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>> caring about the results of our actions but having no meaningful control over those outcomes

This really dies sum it up in a useful generic way. Ultimately the balance of this sentence will differ from context to context, but the equation ultimately has to balance.

Put another way, if you care a lot, but have no agency, then ultimately you will be frustrated.

If you care a lot, but have no resources, then again, you get frustrated.

Burnout is just the moment whe you stop fruitlessly caring. But you -want- to care (about something) so not-caring leads to depression.

Matching your care to resources available is a good start. Make sure you care about something that can be materially affected by your resources. Feeling under-resourced is a sign that those allocating the resources have different goals to you.

If your care exceeds your agency in resources product direction, code quality, then you can choose to care less, (find something else to care about), align your caring to match those who do have agency, or move on.

Starting your own business gives you agency, so you're free to allocate resources as you choose. However you still need to aquire those resources (which in turn can change what you care about.)

Starting and running your own business is enormously freeing - it gives you complete agency. But its also HARD. People don't pay you for what -you- care about, they pay you for what -they- care about. Its very hard to find customers who appreciate your priorities, and it's also hard to adjust your priorities (aka what you care -about-) to match theirs.

But if you get it right, it's amazing.

> Burnout is just the moment whe you stop fruitlessly caring.

To me it was the moment I started breaking down in tears when getting to the subway station down my street, on my way to work. Every day.

The next time was when I could not speak about my job and the project I was working on without stammering and my mind going blank (and still couldn’t for months after quitting).

“Frustrated" and "stop to fruitlessly care" don’t feel like they even begin to describe that.

> But you -want- to care (about something) so not-caring leads to depression.

Having also gone through a decade-long depression before that, I’d personally say these two are very different beasts. Both are quite unpleasant, and neither is viable, but each in it’s own way.

> To me it was the moment I started breaking down in tears when getting to the subway station down my street, on my way to work. Every day.

> The next time was when I could not speak about my job and the project I was working on without stammering and my mind going blank (and still couldn’t for months after quitting).

Thank you for writing this. I've been through these states recently and it helps to know other people had similar symptoms.

I think by the time you burst out in tears when traveling to work you’ve probably passed the point of burnout.

Not sure what else to call it, but the stage described above probably comes first.

Things can unroll very quickly. People don't necessarily go through stages when getting worse.

This might be asking too much on a public forum, but would you be able to describe what differentiates these two for you? Feel free to decline if it's too personal or you just don't feel like it.

Not the person you asked, but I have had experience with both depression and burnout.

Depression, in my case, makes things meaningless in a "calmer" way - I can think about any activity, but it just feels meaningless, as if somebody was asking me to dig a hole then bury it back up. Like, why? What is the point?

Burnout, on the other hand, had an avoidant element to it - when thinking about work, I start feeling helpless and frustrated, which makes my mind go into some primordial "fear" state, rendering me unable to think clearly at all. If I were working while burned out, my "mental context" would be extremely limited - I'd read the words, but couldn't comprehend anything beyond basic instructions (e.g. change config from "foo" to "bar"). The mind is just avoiding making any connections relevant to the work.

This is just my experience. Others' milage may vary.

> The mind is just avoiding making any connections relevant to the work.

This part is insane. But it doesn’t only happen when burned out. It happens to me when I get asked to do something that I do not believe in. I say yes, because you know, my boss is asking me to do it. But when I actually start on it my brain just completely shuts down. Like, is it trying to prevent me from seeming efficient at things I absolutely hate?

I assume yes. I've had similar problems, but over time I've learned not to separate solutions into "good" and "bad", but place them on a spectrum of "goodness" from my perspective. That way, it's easier to accept that somebody just wants a not-so-good solution and do it.

This is generally administrative tasks that nobody will ever look at again in the future.

For me I think depression & burnout have opposite impacts on sleep, not sure what others have experienced.

Depression, in the literature, in my experience, and what I've seen in my spouse leads to just wanting to sleep and not get out of bed.

Burnout, however, lead me to be completely incapable of sleep. I couldn't fall asleep for hours. I'd wake up 10x/night in some anxiety sweat thinking about some way I could make the abomination of a project 1% less horrible. I'd wake up 2 hours before my alarm, in pitch black pre-dawn light in dread and just feel like I needed to get the day started.. so much to do, and it was all going to fail, but I had to be seen to be trying.

Same here, burnout definitely results in waking up multiple times a night and the first thought going through my head was about some work related BS. Idem waking up anxious before the alarm, cluttered with work BS thoughts.

It always did boil down to having no agency over the outcomes but being made responsible for them, and my warning of the idiocy/likely failure mode of the plan being ignored.

