Passion and burnout

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Intro

Buzzwords are a pet peeve of mine, and 'passion' is one of the bigger offenders. There's so much talk about passion in the context of software development, I sometimes feel like we're in the business of pushing performance-enhancing pills.

Well, at least online. Offline, people seem to have interests, hobbies and jobs they derive joy or quiet contentment from. In fact, it looks like proclaimed passion is proportional to social media use. The truly passionate ones talk about the object of their passion, not about how passionate they are.

In this article I'll go into what passion is, how it relates to burnout, and how it has been buzzwordified in the context of the tech industry.

Passion

One of the dictionary definitions of passion is 'intense feeling', which I find a bit one-dimensional. Another one is 'suffering', which gives the whole concept more depth.

Using an intuitive but less precise definition: Passion is FIRE. Passion is an act of self-immolation where one is fully engulfed by the flames, usually fanned by the object of one's passion.

The passion process is often seen as pure, noble, and transformative. There are undoubtedly many benefits of passion; it involves the whole being and makes one feel alive. Any kind of self-actualization requires passion in some way. (If fear is the little death, apathy is the slow death.) And to be honest, we all have parts of ourselves which would do well to get burned off.

Something has to be sacrificed on the altar of passion; be it time, energy, perspective, common sense, money, habits, sleep, health, sanity or something else. The burning flames require fuel, but not necessarily suffering – that's usually a side-effect of sacrificing the wrong thing, and the point where passion can turn tragic.

Do you control your passion or does it control you? If not controlled, passion becomes compulsion or addiction. Are you burning sustainably? A price will be paid even if you don't see it. (The most common socially acceptable addiction is caffeine, which lets you hide the cost just a little bit better.)

Passion is best paired with wisdom to choose what to burn and what for, and ice-cold self-discipline for following through. For this reason, passion is often seen as something for young people, with the implication that old folks should know better. Mastering one's attitude toward passion is a significant part of maturity.

Burnout

Burnout is the flip-side of passion. We can continue to use the image of burning fire to make sense of the underlying concept – it's even baked in into the word itself.

If the fire doesn't burn sustainably, if you give too much of oneself – you get burned out. Being aware of one's limitations is beneficial even if one intends to break them, because a phoenix which doesn't rise from the ashes is just ashes.

That said, burnout can be fast or slow.

Fast burnout is generally in the range of several months; any faster than that and we're talking about exhaustion, or if there's more pressure involved, breakdown.

The nice thing about fast burnout is that if you pay attention, you can observe its effects and take appropriate countermeasures. Even if you don't, your body will let you know that what you're doing is not sustainable (or ultimately, extinguish the fire for the duration).

Slow burnout is much more insidious. You barely notice the burn at first, but it slowly warps your perspective until it becomes the new normal. Your healthy identity and personality slowly erode. After several such cycles, you no longer have any idea what a healthy state looks and feels like. By that time, any notion of passion is long gone; it's just a constant struggle to keep your head above water before that last tiny flame is suffocated by the darkness of depression.

The essence of recovering from fast burnout is to stop doing what you're doing and not dig your hole any deeper. Take the time and space you need; make sleep, rest and relaxation your number one goal.

This also applies to slow burnout, but in addition to that, you pretty much have to stop being who you're being. This is insanely difficult; it requires throwing out everything and stepping into the resulting void, and then rebuilding habits, priorities, life, identity and personality from scratch. The only easy way out is to not fall into this trap in the first place.

It's interesting and also discouraging to see the mental gymnastics people employ to justify being burned out. Some feel shame for neglecting mental health, while others treat it like a badge of honor – neither is helpful.

The single positive thing about 'burnout' is that it's not a buzzword.

Passion as a buzzword

Passion is not just a buzzword and it is undoubtedly present in the software industry. This is true in the positive sense, where one has sacrificed a lot of time and energy in a balanced way to become a master of the craft, but also in the negative sense, where the individual has either sacrificed the wrong thing or just simply too much and burned out.

When most people use the word 'passion' in this context, they simply mean 'above-average interest'. There's no talk of sacrifice and no risk of burnout. 'Passion' becomes a buzzword when people use it to exaggerate; to give whatever they're talking about a feeling of deep intensity in order to make it stand out. When done correctly, passion morphs into other, more balanced concepts.

From the view of a company, an intrinsically motivated employee is likely to do a better job than one who's there only for the paycheck. Exhibiting passion for tech (or even better, the development process as a whole) is a significant indicator of intrinsic motivation.

The problem is that the fire needs to be within certain parameters; it has to be well channeled and well balanced, at which point 'passion' is no longer the best fitting word. For example, if personal hygiene is one of the sacrifices, that won't go over well.

Here are some of the more suitable words: interest, initiative, drive, curiosity, motivation, fulfillment, purpose. (See also my article on Emergent Leadership.)

If a company is overly insistent on passion in prospective employees, that can be interpreted as: "Sacrifice for us! Burn for us!" Which might or might not be the intended meaning. Likewise, if a company is loud and proud about their own passion, it's probably their employees' work-life balance they're sacrificing for their culture of passion. So, too much insistence on passion is a red flag, and the attention-grabbing is not necessarily worth it.

If a person is talking online about how passionate they are, I always wonder why they chose exactly this word out of all the alternatives. Are they exaggerating? Are they trying to sell something? What did they sacrifice in pursuit of their professed passion? In the end, I don't mind it too much; I'm inclined to believe they're at least passionate about getting page views.

However, there's another thing at play: Making it a necessity to show passion in the workplace puts it in the domain of emotional work. Even if you're actually quite passionate, the necessity to actively show it all the time kills the passion quite effectively.

The culture at such a company quickly devolves into being two-faced: the prescribed side being all rainbows, and the real side being anything but.

Conclusion

We've seen that 'passion' is a word of tradeoffs and not a strictly positive one. If left unchecked, passion can very easily turn into burnout.

If a company is too loud about passion, it can be a red flag for a lack of work-life balance or a questionable culture.

Considering the industry as a whole, I hope we would be more careful using off-the-mark words for their pop-out value, and instead maybe work on mental health becoming less of a stigma. Indiscriminately pushing for passion is just irresponsible.

Last but not least, do not take burnout lightly either. Keep in mind that though we're enamored with sprints in software development, it's not a sprint but a marathon.

 
 

Nandor Gyerman

After completing vocational training for Software Development and a B.Sc. in Business Informatics, Nandor gained years of experience in Java, Spring Boot, Spring Batch and related technologies. Nowadays he prefers the simplicity of Python and devotes himself to cloud technologies (GCP, AWS) and Data Engineering in general.

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