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#7: Are you feeling burnt out?

#7: Are you feeling burnt out?

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Welcome to another mudda fuggin’ Monday email, the only weekly email that promises to do your laundry… and then refuses to do it. You know the drill, every Monday I give you three smart-sounding things to ponder for the week. This week, we’re pondering: 1) burnout: does it really exist? 2) The anxiety of “finding yourself” and 3) how bad is the news? Really bad? Or just bad?

1. Why I think this whole “Millennial burnout” thing is bullshit – At the beginning of this year, Buzzfeed published a long article declaring millennials the “Burnout” Generation—i.e., for some reason, millennials are seemingly running out of energy and motivation to do even basic tasks like wash their clothes or go to the post office, always feeling overwhelmed and stressed, and possess a pervasive sense of constant disappointment in themselves and the world. Like most Buzzfeed articles, it lacked any research or data, was almost entirely anecdotal and spent most of its efforts blaming capitalism, Facebook, and everyone’s parents.

Of course, like clockwork, the article went viral.

It has since spawned dozens of serious-sounding articles and multiple books, all taking for granted that “burnout” is an actual diagnosable thing.

I remember when the article came out, I read it and thought to myself, “Huh, these people just sound stressed and/or depressed.” Well, I recently forced myself through the accompanying audiobook that just came out and I’m more certain than ever: this is a made-up thing.

Let’s start with this: on average, people work fewer hours today than any time in modern history. Millennials may have more debt, but they are also more financially responsible: saving earlier and more for retirement than any other generation. We have more leisure time than any other generation (not to mention more options for leisure). We travel more and are more educated. And all those obnoxious chores? There’s an app for that!

Basically, I don’t buy this “overworked” narrative. It’s simply not reflected in the data. Previous generations dealt with just as much work (if not more), not to mention the anxiety of sky-high crime rates, worse health, and oh, that whole threat of nuclear annihilation thing. As I discuss in Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope, our lives are better than ever, yet somehow we’re all freaking out about it.

So, what is going on? What is “burnout”? Why are millennials face-planting into the sofa rather than mailing in a basic form? Why are they so stressed about, well, everything?

I think there are two factors. The first is something known as Direct Attention Fatigue—when we are exposed to too much stimulation, we become mentally and emotionally fatigued—we shut down, feel lazy and irritable. We become “burnt out.” Despite what Buzzfeed says, DAF is not a product of late-stage capitalism or its evil corporate overlords. It’s likely linked to smartphone use. And millennials use smartphones more than anyone. And, as I’ve written, smartphones, not social media, are likely what fucks us up.

The second cause can be summed up by the classic equation: Happiness = Reality – Expectations. For whatever reason, millennials seem to have the most outsized expectations for life (which is why everyone rips on us, btw). The truth is that being over-worked and over-stressed is nothing new. Humans have been dealing with it since the beginning of time. But, I guess millennials never expected to have it, so now it’s incredibly upsetting–so upsetting that we need to invent our own name for it. Lo: “burnout.”

I’m not buying it. If you’re stressed, take some time off. Turn your phone off. Go stare at something green and pretty for awhile. It’ll be fine, I promise.

2. The World Needs More Existentialism – People often mistake my philosophical roots for Stoicism. While a lot of my ideas overlap with Stoicism, let me state it for the record: I do not sexually identify as a Stoic. In fact, the philosophical school I’ve always related to the most came about 2,100 years later: existentialism.

I’ve been spending part of this year deep-diving into some classic existentialist authors. One of those is Rollo May, who, along with Viktor Frankl, is sometimes referred to as one of the originators of “Existentialist Therapy.” Existential Therapy, unlike other forms of therapy, focuses less on beliefs and emotions and more on the meaning and purpose we devise for ourselves to justify the value of our own lives. And when that meaning is threatened, it helps us generate meaning somewhere else.

I’m currently reading May’s Man’s Search for Himself, which talks about how anxiety is the product of the meaning we create for ourselves failing us. In discussing how this happens, he says that part of the problem is an overwhelming amount of information—that the more information there is in the world, the more difficult it is to decide what to identify with or find meaningful. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s half of what I’ve been writing about the last two years—except May wrote this back in 1953!

Ultimately, May talks about the need to become adept at letting go of meaning and formulating new meaning in its place. It’s a skill to be honed. It’s not the losing of the meaning in our lives that necessarily wrecks us; it’s the inability to generate new meaning to take its place. This is existential therapy. And in a world that is changing and contradicting itself faster than ever before, this seems to be what we need more than ever today.

3. Is the News Worth It? – That may sound like a drastic question, but it’s intentional. I’ve had a number of conversations with friends lately who describe their news consumption as a sort of compulsion that they recognize is actively harming their lives and emotional well-being (that is, by the way, the clinical definition of addiction). On top of that, they can’t determine if they have gotten any real benefit from reading it.

This has gotten me thinking a bit more deeply about exactly what news is. For instance, how many news stories from 2010 actually mattered? I’ve been going through headlines from random years and what I’m finding is that the vast majority of published news has no real long-term consequences and/or it’s simply rehashed stories of things that do have long-term consequences. Similarly, some of the most important historical moments were completely missed at the time. I’m starting to notice that much of the news industry is not providing real value, but merely the perception of value, as created by our cognitive biases. And, as we know, any industry created on the back of our cognitive biases, inevitably starts hurting us, because it removes us from reality.

There may be an article forthcoming on this. But, in the meantime, if you are a person who either a) consumes news compulsively and it is harming your life, or b) have cut news out of your life entirely and experienced a change, I’d like to hear about your experience. Just reply to this email. If there’s a there there, then I’ll write something up.

See you next week,
Mark