Fueled by uncertainty and envy, burnout is a condition that is both uniquely human and profoundly misunderstood
“It’s not greed that drives the world, but envy.”
— Charlie Munger
Approximately 7,000 years ago, the Irish elk roamed the land we now call Siberia.
Bulls (male elk) wielded large antlers, which they would use in fights with other bulls over mates. A bull born with a mutation offering it slightly larger antlers than the rest became the most likely to pass along its genetic material to the larger population. Thus, with each generation of bulls, the species’ antlers grew.
For most of the species’ evolutionary history, both natural selection (survival of the fittest) and sexual selection (proliferation of the most likely to procreate) selected for large antlers. Sexual selection favored them because bulls with them would win competitions over mates, and natural selection favored them because they were useful in fending off predators. As bulls’ antlers continued to grow, however, the scales began to tip.
At their peak, bulls’ antlers measured up to twelve feet across. It’s not hard to see why these became a hindrance, especially when trying to evade predators in densely-wooded areas.
Less than a millennia later, the species went extinct.
The story of the Irish elk illustrates what happens when natural selection stops favoring a trait that sexual selection is guaranteed to continue selecting. The tragedy of this story is obvious: battling over mates wasn’t something bulls could agree to stop doing, so its cost was one they had no way to stop paying.
In “The Darwinian Science Behind the Burnout Generation,” I likened status symbols like college degrees to the Irish elk’s antlers.
The period between when the size of the Irish elk’s antlers became an existential threat and when the species went extinct was “burnout,” because it was the period during which bulls were battling over status that wasn’t worth attaining. For many college students, that period is now: jobless and mired in debt, many are realizing that the years they spent in school weren’t worth it.
The stories are similar; as I defined it, burnout meant expending effort on a pyrrhic pursuit. This definition, though, is too simple to be valuable. To understand why, we need to understand that the mechanism responsible for the Irish elk’s extinction — the drive to reproduce — isn’t what drives human behavior.
Understanding what does will help us properly define and diagnose burnout.
“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and who turns to others in order to make up his mind.”
— René Girard
In 1961, French philosopher-historian Rene Girard made a bold proclamation.
With his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Girard proposed that human desire is not borne of the individual, but of mimicry. We inherit our desires from one another, and thus want what others want because they want it. This leads to shared desires, which reinforce and aggravate our belief in the value of the objects of said desires. Girard’s ideas are known as mimetic theory, and illustrate that the objects of our desire can be anything: status, partners, promotions. If we observe others wanting something, we will want it, too.
Anthropological evidence supports this. In The Secret of Our Success, Harvard anthropologist Joseph Henrich showed that when toddlers and apes compete in a variety of cognitive tests, the only domain in which toddlers outperform apes is social learning, or mimicry.
Toddlers’ proclivity to use social learning in unfamiliar contexts is confirmed in experiments that compare their reactions to unfamiliar toys, versus familiar ones. The experiments found that toddlers looked at adults four times more often when presented with an unfamiliar toy than they did when presented with a familiar toy. They then mimicked the reaction of the adult they observed, backing off if they perceived fear, but approaching the toy if they perceived happiness.
As Henrich writes, “Under uncertainty, [toddlers] used cultural learning.”
According to Henrich, we mimic “spontaneously, automatically, and often unconsciously.” As we evolved, mimicry helped us naturally select skills and practices that were useful to the collective. As the repository of useful skills and practices grew, Henrich proposes, natural selection was forced to select for humans who were better cultural learners, because they could make best use of the ever-expanding body of adaptive information available.
The upside to this is that our species’ ability to learn from one another is unrivaled. The downside is that when we mimic others’ desire for something only one can have, envy — and in turn, conflict — emerges.
I subscribe to this idea because I’ve experienced it.
Chances are you have, too.
Growing up, I had a cousin, Lincoln. He was a year older than I was, and the closest thing I had to a sibling.
Like siblings, we mimicked each other.
When I was four, our family visited Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs, CA. Lincoln and I spent most of our days at Smoke Tree in one of two places: the pool or the playground. On the playground was this massive, reflective, silver slide, easily wide enough for the two of us to go down at once. Instead of doing that, though, Lincoln — five, at the time — proposed we pee down the slide.
I’ll do it if you do it, I remember thinking.
Lo and behold, he unzipped his pants. I followed his lead, unzipped mine, and — mimicking each other — we painted the slide with urine. Chaos ensued, followed by punishment. I don’t remember the details. But I do remember mimicking my cousin.
Of course, peeing down a slide was something we could both do, so there was no competition over it. As we got older, though, we found ourselves mimicking not behaviors, but desires. He would want something, then I would want it because he wanted it.
