Preventing Burnout: A Cautionary Tale 172 Comments
Charlie Hoehn first reached out to me in 2008 through Ramit Sethi.
Shortly thereafter, I hired him as a part-time intern. Eventually, he became a full-time employee.
For three years, we worked together on a number of projects, most notably the The 4-Hour Body and the Opening the Kimono event. Charlie’s responsibilities ranged from “professional” tasks (planning VIP parties, assembling scandalous guest posts, coordinating logistics for 15,000 orders during the Land Rush campaign, etc.) to productive tomfoolery (epic grocery shopping sprees, editing vajayjay photos, photographing giraffe make outs, persuading me to swallow 25 pills at once).
It was one hell of a ride. We had a lot of fun, and we had some huge successes.
From day one, Charlie expressed a constant desire to become a hyper-efficient and effective entrepreneur. His role expanded as he requested more responsibilities (“What else can I do to help?” he’d ask me repeatedly), and we often found ourselves juggling several projects at once.
Most of the time, we handled it well. And as Charlie’s comfort zone stretched, his confidence increased, his communication and abilities improved, and our day-to-day operations were generally strife-free. We worked well together.
Then — in the middle of making The 4-Hour Chef – he suddenly quit. It hit me like a ton of bricks.
Finding work-life balance (or work-life “separation,” as I prefer) in a connected world is challenging. Speaking personally, I’m either 100% ON (for book launches, creative deadlines, etc.) or 100% OFF (such as my recent excursion to Bali). This ability to hit the shut-off switch helps me remain sane, separate work from pleasure, and it usually prevents me from burning out.
In this post, Charlie will share his story: what it was like to work with me for three years, and what led up to his burnout.
For all Type-A driven readers — especially those who struggle with the shut-off switch — this one is for you…
My brain felt swollen, like it was pushing against my skull. I looked down at my iPhone. Good lord. 60 hours straight. Wide awake, no sleep, for 60 hours straight. Yet I was still lively and sharp, thanks to the magic pill.
For four days, I’d supercharged my energy with a powerful nootropic; a brain drug typically reserved for fighter pilots and narcoleptics. If you’ve seen the movie Limitless, well, that pill actually exists. The drug’s primary function is to silence the body’s pleas for sleep. Lucky for me. Rest was a luxury I couldn’t afford.
I’d secretly taken this brain drug, without my boss knowing, so I could be great at my job. I was in charge of coordinating the Opening the Kimono event — a private conference on next-generation content marketing, hosted by Tim Ferriss.
Most attendees knew Tim for his two mega-bestselling books: The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body. The driving themes of Tim’s work were effectiveness and efficiency — getting better results, in less time, with less effort.
In The 4HB, Tim revealed how to lose 20 pounds of fat in one month (without exercise), how to triple fat loss with cold exposure, and how to produce 15-minute female orgasms. Both books sold more than a million copies each, and Tim was a star in the publishing world.
In addition to being a bestselling author, Tim was also a successful angel investor and advisor (his portfolio included Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Evernote, and many others). He was also — and I’m not exaggerating — a Chinese kickboxing champion, a horseback archer, a world record holder in tango, and a polyglot (fluent in five languages).
I’d been working with Tim for nearly three years as his Director of Special Projects. It was a dream job that I’d worked hard to land, and I’d reaped countless benefits. In the time we’d known each other, he’d personally introduced me to a wide array of amazing people: mega-successful CEO’s, brilliant tech entrepreneurs, best-selling authors, world-class athletes, inventors, robotics engineers, pickup artists, jet-setting casino owners, supermodels… The list was endless. My network went from “average” to “insane” simply by being around him.
He’d also given me a world-class education (I’d guess 3-5 MBAs combined), and helped build my portfolio into a showcase of incredible work.
I was 25 years old at the time, living in Russian Hill in San Francisco. Each morning, I’d walk over to my neighborhood café, sit down with my laptop, and work until nightfall on my weekly tasks. Whenever I finished a given job, I’d ask Tim for more work. Things multiplied quickly, and I soon had a plethora of responsibilities: assistant, researcher, editor, marketer, videographer, photographer, customer service, project manager… And then, I was his conference coordinator. Opening The Kimono was my biggest challenge to date.
More than 130 authors and entrepreneurs, from all over the world, paid $10,000 apiece for admission to Tim’s conference. And while I was confident we would successfully make it through this four-day event, I was also completely overwhelmed by the complexity of the task. There were so many moving parts.
I was terrified of screwing up. If something went wrong, I would need to fix it with superhuman speed. Somehow, I had to stay awake for the entire event…
And so, in my desperation, I visited an overseas pharmaceutical website, where I ordered the most powerful brain drug on the market.
The pills arrived just before the event. I took one every morning. Each day, I expected to pass out randomly from exhaustion. But it never happened; I stayed alert and wide-awake the whole time. The pills really, really worked. During the course of the four-day seminar, I slept a grand total of six hours. And just as I’d hoped, I was great at my job.
