You Matter More Than The Cause

A few years ago, I started thinking hard about the idea of “burnout.” It was no academic exercise: I was part of a high-profile Open Source community that was feeling the crunch, and the people I knew and cared about were suffering.

I say “community” instead of “project” or “job” because those words don’t do it justice. I belonged to a group of people that created a particular kind of product, and helped others get the most out of it. We had a charismatic founder who’d started the ball rolling, but within a few years it had outgrown him. His little backyard project accumulated hundreds of passionate contributors, a bunch of infrastructure, a few community conferences, and lofty long-term goals.

Many of us developed close friendships, and some built our work into lucrative careers. Thousands of volunteers worked to keep things running smoothly, and a growing number of people were paid to do it full time. But with more and more people noticing and benefitting from what the community did, the pressure ratcheted up… Which brings us back to the burnout.

While the outside world could see the growth and the success, insiders increasingly felt like the wheels were coming off. The work kept growing faster than we could keep up, overworked co-workers were losing sleep, and previously-happy planning meetings turned combative. A number of our best volunteers left, swearing they’d never return. Resentment started to build, as some of the volunteers questioned why a lucky few were paid to work on the project. The paid staff countered that they were on the hook for their work, unlike those easy-come, easy-go volunteers.

At best, we celebrated the workaholic 110% people and held them up as examples for everyone else. At worst, we started to treat healthy boundaries as a kind of betrayal, pushing out the folks who couldn’t afford to burn the candle at both ends. Looming above it all was The Mission. All of us cared about doing great things and helping others, and without realizing it we’d become convinced that dialing it back meant abandoning our ideals.

Anyone who’s ever contributed to a successful open source project or worked for a rapidly growing startup is probably familiar with that story. The details may differ — “volunteers” might be “community moderators,” the product might be a service, and the grand mission might be an IPO — but these pressures build whenever we feel we’re part of something bigger than ourselves.

The interesting part — to me, at least — is that my story isn’t really about an Open Source community at all. Instead of slinging code, I was part of a large Midwestern church. Instead of a prototypical Silicon Valley garage, it was founded in a suburban movie theater. And instead of a visionary CEO with a startup to flip, we had a pastor who wanted to help the less fortunate. The church drew on its huge pool of staff and volunteers to run soup kitchens, homeless shelters, free auto repair clinics for single moms, sports leagues for disabled kids, and… well, you get the picture.

Was my thematic bait-and-switch cheesy? Yes, but the pressure to do good, and to avoid disappointing the team, isn’t restricted to a religion, an ideology, or an industry. Whether you volunteer for a save-the-world nonprofit, play bass in a band, or burn the midnight oil to launch a web app, the same cycle of ratcheting demands, resentment, and burnout can be deadly.

I feel fortunate: Although it’s far from perfect, the particular community I was a part of invested a lot in building a healthier culture for its staff and its volunteers. The lessons it taught me about perspective, balance, and commitment have helped keep me sane through my second life in the tech industry.

Each of us has two roles to play in preventing burnout and repairing dysfunctional, overloaded communities. To help the people we work with and build a healthy culture, we need to celebrate them for who they are, not just the work they do. That’s doubly true when encouraging their workahalic tendencies benefits us. Am I willing to help a fried colleague reduce their commitments, even if their work is a boon for my team? When someone steps back from intense involvement or sets healthy boundaries, do I treat it as a normal part of being human, or a failure and a betrayal? The fear of losing colleagues’ respect or friendship can keep a well-intentioned person trapped, long after they’ve hit rock bottom.

If you’re the one that’s being crushed, the next steps can feel even harder. You have to look out for yourself, and say “No” when it’s needed. No mission, project, or community is big enough to sacrifice your health or well being; your responsibilities to yourself, your family, and your loved ones are just as important as a worthy cause or an investor’s profits. If a cause or a project can only survive by chewing you up, it deserves to die. David Hansson of 37 Signals doesn’t pull any punches in his advice to entrepreneurs who cultivate a culture of workaholics:

“If your start-up can only succeed by being a sweatshop, your idea is simply not good enough. Go back to the drawing board and come up with something better that can be implemented by whole people, not cogs.”

The good news is that communities, companies, and causes can change. If you’re on the edge of burnout, get support, scale back, and remind yourself that it’s OK. If you’re surviving but see others around you getting pulled under the waves, offer a helping hand and let them know: “It’s okay. You’re worth more than this work, and who you are is more than what you do.”

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