This is a deeply personal account of my lifelong relationship with work. It’s also very long. You may want to bookmark, save it or email it to yourself when you have some uninterrupted time. At the end are resources & book recommendations for burnout.
22 I hit burnout for the first time at 22. I was an undergraduate senior at Stanford, in the final quarter before graduation, and instead of feeling optimistic about the future, I felt withered, decrepit and ashamed of myself. I look back on this time now and, with the wisdom of age and self-compassion, I know that 1) I had nothing to be ashamed of and 2) my internal reality didn’t reflect my physical reality: I was the picture of youth and health.
One of the first lessons I learned in my undergraduate cognitive neuroscience classes is that our brains are imperfect filters on reality. The brain fills in the blanks, extrapolates from a few data points, and sometimes, our brains tell us things about ourselves that reflect a prior reality — or a pseudoreality that only exists in our minds. The gift of friends, feedback and self-acceptance is that we can face the created pictures of ourselves with new eyes — and perhaps frame ourselves more clearly.
I went on my first silent retreat that spring and I remember sitting in a rocking chair in the woods of Northern California, weeping as I sat with a mental picture of myself as a bent and twisted tree, with gnarled and broken branches.
Despair, Paralysis & Quitting
I’d like to say that after this moment, I sought help and it fixed everything. But I didn’t seek help. And nothing got better, since nothing changed in my life.
Instead, I continued my workaholic ways. The August after graduation, I took on a full-time job at a local, faith-based nonprofit, started dating my first boyfriend, and was also a part-time intern with a faith organization on campus at Stanford.
I’d wake up at 8 AM to get to work by 9 AM. After work, I’d have dinner with the other interns by 6 PM so that we could get on campus by 7:30 PM to lead small group or hangout with students. I’d leave campus by 10/11PM to hang out with the boyfriend and get home around 1 AM where I’d finally have time for myself before I’d get up at 8 AM to do it all over again. And weekends were actually worse because I had church & weekend conferences.
3 months into this pace, I dropped out of the internship (which became known as “pulling a Tiffany” which hurt at the time, but I now look back on with pride). I felt like a failure but knew something needed to give.
For the next 15 months, I languished. I felt stuck personally and professionally. I was too scared to change anything in my life: job, apartment, friends, yet my choices weren’t working for me. I was paralyzed with indecision; terrified I was a failure. And I was failing to thrive on every dimension of my life.
24 I finally saw a therapist for the first time at 24. I was deeply skeptical but I was in so much distress at this point that I was desperate. I saw that therapist for 3 months, which wasn’t enough to dent the large iceberg of repressed childhood trauma, but enough so that I finally moved forward and started taking action: I quit my nonprofit job. Moved out of the apartment I was still sharing with the interns. Joined the founding team of a startup that became a rocketship.
I finally changed things in my life that needed changing.
Aside: This isn’t a “picked myself up by my bootstraps” story. My college best friend helped me search for jobs and met with me weekly to talk & process. Another looked over my resume. I’m forever grateful to the friends, including my ex, who supported me through that painful time. While I made the necessary changes, I needed people’s help to get the ball rolling.
Success, Rhythms & 2nd Burnout
26 By 26, I had 45+ direct reports and was leading 2 functions at the startup, and I’d started the life-changing practice of taking quarterly silent retreats to reflect, tech detox and prioritize my life. (Subscribe here for my guide to silent retreats I’m launching in November!) By 27, I’d found a great therapist that I’ve now seen almost every week for a decade. These two practices (and journaling extensively) grounded me for the next decade and were my preventative care against burnout — with the one small exception where I fainted from exhaustion and dehydration at a SF bar. (You can hear the story in my TED-style talk.)
I thought I’d mastered my workaholic tendencies, worked the perfectionistic, fixed mindset I grew up with out of my system, and graduated from Stanford Business school with a newfound orientation that I was going to work to live, instead of live to work.
And then I moved to London in summer 2019 for a new and intense role and completely lost my rhythms of silence, solitude & reflection.
