What a Harvard Psychiatrist says about burnout and performance

In: Mindset

We spend all of our time expressing ourselves. We pour ourselves into our creative work and then we hit publish – awaiting the response.

We hope the response is good! When it is, we feel validated. We feel loved. But when it isn't, we feel judged – even unloved.

We know this isn't healthy. But for a lot of creators, our feelings of self-worth are so wrapped up in the performance of the things we publish that our emotional health mirrors how well our content is received.

And this is a recipe for disaster.

I explored this topic in an interview with Dr. Alok Kanojia (Dr. K), a Harvard psychiatrist behind the YouTube channel HealthyGamer.

Dr. K is a recovering video game addict who has dedicated his life to the growing, global mental health crises. HealthyGamer helps creators improve their mental health and, as a result, their content.

This is one of the most dense and important interviews we've done, and I can't do it justice by summarizing it in one essay. But I wanted to highlight some of the most impactful ideas I took away from the conversation.

Separate yourself from your performance

I often get caught in a "better or worse" trap. At any given time, I have some feeling of whether the business is doing better or worse – but this feeling is completely skewed by recency bias. If my latest video underperforms, I feel worse. If I have a Tweet go viral, I feel better!

Zoom out a week, a month, or certainly a year – any one piece of content is not at all indicative of where the business is trending. And yet...at any given moment, I am feeling better or worse, depending on how the latest few bits are performing.

This isn't just a trap just because of the times when things feel worse – it's a trap because of the times when things feel better too. If I'm feeling better, I'm trying to diagnose what happened so that I can chase that next emotional high. The more success I experience, the harder it gets for things to feel like they're getting better. So I'm spending more and more time in the "worse" place. And I'm not alone in this – this is why people take increasingly larger risks (because they need increasingly higher rewards).

It's the hedonic treadmill. The theory says that humans quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. It's what makes us resilient to bad situations, but as you experience more success, expectations (and desires) rise at the same time. So more success does not result in a permanent increase in happiness.

That means that the performance of your content will not have a permanent, positive impact on your emotional well-being. You can experience temporary boosts, but they will just leave you thirsty for the next high (which gets harder and harder to achieve).

This is bad news for those creating from a selfish place. If you're publishing for those feelings of validation, you're running on the hedonic treadmill.

Instead, you need to be creating from that place of pure expression where the joy comes from the activity itself – not the result.

You can control the activity. You cannot control the result.

Breaks aren't the solution

My best solution to burnout has always been to disconnect from the machine and "take a break." Stop doing the activity itself (creating) and allow myself to recharge the batteries.

That may work to some degree, but Dr. K has a different explanation:

"It's not about taking breaks. It's about the stress that you onboard on a daily basis needs to be offloaded on a daily basis. So you need to hit this dynamic equilibrium where you feel good every day."

The problem is most creators aren't offloading the negative stress. The activity that often makes us feel good (creating) is what leads to the stressor that makes us feel bad (negative feedback). That negative feedback may be the literal response you receive (trolls, disagreement, meanies) or it may be the LACK of feedback you had hoped for.

In any case, we tend to discount the positive emotions in favor of the negative emotions. Have you ever allowed one negative comment to cancel out ten that are positive?

Our minds are biologically wired to detect threats – and negative feedback is biologically felt as a threat. As a result, we lose our emotional equilibrium, feeling more of the negative stress. And when the activity we engage in to create a POSITIVE feeling (creating) is what generates the messages of threat (feedback), we may take a break from the thing that can help us OFFLOAD stress so that we don't onboard more of it.

So the solution isn't taking a break. The solution is to create a better system for how you receive and manage negative feedback.

Managing negative feedback

Negative feedback is going to happen. In fact, you want some degree of negative feedback, because that is a sign that you will also have positive emotional resonance.

Negative feedback isn't the enemy – indifference is the enemy.

That doesn't mean negative feedback isn't hard to deal with. So Dr. K's recommendation is to prepare yourself for feedback before accepting it.

"Human beings want to be able to do something about their problems. This is a very important part of human psychology, where even feeling like you are doing SOMETHING will drastically change the way that you deal with negative situations. So if we look at content creators, if it's 11:00 at night, and I'm on the toilet and I'm looking at YouTube comments, there's nothing actionable I can do. So I receive that emotional insult without actually doing anything about it. So then it just stays there and festers."

I think about this like stepping into a bear trap. If your boredom or instinctual desire for dopamine tells you to open up your Notifications and read the comments, you may unknowingly be stepping into a bear trap of negative feedback. And if you're not in the frame of mind to engage with that in a healthy way (e.g. look for the actionable bits) then it will create negative stress.

This may seem small, but we're in a near-constant state of receiving feedback. The more we publish, the more likely it is that at any given time, there is some bit of negative feedback waiting for us. We're better equipped to deal with this in a planned feedback session rather than 10-second bursts throughout the day.

Surrender your hope for assurances

People look at entrepreneurs as risk-takers, but I think that's a misnomer. Entrepreneurs (including creators) identify opportunities for creating massive upside potential while minimizing downside risk.

The more that I have to lose, the more careful I am about capping my downside risk. In fact, I'm often looking for assurances that disastrous outcomes can't happen.

But Dr. K stopped me:

"So there's one really damning word, okay, which is the problem with your question. 'How do I ensure?' Ensure is the problem. You can't ensure. This is what creators are looking for, right? They're looking for a guarantee of success in the future. Show me what the guarantee of success in the future is and I will do it. But [you] can't predict the future. You can't ensure success."

The problem with chasing assurances or believing in guarantees is that if they don't happen (and they might not happen) then we lose our motivation for the pursuit. If we believed we were guaranteed an outcome, but we didn't get it, what was that effort for?

Once again, we can't pin our emotional well-being on an outcome. We have to instead find the pursuit we enjoy and surrender to the outcomes.

I'll leave you with this final quote:

"All you can do is the best that you can do. And it's awesome, because then you'll say, okay, I'm going to give it 8 hours today. I'm going to do the best that I can. And then as you relax, as you calm down, as you break free from all the anxiety of success, tomorrow you come back to actually the original version of content creator that you were. And this is the big irony with content creation...Every single content creator I've ever talked to was free from expectation at the beginning. They're like, 'There's no way this is going to work. I'm going to do it because I love it.' And then the crazy thing is, it is that freedom from expectation that allowed them to become successful because they were so connected with themselves. They made this beautiful content, they were super connected, and then they kept making that kind of stuff. They tapped into that energy, and the Internet loved it."

Have fun making stuff this week.

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Written by
Jay Clouse
I'm the founder of Creator Science. Through its newsletter, podcast, membership, and YouTube channel, Creator Science helps you become a smarter creator.
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