Yes - "no agency over outcomes & being responsible for them" is quick recipe for burnout

It’s SOP in many companies in my experience :(

In short, depression, to me, was total and absolute hopelessness.

Burn out, on the other hand, brought me dread, anxiety, exhaustion, and the feeling of being trapped in a pointless but never-ending cycle.

If I were to dive into more details, depression gave me a rock-solid certainty that I could never be happy, or meaningfully enjoy life in any meaningful way.

There might have been some joyous and light-hearted moments in the past, and perhaps the future held some in store for me. I could smile if prompted or expected to. But these moments always were and always would be the accidents. And so was any past or present progress. Insignificant.

I knew that no matter what I would always revert to my norm: apathy and a deep-seated, always present, lingering painful despair. All while somehow remaining alive, without understanding why or how. Going to bed each day, half hoping that this time there will not be a tomorrow.

It also totally crushed any sense of self-worth I had until then.

The kicker being that this certainty and the blindness to anything positive that comes with it enabled a wonderful feedback loop.

Burning out mostly involved permanent and crippling stress and anxiety, accompanied by a permanent doubt on the usefulness of anything I did.

Anything merely evoking work, such as catching a glimpse of my IDE’s icon, evoked fear.

Nothing felt straightforward anymore. Everything required focus and attention, all the while stressed and anxious. Every task felt like it would be complex and difficult. Before I even started.

Simple things became difficult. Average things became exhausting. Difficult things? Insurmountable.

Anything less than absolutely straightforward made me feel as lost as a junior on his first day, unable to even figure out where to start. Except I knew had done these things before, harder ones even, and this had been my codebase for nearly a year.

Each day felt like pointlessly climbing a mountain, for no reason, good or otherwise. Each day was too short for me to get everything done. And yet too long. All while knowing that the next day would only be worse. With no end in sight.

No break ever was long enough. And each break’s end came with the slowly intensifying dread that came from knowing I was going back to that. And yet each break was always too long. There just was too much to do. All of it urgent, important, critical. Most of it pointless because, although finished, ultimately never released.

Needless to say my sense of professional worth was in shambles, and I often joked about changing careers and moving to the countryside to grow dandelions.

> Feel free to decline if it's too personal or you just don't feel like it.

I have to admit I hesitated. So thank you for your thoughtfulness.

Yes you could summarize them as having almost opposite effects.

Depression - it's hopeless, there's nothing I can do..

Burnout - it's hopeless, but there's so much I can do, let me burn myself out trying to do all of it at once, even though it won't move the needle more than 1%. Almost like "Sunday scaries" but all the time or months nonstop. Just a constant mid-level anxiety & panic.


How did you get yourself out of these?

I find I just don’t have ambitions for anything anymore. I simply exist without any hope/expectation of joy/excitement.

I used to be more energetic and fairly optimistic. I’m not even stressed and have overcome a few minor health issues that used to bother me.

Yet at this point, I can’t help but feel the best years have passed and now it just a slow decline to the end. (But no thoughts of suicide/self-harm).

I know this probably isn’t entire true but can’t get away from the feeling.

> I find I just don’t have ambitions for anything anymore. I simply exist without any hope/expectation of joy/excitement.

Been there. It gets better, but you will have to change some things.

This is what worked for me: allow yourself to have fun. It is not frivolous. It is not insignificant. It is an important part of a fulfilling life, so make time for it. Literally carve some time for it and put it in your daily/weekly schedule if need be.

Once you commit to spending some time every day/week simply to enjoy yourself and have fun, now you can choose an activity.

At first it may seem difficult because everything may seem pointless or discouraging. Passive activities like watching TV/podcasts/videogames are a bad choice. They may be easy and tempting, but really must be avoided. The best choices are social, such as team sports, board games, ballroom dancing, etc. Outdoor activities are also great: walking in nature, riding a bike, etc. Artsy stuff like painting or embroidery are okay, but being neither social nor outdoorsy means they won't be as beneficial.

If you are particularly industrious you may be tempted to learn a new skill like a new language, or going to the gym. Beware: your actual goal is to lighten up your mood and enjoy yourself, not to "be productive" or "be the best version of yourself". Your obsession with productivity is probably what got you in this mess in the first place.

Simply allow yourself to be a kid again. Do fun stuff that doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things.

> This is what worked for me: allow yourself to have fun. It is not frivolous. It is not insignificant. It is an important part of a fulfilling life, so make time for it. Literally carve some time for it and put it in your daily/weekly schedule if need be.

The act of "scheduling" fun makes it hard for me to actually have fun - it feels like a chore. Fun is only fun (to me) if it's spontaneous.

