Feeling Burned Out? The One Change That Could Fix Everything

What do Steve Jobs, Bob Dylan, and Plato all have in common? Apart from being some of the most influential people in history, all of them thought of work as a game.

Within a matter of months, I quit two amazing jobs.

The first was director of special projects for Tim Ferriss, the bestselling author of The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body. Secondly, I was the co-founder of a profitable tech startup.

Both gigs had highly desirable qualities: I got to work on exciting projects, collaborate with talented people, and I was making good money. For a 25-year-old, I was living the dream.

But then I quit.

Whenever I had to explain why I’d left, I felt spoiled and embarrassed. I had no desire to do the work--I wasn’t interested in what I was doing anymore--and I’d burned myself out.

And yet, I still felt obligated to live up to people’s expectations. Everyone asked me what I was going to do next. And I’d panic inside because it felt like I was losing. There was this voice in my head that kept telling me how far I’d come, and now I was blowing it. I’d let everyone down. I needed to become a successful CEO or a millionaire in order for the world to accept that I was okay again.

This pressure I felt to make it was such a burden--until I realized that no level of success was ever going to be enough. I would always be chasing the world outside of me. What was the point of working so hard if it wasn’t for my own happiness? The solution became very clear: stop doing work that doesn’t matter to you.

You might roll your eyes at this. “I can’t quit my job! I have a family and bills to pay!” I understand. I didn’t quit everything I didn’t want to work on right away. I just started making a conscious effort to work on projects I actually cared about.

Change how you think about work

Rather than viewing work as a stressful obligation, or a means of getting rich, my work was a game I chose to play.

I wanted my work to be a game I would willingly play. I thought back on the activities I repeatedly played throughout my life because they were fun and I was good at them:

  • Creating my own art
  • Making people laugh
  • Developing skills
  • Building with my hands

I started setting aside 20 minutes each day to play one of my games. I’d come up with a fun project that allowed me to do work I cared about. The project could be small (assembling furniture, drawing a funny picture) or ambitious (learning a guitar solo, writing my first book). As long as I gave myself 20 minutes each day to work on something personally rewarding, I was happy. It gave me an internal paycheck.

I wanted to spend more of my time doing these things, so I gave myself a rule: Any work I did had to allow me to create my own art, make people laugh, develop my skills, or build something with my hands. If the gig didn’t meet my criteria, then I would turn it down. The work had to be its own reward.

Before I quit my jobs, my state of mind was messed up. I never thought of my work as a game; it was simply work. Every day was serious business. I needed to get more results. I needed to earn more money. I needed to have more success. I needed more--and I completely missed the point.

Focus on creating your own fun

When I tackle work with a sense of play, my creativity and optimism soar. I fall in love with the process. My energy becomes contagious, and I’m able to create unique art with the people around me.

I’ve met a lot of incredibly talented and successful people, and nearly all of them approach their lives this way--they play.

No one forces them to work on things they don’t care about or tells them how to spend their time. They just give themselves permission to follow their impulses and pursue what excites them. They create a little universe that revolves around their own fun.

Instead of grinding it out in jobs they hate, these people become passionate and highly skilled at what they do. They team up with other great players and collaborate on interesting projects. Then one day, they’re making magic. Their mastery shines through in everything they create, society reaps the benefits of their gifts, and our world changes.

Need proof? Just check out what some of the most revered and accomplished members of society have to say about choosing to play for a living.

Every treasured contribution in the history of mankind was created through play: music, art, books, film, comedy, sports, dance, transportation, technology. We pay a premium for these things so we can experience the fruits of other people’s play!

Play is the true source of all the immeasurable value and wealth humans have injected into this world. It’s the DNA of our culture, and the backbone of our global economy. All of our most beloved creativity, profitable innovations, and fulfilling jobs have come from the freedom to have our own fun, for hours and weeks and years on end.

If we all pursued our own interests and natural talents, we’d fall in love with our work. We’d become highly skilled at what we do. Ingenuity would thrive, the quality of our goods and services would rise, and our lives would become richer.