So in the summer of 2020, I hit burnout again. We were 4+ months into the pandemic and I’d immersed myself in work: In that 4+ months, we’d built 4 new software products, taken two successfully to market, and I’d led one that made it to market in the US and one in the UK that didn’t. My days started with zoom calls at 9 AM BST with the UK team and ended at 11 PM BST with calls with the US team, and then, I stayed up til 2 AM BST to reply to the emails I hadn’t had time to address earlier that day. And then the next day I did it all over again. Sometimes, including weekends. For at least 90+ days.
I remember the moment I acknowledged I was burned out: It was August 2020. London had tentatively re-opened and I was in the gym for the first time in a long time, running on a treadmill while listening to Brene Brown’s podcast, which had become a listening staple during the pandemic. And she’d invited on two twin sisters, Amelia and Emily Nagoski, both incredible women, who were publicizing their new book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. And they described the 3 symptoms of burnout:
- Emotional exhaustion — the fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long
- Decreased sense of accomplishment (or inefficacy) — an unconquerable sense of futility or feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.
- Depersonalization (or cynicism) — the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion
Emotional exhaustion? Check. If you’ve ever worked with me, you know how much I care — about people, about doing good work, about things in and outside of my control.
Decreased sense of accomplishment? Check. Despite being valedictorian in high school, going to Stanford for undergrad, building and selling a startup to JPMorgan, going back to Stanford for business school — I had started to feel again like nothing I did mattered; that nothing was good enough; like I was Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill or trying to carry water in a sieve.
Depersonalization? I wasn’t fully there yet. My empathy, ability to hold compassion for others and optimism are some of my best and strongest traits, but my self-compassion was completely absent.
I had to stop the treadmill, step off, and wipe my face in the rough, bleached white gym towel because I was crying.
I’d realized I had all the signs of burnout, and I was crying because it was cathartic to name it, own it and see my own reality.
My relationship with work
You need to know that the roots of my workaholism are deep and multi-threaded. I remember learning in middle school about the concept of “Protestant work ethic” where Christians felt they needed to earn their salvation through good works, and I thought, “Yes, I can relate.” My friends complained about their parents watching over their shoulders — my parents didn’t, but there’s nothing like the fear of an omniscient, everpresent, judgmental God to keep you toiling away on your AP European History assignment at 2 AM.
And then there was the syncretism of Christianity and East Asian culture, which is collectivist, shame-based and face-saving. First, collectivist: I grew up in a world where my success (or failure) reflected on my family, my culture and my religion. My actions weren’t just mine. Next, shame-based: A guilt-based culture says, “I’ve done something bad”; a shame-based culture says, “I am bad because of this thing I’ve done.” Finally, face-saving: Above all, preserve the public image, ie: “the face.” Hide the emotions, remain inscrutable, never admit to anything beyond, “Oh, I’m fine.”
And then there was my loving but perfectionist Dad, who taught me aphorisms like, “Never make the same mistake twice.” and who, in 7th grade, when I got a 98 on a test, seriously asked me, “What happened to the other two points?” (For the record, I was outraged and ranted at him and he was duly chastened — he never asked again. And, up til Math 51 my freshman year at Stanford, I never got below an A — so he never had to ask again.) In adulthood, I realized how his Masters in Textile engineering shaped him; it taught him to rigorously quality check and quality test so that one snarl upfront wouldn’t ruin an entire bolt of cloth. In adulthood, I realized my immigrant dad lived for decades, balanced on the razor’s edge of being able and not being able to pay a bill — and that he himself didn’t have margin for costly mistakes and failures. He was training me for a world of scarcity and insecurity.
I watched my parents, who didn’t use their vacation days, work incredibly hard to provide for me and my sisters. Instead of hobbies, they drove us to music lessons, afterschool programs, and summer camps in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Instead of eating out or going to the movies, they saved money everywhere they could, buying secondhand or simply not buying things at all.
So you can see why younger Tiffany didn’t feel like she could fail, didn’t feel like she could let down Daddy Teng, felt like rest and fun were frivolous and undeserved.
12 I pulled my first all-nighter when I was 12. I was in 7th grade and 2 years earlier, my older sister had graduated from middle school and swept the graduation awards, taking home something like 6 out of the 9 possible awards. And 10 year old Tiffany believed that if she was going to get attention or recognition at home, she needed to do the same or better. So that was my goal going into 6th grade: 6 or better.
