Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness at Segal

‘This Isn’t the Life I Imagined’

Full vitae burnout

Image: Dennis Skley, Creative Commons

Look here to read Allison M. Vaillancourt’s previous columns on careers issues in administration and academic life.

It begins with a vague sense of irritation. Something feels off, but we can’t quite explain or define what is wrong.

Over time, the feeling grows. We begin to feel itchy in our own skin. Everything is annoying. The commute to work is too long. Colleagues are self-absorbed. Our pants feel tight. Meetings are pointless. Every book is boring. There is nothing good on Netflix.

To combat our sense of ennui, we try to shake things up. We may subscribe to “this will make me interesting” podcasts, explore the stoics, attempt meditation, amp up our exercise routines, try green smoothies, volunteer for high-risk and high-visibility projects at work, finally try Stitch Fix, repaint our kitchen, or sign up to learn Italian. Nothing seems to help. Our discomfort turns from annoyance and agitation to rage and despair. We worry and ruminate as we try to make sense of what our lives have become. “How did this happen?” we ask ourselves.

For a while I thought this phenomenon was an expression of midlife career burnout, or a reasonable reaction from those whose professional aspirations had been stymied. But I have discovered it is also common among high achievers who hit career milestones early, and even among those in their 30s who look to be on an impressive trajectory.

What’s going on here? Are we unrealistic, overly privileged, and pampered people suffering from first-world ennui? Or is something deeper and more significant at play?

Many of us have a “vague, loud and persistent feeling” that what we are doing now is not what we are meant to do, writes McGill University’s Steven R. Shaw in his blog post, “Losing Your Way as a Scientist.” His perspective was echoed in Jonathan Malesic’s somewhat haunting piece, “The 40-Year-Old Burnout” — an essay that acknowledges the dislocation or disappointment that affects so many academics: “We train as researchers,” he wrote, “but spend our days managing the emotions of late adolescents, haggling over budgets, and figuring out how to use Moodle gradebook.”

Both Shaw and Malesic are onto something. Many who signed up for an academic life imagined autonomy, appreciation, respect, recognition, and time for intellectual reflection, but discovered something different. Many report spending too much time in isolation filling out forms, defending grading decisions, and suffering through department meetings where colleagues seem intent on blocking necessary progress. Colleagues and friends — at both small colleges and large research universities — report students don't appreciate their efforts, admit they are lonely, and say defining a meaningful life purpose feels like a never-ending struggle.

Are we at a unique moment in time when an academic life feels like a Sisyphean journey, or is the general workforce growing disenchanted? News flash: It’s not just those of us in higher education. We just seem to have loftier expectations.

I have a theory about those expectations.

When I was growing up, even the professionals in my family and neighborhood treated their jobs like jobs. People did their jobs for a while every day, and then went home and did something else. They didn’t dislike their work, but they didn’t expect too much from it. Their real lives began when they got home — neighborhood potlucks, softball leagues, weeding the garden, playing cards with friends, or watching the kids perform mini-musicals.

Now we mostly work, complain about work, or commute. And because work is all we do, we have created a cultural myth that says that if we pick exactly the right job, it will sustain us financially, emotionally, and spiritually. Few of us are so lucky.

So if we are not getting an adequate amount of life energy from our careers, what strategies can we employ to feel re-energized and optimistic? I think the answer lies, not in trying to make our work better, but in making our lives better, and I have four recommendations that have worked for a lot of people I know.

  • Seek to demonstrate mastery of something outside of work. Not getting grants? Struggling to get published or promoted? Feeling professionally successful, but just bored? Do something that offers a sense of completion and accomplishment outside of work. Run a 5K race. Produce an amazing crop of basil. Help a 7-year-old get to grade level reading through a literacy program. There are plenty of ways we can remind ourselves that we have varied gifts and talents.
  • Work less, but work better. When things are not going well, it is tempting to work harder to overcome what seem to be intractable roadblocks. Going to a movie, taking a walk with friends, or making a complicated pan of lasagna can provide a mental reset that replenishes the creative energy we need to tackle vexing challenges.
  • Pay attention to the parts of work you love the most. What are you doing when time passes inexplicably quickly? Designing a presentation? Talking strategy? Reading new research? Helping students decide their best academic path? To the degree possible, do more of what you love and are good at doing.
  • Get some sleep. So often, we feel a sense of despair because we are physically and psychologically exhausted. Attending to our need for rest can adjust our perspective and sense of optimism.

Many of us have designed a life that puts work, rather than purpose, at the center of our lives — believing that the concepts are interchangeable. But they are not, at least for many of us. Trying to solve the “What is wrong with my life?” question by focusing on making our work more meaningful is a common — but often ineffective — strategy that can prompt us to bounce from place to place in search of professional excitement or acclaim.

Those of us hungry for belonging and impact may be better off building a better life rather than finding a better job.

Join the Conversation


Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.