The event was a whirlwind, but we managed to pull it off. On the final day, everyone gave us a standing ovation. Attendees ran up to hug us and said it was the best conference they’d ever been to. Our inboxes were filled with dozens of glowing reviews and thank you notes.
I was in shock. After months of working around the clock, we’d exceeded all expectations, including our own. Tim gave me a hearty congratulations, and said he was amazed how well we’d done.
I was proud, happy, and very tired when I arrived back home. But later that night, my body started sending out emergency signals, warning me that something horribly wrong was happening.
My heart was racing. My vision was blurred. I had a pounding headache that wouldn’t stop. Sounds drifted sluggishly into my ears, and I could barely stand upright.
For the first time in my life, I felt completely and utterly burned out.
# # #
A few days later, I went back to work. We were just getting started on our next big project: The 4-Hour Chef.
Two years prior, I helped Tim edit and launch his second book, The 4-Hour Body. I was immensely proud to have played a part in the book’s success; it was the pinnacle of my career. On the other hand, The 4-Hour Body had been the most stressful undertaking of my life. Tim and I half-joked that the book nearly killed us. I was hesitant to jump in for round two.
Tim offered to double my salary if I helped him complete The 4-Hour Chef.
It was a generous offer, and I was immediately interested in taking it. I’d be making more money than I’d know what to do with, and I’d have another cool achievement under my belt. What did I have to lose? After a moment’s pause, we shook on it.
I felt incredibly fortunate to be in that position, especially since so many people I knew were either unemployed or working in jobs they hated. My family and friends all congratulated me. From a distance, things looked great.
But on the inside, I was flailing. I’d completely lost balance, and I couldn’t see that I was destroying myself.
I was addicted to my work. You see, I liked to think of myself as busy and important, so I tethered myself to the Internet seven days a week. I communicated with everyone through screens. I spent all day long sitting indoors. I drank coffee all week, and drank alcohol all weekend. I only stopped working when I was sleeping. And then I stopped sleeping.
I just couldn’t stop myself from working all the time. I wanted to be indispensable, the best in the world at running operations. It didn’t matter what else was going on in my life or if I started feeling sick; work was everything to me. Practically everyone I met in the tech scene behaved the same way.
So many of my friends and colleagues were workaholics.
Several buddies of mine were pulling 16-hour workdays. My friend in medical school was popping Adderall like candy. All of us were destroying ourselves during the week, and punishing our livers on the weekend. We didn’t take vacations. We didn’t take breaks. Work was life.
Here’s the thing: I was a workaholic long before I met Tim.
I’d always stayed up late. I’d always spent hours at a time staring at screens. The difference now was that my state of mind had changed. Now, the results mattered more than the process. I took everything very seriously because I thought I was so important — there was money and success on the line! And I wanted to be the best at dominating life.
Predictably, life stopped being fun.
Each week, I felt increasingly sick, exhausted, and apathetic. My eyes sunk back and grew dark circles beneath them. My forehead developed thick stress lines.
My hands started shaking. I felt like I was always on the verge of crying. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me, so I just tried to work my way through it.
Then the deadline for The 4-Hour Chef got pushed back three months.
Then a family member died.
Then a close friend attempted suicide.
When Tim and I met up for dinner the following week, I told him very meekly:
“I can’t do this anymore. I have to quit.”
# # #
Tim didn’t argue with me.
He understood where I was coming from, and offered his support in whatever I was going to do next. It was a massive relief to part on amicable terms, but I felt weaker than ever. I was already feeling the pressure to get back to work, but what would I do? My identity was gone. I decided to take a couple weeks off. Then another week… And another…
I spent the next three months being unemployed and feeling awful. Every day, I’d go through the motions of my old routine without actually doing anything. I compulsively checked email all day long, stayed up until 4:00AM, and slept a few hours each night. I received a handful of job offers and turned them all down, recoiling at the thought of having to go back to work.
The worst part was the guilt. I felt enormously guilty every second I wasn’t doing something that could advance my career or earn money. I would pace around like a neurotic rat, coming up with random chores to distract myself. When the chores were finished, I’d think, “Okay… Now what?” Any activity that didn’t feel productive – sleeping in, watching TV, taking a trip – filled me with regret. There was this gnawing sense that I was wasting time. I was losing money. And yet, I had no desire to work.
I started wondering if I’d screwed up my life very badly. Hadn’t I been living the dream? Did I just throw away everything I’d worked for? I started feeling very anxious. I wanted to do something big, to reinvent my career, to make a name for myself so I could be successful. What that something would be, I didn’t know.
Then one day, two of my friends, Chad Mureta (whom I’d met at the Kimono event) and Jason Adams, suggested that we start a mobile app company together. They were both sharp entrepreneurs and savvy marketers, and Chad was already making millions from the apps he’d developed.
