Some reflections & the truth about startup ‘hustle’, from my point of view.
Why are millennials so anxious and getting burnt out quicker than ever?
A few things are clear, our generation has grown up in an era of extremely fast paced technology development. Our mobile phones are an extension of our hands. We are quick to get onto the next, hottest thing / gadget. We have a gazillion apps on our phones. We are in a constant state of info and image overload. We are tracking all our stats — e.g. HR, weight, steps, etc via our smart phones and gadgets.
We are sharing every piece of our lives, and knowingly and unknowingly consuming content that 1. either makes us feel bad about ourselves or 2. validates how shitty we are feeling (when the algorithms keep surfacing content about anxiety, when you watched like one piece of content on it on IGTV).
Compared to generations before us, we don’t stop work at 5PM.
Work comes with us. Everywhere we go, there it is.
Slack. Emails. Notifications. Alarms. Calls. Video calls.
With that comes a new sense of competition amongst millennials and amongst companies.
Who can do it the fastest? Who can work the hardest?
If you don’t respond to a 7PM slack message, then you’re considered not dedicated to the cause. I mean, the boundaries don’t exists anymore. That is until you forcefully place them back in. This is the life of millennial. It should not be a surprise that we are constantly on edge and burnt out. But this HAS TO CHANGE.
From Startup to Burn Out
5 years ago, I dived straight into a very early stage startup opportunity. With friends I trusted and had worked with before. It was a role of my dreams, to build operations of a start up from the ground up. I was in heaven — career heaven. I was totally built for this, I would say to myself. I ‘hustled’ day and night to make us have the best chance of winning, I ‘made things happen’. I was HR, I was investment & finance, operations and sales ops, I was also at times the team’s therapist, problem solver, firefighter — whatever you name it.
I guess women are expected to be multitaskers, and nurturers. After some time, I started to put aside my own actual career goals to be there for the team, and support them in their roles to keep the company moving in the right direction. I cared less and less about me. As a quiet overachiever, I needed to see this team win. We did good too. But me? Well I was not doing good. I made my life all about the company. I would be stressed to be point of getting flu-like symptoms for weeks on end. I would have panic attacks. I had terrible relationships — with my family, friends and partner at the time. I still put myself last. I slaved away.
One day, I walked into the office. I started to tremble, sweat, and palpitate, and could not find my breathe. I was afraid of the space. I turned around and ran to my car. I did not want to go back in, ever. I was traumatised by the office. I felt stupid for feeling that way but it was all happening out of my control. I ended up in hospital for what was a panic attack. I never went back to the office again.
In fact, I resigned.
I could not work more than 2 hours a day, hitting a mental wall most days. My exhaustion meant that I would be sleeping for days in a row, not able to find the energy to get up. Let me tell you, that is the most miserable feeling in the world!
I lost my originality, my drive, my creativity, my problem-solving mindset, my happiness, my confidence, my love for doing work.
ALL of this freaked me out even more as I was not sure if I’d ever be able to work or get a job ever again. For the first time in my life, I felt handicapped. Oh yeah and did I mention I also broke up with my partner during this time? Yes, well that happened too.
All I could do was take 2 months to retreat to my hometown KL, Malaysia, to live with my parents and grandma. I slept most of it. I ate good home cooked meals. I went to see my old friends and family. I tried to not think about going back to reality. In fact, I was almost going to do an ‘EAT PRAY LOVE’ thing. I mean what did I have to lose?
Addressing mental health head on
The thing is I had multiple mental, physical and trauma issues that I was not addressing. And had not addressed ever. I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and mild depression in 2015, although I knew deep inside I had it from my teens. I decided the best thing I could do is to focus on healing. So I did.
I mean it took a few more ER visits to get there. Was finally checked into Counties Manukau Mental Health, then Auckland Central Mental Health. This was the moment it all changed for me. I had the right psychiatric treatment, the right therapists and meds to kick start a new phase of tackling anxiety, depression and burn out.
I was discharged eventually and my new medication started to kick in. I felt I could see the light. I took lorazepam, clonazepam and sleeping pills to help me cope with remnant anxiety and insomnia. My hormones were all over the place, so I was back on track to getting those right too. I started to eat better, and took up CBT and mindfulness. Mindfulness ended up being the concept that saved me.
It took me a while to develop mindful habits. But when I did. I could not go a day without them. This includes meditation, breathing, catching my thoughts, calling out my overthinking — I would literally say ‘stop it monkey brain’, being aware of my emotions, being aware of my body and mind, journalling, gratitude diarising.. Etc there’s more. But I started with these few and it changed my life for the better.
When it came to work, I was grateful and lucky to have found work arrangements that worked for me & worked on great missions for society :) This time I have the tools to cope and the boundaries in place.
Nowadays, I do not work weekends. I do not check slack after 6PM (OK maybe sometimes I do!). I try to work when my mind is most energetic. I still feel tired most days. It’s almost like my brain is still only working at 55% of its capacity. Not sure how I got to that %, but it’s just not at the levels I used to be before. I can’t work 5 days in a row. No way. It’s just a killer. I tried it post burn out, and well I ended up napping for days after.
It’s now been a year since I left the job & company I loved, moved homes and took on some part time jobs and started a side project. I am still healing. As I look ahead to the rest of 2020, I think about how I still have the time to rest and look after myself. Love myself again.
Because when I get my energy back, I know I will be working to build the project of my dreams and for that I will need all the love, energy, light and passion in the world to guide me.
I am thankful to everyone I have met to date, as they have all taught me something along the way. The lessons learned are priceless. And I am no longer feeling like I have nothing to offer the world. Because I do. I am a woman, and my presence in this world means something.
I can’t give up now. As I have to forge the path for many after me.
Ending this piece with a line from my favourite poem, Desiderata:
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.