I had a conversation the other day with someone I respect a lot. It's a wonderful part of this work to be able to interact regularly with people whose experience, professionalism and courage you honestly admire. It also has the flipside consequence of making their advice quite hard to ignore. Which is tough when that person is saying something you particularly don't want to hear.
I work in a space that is intense. I can't imagine not being challenged and passionate and tired. I'd hate it. But the risk of this kind of intense work is that it's all too easy to burn out. I've been there a time or two (yes, I'm a slow learner). You'd think I'd spot the signs. Sometimes I don't. It's strangely comforting (although uncomfortable in the moment) when someone spots that tendency and is willing to call you on it. The conversation left me feeling a little guilty. I should know better. I really should be able to recognise that tight knot of anxiety and insecurity and exhaustion that is the tell-tale sign of slipping slowly towards becoming unproductive to the point of incompetence and no longer being able to add value in the workplace. Guilty and grumpy and a bit miserable.
It stayed with me - like wandering around dragging a small dark cloud. I kept thinking, miserably, about burn-out and about how much I don't want to feel like that again. Finally, it occurred to me that I have done this before and a significant part of what I don't want to go through again is the supposed "cure". When you find yourself tied up in insecurity|anxiety|exhaustion knots, the prevailing wisdom is that you should pull away and stop being so invested. Find a hobby, they say. Go on holiday, they say. Take time off, they say. Stop trying to do so much. Find something else to focus on. The idea is that when you've been pushed or pushed yourself to breaking point over something, the best way to solve the problem - to recover from the burn-out - is to find something else to make you happy.
The argument makes sense on the surface. But it's wrong, at least for me. It assumes that the fault lies with what you love instead of the way you interact with it. It's also premised on the idea that finding a new love, a new passion is both easy and obviously possible. Maybe it is for other people. Maybe other people are multi-dimensional and have many different passions. I don't. I love this one thing. I love this one kind of work. That last time around (like I said, slow learner), I pulled away and frantically poured my already exhausted self into trying to engage with and become interested in other things. I took a step back. I disengaged. I changed direction. And then I spent two miserable years trying desperately, with all my heart, to get back to what I love. I did what the prevailing wisdom says you're supposed to do. It was wrong. Not wrong for everyone but wrong for me.
What I need when I'm slipping towards exhaustion and anxiety and insecurity isn't to push away; it's to fall in love again. That doesn't have to mean working longer hours or making myself even more exhausted. Sometimes it means reading more and writing more and becoming inspired, all over again, about this work. Sometimes, counter-intuitively, it means studying humanitarianism more - taking on more hours of being immersed in this thing because it is what energises me. Sometimes it means focusing in on a particular project that I believe in whole-heartedly and which brings me joy. Above all, (and which is more fun now than ever before), it means spending more time with the smart, engaged, incredible people who share this passion and commitment.
The smart person I respect so much who spotted that I'm not doing okay is a precious relationship for me. I need people like that. I need people who know how this goes. I need people who have been there. More than anything, I need people who have been there and still care. I have been grappling for months with growing frustration with people who are full of advice about my life which basically boils down to "stop caring so much". I can't. I won't. If I did that, I'd stop being me. I'm starting to remember that I don't need to. All I need is to fall in love with this work all over again.