Finally, I thought, here’s a job that makes sense. I could be one of the founders of a cool tech startup, working on fun projects with my smart friends, in one of the most exciting industries on the planet. The Draw Something app had recently been acquired for $250 million, then Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion. I thought, This gig might make me a millionaire by the end of the year! This is it…
I was so relieved to feel productive again. I strolled into the office each day to work on my laptop until late in the evening. I sat down, stared at my computer screen for several hours, and drank coffee. When I got home, I worked on my laptop until 4:00AM, slept for a few hours, then started all over again.
We spent the first month putting together an online course called App Empire, which walked people through the entire process of starting their own app business. It required many sleepless nights to get it finished on time, but we managed to pull it off.
The launch of the course was a success, raking in $2 million dollars in revenue over the course of 10 days.
If you said “WTF!” after reading that last sentence, I don’t blame you. But our results were somewhat typical in the high-cost information product world. When you combine a $2,000 course with a huge list of potential customers (and three guys who know a lot about online marketing), you get a multi-million dollar product launch.
We spent the next two months doing weekly webinars, walking customers through each lesson and answering their questions. In our spare time, we worked on our app ideas.
At some point in the third month, I realized: I didn’t care about apps. I knew how to make them, and I knew how to succeed in the app market, but I just didn’t care. I didn’t really use apps and I never got excited about them.
I asked myself, Why am I really doing this work? Well, the job gave me an excuse to hang out with my friends during the day, rather than being holed up alone in my apartment. But that was only a small part of it. The honest answer was:
Status. Money. Guilt.
I wanted to impress other people with my “success” of founding a company. I wanted to be rich. And I wanted to avoid feeling bad for not working.
The problem was… I didn’t really care about what I was doing. There was this weird disconnect, like apps should have been the natural progression in my career. But it just never felt right. It felt forced.
I quit my job that week.
Once again, I experienced “success” and walked away from it. Only this time, I was riddled with anxiety.
I started to think I was going to be punished for not being productive, for not making money, for not having my life figured out. I didn’t know how or when, but I was certain it was going to happen. Everything was coming to a head. It was only a matter of time before something terrible happened…
# # #
I was in a bad place for a long time after I quit those jobs.
I was too ashamed and proud to reach out to anyone for help, so I bottled my feelings up and stumbled around for the next year. It was the worst I’ve ever felt in my life.
It’d be very easy for me to manufacture a villain in this story. I could tell you that I was pushed too hard, or that no one cared about how I felt. But that’s not the truth. I was the one who chose to stay up until 4:00AM. I was the one pouring caffeine down my throat four times a day. I was the one who secretly ordered brain pills. I was the one who isolated myself from friends and kept my feelings hidden. Everything I did that fueled my anxiety was my choice.
The truth is that all of my emotional issues would have unfolded for me at some point in my life, regardless of whom I was working with. I was the creator of my own anxiety, and I was the one who broke myself with my workaholic habits. I just didn’t recognize how destructive my behavior was because I thought it was normal.
I wish someone had held up a mirror to show me I was the problem, but that never happened. No one knew the full extent of my situation but me, and I was in denial. It’s worth taking a moment to ask yourself:
— Do I feel guilty or anxious when I’m not working?
— Have I stopped playing with my friends?
— Do all of my daily activities revolve around building a more successful career?
— Am I always sleeping fewer than eight hours per night?
— Am I consuming stimulants multiple times per day to hide my exhaustion?
— Am I sitting still and staring at screens for most of my waking hours?
— Do I interact with people primarily through screens?
— Am I indoors all day long, depriving myself of fresh air and sunlight?
— Do I depend on alcohol or drugs to cope with social situations outside of work?
If you said ‘yes’ to most of those questions, you are not alone. When I was at my worst, I was doing all of these things on a daily basis. I was fueling my own anxiety and I couldn’t even see it.
My perceived lack of productivity, lack of money, and the unknown future kept me in a constant state of panic. Every day was a haze of fear and exhaustion. For more than a year, I tried everything to pull myself out of this state of living death. Nothing seemed to help, and I nearly lost hope.
Then one night, I had my first major breakthrough, which laid the foundation to cure my anxiety. This breakthrough happened in a flash. The emotional burden of non-stop worry was lifted, and I could finally breathe again.
It wasn’t hard. It didn’t cost me anything. It was only a choice.
TIM: To be continued in Part 2, where Charlie will describe the step-by-step process he used to reverse his descent into darkness (and we’ve all been there, including me).
I also learned a lot from Charlie’s struggles. First and foremost: As a boss, you cannot assume that someone is resting and recovering properly. You must ensure it. Employees out of sight does not equal employees out of the inbox.
Don’t want to wait for Part 2? Take a look at Charlie’s new book, Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety, which includes all the techniques he used to get his life back on track.
Posted on February 13th, 2014