Obviously, that creates quite a vicious cycle... I'm stuck in one right now, actually. I'm just grinding, hoping something's gonna change. I doubt it will, though.

> Passive activities like watching TV/podcasts/videogames are a bad choice.

I'd like to chime in and say that social video games like CSGO or Dota or whatever with friends on discord can be wonderful social activities.

I bet they are, but they are also sedentary. Exercise and the outdoors are great at reducing anxiety, and depression is often caused by chronic anxiety, which is why videogames would not be my weapon of choice to combat it.

I am not entirely sure that I have. And often wonder if I ever will feel it is truly, once and for all, all behind me.

A few things have been helpful though.

• First, the obvious

Quitting the jobs that burned me out.

Avoiding, like the plague, hyper-political or hypocritical work environments. I’ve got better things to than play Game of Thrones or The Young and the Restless.

• The usual

Finding a good therapist. Most will be utterly useless. Competency aside, one that works for one person will be completely unhelpful to someone else. But one that works for you will help you identify and change patterns, in both your everyday life and your "macro" life. They won’t do the work for you, but they will be of tremendous help.

Started doing what I wanted to do as a kid but never did, or not enough. In my case it was surfing and skating. As a child I used to watch those people surfing and skating in movies and wanting to do it too. Turns out, it’s quite fun. Tedious (surfing), and sometimes painful (skating), but really pleasant. It won’t change your life, but in the moment it might just make going through the rest feel like it was worth it.

I went back to activities I used to like but had stopped. For me, it was snorkelling, hiking, and scuba diving. I had entirely forgotten the sense of wonder and excitement that came with it. Scuba diving with a stubborn one year old otitis wasn’t the best of ideas, but we didn’t go below 6m, so it was fine.

• The less obvious and slightly unrelated:

Letting go of high-maintenance friendships and relationships, and letting them die off. It’s incredible how much cognitive and emotional bandwidth these things can take.

• Others

But what has really stuck with me is experimenting. Freeing up some time to experiment with new things. Trying out new things, making new things. Seeing what gets me excited, what sticks, what tickles my brain, and getting back that sense of play in my day to day life.

Lately for me, it’s been stable diffusion and LLM applications, but it can really be anything. The important part is that it should feel more like play than work. The kind of thing that makes you feel so excited you genuinely want to tell everybody about it.

Which unexpectedly reminds me of two people.

The first, a pilot. I wanted to be one at the time, and had somehow gotten a job at the airport so I could see planes all day, meet some pilots, and ask them everything that came to my mind. One of them told that most people didn’t understand that when they (the pilots) went to work, they weren’t going to work. They were going to play. It stuck with me. I obviously didn’t become a pilot, but it stuck.

And the second is Feynman, or more accurately his autobiography ("Surely you’re joking M. Feynman", which I can only wholeheartedly recommend), when he somehow grew bored with physics.

It’s a rather long excerpt, but having looked it up to make sure I wasn’t making it up, here you go:

> Then I had another thought: Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing – it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with. When I was in high school, I’d see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it was rather easy to do. I didn’t have to do it; it wasn’t important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn’t make any difference. I’d invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.

> So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

> Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.

> I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate. Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics?”

> I don’t remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance… I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, “Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is …” and I showed him the accelerations.

> He says, “Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?”

> “Hah!” I say. “There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.” His reaction didn’t discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked.

> It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

All that being said, I don’t really know wether I am truly out of depression, for good, or if it’s just an exceptionally long relief. While it feels okay now, I can regularly see patterns that I wish were long gone creeping back. And I honestly can’t tell wether it’s just me just overreacting, or if it means it will be a life-long struggle.

But it does seem to get easier with time. It takes some effort, every day. But it gets easier

You need to build a steady trickle of small wins outside of your work environment. These can be anything as long as they can be broken down into small, timeboxed, digestible, repeatable, and rewarding bits.

For example: find a local plant store, pick up some pothos[0], and get some roots going. Get two: one that's a little more established in soil and one that's just a bare cutting. All you need is a jar/glass/mug/bowl of water and a sunny spot.

Do not plan! Stop making plans and checklists and calendar events! Feel free to block off time on your calendar for self-care, which is your plant-tending experiment. No more lists or plans after this. You can plan this all in your head:

1. A plant piece (money optional)

2. A humid container (plastic lunch bag? old yogurt tub? something out of the recycling bin? use trash)

3. A sunny spot or a bright light (sun is free)

Just get some vines get the things to grow some roots[3]. Ask the friendly plant store person for some light nutrient solution, or get a tiny amount of Miracle-Gro and dissolve it in water. You don't need anything fancy, this is just an experiment.

