Running towards the wall

One of my mentees asked me the other day if I ever burned out in my passed. She feels really stressed about finishing grad school and starting a new job. I shared with her a long story (too long to share here), but the gist of it I thought I was invincible and turns out I am only human. But it taught me the signals to look for and how I need to recharge and when.

Long story short, I basically thought “I can do this” when my first manager asked me to fill in for him, while he was on paternity leave for 6 months, during one of the busiest times of the startup I was working at, at the time. This was only four or five years into my full time engineering career and I was somewhat heading up project management by then.

I almost burned myself out, correction: I actually did burn myself out. By the end of it I was prescribed a four week (mandatory) vacation without access to email or work (I went to Brazil!), to recover from an exceptional high amount of stress. I did need the vacation and took it. I felt really low for the entire time. The doctor told me I was biologically depressed. This is apparently what happens after you experience an adrenaline is high, above normal, for an extended time. Your body thinks it gets depressed when your levels go back to normal, due to the diff.

We were a growing startup that suddenly was thrown into American Corporate culture shock. There was immediate room for growth. I had three hats and suffered from an incredible high bar for myself. I also thought failure wasn’t an option. So, I managed 25 people, lead 3 concurrent release projects, handled strategic partnerships, and tried to do process improvement and being the best manager ever at the same time. I did succeed on all fronts, in spite of my inadequate experience driving large teams at this early stage in my career, but to the price of getting so exhausted I needed time away.

I learned some interesting lessons from this, that I also shared with my mentee:

  • Saying no is not a failure. When stretched too thin you will fail, so better saying no and show success where you still have energy left at the end of day, than to get sick trying to deliver everything – and fail on all ends.
  • That what is important comes back to you. You don’t have to remember everything, nor walking around afraid of forgetting things. Most important things pop up again and it isn’t the end of the world if it takes an extra day to respond.
  • Start your day slow. I learned that I was a person who needed to gather my thoughts in the morning. Planning out my day. Thinking through priorities, before I even start my commute. Once I figured out to not rush the morning time, all things started to become much clearer and much more focused.
  • Taking a break is part of being great at what you do. The time away helped me refocus and come back much more motivated. I have since followed this pattern of working hard for a few years and then taking a longer vacation off, to refuel at the core. The work will still be there when I get back and the world will not have ended. But I will feel completely new and rejuvenated and actually looking forward to job tasks again. Extended time off brings perspective that I need to be a great product manager long term.

What are your best tips to stay away from the wall, be aware of your signals, and recharge? How do you reduce your stress levels?

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Eva Andreasson

Crazy innovator, with a past as JVM-chick, currently Hadooping at Cloudera. Also loves music, art, and travel.

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