Origins of Instant Career Burnout

Why did I enter this profession? What was I thinking?

What image comes to mind when you think of career burnout? You’re probably picturing a middle-aged man or woman, who has long been engaged in a particular line of work. Exhausted by the demands and frustrations of their profession, they’d like to either switch careers, launch a new business or else retire.

Whatever flame of enthusiasm — hopes, dreams, ideals — they may have had in regard to their work, has long since burnt-out. This is not just job burnout, but the more serious malady of career burnout.

Strange to say, there’s something akin to burnout for people just beginning a career! We shall refer to it as I.C.B. (Instant Career Burnout).

The primary cause of I.C.B. is disillusionment. Of course, to be disillusioned, we must first be under the sway of an illusion. It begins when we are drawn to a particular field because it has a certain symbolic appeal. There lies the hidden magic, the mysterious siren song that beckons us to steer in the direction of that profession. (We’ll offer some examples of symbolic appeal, in a moment.)

But here is the rub: upon finally being qualified to enter that field — and starting to engage in the quotidian tasks endemic to it — its symbolic appeal completely vanishes! The honeymoon is over and we find ourselves wedded to a career in which we have little or no interest.

Were we able to illuminate our feelings and thus understand the psychological factors that drew us to our profession, we would come to know ourselves more deeply. Alas, after disillusionment, most people still do not know what hit them. They’ve discarded, with the bathwater of disillusioning experiences, the newborn wisdom that they might have gained.

There have been stories, plays and novels written about disillusionment — in all areas of life, from romance to business. But there’s been very little formal psychological analysis, especially in regard to our newly named malady, I.C.B. That is  surprising, since disillusionment is a major form of misery.

The Disillusioned Biologist
An example comes to mind. In college, I attended a course on symbolism and myth in everyday life. The professor described a student who wished to become a cellular biologist so that he could study the transport mechanisms of cells. I.E., he was interested in how a cell knows what to allow to enter its walls and what not to allow in. After years of study in high school, college, graduate school, and finally getting his own laboratory, the fellow was now able to study this biological problem. Alas, he then immediately lost interest in cellular biology.

My professor contended that what his student had really been interested in was working out a certain problem of selfhood. The student wanted to know how he could maintain a certain independence and self-sufficiency (which was pictured by the cell wall), while still being open to other people (represented by the cell being semi-porous.) Yes, it was all symbolic. Obviously, he was not going to find an answer to the problem of self and other by studying cellular transport mechanisms. He really needed to pursue a philosophical investigation. When he intuited that cellular biology was not really capable of answering his question, he immediately lost interest in it. As to whether or not he was able to now find a new meaning in his career, is another story.

The Appeal of the Law

Over the years, I have been acquainted with quite a few ex-lawyers who had suffered from I.C.B. A career as a lawyer had strongly appealed to them. It would certainly have had to, considering the obstacle course to that goal — from getting into law school, three years there while incurring a heft student loan debt, passing the Bar Exam, getting their first job as a lawyer, and then grinding away at their first job, producing billable hours.

What interests us here is not those who became satisfied with their choice of law as a profession, but those who experience I.C.B. When asked why they had gone into law in the first place, they would offer you a host of reasons, from the fact that successful lawyers earn good money to various idealistic notions of justice and defending those in need of defending.

But, based on the lawyers I’ve known, who have suffered from I.C.B., it would appear that something more was at stake in their original desire to become a lawyer. At a certain point in life, it is natural for everyone to have questions about one’s legitimacy a person. And so, after the salad years of high school and college, one asks oneself: “Is my life self-centered and egotistical or is it justified and lawful? Is my life a chaos of different interests and desires? Or does it have a form, structure and identity? I.E., is there a higher law governing what I do?”

There is a conflation occurring here of man-made laws and law in some ultimate sense — divine law, cosmic law, the Logos, etc. That law can be something ultimate and absolute and not merely about things like traffic tickets, property rights and having to pay taxes, is hard for many people to understand. Similarly, it is hard for many people to understand how orthodox Jews would feel inwardly obliged to kiss the Torah, which they take as the embodiment of God’s law. But even though law has a degraded sense in modern times, it is still a major category of human reality and cannot be dismissed, at least psychologically.

Obviously, working as a lawyer cannot legitimize one’s life. Only an inner shift to a life of meaning and purpose can give one’s life form, structure and legitimacy. I.C.B. hits when the new lawyer realizes that having a career involved with the law is not going to legitimize his or her existence. On the contrary, working at as a lawyer is a job like anything else. At that point, they will seek a different meaning for their work, which could be anything from getting rich to viewing their work as a calling. There are many possibilities here.

The Notion of a Calling

The relation that we have to the work we do can change quite a bit, over time. A woman might, for example, enter the teaching field hoping to educate and awaken young minds. But, do to the obstacles that she encounters, decide that I  all about putting in the years until retirement and meanwhile making the best of a bad situation. Such a shift in motivations is unfortunate, but rather common.

Career motivations, like life itself, is like an elevator. If we do not go up, we are sure to go down. To go up would be to shift the meaning of what we do to a higher level. Let us take the example of the disillusioned teacher. The usual Hollywood idea is that she would discover that she had been doing good all along. That is the theme of dramas like Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone episode “Changing of the Guard” and the film “Mr. Holland’s Opus.”

But, there is another possibility. In Kierkegaard’s book “Purity of Heart,” he says that you either work for results or because it is intrinsically meaningful to engage in that activity. Having let go of whatever motivations we may have had — be they symbolic or practical — something new may arise in us: the work becomes valued for its own sake. When work is intrinsically meaningful, we aren’t overly concerned whether we have been successful in our objectives.


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