the process

exhaustion and status

lillian cunningham from the washington post recently wrote a piece called exhaustion is not a status symbol, which is definitely worth reading. in it, she interviews brene brown, author of daring greatly, about basically the pressure we all feel in today’s work world to be constantly connected and moving on to the next project. but unlike other pieces we’ve all seen on this topic, she argues that this is basically self-driven by all of us, because we’re so exhausted that we’re afraid that if we stop moving, stop striving, stop pushing so hard, that we’ll just collapse. and we don’t know ourselves outside of this maelstrom of busyness, connectedness and exhaustion.

our favorite quote from the article: “we don’t know who we are without productivity as a metric of our worth. we don’t know what we enjoy, and we lose track of how tired we are.” — brene brown.

this resonates with us in a big way, not because we don’t know who we are without work. (we think we do, or at least better than most people in similar positions. we’ve taken the time to reflect on what we really want out of life, and decide that we’d prefer to buy our freedom rather than buying more stuff. hence the early retirement vision that we’re working so hard to achieve. at the very least, we have a plan to get to know ourselves a lot better when we quit our jobs in three years.) what really resonates with us is the notion of exhaustion, and of being afraid to stop for fear of collapse.

we are definitely there. and so is almost everyone around us.

we travel a lot for work, and feel like we’re missing out on life at home. our version of fomo (fear of missing out) is just missing the basic flow of life in our house, in our town, with our small circle of friends. but it definitely feels like if we step off the treadmill for even a second, it could all come crashing down.

this is not a complaint. we are grateful every day for the position we’re in. we’ve worked hard toward financial independence, and even if we did lose our jobs tomorrow, we’d be fine. we have enough money saved to support us for a good, long time. so that’s a huge comfort. we remember feeling exhausted and terrified to stop — AND knowing that we had nothing to fall back on — and we have no desire to be back in that position.

we feel strongly that we should all stop talking about how busy we are. that words have the power to shape how we think. (it’s the same idea behind efforts to get women to stop using fat talk.) and by not talking about how busy we are, we do actually feel less busy. (more on this in another post.) but even if we stop saying how exhausted we feel, we’re still exhausted. there’s no denying this. words only go so far.

so, easy solution, right? keep our heads down, suck it up, and get through the next 2 years and nine and a half months, and then kick those jobs to the curb. easy?

maybe. maybe not. a thought we talk about, one that sometimes nags at us, is that maybe we do define ourselves, and see our status, as being defined by our work, our connectedness, our exhaustion. if you’ve been reading this blog a while, you know that we think about what that type of thinking does to our health, just as we worry about the impact of stress.

but this is concerning for bigger reasons: what if, when we quit our jobs, we catch up on sleep, and we exhale the previous 15+ years of work, we no longer know who we are? what if, despite struggling for all these years to define ourselves outside of work, we have inadvertently defined ourselves by our exhaustion and our busyness? what will be left?

as scary as this is, we’re glad to have our attention drawn to these questions. by being aware of this potential future, we can help to head it off now. so that when we finally go to pull back the veil, and find out who we’ve been all along, and who we’ll grow to become, it’s not a shock, or worse a couple of empty vessels.

do you define yourself by your busyness or exhaustion? what are you doing to stay grounded outside of work?

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Categories: the process

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11 replies »

  1. Great post. I don’t like to think I do, but the more I do it the more I think it becomes true. What I’m really afraid of its a constant cycle of ambition that leads to zero satiation. At least you have an end goal in site! And if it does come crashing down after retirement, then, hey, sometimes that’s the best place to build new from.

  2. My friends, family, and colleagues always talk about how ‘busy’ their lives are. I often hear things like: “I am triple booked today!”; “I am never home on the weekends!”. The sad thing is people (especially at work) think they are important or feel important when they are overloaded. I make a conscious effort to not say the phrase “I am busy”. This has allowed me to be more thoughtful and in turn relaxed at the end of the day.

    • We totally agree with you, and also make a conscious effort to not to say (or think!) that we’re busy. It makes a positive difference! Thanks for reading. :-)

  3. Having now found myself counting days left at work, I’ve been diving into FIRE posts. 1- love your site. You can give yourself five gold stars toward your worthiness feelings. 2- appreciate the focus you have not just on the money. To be honest, the money is easy. Figuring out life after is my own hurdle. 3- I spent my career (I’m a partner at a big consulting firm) almost craving the hot mess and deluge of exhaustion that comes with it. This post put into words my deepest fear. Thanks for your honesty and perspective.

  4. Hi there! I just found your blog and maybe you’re closer to your answer now that you’re 2+ years closer to retirement. But for me, work has never defined me, and I’ve worked consciously to prevent that from happening (where I live in the Washington, DC area, the first question someone asks you when they meet you is “what do you do?”). Instead, for me, it’s about who do you want to become, and how will you work toward that? And I’ve found that if you don’t let work consume your life, suddenly you’re a lot less busy than you thought you were.
    Best of luck in your next 6 months; I’ll keep reading to see how you’re progressing! We hope to join you in ER in 5 short years.

    • It’s a great question! As will make much more sense when we’re able to reveal ourselves and share what we do, we still very much work in fields that are by definition highly defining. But by having this long on-ramp, we’ve come to terms with the fact that we’re going to lose this part of our identity. It will still be an adjustment, I’m sure, but we don’t have the luxury of being able to put work aside in the evenings or over the weekend, which makes that part of the transition a lot less certain. We’ll keep you posted! ;-)

  5. This post really resonates with me this week. I am reading your blog start to finish and really enjoying the rare quiet weekend at home reflecting on how our lives will change over the next 3 years. I find I have less patience with some issues at work as I stare down a retirement 38 months ways.

    • Hi Stacy! Glad this post spoke to you. If it’s any help, I found our third to last and second to last years to be mentally the hardest, but quitting the complaining about work helped a TON, and our last year has been mentally a thousand times easier. So it gets better! ;-)