Avoiding burnout


Matt Kirk wrote his first book, Thoughtful Machine Learning in just nine months.

While it's a feat for anyone, it’s more so when you consider that he had a day job and freelance work on the side alongside taking classes for a Masters degree in Computer Science. Despite being someone who enjoys his work and likes to work hard, after the book he found himself burnt out for the first time. While burnout might seem natural for someone in his situation, it actually happens far more often than you might think.

Burnout is a perennial topic for software developers. Technical experts often contribute to open source software, or have a side project in addition to a day job or running a business. Others simply burn out trying to carve out a career that allows them to use their technical expertise.

It's an incredibly common problem.

Message boards are filled with threads of developers sharing tips about how to deal with it.  You also can find many blog posts from long time developers grappling with burnout.

That wick can burn so brightly at either than the flames begin to meet before they even know it. Or, the flame is burning because your daily work has become become drudgery as you do the same rote tasks over and over again. Your once happy job has become a grind.

And when the flame gets too close, the ramifications can be huge. Some silently seethe until they crumble, quitting their job or unable to do much for weeks or even months. Some walk away, scorching the earth behind them. A few have gone the 410 gone route.

Once burnout has arrived, it’s a sure sign things are out of whack. Obviously, prevention is a better choice because once burnout sets in, it’s much harder to dig yourself out of the deep hole that's been created.

The trouble is that burnout seems to sneak up on us. On the bright side, there are actually signs before burnout beckons.

Early warnings sings of burnout

On their own, one of these symptoms may not indicate burnout closing in but two or more make it far more likely. Or, even one of these if it’s causing a major disruption.

You feel creatively empty. You feel like you’re going through the motions rather than being engaged in your work and life. I went through this

It’s hard to do the small things. As Scott Pantall describes it,  “I feel overwhelmed by everything including simple things and things I love to do.”

Mood changes. This might seem fairly obvious but at times it's actually hard to tell that when your mood has changed. We might be prone to being short or getting angry easily far longer than we realize. A negative mood change that lingers can be a symptom of burn out.

Unfulfilling work. You’re constantly cleaning up other people’s messes but aren’t in charge of making decisions that reduce or eliminate them before they occur. It’s not just cleaning up after others, it’s feeling like you lack control over the situation. 

Sleep issues. You’re sleeping much less or have disrupted sleep which means you rely on copious amounts of caffeine or sugar to keep you going. 

You don’t want to leave the house or your social life has slowed to a crawl. A change in your social life or not wanting to face others is a good indicator that something is out of whack in your life. If you see other people, you have to talk about how things are going and then you have to admit to them — and yourself — that things aren’t going well. And that means you have to make a change.

You ignore your gut. There are always twinges but when you consistently ignore or do the opposite of your instincts, you're more likely to fall into a negative patterns including burnout.

When you're more susceptible to burn out

  • You’re prone to pushing too hard or saying yes too often.
  • You have perfectionist tendencies. 
  • You have a high pain tolerance. Being able to “suck it up” for a long time without crumbling can actually be extremely detrimental, making it much easier for burnout to grab you without seeing it before you’re too far in. 
  • Work style — you don’t understand your natural work style or you know how you work best but feel like you’re unable to follow it given work or client commitments. For instance, the style of one technical expert I’ve worked is nine months on with three months off for rest and creative rejuvenation. As you can imagine, this doesn’t go well with more traditional jobs where they’re unable to accommodate for the downtime like this. He does much better working for himself and yet, burnout still beckons unless he manages his projects and money so that he can take time away.
  • You have a popular open source project, especially if you don't have enough support (time or money).

The causes of burnout

  • Doing something you don’t enjoy.
  • Pushing too hard.
  • Juggling too many priorities at once.
  • Overdue for a change.
  • Undiagnosed health issue (mental or physical) that’s draining you.
  • Being unwilling to relax our rules or allow others to help us.
  • Adhering to the schedules of others that work against your nature.
  • Constantly cleaning up other people’s messes without being in charge of making decisions to reduce or eliminate these messes before they occur.
  • Saying yes too often, especially when you mean no.