It started with toys, but eventually evolved into intangibles: attention, status, prestige. All zero-sum; all things we could only attain at each other’s expense. Thus, under the pressure of a family who paid very close attention to us, everything became a competition.
Who’d read more books. Who’d read the same books faster. Who was better at their respective sport. Who could drink more. Who’d hooked up with more girls. Who got the better SAT score. Who got the better ACT score. Who got into the better school.
Who was fucking taller.
Who…who…who…It never stopped.
Our relationship, fraught with envy, began to deteriorate. Eventually, I admitted — to myself and others — that we didn’t get along.
I used to tell people that our lack of closeness came from wanting different things. That answer shielded me from the truth.
The envy that drove us apart didn’t emerge because we wanted different things. It emerged because we wanted the same things — the same approval, the same status, hell, even the same women — and could attain them only at each other’s expense.
Years passed. As happens, we grew older and apart. After college, I moved to Chicago to begin a full-time job in sales at Yelp.
The job was hard, but I was good at it, and after a year, people began talking to me about management. It wasn’t a promotion I was sure I wanted. I saw how busy other managers were, and liked the flexibility of running my own race.
As time passed, though, the managers I didn’t know were replaced with friends I did. Envy weakened my resolve, and presented me with the conflict that came to define my experience at Yelp. I didn’t envy what managers did — in fact, I had no interest in what management entailed — but I did envy what they had.
In September of 2017 — a little over a year after I’d started at Yelp — our office head, Liam, called me and a dozen other reps into a room.
“Yelp Chicago is piloting a new program,” he told us. “You all are going to be the first to sell it.”
He was referring to RASS (rep-assisted self-serve). Like the programs Google and Facebook had offered for years, RASS was a non-term contract ad program. This meant businesses could advertise as needed, instead of committing to a term.
Our pilot team was to generate the first RASS managers in Chicago. This meant I was picked for a team that would generate the future occupants of a position I’d spent the last year telling myself I didn’t want. Two months later, I was staring at a leaderboard with my name at the top. At the end of the month, Liam asked me if I wanted to interview for management.
At that point, management had been dangling in front of me for a year. I still hadn’t given an emphatic yes; ever uncertain, I’d entertained the idea because of how many friends I’d seen get promoted. So, when asked, I did what people do under uncertainty.
I mimicked, and said yes.
The next day, I showed up to Yelp in a suit. At 2pm, I walked into a conference room and spent twenty minutes explaining why I was the obvious choice for a position I didn’t want. The following day, Liam told me it was mine.
It took approximately one day in management for me to realize I’d made a mistake.
Two months later, I quit.
noun 1. The belief that a life without a story is a life not worth living.
— excerpt from The Age of Earthquakes by Shannon Basar, Douglas Coupland, and Hans Ulrich Obrist
My decision to interview for management didn’t make sense to me until I came upon Girard’s theory of desire, which scholar Paul Nuechterlein compares to Newton’s discovery of the nature of gravity.
“Gravity does not reside in any one object by itself; it resides in the relationship between objects. Similarly, desire is the force that governs the movements of living beings and should not be perceived as simply residing in those individual beings; desire resides in the relationship between desiring creatures. You and I ‘catch’ our desires from each other. Desires are contagious, as modern advertising understands all too well.”
I caught the desire for management from my colleagues.
This led to conversations about it with directors, which led to leadership development programs and opportunities to take on more responsibility as a rep. All the while, friends got promoted, aggravating my belief that I needed to become a manager.
When asked, I had no answer other than yes.
I knew immediately that management was a mistake, but because I was responsible for a team for two months, I couldn’t walk away. Attempting to reconcile my desire for management with wanting to quit made me bitter and resentful. I couldn’t understand how I’d convinced everyone else I wanted management, but now that I had it, couldn’t convince myself.
Burnout is both exhaustion and lacking direction, and the former is aggravated by our use of reason, or the way we’ve evolved to cope with the latter.
As it turns out, this experience is so central to the human condition that it nearly defines it. In an influential 2011 paper, Hugo Mercier explains why through his alternative hypothesis on the role of reason in the human brain.
In Alchemy, Rory Sutherland paraphrases that paper, writing:
“[Mercier’s] argumentative hypothesis suggests reason arose in the human brain not to inform our actions and beliefs, but to explain and defend them to others.
[Reason] is not as Descartes thought, the brain’s science and research and development function — it is the brain’s legal and PR department.”
Mercier proposes that reason arose to help us explain and defend our actions to others, but I’d take it a step further.
