I learned my most valuable work related lesson the hard way. It was my second job and I was taking on what seemed like an awesome project. Creating an application for the Palm Pilot IV. With the courage of any you programmer I embarked on it without only some C++ skills to help me out.
At first everything was sweet and things were going ok, I loved creating something new and exciting that nobody else in the shop was doing. After a while I realized I was in way too deep with my only my college c++ skills to handle what turned out to be very much a C project. I am an average programmer with an average intelligence. To compensate I put in what ever effort is required to get past any hurdle.
I had been working quite a bit previously, but now I had to step it up a notch. My week consisted of working and going out having a drink with my friends three four times a week. The diet I was on was one of overtime pizza and late night kebabs. This went on for a while, but I was having a hard time at work getting things done. As a result I started having problems sleeping the days I wasn’t out drinking after work. It got slowly worse as time went on and at a point I was unable to sleep. I tried taking a drink to get some sleep, but nothing worked. Naturally solving difficult problems got even harder as my health deteriorated more and more. People around me was starting to ask if I was OK, because I looked like a pale ghost without any enthusiasm. I knew I was at a point where I needed to do something. The next day I went in to work and called in the project manager and the person handling the client account and said I needed a break. I could not complete this project. I was lucky and had sensible people working with me, so I got four weeks leave.
I went back to my parents to try get my shit together. It took me a week to get into a normal sleeping rhythm. After two weeks I was starting to look like my old self and not some pale looking ghost that I was when I came home. The third week I went on my own for a trip to London, in order to get a better perspective. I had been so dedicated to my work that I had completely forgot about the outside world. This trip made me realize that I was wasting my life by driving all my passion into work. Being on my own in London and taking the train all the way up to Glasgow, Scotland, was a therapeutic experience. Even though it meant celebrating my birthday alone in an Italian restaurant in near Paddington station, it was a life changing experience.
You are not your work
The lesson I learned by driving myself so hard that I turned into a different person is still with me today. I am more than the value of my work. I am a human being who’s value can not be measured in my achievements making computer programs. This is something most people know, but I had to learn this the hard way.
In our industry there is a great deal of secrecy and the topic of burnout is a tabù. One place I worked had something like a code of silence were nobody talked about people who ended up getting burned out. You could notice they were absent, but nobody “knew” what was going on. Later I found out that there had been numerous colleges who had been burned out during my time there and I didn’t know about it. This is of course bullshit and we as an industry need to stop that kind of ridiculous behavior.
I hope my story will help someone avoid making the same mistake. Work is NEVER more important than living your life and you should NEVER let work affect your own self image. Work is just something we do, it is not life. There are some many amazing things to experience which is in no way related to work, go do them. Fuck work!