“You don’t burn out from going too fast. You burn out from going too slow and getting bored.” — Cliff Burton
I used to wonder how a person can “burn out,” get bored, or otherwise grow tired of doing something they absolutely love. I really never understood the premise, and I didn’t understand the people to whom it happened. Until it happened to me.
To be fair, after having been diagnosed with a pretty rare form of cancer midway through last year, it’s not retrospectively surprising that my focus would change; that I would want to spend more time with family and less studying to the nth degree the various technologies I love. That wasn’t it, though.
I felt tired. An almost depressed kind of tired, to the point that I was just going through the motions but with no particular excitement about any of it. The books from Cisco Press and INE, the stacks of RFC printouts, and the hundreds of pages of white-papers on this or that technology sat in my office only occasionally moving when one of my oddly overweigh cats clumsily knocked something over in a vein attempt to gain higher ground.
In short, I was done; done with the arguments about Apple vs. Microsoft, or Android vs. iPhone, BSD and Linux, Emacs and Vi. I started spending my free time watching more television with my family thinking that meant quality time, when it mostly just meant passing time. I began a couple of hobbies, started planning more vacations to warmer places, and generally found myself just being.
Just recently, however, I had a revelation. It wasn’t that I was burned out on the whole of IT, I was burned out on two things: stuff that doesn’t matter, and maintenance. To wit:
The little things that I was burned out on were all of the little, petty, fairly unimportant things that everyone in IT gets hung up on at some point: the “this vs. that” arguments that inevitably devolve into quasi holy wars. To be honest, I couldn’t care less which phone you have or which operating system you use; if it works for you, great.
That’s a minor point, though. The big point of burnout for me was the maintenance–the daily grind of resetting passwords, looking at endless streams of alerts, scheduling maintenance windows, negotiating with management, budgeting, re-budgeting, etc. This is what I’ll call the cat-herding part of my world. This is the part that was burning me out.
I sat down one night and started reading one of the classic self-help books–which one escapes me this second, but probably Dale Carnegie or some such–and I started thinking about what it is that I actually enjoy about IT. What is it that drew me in when I was much, much younger and sustained me for so long?
The short answer? Projects. Figuring stuff out, implementing new technologies, making something work that solves a particular problem. That’s what gets the proverbial juices flowing. That’s what I needed to get back to.
Throughout most of my career I’ve been a bit of a designated hitter. What do I mean by that? I mean that I’ve done a lot of post-sales implementation, and pre-sales engineering, and a lot of evangelizing of different technologies. In short, I’ve been the guy who helps a company fix a particular problem.
For the last few years, however, I’ve gotten away from that. I’ve become a successful Sr. Network Engineer and IT Manager of a multi-national company and I’ve spent almost 7 years rebuilding an entire world wide network from the ground up. It’s been thrilling, challenging, and frustrating all at the same and different times.
Now, however, the network is almost all done. It is built. The problems have all been solved, and now we’re in a maintenance mode–where the focus shifts from expanding and problem solving to maintenance and cost-cutting. And therein lies the crux of the issue.
It may be that I’m some sort of masochist, or extreme type‑A personality, but I have an almost narcissistic, obsessive need to be fixing something. With me, it is not a case of “if it’s not broke, don’t touch it,” it is more like “if it’s not broke, I don’t care about it.”
To wrap it up for now, it seems as if what I’ve been dealing with is not a case of burnout at all; it is boredom. And that, my friends, is much more insidious. I’m much more aware now of all that boredom can do: It drags you down, it robs you of the joy of moving forward, and it takes the fun out of what used to sustain you.
The good news, however, is that with this awareness comes a better, move revived focus, and I’m starting to come alive again. I’m starting to look forward to the conventions, to the new technologies, and to some of the inevitable arguments and technology holy wars. In the meantime, I’m off to reset some passwords and work on some budgets… at least until the next big thing comes along.