Eventually the vine will start growing. After it forms roots and a few new nodes, you can cut it apart[1] and grow more roots. Keep repeating this process and propagating your vines. Do not stress about messing it up. There is an infinite amount of pothos vine out there. It propagates itself. Try rooting small sections until you can do it confidently.[2]

Take more cuttings, root them, grow them out, gift them to friends, give them away, etc.[3]

Alternatively: ask your plant store for leafless scraps of pothos (or philodendron, or similar) and try propagating from nothing[4]

Yes, your work output will suffer, and it should suffer considering the amount of suffering you've done for it!

What helped me was accepting that there was an infinite amount of work to be done in the world, and that working generated more future work. There is no shortage of pending work, and the overall to-do list is endless much like a river is endless. You don't need to tame the river, but it is useful for navigating the environment. Don't hyperfocus on the river, don't fetishize the river, and stop trying to rapidly get to somewhere else via the river. Splash around, do the basic chores, and hang out by the riverbank and watch things happen.

This probably sounds very stupid right now. Feel free to email me. There are some chemical shortcuts one can take, but that's outside the scope of this post.






I want to thank you for sharing and to return the favor by sharing some of myself. Don't feel like you have to respond or even read it. I just feel bad for asking you to share without providing you with anything back. I'm a afraid I'm going through something similar myself, and it's incredibly valuable for me to read what you've gone though and relate that to myself. I honestly have no idea how I'll handle this or what I'll do.

I'm working on somehow getting a new job (although the self-doubt, fear, and guilt is making is really difficult), and I'm hoping that getting a whiff of something new will at least provide some hope for something worth living for. I don't know if I even like software anymore. I don't know if I was ever good at it, if I'm even good at anything, but I have to believe, because what's the alternative?

Meanwhile I just keep showing up, attending meetings with people yelling at me. Blaming me for the technical problems they didn't want to allocate resources to fix. Even then I can't convince myself that It's not actually MY fault. Maybe i truly didn't communicate how poor the technical state was. Maybe I did actually deserve to be yelled at. Maybe I'm just fucking useless. What's more likely, a whole layer of middle managers being wrong, or that I'm just fucking useless? Wisdom of the crowds and such.

At least I know that my struggle is actually a struggle, and not just me being a weak baby about it, So thank you for that comfort.

PS: It's also quite a coincidence that you started skating. I too recalled how "cool" i thought the skaters looked when I was young, the happy days of playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater, and how I longed to be cool like that. After riding an electric long board for a year I decided that maybe skating an acoustic skateboard would be fun, and it is. When skating I feel like I'm doing something. I don't feel like i need to be good. I feel cool. Maybe you don't have to be good at your job, maybe you can just be cool.

Just wanted to say this is similar to what I experienced the last time around: shit management decisions that cut corners everywhere and left us, the engineers, to take the blame for it and spend our time dealing with the constant fire fighting that resulted with no resources to actually prevent it from reoccurring.

I also felt useless, like it was my fault, like I suck, like I don’t ever want to do software for money ever again, and like I’m a wimp because others have been working this way for decades… I’m now on my 18th month of avoiding to work again.

All this to say: don’t ignore the warning signs. This is a toxic job, nothing good will come out of it anymore, and delaying your resignation (or months long sick leave if you can get any) will only make the problem worse while requiring an even longer recovery period.

I don't normally comment in threads, but I really empathized with your post.

> Maybe I did actually deserve to be yelled at.

Almost certainly not. Even when someone has done a bad job and it causes frustration, yelling doesn't solve the problem; it typically only makes things worse for all parties.

You have value outside of your job. Believing and remembering that can help make the challenges at work less depressive. That's often lost on a forum like this where technical prowess is highly valued.

> I don't know if I even like software anymore

That's fine. Some people might consider that impeccable timing before an LLM replaces our software jobs anyways. If you've succeeded in software to any degree, you've probably learned how to learn. I bet you can do it again in a different field.

> I'm working on somehow getting a new job

I run a small company - link in profile. We make high performance CAD software in C. Reach out if you're interested or just need someone to talk to.

Incredible comment. Thank you for writing this. In a world of toxic positivity, such honest open blunt dialog about mental health is not only refreshing, but crucial.

The good old fashioned Job Resources / Job Demands 2x2 strikes again.

- Low resources * low demands = low motivation + average stress. You don't really give a shit about the job, but it's also not taking a lot out of you either.

- High resources * low demands = high motivation + low stress. The dream!

- High resources * high demands = high motivation + average stress. You've got a lot on your plate - but you also feel well equipped to take it all on. This is a really nice place to be, especially if you're hungry for professional growth.