What to do when burnout beckons   

  • Get creative rest.
  • Add constraints. Jim Gay has employed this technique by setting office hours, leaving the computer at home. Changing the way you work by adding constraints can help not only help you shift your routine but also help you step back to see if bigger or more long-term changes are needed. 

  • Write down your thoughts. Get them out of your head. When feeling overwhelmed, Scott Pantall writes a to do list. Seeing it on paper helps make things not seem as bad.

  • Have interests outside of your work. Often this means non-coding for technical experts. 

  • Ask for help. Sometimes you need advice or just need outside perspective.

  • Simplify. Often burnout can be a result of too many things coming at your at once. Streamlining your to do list by dumping some or reprioritizing can give you head space and time to find a balance or, help you identify the real cause of your burnout.

  • Take things one step at time.

  • Figure out what self-care looks like for you. It probably means in part that you need to pry your hands from the keyboard. At least for a little while.

  • Change something. I saw the signs of burnout creeping up on me recently. Once I slowed down, I realized that my business was overdue for a change. Making a shift in my business immediately got me grounded again, and my energy returned. Luckily, I was able to avoid burnout.

 When you’ve found yourself in the throes of burnout, there are plenty of ways to relieve it. Some folks quit everything, others create a more helpful routine. Whatever you do, the key is to find the particular combination that’s right for you.

What's Next For Bet On Yourself

Insight is hard. Sometimes you chase it like a dog after its tail and never get anywhere. And then suddenly, it appears and you catch it.

We want to think we can control the schedule of insight. In some ways we can influence it. We encourage it by clearing our schedule to have more brain space or welcome it through mindful practices like yoga and meditation.

Still, we can't really control it. This is hard, especially when we're desperate for insight, or an opening to show up.

I've felt this too. Even though I wish the a-ha moment would happen sooner, I'm always grateful whenever they make an appearance in my world. I recently had one of these moments. I've had my head down on my business. Things have been great, and super busy.


The ideas started to slow to a trickle and I felt something nipping at my heels. Feeling creatively dry, I took a step back. This pause felt like a big risk, but a necessary one. It helped me spot a pattern emerging in the careers of the technical experts I’ve worked with over the years. They all reached a point in their careers when they realized the traditional paths for advancement weren't taking them someplace they wanted to be.

The time away was essential. Insight returned. Gaining perspective helped me discover the the missing career path for technical experts.

With this insight I realized that what I’ve really been doing is helping people invent their own path. By focusing only on independents, I’d left out experts with more traditional jobs.

It's funny. We like to think of our careers as moving in a straight line. I've found at least for me, this to be largely untrue. Sometimes it takes false starts or time to discover the next step. Often our trajectory looks more like a squiggly line with many twists and turns than a ramrod straight kind of one.

My insight showed me that it was time to follow the next turn on my own path.

What's Next

Bet on Yourself is shifting to support all technical experts navigating an unconventional career path, whether that means a traditional job or working for yourself. I've been working with technical experts like those in machine learning, object-oriented design and more for the past three years, and it's work I very much enjoy. I look forward to working even more in-depth with them.

This shift means less focus on the general freelance life. If you're looking for targeted freelance advice you might want to check out Paul Jarvis, Brennan Dunn or Freelancers Union.

Bet On Yourself will still highlight your mindset, how to value yourself and how to promote your work. As a subscriber, you'll now also get perspective on how to package your expertise, navigate a career on your terms and have more meaning in your work.

If you want insight about your own career, you may find the new Orient Program useful. It's helpful as gut check for a decision you’re considering or if you're stuck and need outside perspective.

If you want to get helpful articles directly in your inbox, get on the list.


The Missing Career Path for the Technical Expert

You started hacking on technology thrilled with every stroke of the key, making discoveries with every commit. You went about solving problems, finding new challenges. You were happy for a while, until you hit a plateau. There was a choice to be made. Continue solving the same problems or start managing others. You tried it out, and hated it. Longing to focus on technology, not people, you turned to your open source project. When it became successful, you became an open source maintainer but ended up overwhelmed and burned out. Hoping to get back to doing work that fascinates you, you went work for yourself. Lacking experience running a business, you're crushed with all the decisions you need to make. You’re nearing burnout — again. It feels like you’re on a hamster wheel.