Today, we all work because that’s what we’re told to do. But our system is broken. Every company is downsizing, outsourcing, and strapping their remaining employees with bigger workloads. The unemployed masses are left to fight for measly paychecks that come attached to uninspired, mind-numbing jobs. To the many who bought into the old ways of work, the future looks grim.

But there is a way out, a simple choice in how we approach our lives: to play for a living.

--Charlie Hoehn is the author ofPlay It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]

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32 Comments

  • wow.. this idea hits home.... i never thought there could be any approach in how i do my work.. running my small business.. im struggling to make more sales just to be able to pay the expenses -- and this shift of thinking i have right now makes it more promising to go on and find ways how to play it better .. thank you mr. charlie hoehn!!!!

  • Darrin Bentley

    WOW!! TOUGH CROWD!! Unfortunately, reading some of the comments, it seems people condemn what they either don't believe or understand. I really don't want to be negative but I bet MOST of the negative comments are from people who don't have the courage to step outside their comfort zone, let alone do what Mr. Hoehn did.

    Kudos on a great article and having the courage to follow your heart.

  • Mel Toye

    Some comments below are really sad to read. It is sad that people do not believe they should even try for their dreams. All the writer is saying in the article, is to do something you love to do in the little spare time you have. You can still work your 9-5 job. Just make sure you do something that is fun as well. I personally worked in a 9-5 job full time, and during my lunch breaks, transport to work etc. I wrote my first novel, Entice Me. It took two years and then another two years because my computer crashed. Once published, I continued to write. I realised writing was my dream in life. I still work 9-5 job part-time and I still write in my time. It is all about spending a small amount of each time in your day to do something that will make you laugh and smile. Just ten minutes a day, will make the rest of your day, feel awesome. Give it a try. Have some fun.

  • Joey MacDonald

    While well wishing and optimistic, this kind of advise can ruins people's lives. I'm an arts administrator, and give this kind of advise out EXTREMELY sparingly, with great consideration, and only in the right circumstances. "Do what you love" can be great advise for the right person. It can also demolish your credit line, put you in irreversible debt, and make you miserable. It is by no means universally applicable advise.

    You are confusing play with passion - they are not the same. The idea that all great achievements were "fun" is insane and naive. Great and important require passion and drive, though there is nothing that says they will be playful, or fun, or make you happy.

  • Ashika Appavoo

    You are absolutely right! I have been reading up on this for months. I quit my job because I came to realise that a job is 90% of your life, so if you are doing it for all the wrong reasons, you're skrewed. I just up and left a big city and ever since I discovered who I really am and followed my passions, opportunities have arisen. I realised that these opportunities have always been there, but changing my perception and mindset have allowed them to be in clear sight. It's all about what makes your heart leap every moment of every day :)

  • Meh. Good effort, but you completely alienated 99.9% of real people. "Every treasured contribution in the history of mankind was created through play: music, art, books, film, comedy, sports, dance, transportation, technology."?? So artistic people shouldn't give up on their passion for art. Is that what you're saying? The last one in that list, technology, is especially ironic, since the fruit of the tech visionary's "play-time" is usually factories in China chalk full of worker bees manufacturing and assembling that vision to sell to Westerners with ungodly margins. And Transportation? Are you suggesting that bus drivers, ticket takers, TSA agents, and baggage handlers should (let alone CAN) turn those jobs into playtime? I want to like this post because I believe in finding what you love and loving what you do, but in the meantime, we have all worked "jobs" to pay the bills and invest in our future happiness - as we should. There will always be a need for "drone" type work.

  • Kara Crain Spooner

    There's a reason you felt spoiled and embarrassed when you quit those jobs: you were being self indulgent and you were fortunate to be in a life position where you could do so.

    I can't tell what you were trying to accomplish with this piece, and from the comments, I'm not alone in my confusion. I can tell you that the topic of how wealthy people make themselves happier is probably not going to be well received in this age of huge income inequality.

    If you were trying to achieve a different point, then it's time for a redraft.