- Low resources * high demands = Hell. People expect you do build everything from nothing, and nobody's giving you any help at all, and you're bottlenecked by weird insane corporate BS, and on and on and on.

Being at low resources, high demands for too long will lead to burnout. Full stop. If you're there, try to get out. If you're not there, try to stay out.


> High resources * low demands = high motivation + low stress. The dream!

I disagree with that. High resources * high demands is the dream for many people including myself. Low demands -> low motivation, at least for most people. Having a stress free job with low motivation for a long time can even lead to burnout!

Low demand doesn't have to mean low purpose. I would split demand out into two: urgency and significance. I want significant work, but not urgent work. Constant urgency will burn me out. Some people may prefer urgent work over non-urgent work because they enjoy the hustle. But I think everyone has limited capacity for urgency.

High resources * high demands is probably only the dream of single young newgrads or people without family or other such obligations and want to focus on climbing the ladder and "making it" in the industry.

The people I know who wish to focus their life around their hobbies or kids want to stay away from high demand jobs even if they were to have high resources.

I guess it depends on what "high" and "low" mean. With "high demand" I presumed busy, but assuming there are enough resources, no need to work evenings or weekends.

Low resource, low demand = working the grill at a sleepy diner

High resource, low demands = working in a test kitchen

High resource, high demand = working Michelin star restaurant

Low resource, high demand = working at fast food

I like this metaphor, exactly because different folks prefer to work in different environments. Personally, I'd hate working a high resource, low demand job. Maybe that's just me.

Very well-articulated. I finally felt like I was bouncing back when I just accepted not giving a fuck and doing the absolute minimum to fulfill whatever the goals seem to be of whoever's deciding on them.

Do they care about rendering performance? No? Well then I'm sure as hell not goimg to lose sleep over it, and if it seems actively harmful to customers *that I've met* then it's just a place to leave.

There's always a budget, there's always better quality, but if you're the one paying for it in time and energy, and you don't really have a stake in the outcome, the correct answer is "fuck it". Do not care about transactional work more than you need to within the scope that's set forth.

As you move up the business ladder, or indeed start your own business, it's interesting to see how priorities evolve.

When you're a coder, the code matters. It can be frustrating to see resources allocated to say marketing.

When you are responsible for acquiring resources, then there's more to care about, more to balance. When to market. When to get new hardware.

Programmers care about code performance, code elegance, getting every pixel perfect, perfect design (for when we have s billion users). Business owners care about shipping, and getting paid. Without that the doors close.

As we grow older, as our position evolves, we have to care about more, but in some ways less deeply. There's more nuance, more compromise, more acceptance that it needs to be "good enough" - better than that even - but that perfection is an expensive goal either small returns.

I'm not arguing for mediocre, we all want the product to be better, and incrementally we move towards that. But that movement is in balance with all the other cares.

Very true. The thing that really helped me as I got into the third decade of my career was the realization that things can always be improved, but only if agency and accountability go hand-in-hand, and are widely distributed so that everyone has some ability to influence and optimize something. Obviously this requires a willingness to compromise from all involved, and can easily go off the rails into the worst sort of design-by-committee debacles if the wrong people are given the wrong authority, but when it’s done right that’s the definition of a team gelling. It’s rare in a corporate environment due to sheer volume of individuals involved and the communication/alignment overhead, but still possible, and always feels a bit magical when it happens.

It's not about age, it's where your interests lie in.

I think GP is making an (obviously incomplete) assumption that with age comes movement up the org chart, away from code, and towards an awareness of other departments and ultimately owning/directing the business worrying about cash flows.

Not really. The specifics about how a product is differentiated might seem like irrelevant minutia (fps or rendering times, for example) to an outsider while still being critical for market success.

Installing people into senior positions does not make them better at recognizing these factors, or more incentivized to care.

The point is that a senior can use your argument to trivialize the efforts of an engineer, seem reasonable to outsiders, and be wrong.

I don't see that as the point, or at least it wasn't mine, but I'd probably disagree in most cases anyway. What is critical for market success isn't for someone to bet their time on unless they stand to directly control the outcome of that market success, kn what would otherwise be labelled agency or a stake in it.

If I'm over here spending my late nights trying to pare down our webpack bundle, but my actual day is already done because it was decided that it should be spent doing something else, then someone is liable to get frustrated with how little influence they have over the outcome or reward system. If a customer then comes back and says "oh I love how snappy it is" you can certainly pat yourself on the back for it, but you have no real control over whether that translates into compensation for your effort, either in terms of accolades or money or product direction, unless you're the one making those decisions already.

Part of the reason, in that specific case, is that not only is it hard to say as an IC what the results would be otherwise had you not done X, but also what future results might be if you were to do X again.

