go keep going back for more. This cycle sets up a hamster wheel of continual striving, and pushing for more in a go-go-go corporate lifestyle. This deadly cycle leads to exhaustion, overwhelm, and burnout. Many of us treat our work as short sprints, but can end up trapped in marathon working years without rest.
Infinite games focus on long-term thinking. You will eventually leave this job. It’s one job of many in a decades-long career. Imagine that you’re the guest of honor at your farewell party. Your boss, key partners, and colleagues are gathered to celebrate your tenure at this job. Consider:
- When you look around the people at this farewell party, who do you truly care about?
- What are they toasting or thanking you for?
- Is it achievements that you’ve completed (finite game) or how you’ve showed up at work (infinite game)?
- What have you learned in this tenure?
- What matters the most about this job for you?
- How far away in the future is this farewell party? 6 months? 1 year? 6 years?
When you consider this future visualization of your farewell party, think about how your day-to-day actions matter. How are you contributing to your slide towards burnout? What might you experiment with changing to both help with your feelings of stress and overwhelm AND also ensure that you achieve what matters most to you about this job?
Connect Your Career to Your Why
Dreaming about being the guest of honor at your farewell party starts to activate what really matters about your job. Finding either your Why¹ or the vision of where you want to go, what Simon Sinek calls your Just Cause¹ in his book, helps connect you to what matters in the infinite game of your life.
To help with bouncing back from burnout, consider the meaning of your job, or why you work there. If you have the luxury, think about your deeper Why of how you seek meaning in your life. There’s many places where Simon Sinek talks about Start With Why including this one.
Simon Sinek shares his why from the podcast’s transcript:
To inspire people to do the things that inspire them, so that each of us can change our world for the better.
When I worked in corporate, I felt that I was continually on the edge of burnout. I reveled in feeling needed and important, which meant that I spent a lot of hours working. I was in meetings for most of the day, sometimes double- or triple-booked and would spend precious nights catching up and finishing the “real work” I needed to do. I felt stressed, continually behind, and tried to compensate by multi-tasking and pushing through harder. I never stopped to think about a bigger Why or the meaning behind the work I was doing. And I ultimately ended up leaving corporate because it started to feel hollow and meaningless.
Now I run my own business, a combination of leadership coaching, teaching, and product consulting work. After many months of pondering, I came up with this Why:
Boundless self-exploration to get lost and co-create maps with others.
I love what I currently do because I get to go deep into the world of personal growth and improvement. I can take my own journey and then serve as as guide for others around me, whether they’re clients, partners, friends, or acquaintances. I continue to practice mental fitness against my need for control and perfectionism by deliberately stating the intent to get lost as part of my Why.
The ultimate way to bounce back from burnout is to connect your career to your deeper why. The stress and overwhelm may always come up in some parts of your work life, AND it’s easy to handle if you’re clear about the purpose of your work.
We all experience periods of stress, overwhelm, and despondence. These can be early warning signs of burnout. Learn to identify these early and bounce back from burnout by using Simon Sinek’s framing of finite vs infinite games. Move beyond the limitations of short-term performance reviews (finite games) to thinking long-term and starting to connect your career with what matters to you in this infinite game of life.
¹Disclaimer: I’m a little confused about the difference between Simon Sinek’s definition of Why vs Just Cause, and I feel slightly mollified that Brene Brown also suffers from the same confusion in her podcast. In this article I’m mainly focused on the Why.
Hello! I’m your host, Tutti Taygerly. I’ve spent 20+ years in product design & technology, leading teams at startups, design agencies, and large tech companies. I left Facebook in summer 2019 to focus on leadership coaching full-time. I write weekly about topics related to design & coaching. If you’re curious about coaching and how it could unblock your life, come learn more.