Reason exists not only to explain and defend our actions and beliefs to others, but to explain and defend them to ourselves. In other words, we evolved reason to convince ourselves — and in turn, each other — that the motives for our decisions are noble, even when they aren’t.
If you’ve ever lied to escape a conversation, you’ve experienced your evolved capacity for reason at work. Reasons don’t even have to be 100% convincing; any guy who has had a girl tell him she “has to go find her friends” knows this to be true. Reason isn’t 100% convincing, but it doesn’t have to be. It is just enough to shield ourselves from the harsh reality that would kill our hope; it is what we use to blunt the harshness of the truth and carry on in spite of it.
Sutherland echoes this point, writing:
“[Humans] may be descended from ancestors who were better at the concealment of their true motives. It is not enough to conceal them from others — to be really convincing, you also have to conceal them from yourself.”
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve cited — convincingly! — an artichoke dip to excuse myself from a conversation. As it happens, this maps perfectly onto my experience at Yelp.
I didn’t use reason to compare management to other career paths before determining it best. Rather, I used reason to convince myself I wanted management for a better reason than that someone else had it and I didn’t — after I had already let envy convince me I wanted it.
Had I failed to do this, it would’ve been that much harder to convince those interviewing me that I was the right candidate for the job.
In this context, as in most, reason is selective honesty, or the ability to see the implications of the rationale you present for your behavior.
What makes burnout so pernicious is reason’s ability to convince us of the rationale behind decisions over which we have no control.
noun 1. (fuel) the reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing through use or combustion.
noun 2. (car) the practice of keeping a vehicle stationary and spinning its wheels, causing the tires to heat up and smoke due to friction.
It’s here that the etymology of the word “burnout” is worth revisiting.
Long before it was used in a psychological context, “burnout” meant keeping a car stationary while spinning its wheels.
The term doesn’t refer explicitly to the end state, when the car’s engine overheats. Rather, it refers to the car burning fuel and going nowhere — exactly the condition envy attempted to cure me of at Yelp by pulling me towards management.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that burnout first appeared in a psychological context, when American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger used it to describe the consequences of extreme stress in medicine. That condition has since been described as the “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength, usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.”
The truth is that burnout is not either exhaustion or lacking direction. Rather, burnout is both exhaustion and lacking direction, and the former is aggravated by our use of reason, or the way we’ve evolved to cope with the latter.
My experience at Yelp began with the “directionless” form of burnout.
My lack of a plan made my present directionless by definition; you cannot have direction without a destination. That, though, is the power of envy: it creates direction where it doesn’t exist. Uncertainty gave envy its foothold and allowed it to direct me towards management. Once it did, I used reason to convince myself I wanted management for a nobler reason than envy. This helped me convince everyone else — specifically, those who interviewed me.
When I became a manager at Yelp, I experienced the symptoms classically associated with the “exhaustive” form of burnout: the anger, the resentment, the emotional vacancy and apathy. Further, I didn’t feel as if the job was going anywhere. Unable to tolerate exhaustion and directionlessness simultaneously, I quit.
The reason I’m writing this is simple: uncertainty birthed all of this, and I see uncertainty everywhere. Thus, I can’t imagine this experience is unique to me.
The joke at my alma mater, Kenyon, was that no one knew what they wanted to do.
We studied english literature and gender studies; anthropology and Arabic; creative writing and dance. We partied too hard and slept too little. We lived in dorms for four years because Kenyon required it, deprived of an experience that might’ve offered us an illusion of preparedness for life beyond its walls. College is supposed to prepare you for the real world, but we behaved as if it was a shield from it, discounting the future in favor of a planless present. The uncertainty this guaranteed post-graduation was a bridge we’d cross when we came to it.
Well, we’ve come to it.
In my own life, envy abounds because uncertainty reigns, and reason — I want to become a manager because of [insert good reason] — is what kept me from realizing it.
As with any social ill, the natural advice for relief is treatment. If we had a good one, though, wouldn’t we be using it? Vacations only help until you take them; dangling a carrot in front of yourself only works until it’s gone. The same is true of rest.
Passions are an option, sure. The better version of what management was to me, passions are their own ends; they are the fuel for working a dead-end job. Eliminating uncertainty is another option; doing so with a plan is the best way to beat back envy because it makes what other people are doing matter less. But even these treatments aren’t foolproof. Passions are expensive, not to mention hard to come by. Plans work, but not forever; circumstances — and the priorities that depend on them — inevitably change.
The truth may just be that burnout is an emergent property of the human condition; a symptom of having evolved envy and reason as tools to deal with uncertainty.
If the past few months are any indication, uncertainty isn’t going anywhere.
For now, neither is burnout.