You begin considering going back to work for someone else.

This pain is all too familiar, affecting many knowledge workers. Peter Drucker predicted the rise of this new knowledge worker economy in 1959. In a seminal article in Harvard Business Review, Drucker argued that this shift would reshape the way we work. This modern economy calls for new career paths and models of management and yet, our models still draw heavily from the industrial revolution. 

What in means in practical terms are linear, rigid career paths that often constrict highly experienced professionals with little interest in management.

The details of your story may vary but for the most, it follows a familiar path. You travel along a default  career path until a decision point when you need to shift the trajectory. This typically means obtaining new skills like learning how to become a manager or business skills when to work for yourself. What you really want is to use and deepen your expertise. What you lack is a clear path to move forward along your desired trajectory.  And without an objective mentor, you’re more likely to choose an undesirable path, or worse, choose none at all, allow inertia to carry you along.

The longing

You long for the time — and space to continue sharpening those technical talents you worked so hard to acquire. You envision a professional life where instead of atrophying due to lack of use, your mastery deepens. Rote tasks are replaced with constant learning. If you work for yourself, you have support with the business side of your work. Instead of dealing with people problems, you’re able to follow those technical obsessions. You long to feel the rush of solving challenging problems again. Your discoveries have an impact on the companies you work with and your fellow developers. The work day is full of creative challenges you relish. You long to feel valued for your talents and well-honed skills. The learning is continual and interesting. Instead of a plateau, your career has never been better.

This what you long for. But you haven’t found the direct route yet.

Extrinsic rewards like money are nice, but what we really want from our careers is more intrinsic. We want meaning. In his classic book Drive, Daniel Pink argues that motivation and performance come from having autonomy, mastery and purpose. These three not only lead to better performance, but also meaning in your work. Being self-directed, doing work where you’re constantly learning with subjects matter you care about offers meaning, the intrinsic reward you seek. It’s relatively easy to get one or even two of these components, but having all three in your work can be tricky. Finding mastery in work is often easy for technical experts. But if forced to follow a prescribed path, those hard-won skills can atrophy leading to serious career dissatisfaction.

If you’re struggling to find a meaningful path that offers you all three components — you’re not alone. Unfortunately, it’s a common phenomenon.

My inbox has filled with folks burnt out, or pretty darn close.  They might be looking for a new job, others are considering working for themselves. Some even think about leaving technology altogether. They’re creatively bored, tired of hacking their own career path without much support. They’re overwhelmed with decisions and not sure what to do next. For the past three years I’ve been helping technical experts carve out a career path that offers them the autonomy and meaning they seek.

An emerging pattern

I grew up watching this pattern. It echoes my father’s career path. My dad worked on new product and vehicle design at General Motors (GM). Early in his career my dad decided he never wanted to become a manger. He didn’t lack motivation. In fact, it was the opposite. He was utterly obsessed with the possibility of what cars could do — the challenge of finding new opportunities and solving problems in new ways.

He just loved solving technical problems, rather than people problems.  At the time, corporations like GM were highly hierarchical with highly rigid, well-defined career paths. You moved up the ladder and pay grades linearly, gradually taking on more management responsibilities as you progressed. Lacking an interest in management, but highly specialized, my father was left to carve out his own career path, hacking away on engine design.

His projects focused on pushing the boundaries of what was possible with innovative cars like the Electrovair II, the first electric car unveiled to the world and cars that got 80 miles to the gallon. Over the course of his career, he earned GM three patents for engine components like an intake manifolds design. But his unconventional style and utter devotion to technical problems made him unpopular to decision makers at the company. Unwilling to conform, he became limited in his earning potential. His salary was $1 below the level that would’ve allowed him to receive annual bonuses. Even though his earnings were capped, my dad continued happily tinkering away on engine design until his retirement.

I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if there had been an alternative career paths for technically talented engineers like him. How might his career have turned out? And, how might GM have benefited if they supported his work more fully by funding it and him well? Would he have had even more meaning in his work? What might he have invented?