And I can’t remember what assignment it was, what class it was or why I decided I’d rather keep working on an assignment rather than sleep, but I did it. And it was fine. I was fine. So I did it again the next time. And the next time after that.
By high school, I was regularly sleeping 2–4 hours a night with a nap after dinner so that I could juggle leadership roles in clubs, sports, and my own unyielding, perfectionist approach to schoolwork. It couldn’t just be “done”; it needed to match my own internal standards of good. I couldn’t “phone it in”; I had to be excellent. In every subject. On every test. Every essay. Every homework assignment.
Sometimes, I wish there had been more immediate consequences for depriving myself of sleep. Sometimes, in high school, I wished my body would just collapse from the exhaustion, so that I could finally get off the damn ride. So that someone would notice that I was dying on the inside — but my body never failed. I just kept going.
Also, I wished my sister hadn’t been her high school class valedictorian, hadn’t gone to Harvard and also hadn’t been an incredibly nice, kind, genuine person on top of it all. I love her and growing up as her little sister was fucking hard.
36 Last summer, my dad had come to visit me in London, and as we sat at the Doubletree buffet breakfast in the Cotswalds, my dad contentedly started re-telling the story of the time my older sister won 6 out of the 9 awards when she graduated from middle school in 8th grade.
I’d heard this story before, so this time, I interrupted him and said, “But Dad — you remember that when I graduated middle school, I won 7 out of the 9.”
“No!” “I don’t remember that!” “You did?”
After 10 years of therapy, I wasn’t dismayed — just incredibly, incredibly amused. 12 year old Tiffany truly believed that “if X, then Y.” “If I get one more award than Tina, Dad will love me as much or more.” And she was wrong. She believed that my parents’ love, specifically my dad’s, was conditional on her achievement. What I know now, is that my dad has loved me my whole life — and that nothing I do can change that. (It doesn’t mean he approves of all my life decisions) And what greater proof than my dad not even remembering one of my first big “accomplishments”? (For the record, he remembers I was my high school class valedictorian and that I went to Stanford.)
But in that moment, my whole world tilted 1 degree on its axis. “What if all of my achievement is meaningless?” “What if all my successes are as ephemeral as a memory?” It’s like that tired metaphor: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? (It does. Unless it falls in a vacuum where sound waves don’t travel).
As a child, I lived — and worked — for my dad’s approval. And, he will one day die, and this specter of parental approval will be no more, and I will be left to contend with my life choices without the frame of my parents’ values.
I’m already there. My dad is 72 and I already see the evidence of cognitive decline from aging. His short term memory just isn’t the same. His most vivid memories are the ones from his youth or the most emotionally charged moments of his adult life.
My 8th grade graduation wasn’t one of those memories. He wasn’t there. It turns out, by the time I was in eighth grade, my dad was working evening shifts at the US Postal Service and so he hadn’t taken the night off to attend the awards ceremony. My mom took me, who loves me but couldn’t care less if I was a success as long as I was a good Christian. (And I was a very good Christian. But that’s another essay for another time.)
My dad told me that morning in the Doubletree, “It was a tough time in my life. I’d been a real estate agent, but it kept me far away from home; I’d done the warehouse manager job, but turned down the promotion because we’d have to move to Texas and I didn’t want to uproot you three — and I needed a steady job. We had bills to pay.”
My dad was distracted by the responsibility and load of providing for me and my two sisters. He didn’t see me, couldn’t see me that day, because he was focused on surviving. How very human and real.
I don’t remember celebrating that evening. I think the next day was any other day in the Teng household. In any other home, even getting one award would’ve been cause for a special dinner, for warm accolades. Instead, I think it was just another day.
I’m not sharing this for sympathy. Or for recognition now. Or to shame or blame my parents: they did their very best. I love them fiercely, I’m proud of them and proud to be their daughter.
But to explain how I got here, there. How I ended up crying on a treadmill at a posh gym in London, convinced that nothing I do matters. How I was convinced at 22 that I was crippled and broken beyond repair.
I remember having a conversation with my therapist in my late 20s, reflecting back on my high school experience, which got me into Stanford, which meant I lived in the Silicon Valley, which led me to join the cofounding team of a startup, which JPMorgan acquired, etc. I remember telling her that I wanted to let go off this workaholism (my first startup had already helped break the perfectionist streak), but I was scared that if I did, I wouldn’t be successful again.
