Shot by @sandynicholsonphoto

The choices we have to make (or, maybe burnout is a gift).

Over the last couple months I’ve been struggling with the realization that I cannot, in fact, have it all.

Every extra hour put into work is an hour not spent with someone you love.

Tonight’s 8pm espresso is tomorrow’s 2pm crash.

I am not immortal, or invincible. I am remarkably fragile. Every time that I lurch to have more — I end up on the knife’s edge of burnout.

Choose 3.

This is the advice that I got from my friend,who got it from her parents. In life you can choose three things to prioritize. Beyond that, the quality of all three of those things begins to drop so significantly that it’s almost not worth doing them.

Choose 3, she said.

No, I retorted.

Until I realized that I only had three things left.

My 3.

  1. My relationships. My partner is the most compassionate, generous, and brilliant person I’ve ever met. My family is my foundation and my compass. My friends are a constant source of energy and inspiration. Moments spent with all of them are priceless.
  2. My health. I am in an active battle over the right to rule my body. It takes immense discipline, it makes me scared often, but I think that the tide is turning in my favour — slowly.
  3. My Media. This is what I was born to do: creating in service of social good. I have my dream job, with my dream team. Most importantly — we do real good. I will never stop fighting, tooth and nail, to keep this dream alive.

Walking back my “manic ambition”.

Being forced to “Choose 3”, and realizing how hard it is to even keep those three things afloat, has been truly revelatory.

You see between the ages of 16–19(?) I was, what my father referred to in retrospect as, “manically ambitious”. Obsessed with the career ladder and the success of my projects at all costs. I was, and in some ways still am, addicted to the praise and sense status that came with recognition for success.

As that person, I didn’t get who didn’t have the title “CEO”, MP, or Professor. I assumed that they had fallen short of reaching the top of their game. If they didn’t have a fancy degree — they didn’t have the capability. If they weren’t the CEO — it’s because they weren’t the best.

I paid lip-service to the idea that people choose different routes to happiness in life — but I didn’t believe it implicitly. I understood it in my head — but I didn’t really get it.

I was, to put it precisely, a judgmental a**-h***.

Maybe, though, they made the right choice.

Going through moments in the past year where I was forced to make choices between work, health, and love — I realized that I had been completely wrong for so many years.

And I know what you’re thinking: “An 18-year old man being wrong about what it means to live a happy life? Impossible!”.

But alas, it’s true. I was wrong.

I began realize, not just intellectually, but in my heart.

I started to reflect on the joy that I might feel if I spent my days working on a problem, left that problem at work, and spent the rest of my evening bantering with my friends.

Or the peace that I’d experience if I found a way to make a subsistence, and then spent the rest of my life meditating, eating good food, and meeting new people.

No praise, no title — just peace and joy.

Is burning out just taking the red pill?

The way we talk about burnout is incredible. We talk about it like the plague. Like some encroaching disease.

I can imagine a balding man sitting on a lawn chair outside a bar with a smoke nestled in his lips responding to my timid inquiry into the whereabouts of a hypothetical guy named Dave.

“Ya didn’t hear? The burnout got ‘im”, the balding man would say.

It carries the following pathological definition (which I wrote):



A hit that one takes while climbing the career ladder that knocks them off the ladder so badly that they cannot ever again climb to that same height.

Wow. The end of the world is nigh.

But I’m starting to rethink burnout

One of the best things about “burnout” is that people use it as a chance to take a break.

I almost burned out at the end of July — and I used August to take my foot off the throttle for a second. When I did, I realized how much joy and peace is in those other things. Somewhere on the ground, below the ladder.

So, maybe burnout is just taking the red pill? Instead of being knocked off the ladder so bad that you can’t climb it again — maybe it’s just deciding not to.

Maybe burnout is just an opportunity for people to get a perspective on what’s valuable in life, what brings them joy, and what stresses them out. Maybe that perspective is all they needed to choose differently. Not to pursue success — but to measure happiness in a completely different way.

Maybe, when you burn out, you’re offered a choice once you’ve been told the truth:

Blue Pill: Go back to climbing the ladder.

Red Pill: Find joy in something else that doesn’t require so much from you.

Maybe burnout is just taking the red pill?



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Tristan Surman

Tristan Surman

Young person interested in vital ideas. Finding love and laughter in digital, social, and creative spaces. @TristanSurman