Discover more from Everything is Liminal
Burnout should not be the baseline
On coasting. Also known as the slowdown, and sometimes known as the WTF am I doing with my life, middle-aged edition.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, I turned my Linkedin open-to-work status off. It had only been visible to recruiters, but I’ve had it turned on for years—mostly to keep my options open to see what was out there during the pandemic tech hiring boom, and then out of curiosity to gauge the change in velocity of messages from recruiters and hiring managers during this current downturn. Even though switching my status has changed really nothing, it was still a very intentional act, perhaps more symbolic than anything.
A few months ago I wrote that I’ve come to think of 2023 in two parts: before Korea and after Korea. I would be wrapping up a few contract jobs by mid-April and I was looking forward to a real break. I used the timing of my trip as a benchmark to see how I felt about my career in design when I returned.
It’s been 4 weeks since I’ve been back. I remember ruminating that I would be disappointed if the trip didn’t change me, even thought I wasn't sure what that even meant. And, has it? Decisively, yes. There is so much life to experience out there and I came back knowing that I didn’t want a job or a career to define my self worth anymore. Aside from a few quick freelance projects, I’ve spent this month doing all the things that I convinced myself I never had time for. Reading books, spending more time with people, writing, planning, taking daily walks, pursuing some personal projects.
This has been a privilege and a luxury, the simple pleasures that I felt I was endlessly chasing. But the biggest change is something that is not quantifiable in time or hours. It was a change in priorities that is earned only through some soul searching to align my values with my time. The “old” me would be racked with so much anxiety about the instability of my current state of (under) employment, but for the first time in my life, the anxiety is not there. It sounds so simple, like I just snapped my fingers and all my anxieties were gone one day, but in reality took months of slow unraveling and changing my relationship with work and money.
I am working on letting go of so much.
The need to grind.
The need to aspire to bigger job titles and higher salary goals.
The need to stay in an industry that I no longer want to work in.
The need for a full time job (for now, at least).
The need to sustain the illusion that I can do it and have it all.
Burnout should not be our baseline. And yet so many of us operate in that mode in perpetuity. I was doing it for years until I had the luxury of time to ask myself “why.” If you’ve been reading Everything is Liminal from the very beginning (this newsletter marks six full months on Substack!) then you may remember that I started writing again back in December of 2022 because I suddenly had more time—not by my own choice, initially. Sometimes we need that external push to force a pause for reflection, otherwise it’s too easy to keep going instead of really examining why we do what we do. Inertia is always easier than change.
I know what was driving the need to work all the time—not even in one job, but often two and three and sometimes simultaneously all at once until we closed down our bakery business a few years ago: the fear of scarcity and instability from years of freelancing and being a small business owner. In particular, the weight of being the breadwinner in the family can be a burden to bear. I was so scared of not being able to support my family that I would take on freelance projects and work another five hours after coming home from the office. I worked through illnesses and grief, and used it as a distraction. I was basically hoarding work and never saying no. I did this for nearly two decades.
I feel fortunate that I can take this slowdown financially and take on projects selectively, but this didn’t come without many frugal sacrifices that I sometimes now regret. It can be hard saying “no” to your children. I used to say it a lot when they asked for things when we were out, even for the littlest of treats when they were younger. It can be a drag bringing the same lunch to work every day or eating 98% of all our meals at home. I’m not sure that saving so aggressively and choosing it over some things we could have enjoyed then, was worth it, even as it’s allowing me to slow down now. In one of my friend groups I am known as the “responsible” one. How boring.
On the professional side, it is hard letting go of what has been your identity your entire adult life; this letting go of your ego when your peers are reaching bigger titles and you’re still comparing career achievements and accolades (I really need to get off Linkedin). Maybe this gets easier with age? Currently, this is what I’m still working on untangling; it feels like the last piece that I’m still holding onto. If I walk away from my design career at this point, at this age, in the field of UX and product, it might be very hard to come back. I can’t take my desires to leave the industry lightly, but this industry moves so fast, and it’s not the current state of tech that scares me, it's the rate of change that seems unstoppable.
Maybe it’s a good time to leave.
Part of the burnout is the effort and time that is required to constantly keep up, to learn new tools, new methodologies, new tech. It’s spending time reading industry news and not only being immersed in it, but also consumed by it, just so I feel like I can do my job well. Sometimes you get paid for this investment in time, but often you don’t. In the past I thrived on it, but in the last two years I’ve become more disillusioned, ambivalent about my part in feeding this machine, and even designing digital products that will eventually replace people in their jobs. Is this what I want to spend my life doing for the next ten years?
When I was traveling in Korea with my family, my cousin, who is close to my age, was slammed with unexpected work deadlines during our trip that had her stressed, working around California time zones.
“I don’t really mind this crazy work schedule right now, even though it’s eating into the time I can explore here,” she would tell me when waking up from a nap after being in meetings since 6am Korea time.
“It’s better than the alternative.”
“Oh, you mean like being unemployed. Like me.” I offered to finish her sentence.
It sounds like it could have been an uncomfortable exchange, but it really wasn’t. But there is this tiny bit of awkwardness mixed with some defensiveness thrown in whenever I have to answer the question of what I’m up to these days. Sometimes I struggle with what to say. Sometimes it feels like there’s a stigma to taking an extended break. The idea about a “sabbatical” when I first started this Substack six months ago was sort of a joke. If you’re lucky, you get paid to take an extended leave of absence from your job to pursue personal or professional explorations. I’m not getting paid; I’m not even leaning on any kind of severance or big tech money. I joke to my friends that even this is on-brand.
But over the weekend, in an anniversary weekend that had me reflecting about the choices my brother made throughout his life, I thought about his proclivity for overworking in order to provide for his family. I know that in his case, it also came from a place of fear. I have one more year left before this nest is empty. Even though I vowed right after he died to not make similar life choices and let work take over my life, it’s taken me nine years to have the guts to slow down and say no. In fact, I ran and did the opposite and consistently worked 14 hour days as a distraction to numb everything. I feel like I’m finally honoring his memory by doing what he could not. He never gave himself permission to fully live his life. I think I’m finally giving myself permission to live mine.
To close out AAPI Heritage month
As we wrap up AAPI heritage month, I hope you will indulge me in a little self promotion (well, it’s not my project, but my youngest): a website that celebrates prominent AAPI women in history. It all started with a few drawings that she did a few years ago of Breonna Taylor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I was really taken by these portraits and encouraged her to draw more. When she had the idea of wanting to draw prominent Asian American women in history, she realized that she didn’t really know who to draw because it’s not something that is taught in school curriculum. This research project is a work in progress and she’s still tweaking and will add to it; she hopes that it can serve as a resource for others.
Everything is Liminal is a reader-supported publication. If you would like to receive new posts and support my writing, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.