It's not that those choices are irrelevant or that they don't have an impact, but if you don't get to allocate company resources to it, and are hoping for a better outcome but can't control that outcome or perception of your work, then it's not worth it.

If I'm John Carmack, I'm going to care deeply about rendering performance of my game, because if it's great, I might make millions, and I get to decide that that's what my employees are optimizing for. If I'm one of those employees, I'm going to meet his expectations, and if I'm very lucky, he'll think highly of me later on. That's... it. Unless I have decent shares or something.

Likewise if you're repeatedly trying to position yourself as the tryhard, you run the risk of reducing your capacity for doing literally anything else in life, which should be a real concern, because if you're not allocating resources at the company to your time, then you're devaluing your own time and resources for no reason; burnout.

Now out yourself in the same position at a massive company that has hierarchies of managers who's sole job it is to check that the status of tickets have changed or whatever. The chance your extracurricular work will influence a better outcome for you is basically nil, because the value of anyone's job is not defined by anything related to quality.

When you have a certain level of investment of time and effort, you don't have to be John Carmack (owner/founder with your name in the end titles) to care about it. Many people feel pride and ownership of code and parts of products they created, and their investments are responsible for the at least some of the success of the products. These achievements can become defining for their careers, and I think it's appropriate to allow and recognize this.

Management that denies engineers this sense of ownership and achievement is a likely cause of burnout. I think we agree mostly agree, but in my view management shares responsibility in this case.

All of that should be predicated on the answer to the question "How much of the outcome of this work do I truly have influence over?" and if the answer is none, and those extra hours making sure your code is really nice, should only be spent within the constraints you're being paid for. Are your requirements fulfilled, but you were pretty fast and have a bit of extra time to clean things up? Great, that's fine. If you spent your 8 hrs that day, the requirements are complete and there's no more time you're getting paid for, and you don't get to determine what the positive outcome for you is if you donated your weekend to fixing something management doesn't care about and won't pay you for, then don't, and stop having pride in it.

You own it if you own it, keep your personal investment at arms length, lest you become a Jason Bateman character desperately putting in those extra hours so one day hopefully you'll be blessed with that VP position or w/e.

That said, of course if you've achieved something within a fairly tight constraint, ideally you're compensated or recognized somehow for it. Extra worthwhile hours should also be compensated for obviously. But if nobody is willing to pay you for it, it's probably your own undoing.

Seems like we agree in everything except you seem to think that the management's judgement about value is a priori correct and final.

What I am saying is that value in a product can be "discovered" along the way. An engineer that demonstrates how to add value through individual efforts will probably experience burnout if management chooses to ignore their efforts. But more mature managers will figure out how to work with it.

I would say this is more about maturity than the level to which you care about things. Understanding that there are considerations other than the ones you care most about relates to maturity imo. You would probably hope that the more a person is made responsible for, the more they come to understand this. But I think your interpretation implies that prioritisation requires a decreased level of caring about the lower priority issues, which I don’t think is true.

Yeah, i totally agree. The more years I have behind my belt as developer the less I care.

I do what I'm paid for. I do it to best of my abilities, but I don't care much.

I care for my wife, my unborn child, my dog, myself. Seriously live is so much more than work and code.

I learned to balance myself. I need job for $ and that's it.

If I won lottery I would still code, just not as much (2 h/day) and only fun stuff. Work is usually borning.

Do you still learn new practices/technologies/stacks/...? I'm asking because that's my problem. As I start to care less, I also care less to keep myself up to date with new tech stacks.

Consequently, it's becoming painfully aware to me that if I were to lose my amazingly well-paid job in which I (feel like I truly) excel, it'd be a pain to look for a new one. Because of my niche, I would, most likely, have to go down with my pay by one or even two seniority levels to be a standard SWE in a different company right now.

I also don't very frequently, but not just because it's not interesting most of the time. It's because as you learn enough of them, the same realization happens; most of what they do, aren't as important as you just building the thing quickly in your stack of choice. Truly new tech and categorically different tech is different, but a new JS framework or w/e doesn't really matter much at all.

Well, I don't. I try to focus on basics and rest I learn on the job.

To be honest I know that I have less value on the market because of that. It is just I don't want second job of just keeping up.

I read article here and there when I have moment, but that's about it.

On other hand I find ecosystem in JS (my slice of cake) is slowing down. There is no new framework every week like it used to be. No ground braking changes.

>> caring about the results of our actions but having no meaningful control over those outcomes

This is basically the best summation of it, and when I notice my role becoming consumed with this, I know its time to leave or face burnout.

