Founder burnout isn't sexy in the Valley. You're supposed to pound the table and assure your patrons that you'll fight to your dying breath. You're supposed to ride one company into the ground and emerge from the ashes with seed funding for another idea. You're supposed to win.
But forget it, I burnt out.
The thing I used to do
I founded an emergent logistics company in 2011 after surviving a tornado and losing my home. I spent several years flying between disaster zones and convincing local organizers to try my prototyped tools. I arrived at every community with a promise -- that I would help them put the pieces back together. The responsibility, though freely accepted, weighed me down, bringing me to lows I've never experienced before.
I joined the Stanford d.school's fellowship program at the age of 24, CEO of a young company, disaster survivor, and burnt to hell.
Some of those who wander are lost
I left my company in Dec. 2013, squarely in the middle of my fellowship at the d.school. I signed all of the paperwork with uncharacteristic flourishes, vibrating with a weird cocktail of relief, guilt, and hope.
Then, it was just me.
I was propped up on all sides by project resources, and I had nothing to hammer on.
People don't talk about burnout, so the upsides aren't often discussed. Very rarely in my life have I had the luxury of choosing my direction. Chance and circumstance usually do me the honor. This time I had space and support around my reorientation. Instead of jumping into a new project, for the first time ever, I wandered.
Even wanderers pay rent. My soul searching collided with the reality of capitalism. I started a design and engineering studio with my partner, Thomas, and launched into a project that changed my direction entirely.
A medical device company contracted my help building a training program for a new product. This work involved hours in homes and clinics working with chronic patients, where I began to notice something telling. The techniques I was using to get to the deepest insights were ones I had only needed to use in disaster areas.
For example, in disaster areas, I often encountered people who were unwilling to criticize government agencies. To get past the barrier to their story, I instead structured the questions as 'advice for people like you'. The result was incredibly detailed information on how to bypass agency shortcomings.
With chronic patients, I experienced the same hesitance - this time to criticize medical care. To explore the subject I asked the patients to advise new patients with their same condition. The advisor role not only got us past their hesitance, it pulled out a good deal of unsolicited insights.
In the space where my company had been, a new project took root. I began chasing best practices in design for those who are a little 'weary' (survivors, patients, homeless etc), and turning them into teachable material for organizations whose members need to collect information. I'll share more about my work in a later post.
Let's talk about...
Burnout brought out every snarled emotion in me: guilt, shame, relief. It also gave me the space and time I needed to wander in fascinating directions. It might not be a stellar conversation starter, but I hope to see more dialogue about how to avoid, combat, and bounce back from burnout. A few extra minds working on the same problems never hurt.