Cynicism and burnout in Information Technology

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Earlier this year, my colleague Nandor already wrote about passion and burnout. The following post will show my perspective on cynicism and burnout. Sadly, last year, @sadserver and @sadoperator retired their Twitter accounts. As stated in this blog post, the reason was cynicism and burnout. This sparked a conversation between a co-worker and me because colleagues perceive us as cynical. We wondered whether we were in danger of burnout or not.

But first a disclaimer:
This is my opinion and it is the same category as the well-known term “works on my machine”. I’m not a psychologist. Thus, I will not state any kind of research-backed general advice. This is how it works for me. I want to write it down, in case someone else might find it useful.

With this declared, let us get started.

What is cynicism?

Before we get into cynicism and burnout, let’s try to define cynicism. Wikipedia defines the original philosophy as:

For the Cynics, the purpose of life is to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. As reasoning creatures, people can gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which is natural for themselves, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame. Instead, they were to lead a simple life free from all possessions.

The above definition seems to be far removed from how people understand it nowadays. Perhaps Monster Literature defines it more suitably for our case:

Whoever is cynical is highly mocking and violates his fellow human beings with his thoughts and utterances by disregarding or even ridiculing their moral values ​​as well as the social conventions.

This definition seems to get closer, but is very negative and focuses on people’s feelings. Are there any more definitions of cynicism out there? This is how Merriam-Webster currently defines a cynic:

a faultfinding captious critic

Three very different definitions of cynicism. Which one is valid? Hopefully, we’ll get more insight as we look at it in the context of burnout.

Cynicism and burnout

According to the WHO, cynicism is a symptom of burnout:

[Burnout] is characterized by three dimensions:
[…]
increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job;
[…]

As we’ve seen above, there are very different definitions of cynicism. How is it defined in this context? According to HBR, psychologist Christina Maslach is leading the research in this field. In 2016, she and others published a paper defining cynicism as follows:

The cynicism dimension was originally called depersonalization (given the nature of human services occupations), but was also described as negative or inappropriate attitudes towards clients, irritability, loss of idealism, and withdrawal.

Another definition of cynicism in psychology is as follows:

Cynicism, or the attitude of being cynical, appears as an inclination to be sceptical of others’ intentions and to believe that other people are completely motivated by self-interest.

And to make it even more complicated, it seems to be unclear whether cynicism and depersonalization are the same:

This article investigated whether cynicism and depersonalization are two different dimensions of burnout or whether they may be collapsed into one construct of mental distance.

So, it is very hard to pinpoint exactly what cynicism is. Therefore, it is also not clear whether the behaviour marked as cynicism is leading to burnout or not. Or whether it is a symptom of burnout or not. At this point I will not try to dig any deeper into existing research, but write down my own point of view.

How I see cynicism

I agree with the modern interpretation as found in Merriam-Webster or as Oscar Wilde put it:

I am not at all cynical, I have merely got experience, which, however, is very much the same thing.

And to look at it from another angle: I don’t think a definition like “… people are completely motivated by self-interest” is applicable to the IT ecosystem I’m working in. If this definition held true, Open Source wouldn’t be possible.

Cynicism applied to my job

It’s not my intent to insult anybody. But from time to time a new shiny software/process/… appears and I give it a try. As I’m working as an operator / a systems engineer / a DevOps person / … let’s stick with software. It is my job to find and prevent faults in software systems.

The documentation of this software tells you it solves all your problems. You can use it to integrate some sort of bleeding-edge system into your stack. What the documentation doesn’t tell you right from the start is:

  • you have to use cloud provider A
  • it does not work when feature B of your cloud provider is active
  • it does not work in cases:
    • C
    • D
    • even perhaps E (you get the point)
  • and not to forget, it will break if you do not take care of ….

And those are only the known, well-documented issues.

This is where the modern interpretation of cynicism comes into play. I do not believe any documentation, website, presentation, talk or whatsoever any more. I try to find out what the software really is capable of and not what marketing departments want me to see. And by saying that, I do not assume any bad intention behind not stating the problems I might experience. Perhaps the developer(s) of the software didn’t even anticipate I would use their software the way I did. Just look at the CNCF landscape. Infrastructure and software is so diverse, one cannot know everything or plan for any combination of systems. As stated above, I’m mostly using Open Source software. So it is not necessary that the software covers every case or combination of systems. Because it’s Open Source, I’m free to contribute or fork and make things work in my environment.

My point of view about cynicism and burnout

I’m not negative, nor do I want to insult anyone. However, my years of experience taught me that nothing is as shiny as it pretends to be. As already said, this is not meant to insult people, but to try to set expectations correctly. I could let the reality behind shiny flyers disappoint me or expect less and let the software surprise me. It’s a matter of point of view and whether you want to deal with disappointment or surprises. This is nothing I came up with, but a point of view suggested by stoicism. Or, for those of you who don’t want to hear any more *isms, you can see Murphy’s Law as a modern interpretation.

Conclusion

In conclusion, although I’m called a cynic, I don’t see myself as one as understood by most people. I would call myself realistic or experienced. Do I have burnout? Most probably not. This is hard to diagnose for oneself. Am I depersonalized from my job? I don’t think so either, otherwise I wouldn’t have written this article. The way I understand cynicism, it actually helps me get my job done. In my perspective cynicism and stoicism overlap in my job. I use the perspectives of stoicism to cope with the problems I have to find to do my job. In other words, setting the expectations the way I do keeps me sane doing my job. Because experience or cynicism have taught me there will be problems along the way. But that’s the approach that works for me. Perhaps you might choose a different approach, like positive thinking.

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Christian Zunker is implementing and operating distributed software systems and infrastructures. In his current role as a Senior Consultant Cloud Technologies, he builds Kubernetes based Clusters for cc cloud GmbH and its customers.

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