My most recent round of this I was a senior IC but put in charge of PMing 2 vendors that were starting work 3 days later, despite them having been in planning for 6+ months without my involvement or knowledge.

Both overly ambitious project I didn't plan, the lead on their side I already told my boss I knew previously & did NOT trust, with incompetent vendors I didn't pick, on an unrealistically short timeline that didn't make sense. Also the two vendors were supposed to coordinate on some integration piece, but didn't trust each other, and were not contractually obligated to coordinate, so of course they didn't.

Management couldn't decide if I was supposed to be helping make them successful with hands-on technical work & coordination, clearing blockers, or impartially measuring their success for the purposes of whether they deserved to be paid for each milestone. It of course ran 2x over the planned timeline, some of which they demanded we pay for, and a lot of which they did for free.. which meant the work was garbage.

In the end one vendor went bankrupt and the other we almost went to court with.

I ended up on this so long that I became strongly associated with its failure, and my senior IC role didn't really exist to go back to. My boss, and their boss, both got moved aside internally out of leadership roles around the time I quit.

I lingered filling other senior IC++/leader-- type roles for a year until I left. Probably the longest stretch I've gone of not really doing any coding, not really running a team, not doing something I enjoy, and not learning anything.. all at the same time.

I agree, except the "match your care to your resources" sounds like a bad recipe to me. I don't think it's possible to control how much you 'care' about something; only how much you act upon it.

It sounds a bit like saying "don't love the other person too much". You can try to be more measured in your displays of affection if you think it may scare the other person away, but you're either in love with someone or you're not; "how much" in love you get to be isn't really a conscious decision. And unreciprocated love can lead to relationship burnout in the same way.

So if deep down you care about something but try to consciously "match your care to available resources", it's probably going to lead to more burnout too, not less.

Right - you want to be professional, you want to do the best that you can do, but you cannot care about your employer more than the employer cares about themselves. Sort of a mercenary attitude - which you always are.

This is really the practice of zen and detachment in work and life. Care, but not to the point where is starts to hurt you.

Sounds very similar to the book: The Art of not giving a F*ck.

The most burnout-inducing environments I’ve worked in have all had one thing in common: They had a person or class of people that had wormed their way into being in control of everything while being responsible for very little. This left the rest of us to be responsible for the consequences of their decisions while having little to no input on the things we were held accountable for.

The absolute worst company I worked for had this separation as a core philosophy. They had different managers for everything: Product managers to make all of the product decisions, UX managers to make all of the design decisions, project managers to decide when we’d do things and how to check in on our progress every few hours of every day, program managers who thought they were engineers who just didn’t write code, VPs who would choose all of your programming languages and frameworks for you, and on and on. These people would shuffle from meeting to meeting every day with a 2-hour company-paid lunch in the middle (which they ultimately got in trouble for) but wouldn’t ever do any of the work themselves. Meanwhile, if any engineer dared make a suggestion we’d get a long lecture about staying in our lanes. Then when projects were late/wrong/failed or just missed the mark about what the company needed, they would do long post mortems to assign blame to different engineers for doing it wrong. At best, they’d come up with vague statements about how “we failed as a team due to communication issues” or something.

It was the most demoralizing work environment. Every meeting was full of sad, dejected engineers. People would quit without having other jobs lined up because they just couldn’t take it any more.

This is pretty much everywhere I’ve worked at in my 10 years career so far.

I honestly don’t know what to do about it. It seems hopeless and I’ve been avoiding going back to work for the last 18 months. I also wonder if there is something wrong with me because everyone else seems to cope with it somehow and keep on working.

I’ve thought about starting my own business but it’s too much hard work which I don’t think I can pull off.

The idea of going back to employee work makes me feel like shit because I’ll end up in the same environment (since 99% of companies work this way) and I don’t want to go through yet another burnout.

Would love to hear about how others have overcome this.

> I also wonder if there is something wrong with me

There is not, and it's important to understand that. The environment is grinding you down, which can make you doubt yourself. In essence, your mind gets tricked into taking the blame for the situation you're finding yourself in.

In the end, while you might not always be able to modify the environment, you can always move away from it. You're avoiding it - you can see that as a part of you looking out for you. It's an important part, and it shows you that you actually have agency: You can do something, and you _are_ doing something. It also means you could do something else. You can take more control and use your agency in a more directed way. See what actions you can take that make you feel better and more in control.

Resist the urge to blame yourself, but don't blame yourself for blaming yourself: see it like a natural reflex that is there, but that you want get more control over. That itch you don't want to scratch, in order to not damage your skin; when you find yourself scratching, forgive yourself for scratching it, and stop scratching.

Most of all, I'm not a professional. Find a professional to talk this over with. They can help immensely putting the your situation in context and figure out ways to interact with it that make you feel good. It works.

