At Work

Burnout: The First Stage of a Quarter-life Crisis

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A quarter-life crisis has three stages, I shared in my last article. Today we are going to take a look at the first stage: burnout.

I attended a retreat a few years ago which was designed as a refreshing weekend for a group of volunteers who all live busy lives. One of the speakers at the event was an attorney from Richmond, Virginia, named Justin Whitmel Earley. Earley had recently written The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction, a book about the importance of establishing good habits.

We were all given copies of his book, which I set on a shelf when I returned home with every intention of reading it. Someday, at some point. A couple of months went by and I hadn’t gotten to it yet, until I remembered some of his comments from the retreat about the importance of rest. I was thinking about the topic of rest for a later portion of this book, so I found my copy and read it over a holiday weekend.

The Importance of Rest

Right in the introduction to the book, I found out why Earley learned the importance of rest. He learned it the hard way when he burned himself out and experienced a quarter-life crisis. Here’s his story in his own words: 

It was twelve on an ordinary Saturday night when I woke suddenly in a dreadful panic, sweating and shaking. I sat up in bed in the silence of the bedroom that my wife, Lauren, and I share. The feeling was so intense I expected to find something terrible had happened, as if my subconscious knew something I didn’t. But all was quiet…

The next day, a vague feeling that something was wrong lingered… I was only half there. It was like my emotions were wearing sunglasses; everything had a shade of nervousness…

So it was that I ended up in the emergency room at three in the morning, looking at a doctor who half-apologetically told me nothing was wrong. I was just showing symptoms of clinical anxiety and panic attacks. He assured me—as if it were comforting—that these were very common…

Earley goes on to explain why it was so hard for him to believe he was having a panic attack, because, he says, “everything seemed to be going really well.” He grew up in a loving family in Richmond, Virginia, enjoying at least an upper-middle class lifestyle. He studied English literature at the University of Virginia, where he met his wife.

After college, he made an unusual move and spent a few years in China as a missionary. That experience convinced him of the importance of good laws to defend the weak in society, and when he returned to the United States, he attended law school at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Upon graduation and the passing of the Virginia Bar Exam, he started a job at “best big law firm in Richmond.”

He and his wife and two sons started a great life in Richmond. He even bought a vintage BMW motorcycle. His family was picture-perfect, his time in China gave his legal career meaning and purpose, and he was financially stable.

Fatigue and Burnout

“In short, life was going great,” he says, “except for one thing. I was tired. Really tired.” He explains how he got so tired saying,

In my years since graduating from college, I had tackled all of life with a voracious hunger. I wanted to be good at everything I did. I spent my years in China up early studying Mandarine and up late hanging out with fellow missionaries and Chinese friends.

In law school, my life became an endless series of calendar alerts, appointments, résumé-building activities, and studying late into the night. But we were all like that, so nothing about it seemed strange…

Being overwhelmed by ambition was a way of life in law school, so I went along with it. I thought that was how you got to be a top law student, got the big firm jobs, and became a successful young lawyer—by saying yes to everything and no to nothing. So I was way too busy, totally overcommitted, and living with a chaotic, packed schedule…

The night at the hospital, the doctor gave me a bottle of sleeping pills and told me I needed to slow down. Of course I had no idea how to slow down. Busyness functions like an addiction. When you stop, you have to face your thoughts, which terrifies most of us. So to cope you have to keep up the busyness.

That, I thought in stunned silence as I stared at the page, is exactly what the burnout from a quarter-life crisis feels like. Earley had made it to thirty before he had one, in large part because he kept buying time that most of us can’t or won’t be able to do: going overseas for a few years, going to graduate school, etc. In the example of the car speeding too fast down the road of life, Earley finally wrecked his life and ended up in the ditch, literally in the emergency room.

Stage 2: Slow Down

What comes after burnout? Inevitably, you have to slow down. In my next article, we will look at what this next stage of a quarter-life crisis looks like.

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