I’ve been writing a post forever on burnout – a rather serious condition, and one that I wanted to warn my students about – but I am by now burnt out even thinking about it. Too much of a good thing does you no good. Μηδὲν ἄγαν, as someone said. Superflua nocent. The other night I decided to give myself some extra calcium by way of yogurt, a cup of which contains 40% of your daily calcium dose. I had three cups thereof and ended up cramping all night. Turns out too much calcium does something to your magnesium levels, as a result of which your legs cramp.
Now, it’s not as if I force-fed myself the yogurt. I actually felt like eating it at the time, and the quantity seemed absolutely right. It’s only afterwards that I came to doubt my decision. Funny, those decisions always seem right at the moment you make them…
According to some psychologists cited on the Wikipedia burnout entry, there are twelve steps on the road to peril, and it’s not necessary to take them in the order below:
- A compulsion to prove oneself
- Working harder
- Neglecting one’s own needs
- Displacement of conflicts (the person does not realize the root cause of the distress)
- Revision of values (friends or hobbies are completely dismissed)
- Denial of emerging problems (cynicism and aggression become apparent)
- Withdrawal (reducing social contacts to a minimum, becoming walled off; alcohol or other substance abuse may occur)
- Behavioral changes become obvious to others
- Inner emptiness
- Burnout syndrome
Have you been down this road? I have. It all starts with the desire to prove yourself worthy – as if you are not already. But the harder you try, the more elusive the goal. Things become especially painful when you aspire to be like someone else, because you’re your own person and can’t be anyone else. I am not saying that we should not be inspired by other people, just that trying to reproduce exactly what they did to become great may not work for you. And you neglect your own needs, as a result.
An example – once upon a time, I thought something was seriously screwed up with me, because I couldn’t sit down and study for 10 hours straight. I’d force myself to do it, though, because this is what I thought was the essence of being a student and a scholar. You read all those article about people being disciplined and devoting a predetermined portion of their day to study. Well – I can do it, provided that I take frequent breaks and 15-minute naps (the naps work wonders for me but may not work for someone else). It’s essential, in my case, that the breaks be spontaneously taken; if I set a time for the break, I keep thinking about it and everything goes downhill. The break may be in the form of quick stretching (which I just did) or of boot review, but I have to have it.
Can you overdo the breaks? Not if they are spontaneous; yes, if you are bored. To me, boredom is a wall, and I have to find a way around it by reading seemingly unrelated stuff and talking to people (say, on the SBP blog). Amazing breakthroughs may come as a result of random discussions.
So for me, the right balance between seriousness and levity works best because I am inclined to both. Disturb this balance, and intellectual cramps ensue. I think this is the case with everyone, although the exact proportions vary with each person. What say ye?