A Thought About Outliers and Burn Out

I recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and it has been sparking a few thoughts that I want to turn into blog posts. The first one I’ve already written elsewhere, but this one is a perfect fit for this blog, because I’ve often talked about burnout as it relates to helpdesk work, and some of Gladwell’s ideas and study have challenged my ideas.

One section of the book deals with the cultural differences between Western agricultural traditions, and rice paddy agriculture traditions, and how those traditions have been carried over into the educational theories. In typical corn/wheat agriculture, of course, you don’t grow on the soil every year. you allow, every few years, the soil to rest and recover it’s minerals. That’s how it stays fertile. In the rice paddies, however, the soil actually become more fertile the more you grow on it.

Late 19th and early 20th century American educators wrote at great length about similar concepts when it came to teaching children. You wanted to make sure they got a break from the work, so that their minds could rest and be more fertile for learning when they came back from their breaks. (Hence the reason we have such a long Summer vacation compared to other countries.) Asian education has no such accommodations. You learn, and continue to learn as much as you possibly can. You work at things continuously because, like rice farming, the more work you put into it, the more rice you get out of it.

That got me thinking about the idea of job burn out. It’s pretty commonly accepted knowledge that we all need a break every now and then, to do something different, to “blow off steam”, or risk getting burned out, like soil that has been over farmed. I still stand by my theory that 95%, if not more, of the people who work in help desk environments will show significant signs of burn out within 3-5 years. It’s the nature of the work, because it never ends, and it never changes a whole lot.

So, the question is, does burn out happen because we’ve been culturally trained that there is such a thing as burnout if you work too hard for too long at a task? And if so, can it be overcome by unlearning that tradition?

Or is it the case, which I tend to think is more likely, that Americans suffer burn out at their jobs more often because their jobs aren’t meaningful? It’s relatively easy to work harder at rice farming, because working harder increases the yield of your rice and increases your wealth. You don’t suffer from burn out when there’s a direct connection between working hard, and being successful. Does your job have that sort of connection and meaning?

More to the point, does working at a help desk provide meaningful work for most people who do it? I’d guess not. For most, it’s a stepping stone to something else, and after 3-5 years, if you’ve not “stepped” up to something else, or if there’s nothing else to step into, it loses it’s meaning. Work without meaning leads to burn out.

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