“What if my illness is the key to my success?”
As all good therapists do, she didn’t give me the answer but asked me a question in return: “What do you think?”
I was a VP at JPMorgan at the time, which, to my dad, was the very definition of success, and slowly, I said: “I think I would still be successful. When I look around me, other people here hold the same title I do — but they didn’t have to suffer so much to get here.”
“I think I could’ve had a happier and better high school experience if I’d let myself sleep more. Date more. Play more. Have more fun instead of doing homework or reading to escape from my life.”
“I don’t think I needed to go to a top tier school to have a worthwhile life. I fully recognize that it made it easier to get into certain spaces or to accomplish certain success goals faster.”
“But I think that the best parts of me are not my work ethic or ability to push myself to complete a task, no matter the cost.”
“My work ethic is part of my success AND there is so much more to me: my creativity, my humor, my kindness, my compassion.”
My therapist smiled gently, warmly, at me. “There you go.”
I’m now exactly 2 years from that moment at the gym in London.
I’m incredibly grateful to Peter, who recognized my burnout and still believed that burned out Tiffany was more than capable, and who proceeded to teach me all I know about enterprise SaaS. I’m grateful to my friend and mentor, Rishi, who accepted my reality and graciously supported me as I transitioned to a new role. I’m grateful for 2 years to recalibrate my working patterns, to rediscover my zest for life and to heal.
I’m grateful for the friends at work and in my personal life who knew the full story and have cheered me on, every step of the way.
I’m also grateful for this deliberate sabbatical season for rest and reflection. I’ve restarted my quarterly habit of tech detoxing & silent retreating and I’m launching my guide soon! Sign up here. I’ve started running again and lifting weights every other day. And I’ve been living fully into the tenets of growth mindset, self-compassion and mindfulness.
And I’ve been intentionally working through and writing down my values, so that, at the end of my life, I can say that I’ve lived a successful life — by my own definition.
No one looks at a tree and thinks, “That broken branch! or weird growth! What a bad tree!” (At least I don’t). We assume trees are unique, that the wind, rain and storms have shaped them. We don’t judge trees for being lopsided or for producing less fruit one year. Trees aren’t meant to stay the same. Trees are meant to grow.
And so I’m holding that mindset for myself: I am not meant for kindling, to be consumed by fire. I am meant to grow. Others will sit in my shade and I will whisper in the wind that blows or howl with the raging gale. And sometimes, life will prune some branches for me, and other times, I’ll drop leaves because I’m stressed or redirecting my energy to fruit.
Some seasons, I will hibernate and replenish my internal stores of wisdom, laughter and joy, and other seasons, I will produce with abandon. Sometimes, I’ll do both at the same time.
My name is Tiffany Jane Teng and I am a towering redwood of a tree that has survived fire, twice.
Thank you for reading. My hope is that, in sharing my story, some part of it may resonate with you. And if you relate, I invite you to share that with someone in your life who can see you fully and hold space for you as my friends & therapist have held me through the various seasons. I’m a huge believer in therapy, coaching and finding communities where it’s safe to be vulnerable and authentic.
Questions for further reflection:
- What did I learn from my family of origin about work?
- What is my current relationship with failure? Where in my life can I play and practice failing in a safe space?
- How can I make room in my life for rest? Even if it’s just 10 minutes.
- You may be reading this and wondering if you’re burned out or depressed. I found this article a helpful way to distinguish between the two: https://www.goodrx.com/well-being/healthy-mind/depression-vs-burnout
- One of the key paradigm shifts that’s helped me move past perfectionism and burnout is practicing mindfulness and self-compassion and the exercises in Kristin Neff’s The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook has been very helpful! There’s 24 chapters/exercises and I’ve been doing 1 chapter a month for almost 2 years!
- I highly recommend Amelia and Emily Nagoski’s book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle for everyone and anyone.
- For managers, HBR’s Guide to Beating Burnout is good — I’m still reading through it.
- The practice of digital detoxing, silence & reflection have helped me stave off burnout — I’m launching a guide to silent retreating this year — subscribe here to stay up to date!