What Exactly Is Burnout?

Funny you should ask since there really isn’t an exact definition of burnout.

Let’s start with a couple broad strokes definitions:

 *To wear oneself out by excessively trying to reach some unrealistic expectation imposed by one's self or by the values of society.

   *A state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.

So how does this relate to you?

1.  Work hard now; play later.

When we get out of law school, most of us have at least some student loan debt. Many of us have as much or more than our first year’s salary. So right out of the gate, we feel this need to get ahead. Pay off those loans, buy that condo, grow your 401(k)!  Now is the time to work and earn.

Play is reserved for vacation or retirement. Sadly, though, we don’t prioritize vacation. And you’re so busy working to save for retirement, you lose sight of why you want to retire so badly.

You completely ignore the possibility that work and enjoyment could co-exist. And you certainly don’t think about how enjoying this time in your life is not only important, but it takes practice.

It’s so easy to engage in bitch sessions with your colleagues over drinks, but what about finding an activity where you completely lose all sense of time and space because you’re enjoying yourself so much?

Yeah, that used to sound totally foreign to me, too.

2. Upward mobility before inward mobility.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we seek validation from others.

An easy way for us high-achievers to win approval is by showcasing our accomplishments. What better way to demonstrate your success than by getting an article published by the law review, landing that prestigious clerkship or making partner? Even easier to flaunt that luxury coupe or swanky loft you can now afford.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting some approval; we’re human. The problem arises when we allow our quest for external validation to overtake our quality of life.

I’m not talking about standard of living, here. I’m talking about how you feel about yourself and your life, both short-term and long-term.

Are you as happy and healthy as you’d like?  Do you have fulfilling relationships that sustain you? Do you take time to enjoy your true passions? Do you even know what your passions are?  (I sure as hell didn't.)

3. Under whose definition of success are you operating?

This is a big one that can’t be addressed fully here, but I must bring it up.  Living up to someone else’s (unrealistic) expectations of success is a sure way to bring about burnout.

For high-achievers, a common root of this pitfall is wanting to please our parents/family/others.  They’ve always told you that you’re smart, talented and destined for greatness, and naturally that means you’ll either be a doctor or a lawyer.

Sounds fine at first.  But we rarely stop to examine why greatness is equated with a difficult career?  Sure there’s decent money involved and an element of prestige, but is that your definition of success?

Maybe it is to an extent.  But to the extent it’s not, you’re bound to find yourself frustrated by the lack of anticipated reward at the end.

4. I’ve made my bed, now I must lie in it.

You’re a smart, responsible adult. It’s no coincidence that you’ve been able to achieve so much.  When you make a commitment to something, you follow through. So naturally, the same must be true for your career choice.

After all, you spent four years of college, months of LSAT prep, three years of law school, months of bar prep and all of the money required for these rites of passage into the bar. You’ve got to pay off that debt.  You’ve got to “use” that JD. Doing anything unrelated to the legal career you’ve chosen is simply not an option.


You can be pretty hard on yourself, chief. Part of being a smart, responsible adult is understanding that you don’t always have things figured out.

Just think. If someone asked you if you loved roller coasters, you’d have to ride at least one in order to decide whether or not you’re a fan.  Same goes for your career choice.  You can make an educated guess about what you’ll enjoy and do well. But until you actually take the leap and try that job on for yourself, you won’t actually know.

Forcing yourself to fit within a tight construct that isn’t rewarding is a sure way to end up in a state of burnout.

WTF now?

When you’re confronted with burnout, your instinct will be to hunker down and keep doing what you’re doing.  Harder.  Faster.  Better.  Anything to not think about how burned out you’re becoming.

When this becomes too much -- and it will -- take a step back.  Ask yourself what’s missing?  What are you really craving?

And then don’t be so quick to rush in with an answer.  Give yourself the time and space to know that you don’t have to have all the answers all of the time.  Acknowledge that you have the answers and that they sometimes take some work to uncover.

You're worth the extra work.