I encountered the lack of a career path for technical expertise again as the head of career development for a company of 250 healthcare professionals steeped in expertise. The early part of their career went swimmingly, as they immersed themselves in the field tackling new challenges until they plateaued. As their growth stagnated, they were still responsible with churning out the same work. While a few were able to continue honing their expertise with intriguing problems, most were ushered into a new role: managing others.

These experts muddled their way through a new manager training program. A few enjoyed learning these new skills but most simply saw their new duties as a distraction from their real interests: the technical object of their obsession. While some went on to be excellent managers, others faltered, becoming sidelined and stuck in their careers. Others, looking for more autonomy to deepen their mastery, opted to leave the company altogether to go out on their own.

It was during this job that I discovered the missing path for the technical expert. While there may not an existing road, you can create one of your own.

Carving out a new path

When we start our careers we may be uncertain of what we want. We allow managers or inertia to plow our path. It’s just easier. The rub? When we allow someone or something else to be in charge, it’s easier for stagnation to set in. The antidote to inertia is to veer off the well-trod path to carve out your own. An off-road adventure of sorts.

You off-road adventure gives autonomy, mastery and purpose — leading to meaning in your work. With broken or non-existent models, you need to take the wheel, and ownership of your professional life.  Instead of taking the path of least resistance, view  your career as an investment you make in yourself.

Taking ownership of your professional life may not be easy, but it’s ultimately more fulfilling that allowing someone else lead. And, it’s the path that’s more likely to get you where you want. Shifting your mindset from following a prescribed path to being in charge also helps clarify your why. Rather than shipping features on projects you care little about, being in charge of your professional path leads to more meaning in your career, and by association — your life. Instead of stagnation, you move forward again — this time in a direction of your choosing.

But sometimes you don’t know what you want — you only know what you don’t want. If you find yourself at this particular crossroad, you need to rapidly increase your self-knowledge. What makes you tick? Where do you need support? How do you narrow down your choices? Understanding what gives you the most meaning, where your expertise can best be applied and how to spread your work multiplies your impact.

Other times you know what you want but can’t see a clear path to make it happen. You’ve never done this before and you’re too  close to the problem anyway. You could ask a colleague or your boss but they’re too close to the problem too.

In order to avoid stagnation, and take control over our work, we must imagine what our future self wants. To do this, we need to do something psychologist Dan Gilbert refers to as affective forecasting. Through this research, Gilbert found that biases like focalism, project bias and impact bias get in the way of predicting those future desires and experiences. This means our projections about the future are inherently biased so we’re not always the best advocates for our future selves. One of the best ways to circumvent our bias is to have someone acting as an objective proxy. Finding one is essential for your professional shift.

Finding yourself at a crossroads, you’re unsure how to proceed. Should you try something new altogether? Maybe you have an idea but you  don’t know if you should take the risk to make the change. Will it pay off? You’re not sure you can trust your instincts. You need a gut check, you just need to find an objective source.

A new way forward

Watching the pattern repeat with my dad and the experts I was charged with supporting, made me want to solve this problem. It’s why I want help companies understand how to optimize the options for their technical experts — and, to help technical experts carve their own path.

Here’s what I know.

You can have a fulfilling work life.

It’s going to require change — which means new ways of thinking and behaving. It can feel insurmountable. But it isn’t. You can do it. You just have to start believing it can be different — and then take a step to create it. Rather than deferring to the default, take the chance, lean into your expertise and bet on yourself. 

How to Price Your Training Course

There’s a message I get in my inbox every month or so.

"Have you ever done a corporate training event? Just got a lead and looking for some tips on how to proceed.”

The emails often start with this general question and quickly turn to pricing.

"Basically I just got contacted by a big company about doing a course onsite, which I've never done before. How do you look at these kinds of deals from a pricing perspective? I have no idea how to go about deciding if this is a $1,000 or $10,000 or even $100,000 service!”

Yet another email about pricing...

“How on earth do I price training their developers for a week?"

