Burnout, Part 2

So you burned out shortly after going to college, a part of me says. That’s okay, a lot of people are unprepared for the steep learning curve. But it been over a decade since then. Shouldn’t you be over that by now?

Well, internalized voice of condescension, that’s a great question! One I’ve heard many times in various forms throughout the years, both from myself and others. Why don’t we take some time to address it, starting with what it feels like to be burned out.

I will readily admit that burnout is probably different for each person. But for me, burning out meant that all my drive and passion seemed to get sucked out of me. Things had lost their purpose, and I was left wandering aimlessly as a self-identified “good student” who suddenly didn’t like school.

I didn’t know how to deal with this. Nothing in my admittedly limited life experience had prepared me for the rude jolt that college gave me. So at a complete loss, I decided to do more or less nothing. I continued going through the motions: attending classes, turning in assignments, and working my way towards graduation. I changed my major away from hard science and ended up in the foreign language department. Why? Well, I had been studying French since elementary school, and wanted to keep up my skills. It turns out that a French class a quarter over four years is pretty close to a major, so I defaulted to that. I have a French major by default.

Luckily, my school skills were good enough that I don’t think losing drive affected them too much. This was when I discovered that I write a mean first draft. Also when I discovered that I could speed-read whatever section the professor was going to talk about next and still sound reasonably competent. But something had shifted: I was no longer doing my reading and assignments to learn. I was doing them to pass the class. It’s a subtle change, but can make a world of difference.

And these new habits and coping mechanisms have stayed with me ever since. A “new normal,” if you will. All the way through undergrad. All the way through grad school. Even the jobs I’ve had have been more about getting from A to B, rather than accomplishing anything notable or enriching.

I often wonder if I’ve been wasting my time and money, approaching school like this. That same part of me from earlier wonders how things would have been different if I had actually “applied myself” in college and grad school. Would I have learned more? Would I have come out of the experience with something more that a couple fancy pieces of paper and a mountain of debt? Could I ever return to that passion for learning that I had when I was younger?

I don’t know. Contemplating could-have-beens is always a dangerous exercise, doubly so when it’s about you. For me, burning out tore a hole in something, shaking my sense of self to the very foundations. That hole hasn’t really been filled, and I’ve been forced to shore things up around it. An experience like that makes it hard, very hard, to allow yourself to risk being passionate about anything, lest you end up getting hurt again. But life goes on. Somehow, life finds a way.