  • Kara Crain Spooner

    For instance, a helpful topic would be if you don't have the luxury of choosing the projects and people you work with, as those things are assigned for everyone who isn't at the top of the company, how do you deal with that, find fulfillment, still enjoy life, etc.?

  • Ross Andrews

    The problem starts when school children are indoctrinated into thinking that they need The System to approve and validate their ideas. If schools taught entrepreneurship from an early age, and high schools served as business incubators, this country would literally explode with innovation. Of course, every established institution in the world would fight to the death to keep this from happening because they want to control all of the intellectual property and limit/control their competition.

    For all of the people who say "oh that's fine for the 1% but some of us have to work for a living"; you're right. If you have self-determined that you are going martyr yourself for the good of society, go ahead and do that and be miserable. But remember you always have the option to pursue a dream. Read about it at home, talk about it at work, and start living it every day and opportunities will literally be drawn to you, especially future partners and investors.

  • Roger Brown

    Aritcles like this are such bullshit. People do not have choices like that. People like Steve Jobs were just plain lucky. There are 8 billion people on the planet, not everyone is lucky or can create their own world like this article suggests.

  • Ryan Shepherd

    It is because of an attitude like this that you will be one of the millions of people stuck in a dead end miserable job. You read an article like this and immediately go to negative, and how these things cant be done. That is your reality, not everyone's and what is pointed out in this article is that you have choices, maybe not to quit your job but to look at it differently. Negative, narrow-minded people will always think the most successful people are purely lucky, because it makes you feel better about the misery in your world.

  • George Papa

    What you are saying makes sense to the 1% of the population. Do you know how food is produced? Have you ever harvested a field under scorchig heat? Have you ever worked in construction in freezing wind and snow? Have you ever nursed a paralised, dying old person? Change their dipers? Have you ever cleaned toliets at a train station in India? There is no "play" in doing such jobs. Yet we all need them to survive and I am glad that other people do them and I dont have to. There is no talent required in cleaning toilets. It doesnt matter how much "play" I put in it. IT IS A SHITTY JOB WHICH HAS TO BE DONE. Lets be thankfull about people who do it and lets keep our mouths shut and not try to bullshit them with emty quotes. Dont forget the children in China who produce Steve Jobs iPhones....

  • I've done several of the jobs that you list above as well as jobs that are only available to the 1%; I've lived in the richest country in the world, and one of the poorest. And with some knowledge of both sides of the coin, I will say that some people will always find a way to find (and hold onto) misery in even the most ideal of situations; and there are people who live and work in ways that bring joy, love and yes, play, to even the most dire and deplorable situations. I have swung between both ends of the attitude pendulum. I admire these people who are able to hold this positive outlook through the ups and downs of life; they are usually not down for long no matter what calamity occurs. They have a special spark in their eyes, and you don't soon forget them. In my eyes, they hold the secret to life. George, I think you make a good and obvious comment, but I think it is beside the point. We always choose how we act and react to any experience, good or bad.

  • Jim Youll

    Where does the money for food, rent, health insurance, clothes, transportation, and utilities come from while dreaming this dream?

  • Michael Burkey

    He's talking more about your perception of your current work (finding ways to play at work, meaning pursuing special projects that benefit work) and pursuing outside of work passions which may or may not become your next dream job so you can quit the job you are surviving but not thriving at.

    I was pursuing my dream job while working at my career until the point I could just focus on my dream job and now I am.

  • While in college with very little prospect for even visualizing any career, I made a decision to just recklessly pursue what I enjoy doing, with a little practical sense of what might, eventually, lead to income. Now I make a ton of dough designing stuff, and then have a lot of fun playing music in front of people every week...

  • Lokesh Hanumappa

    See, I love my small daughter very much. I do so much work for her like giving her bath , dressing her , sending her to school and so many other things.

    The cool thing is that I never feel any stress by doing any thing for my daughter.

    I think its same with Work. If you dont love what you are doing, you will always feel anxiety

    Thanks , Lokesh H facebook: Loksviews youtube: Loksviews