For the last few days, I've had inexplicable exhaustion paired with a burning feeling in my spine. I didn't know the cause, but it made it hard for me to focus on, or even start, anything. I could only lay on the couch and stare at the ceiling. I'd be stuck in a tangle of fear and frustration that made doing anything feel like a burden.
After doing some reading, I realized this was my body's way of telling me it felt burnt out. It was the hobbies I was doing for fun that were doing the burning. These hobbies are my writing, my drawing, and my making at a local makerspace. I had a painful time starting one of them, and when I did, right away I felt drained, miserable, and had to stop.
Why was this happening?
My Hobbies Couldn't Only be Fun #
Later on, in this book about burnout, one quote stuck out and seemed to explain it.
...my value as a worker and my value as a person have become intractably intertwined.
I was framing hobbies I once did for fun as things I had to do for my career/brand/public image. If a hobby couldn't bring my life success in some way, it seemed pointless or even wasteful. As if I should only write if I wound up writing for a publication, or drawing only if people wanted to buy my art.
Popular media in America spreads a message that anything we do has to have some business purpose. It's part of having such a work and consumer-focused culture. Especially for millennials in a tough job market that may need to monetize anything they can. Anything we do has to be a "side hustle" instead of something we do only for joy.
I'm only human, so that message was overwhelming my hobbies' original motivations. This isn't even new to me, and I touched on it with the "toxic answer" in my "About" page. The difference is I've forgotten all my original reasons for starting them. I'm doing them without remembering why, and they feel like a forced chore I wish I could ignore.
So for a while, I did that and ignored them. If my hobbies were becoming so stressful for me, why do them at all?
I'm not saying that having a side hustle is always wrong or unhealthy. I'm lucky my current job is enough to support myself with reasonable comfort. Many other folks my age aren't in this position. But in my case, this "side hustle" mentality is the less healthy and more miserable path. So I had to ask myself a tough question: what were my original reasons for starting these hobbies? Answering this is the key to escaping these feelings of paralysis and burnout.
Why Was I Writing? #
The only posts I've thought were "worth posting" were ones with wide appeal. These are less personal posts focused more on board ideas, current events, or technical material. To stand out from the crowd, I'd need to post fast and often. They'd need a powerful perspective with quirky and entertaining graphics. That'd be the only way someone like me could stand out, after all.
It's unrealistic to think I could write like that on a regular basis. So writing wound up feeling pointless.
But writing used to feel so vital to me. I looked over my older posts and found my favorites, like "You Can Be a Casual Blogger" and "How to be a Perfectly Unhappy Developer." They're not my favorites because people did or didn't read them. It's because they were important lessons I needed to note down to better remember them.
I was writing to see why the lesson was important, how to learn from it and make sure I didn't forget it. All my favorite writing pieces have roots in something personal. These posts rarely go viral, but they've helped me find, and stay on, better paths in life.
Plus writing them is plain fun. Where else can I mix life lessons with snide remarks about alligator pits and existential despair? When I've got that, I don't care all that much if anyone else publishes them.
Why Was I Drawing? #
In the last few weeks, I've tried to start making comics. I thought of doing "slice of life" strips about weird thoughts or moments in my life. I even had an idea for a series of web accessibility comics, to show off my humor and my expertise.
It seemed like a perfect combination of career and fun. So I wrote one about icon text alternatives that came out okay. But it took over a week of forcing myself to get up and get it done.
Why was making one comic so tough? My best guess is drawing comics takes a certain amount of planning. It needs dialog, perspectives, storytelling, logical and character consistency, and more. None of that's all too difficult, especially for something over 3-4 panels. But my mind found all this for making only one comic exhausting.
But before, when I starting drawing in high school, I drew random stuff in the moment. It could be crazy outfits I invented, random weapons I saw, weird emotions I'd started feeling, or inspiration from random objects I saw. For example, I once combined a random Facebook profile with a "leaning forward" pose I saw. Then I mixed some simplified angel wings I saw in some anime art, and some colored pencil for the hell of it.
My best guess for this is I like my drawing to be spontaneous and based on my feelings. I get enough logic and planning in everything else I do. Drawing helps me most when it's something I can go into without a plan and still love the outcome. Where I can add any weird or artistic idea and marvel at the result without caring if it "makes sense."
These aren't the kinds of drawings I can convert to a popular webcomic or side hustle. But they're the kind that gives me a powerful creative and emotional release. That helps my mental health and satisfaction a lot more than some webcomic success.
Why Was I Making? #
Even during the pandemic, makerspace members have shared photos of amazing new projects. These included custom-made display cases, custom embroideries, and even 3D-printed painted anime figurines. Meanwhile, most of my projects stick to the usual laser-cut artwork.
Seeing the attention and new applications of these other projects began to psych me out. I talked myself out of doing anything unless I felt it would blow the minds of whoever saw it. So, of course, I couldn't find the courage to start almost anything.
Before all this, the maker projects I enjoyed making were simple gifts. They were gifts for others or gifts for myself (in the form of apartment decorations). I never made them big or extravagant, but I tried to put thought into the art or words I laser-cut into my materials. Each one took thought and creativity to get right in such a simple format. What would the person getting this gift enjoy most? What would I like to see on my walls for the longest time?
The focus on meaning over material is why I enjoyed using the laser cutter so much. I liked my making as a way to give people (including myself) little reminders I was thinking about them. Projects don't always need to be awe-inspiring to do that. They won't attract crowds, but they'd make the people getting the gifts pretty damn happy.
Care and thoughtfulness were the main reason I was making these gifts. So why should constant innovation take priority over that?
The "Imagined Audience" #
There's a common theme of an "imagined audience" behind all this burnout. I was imagining some of the people I had to impress with my hobbies. It could be other professionals, future bosses, my community, or just anyone in the world. But those audiences are never there in reality. For me, they were projections of the pressure I put on myself to "be extraordinary."
But as I wrote in another blog post I wrote it for myself, it's okay to not be extraordinary. In fact, it's often better not to be.
The world cares less about your successes (and failures) than you think... by a magnitude or two.— Jesse Genet (@jessegenet) August 26, 2021
This isn't sad, it's liberating. Try more stuff.
This message is for any other younger folks feeling the same way. I'd ask you to remember the times you first found joy and meaning in your hobbies. Then ask yourself why you felt those feelings back then. This doesn't mean you shouldn't ever make them a side hustle. But ask yourself if it's for a real reason like that, or if you were trying to impress an invisible audience like me. Because that "audience" will never be impressed.
No matter what, always keep those reasons for starting in mind so you don't lose the joy they gave you. If you do, the burnout will hit you over time and before you realize it. Like me, you'll risk hating something you'd always loved without knowing why. That's one thing I wouldn't wish upon anyone.