Once you’ve achieved some level of expertise and reputation, companies will often come calling. They want you to train their people using your expertise. You have the expertise but you have no idea how to price it. Do you price it low so that you can gain experience? Do you price it high in case you underestimate the amount of effort it will take to create and deliver your workshop? Pricing can also get you straight into imposter syndrome, no matter how much expertise you’ve accumulated.

Here’s how I respond

I don’t have enough information about the situation, your expertise and what the client is looking for to give an accurate estimate. However, I can offer a perspective on how to think about it.

I assume you've done your research to see what others are offering that might be comparable but since this is your first time, you're still unsure how to price this. If you haven't googled around a bit, do that first before reading the rest of this message. Having this information will give you a sense of the landscape.

1. Start with your motivation

It’s tempting to start with what you’re doing and the price but resist that temptation. There are many reasons you might want to offer a private workshop. Get clarity by asking yourself why you want do this training.

Is it to...

     - Make money?

     - Gain experience as a trainer?

     - See if you want to do more training?

     - Build credibility?

Knowing your main reason for doing doing a private workshop provides clarity on pricing. So for example, if you want to gain experience as a trainer but haven't done it before, you might choose to go on the lower side of your range. (See more on this below.) But if you making money is your primary goal, then you might want to go higher in your range and be less open to negotiating. You can have more than one goal but be careful — having too many goals can make pricing your course much harder as they compete with each other.

2. Understand the value from your client’s perspective 

Here’s a common mistake: using your hourly rate for pricing. The method goes something like this: you estimate the number of hours it will take you to complete, then you multiply this with your hourly rate. Don’t start here. Using your hourly rate will often lead you to price your course too low. Using your hourly (or daily) rate focuses on the fee rather than the value.

Before giving a price, asking you a few questions can help you understand the real value of your work to the client. These questions are best to be asked during your initial meeting. If you’ve already had that meeting, send a follow-up email to your client contact.

    - What will be different once your team is trained? 

    - What will these new skills allow your team to do?

    - How will the new skillsets or knowledge support the business?

Thinking about the impact of your expertise will have on the individuals and the companies will help you think about the benefits to the client. For example, if your training makes their team more efficient, that can mean ultimately mean more revenue. Let’s say they increase revenue by $250,000 — your course at $10,000 or $50,000 would be a wise investment.

Thinking from a value-based perspective helps you focus on the impact you’ll and ensures you don’t price yourself too low. A great book on this topic is Value-Based Fees: How to Charge - and Get - What You're Worth.

3. Consider the context  

Now that you understand the real value of your work to the client’s business, it’s time to consider more tangible factors. Things you might want to consider are: industry, type of company, type of training, the local area and how you got the lead.

Obviously, a non-profit will have a much lower budget than a company in the financial services or technology. Technical trainers can often charge a higher premium than someone who offers training in other areas like say marketing or even leadership. Take into account the local area. If you live in a big, expensive city, the prices are going to be higher than if you live in a small town or suburban area. If the training is in another country, be sure to think about currency differences. Finally, consider the origin of this lead. Since they came to you, there’s a good chance the company is doing well and they have a training budget so they won't expect to pay rock bottom price. Also, if you have an existing relationship with them or someone who knows them, this bodes well.

4. Let’s start pricing

Now that you know why you want to do something, you understand the value to the client and you’ve thought about the context let's add you into this equation to set the price for your course.

- Start with the lowest price you'd do the training for. I call this the resentment number. It's a number at which you'd feel like the work wasn't worth your time. Hence, resentment. Never price below this number. If a prospect tries to negotiate the work to this number, stand firm. If you can’t resolve it and the client won’t negotiate, walk away.

- Now think about a number that would make you really happy. This isn't "I'm going to be a millionaire" kind of happy. It's more like you’d be really content. This number is your ideal number.

- With your range set, (resentment) to (ideal) number - now you can think about the right number, again keeping in mind your goal for booking this work. A tip for finding this number: It's often the amount that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable but you can still say without feeling like you're going to throw up. If this is your first time doing this training, you might want to go somewhere in the middle or to the low end - again, depending on the main reason for wanting to book this.

Hopefully by now you’ve a number in mind or at least a range.  Let me know how your course goes!


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