Thank you

You probably discovered why many SWEs are leaving the industry and going into things like carpentry. It’s nice to have control over the outcome of one’s work. It feels more honest than being a cog in an uncoordinated corporate (and let’s not forget — often juvenile and political) machine.

>I’ve thought about starting my own business but it’s too much hard work

Don't do it alone. Have a look at @jimnotgym's comment.

Yeah my last place was like this, and all the non-engineers sucked at their jobs leaving engineers to pick up the slack on everything from project planning to sprint planning, to engaging with users, gathering requirements, prioritizing tasks, etc.

This despite having an entire product team who was making all sorts of insane non-product decisions (technologies, programming languages, binary storage formats, vendors to outsource to, etc).

The product team was somehow too busy to make it to any meetings with tech leads & devs, despite seemingly not talking to users either since we were left doing so. We'd have 10hrs/sprint of planning meetings, and our product guy would show up for 30 minutes of one meeting. Unbelievable stuff.

Completely spot on from my personal experience. FWIW, I have seen this in every startup I've joined.

Separating things orthogonally into different functions/silos sounds like how stable and large companies are run. Sounds like a recipe for disaster for a startup.

Why do you think that is? Is it because the founders are inexperienced at running an organisation perhaps?

In many cases I believe this is caused by cargo culting big company practices and not realizing how fast you can move at smaller scale by cutting out unnecessary ceremony and empowering those who prioritize building and learning over talking and pontificating.

Yes, I suppose it is cause and effect. Inexperienced managers read about FAANG, or perhaps more likely Basecamp, and decide to copy it. Also having a ton of VC money means you can afford to hire non-productive people too early.

Yep. Google, Spotify, Amazon, Basecamp.

Been in a few places that turned the cargo cult to eleven. Someone brings an article about squads at Spotify and suddenly the team hierarchy changes. Someone discovers a blogpost about how desks on Amazon were made out of doors in the early days and suddenly all new desks are made of doors. Google releases Material design and we have to redesign the whole thing. And there’s also the playground slide and the plastic ball pool.

n=3 here but the amount of straight up nepotism I've seen makes my head spin.

I recently quit a job, without another lined up, at a startup where I couldn't even last a year. The CTO and the entire engineering management layer under him were all friends from high school.

You described the symptoms of psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists in a single sentence. Research these personality disorders. It will bring you peace and explain the majority of malfunctions in the world. Specifically look into the sociopath apathy empath triad.

Highly explanatory, certainly. And knowing about them is arguably much better than not knowing, but I'm not necessarily on board with "bring you peace".

I feel like I run into them a lot, and it's consistently awful handling it in practice, since they seem to delight in refining their skills at social and psychological manipulation, and they position themselves to use the mediocre herd as a weapon. Some methods of choice seem be:

* cheap, simple lies which take expensive, complex truths to sort out. Equivocating about descriptions used to challenge them.

* stand themselves next to someone/something highly regarded by the group and reframe attempts calling them on their nefariousness into an attack on that

* shameless and blatant denial of world descriptions where their behavior is anything but perfectly normal and justified. (As particularly prominently demonstrated by political leaders of certain major countries in recent years)

* introducing (or corrupting/extending existing) complex rule systems for purportedly noble reasons, then torture language or put forth extreme interpretations to find ways to claim their toxic bidding must be done, but 'It's not I who say that. That's the rules. We all have to obey the rules'. Particularly for justifying damage or conducting systemic coercion against their victims. (Harry Potter readers may wish to think of Dolores Umbridge, in this regard.)

I'm sure I'm missing several important ones too. If anyone has pointers on how to develop skills to reliably defeat these dangerous parasites, I'd love to know. Sadly I expect it's going to remain highly important skills for the foreseeable future.

I have dealt with it too. If you are someone of noble intent who is capable of feeling emotions and doesn't ride the apath line it's hard. Your goal should never be to defeat them, they will smell blood in the water and go after you relentlessly. It's how they operate.

The best advice I have is remain honest, don't play their games, document anything said in unrecordable media, and use the fact that they don't know how to stop being excessively brutal or recruiting others to do so against them if required.

No one has a recipe, each person operating like this has their own way of working. There are common exploitations they will use, but all you can do is laugh internally knowing their flaws. Their biggest weakness is they will destroy people unfairly and eventually cause enough damage to an institution that someone above them will realize those losses eventually. You can't call these things out, again you'll be a primary target. But you can easily get them on paper doing this.

Seems like sage advice, as far as it goes. Tough problem.

Thanks for raising the point, and know that this exchange inspired me to start reading up in greater detail.

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