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A story of Silicon Valley burnout

Upon graduating college in 2008, I had only a vague idea of what I wanted to be when I grow up. My college internships centered around community service, and I pictured myself working at a non-profit or in government. The sheer terror of the job application process prevented me from taking advantage of on-campus recruiting or career services resources offered by my university. I pursued my job search the only way I knew how: buying a one-way ticket to San Francisco to try my luck on my own. Leaman Brothers crashed 2 days after I arrived, signaling a nationwide recession beyond the finance sector. A perfect storm of stress.

The top of the Golden Gate Bridge sticking out among the clouds.
Photo by Robert McLay

Fortunately, the brother of a friend introduced me to someone who was founding a tech startup. Except, I didn’t know what a tech startup was. I didn’t have a clue about business. I couldn’t point to “Silicon Valley” on a map. I moved to SF looking for a liberal oasis of hippies, in complete ignorance of the Bay Area’s reputation for being a hot bed of technology innovation. Nevertheless, I got the job.

Startup life immediately fit me like a glove – I could wear whatever I wanted, say whatever I wanted and come to work whenever I wanted. Almost all of my (all-male) colleagues were in their twenties and going to work was more fun than I’d ever imagined it could be. We discussed huge, unrealized fantasies as though they were completely inevitable. We trash-talked the competition as though they were complete scum. This environment fueled my competitive nature and (then undiagnosed) manic tendencies. I became obsessed.

That company folded, and then I moved on to the next one. That company got acquired, and then I moved on to the next one. That company folded, and then I moved on to the next one. Each transition brought a higher salary, better title and more responsibility, and I loved every second of it. Climbing the ranks as I helped to build companies scratched my ego’s every itch.

I would do anything to help the company or one of my team members, but during these years I completely neglected to take care of myself. I logged long hours at the office, striving to be the last one there as many nights of the week as I could. I never went to the doctor, unwilling to miss any of my endless and important meetings. I rarely took a day off and would work remotely when I visited my family. The line between my work life and my social life was thin, and alcohol was a near daily fixture.

At a certain point, I started to crack. My company was growing at an incredible rate, reaching the point at which a more seasoned executive would be hired above me. When the CEO broke the news to me, I just sat there with my face contorting to hold back tears. I had given this company everything, and yet, I wasn’t enough. I responded to this conversation by throwing even more of myself into work. I hadn’t taken a day off in a year, and it was starting to show. A mentor sat me down and firmly suggested that I take the rest of the week off.

Workaholism was the perfect addiction: I could numb my pain and neglect my needs, all while receiving public praise and making a lot of money. It was a natural extension of the achievement oriented, straight-A perfectionism of my school years. I never experienced the “imposter syndrome” so many people spoke of during these years, because I equated work success with life success. But when I finally experienced personal failure at work, my identity came tumbling down. Though I outwardly presented as a confident person, my sense of self was undeniably rooted in how other people perceived my accomplishments. I felt naked, ashamed, worthless, bitter. My worst nightmares were coming true.

The pain was real and overwhelming, but it was not endless. Each piece of heartache represented a false belief that needed examination, a past trauma that needed healing, or a neglected part of myself that needed attention. Coming to the end of my rope was my wakeup call to create more sustainable strategies and healthy priorities. When I finally allowed myself to feel my pain, I realized it wasn’t all emotional. My body was holding an unbearable amount of physical pain underneath a slew of numbing coping mechanisms. Only by actually feeling my body’s pain could I start down the path of diagnosis, treatment and recovery for my illnesses.

My therapist and I designed a recovery process. I created firm boundaries with my manager and teammates, always leaving the office by 6pm and not being available after hours. I started using my vacation days and took sick days when I needed them. I adopted a number of strategies for getting my mind off of work and my career when away from the office, and even paused my career ambitions for a period of time. I took fasts from reading business books and invested in other areas of my life. Of course, the most difficult and most important part of the process is learning to accept myself for who I am instead of what I’ve accomplished – to love myself even when I’m not accomplishing anything at all. This is now the work of my life, and it’s more deeply rewarding and fulfilling than I ever dared dream.

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