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The most important place to start when wading into any wellbeing-related conversation is with an acknowledgement that it is OK to not be OK.
Burnout, exhaustion, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and stress are real and very worthy of treatment, attention and concern. A viral essay about millennials being the burnout generation doesn't change the validity of anyone's clinical diagnosis or personal experience. What it can do is stimulate the conversation and challenge the context happening within and around us.
The viral essay I'm referencing was published on Buzzfeed, Jan. 5. It has sparked thousands of shares and possibly hundreds of follow-up articles, podcasts and personal essays since. It describes experiences that might feel significant to some and silly to others, is centred in a white experience and point of view (see: This Is What Black Burnout Feels Like;) describes middle- to upper-middle-class problems, and has a tone of hopelessness that many would argue isn't helping anything or anyone.
There is no denying the essay is flawed. Because it's written from one point of view, it's easy to identify counterpoints or evidence to the contrary. But it's also true that it struck a chord with a lot of people.
“I feel seen,” one woman I spoke to said.
“It spoke volumes about my life and the lives around me,” said another.
Over the last several weeks, I've gone down a bit of a rabbit hole trying to figure out why this essay sparked so much dialogue, what it mirrors to people and how, as critical consumers of media, we can dig deeper. Even if you haven't read the original piece, here are three messy questions (without easy or tidy answers) that might be worth contemplating.
Messy question 1: Are we craving a state of efficiency we'll never reach?
One of the concepts that resonated most with women I spoke to was the idea that millennials are constantly striving for more optimization. For example: we're prioritizing stand-out experiences over average ones and almost always choosing high-reward activities over low-return tasks – even if those tasks are important, like medical appointments or registering to vote. On the quest to maximize the efficiency and enjoyment of our lives, it seems the journey can end up feeling less like the free-spirited adventure we long for and more like a hamster wheel of machine-like optimization.
Truer still, we may end up bouncing back and forth between gratitude and resentment, depending on where the ROI for the day or week nets out. And if we're always assuming that more ease is around the corner, if only we can improve our morning routine, check off this one thing on our to-do list, or Marie Kondo our closets, does the achievement of that ease ever get unlocked? Do we ever arrive?
“Life is essentially an endless series of problems. The solution to one problem is merely the creation of another.”
– Mark Manson, author, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
Messy question 2: Is burnout a new normal? Is this just the way it is?
On the one hand, it's useful to look at the environment outside of our own lives to examine and explore what's contributing to our experience. Economic downturns or recessions, costs of education, interest rates, unemployment rates, trends toward precarious employment, systemic barriers, social norms, popular narratives, the power of media and advertising… all of this and more contribute to our personal experience. None of these things is ours to change or overcome all alone. And yet, adopting the mindset of, “Well, that's just the way it is”, arguably, isn't any better. In her book The Soul of Money, author Lynne Twist calls out this belief as being a toxic myth with a strong grip because we can always make a case for it being true. She writes:
“When something has always been a certain way, and tradition, assumptions, or habits make it resistant to change, then it seems logical, just commonsensical, that the way it is, is the way it will stay. This is when and where the blindness, the numbness, the trance, and underneath it all, the resignation of scarcity sets in. Resignation makes us feel hopeless, helpless and cynical.”
Messy question 3: Are we burning out because we're addicted to striving?
Work, work, work, work, work, work. Is this more than a catchy chorus? If it feels like the anthem of our lives, is it really the one we want? There's no right or wrong way to do life or define success, obviously. But for a generation of life-hacking, superfood-fuelling, side-hustling, rise-and-grind, gamification enthusiasts, it's worth asking: are we working too hard, too much, on too many things? What would it look like to detach from the expectations of your workplace or clients, the performance narrative in your social circle, or the barrage of optimization advice that can be found in every form of media we consume?
The bottom line is, when an essay about burnout inspires thousands of us to nod our heads, raise our hands, or shout “PREEEACH!,” maybe it’s an opportunity. Maybe it’s an invitation to examine how work, optimization, paralysis and fatigue are showing up in your life and ask messy questions that could help each of us reconnect with what feels the most personally and authentically true.
“When you support women everyone rises together”
In honour of International Women’s Day and the 2019 theme of #BalanceforBetter our entire edition has been crafted by women, about women and for women in Atlantic Canada.
In the meantime, we’re also making a commitment to diversity and gender equality in this publication. Whether it’s through the writers we hire, the people we interview or artists we collaborate with, diversity and equality remains an integral part of the stories we tell and who gets to tell them.
As Gloria Steinem, world-renowned feminist, journalist and activist once explained, “The story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”