Skip to content

The Cures for Burnout

CJ Chilvers
CJ Chilvers
3 min read
The Cures for Burnout

Hi there!

I’m back from Maine and ready to publish. How has the summer treated you?

The hope is that it’s sunsets, pools, and loved ones having fun all around you. The truth is often that we hope the summer just staves off the inevitable burnout for a few months.

But there are diffenent levels of burnout and we often talk past each other, using differing definitions. It seems like the popular discussions examine the short-term variety of burnout — creatives with so many urgent projects, they crowd out the important projects. A bankruptcy of some kind gets declared and there’s a restart.

But what about long-term burnout? What about entire careers that become void of importance? Why does this happen? Why does it seem to happen more in middle age?

During my road trip last week, I listened to a lot of podcasts, but one stood out for quotable moments. Arthur C. Brooks, professor of happiness courses at the Harvard Business School (yes, they teach their MBAs how to be happier people!) was on the Waking Up podcast. He recapped what he’d learned from the research of Raymond Cattell around and how he teaches his students about the arc of a creative life:

“Almost anything you can get good at, from being an air traffic controller to being a french horn player to being a college professor, that requires innovative capacity crack the code, to solve problems — that’s ‘fluid intelligence.’ That gets better and better through your 20s and 30s. It tends to peak in your late 30s or early 40s, and then it tends to decline. The way you notice it — it’s what people in the management world call, ‘burnout.’
Humans aren’t happy when they’re not making progress. All of happiness is in getting better.
It’s very easy to lose weight, but it’s very hard to keep the weight off.  When the scale is going down, you’re motivated and happy. The reward for hitting your goal is now you never get to eat the things you like ever again for the rest of your life. Congratulations!
This is the nature of how we’re wired. Progress is everything. What happens is that people get very frustrated, angry, desperate, afraid, and sad when they’re on the downslope of this fluid intelligence curve.
There’s a second intelligence curve behind it that doesn’t reward the same things. It’s called ‘crystalized intelligence,’ and it’s based on all the things you know and how to use the things you know.
So, your working memory is a lot worse. Your innovative capacity is worse. Your speed and ability to solve problems is worse. But your wisdom is higher. Your pattern recognition is higher. Your vocabulary is higher. Your teaching ability is higher. The great news is that crystalized intelligence increases through your 40s and 50s, and even 60s — and stays high in your 70s and 80s.
If you stay handcuffed to that fluid intelligence curve, you’re going to ride it to the basement and feel aggrieved for the rest of your life.”

I think this is the cause of a lot of burnout in middle age. Teaching, coaching, and consulting is a better way to happiness than a lot of us had been led to believe.

At younger ages, I think burnout is more a mix of overpromising, lack of self-awareness, and the lack of agency to become more self-aware. We need to be a lot more OK with being generalists, having hobbies, and creating our own labs online.

Mostly, we all need to be more OK with being OK.

This is what I think of when I see creators “taking a break” from YouTube, blogging, or social media. It doesn’t look to me like they feel they have the agency or ability to pivot to something they may enjoy more, so they stop.

If you don’t have a personal blog, newsletter, or channel, separate from your niched-down business, I’d say consider starting one for above reasons alone. A storefront for your goods will suffer without a proper workshop in the back.

By the way, thanks for visiting my workshop today! A new storefront is coming this fall.


P.S. I’m loving this small confirmation on the value of solitude and just thinking.

P.P.S. I’m always looking for better ways to highlight smart things said since the last newsletter, but nothing beats old fashioned text and links:

“I had a therapist who once told me, ‘if you don’t schedule a break, your body will take one for you. And it probably won’t be at a convenient time.’ — Sara Schonfeld

“Logos are for closers.” — Garrick van Buren

“Perfection is boring. Getting better is where all the fun is.” — Dragos Roua via Chris Ducker

No one wants to work anymore.