Feb 13, 2020
50 min read
Burnout Brands and the Burden of Potential
This is Unseen Unknown. I’m Jasmine Bina. In today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about an interesting concept and that is the concept of burnout. It has become a story and idea that has captivated almost everybody that I speak with. In fact, one of the most widely read and widely circulated articles of 2019 was a Buzzfeed piece, which you may or may not have read, talking about how millennials have become the burnout generation. It has come to define who we are and how we see the world in many ways. It’s also created a whole new league of wellness and D2C brands that are responding to the burnout that people are feeling.
It’s an important trend, and it’s something that probably affects all of us as strategists and founders and I wanted to dig into it more. There was one really important person that I need to talk to in order to start this conversation and his name is Emmett Shine. Emmett’s name should ring a bell. He is the chief creative officer and co-founder of Pattern, which is a family of brands that includes Equal Parts and Open Spaces, amazing lifestyle brands but before Pattern, Emmett was the co-founder of Gin Lane. Gin Lane was one of a few creative agencies in the US that worked with the seminal brands that launched the D2C movement.
Brands like Hims, Hers, Harry’s, Sweetgreen, Recess, the list goes on and on, but he and his team were part of creating the storytelling and the aesthetic and the values and belief systems around the brands that really took over our lives. His work is important because it surfaced the trends that have come to define what burnout means for us today. He’s the person that is responsible for a lot of the stories that we’re hearing in the marketplace. My conversation with him started with his own story. It was important to understand where Emmett comes from to really understand how he was able to create what he’s created and where he thinks the future of the space is going.
I think I’m always just exploring and looking for more white space where stuff is less defined. If you go back about half a decade or a little bit longer in New York city, this emerging class of entrepreneurs that were thinking digital first around consumer commerce to start, then consumer packaged goods and now it’s gone into healthcare and insurance and everything, it felt really new and really exciting. I think I was really happy to be a part of what felt like a novel chapter in, I don’t know, American business history, being someone I’m not really a business person.
I feel like creativity was really valued and design was really valued and user experience and design thinking became seen as something really valuable. So it was cool to be a part of that. I think for Gin Lane, we really dialed into that pretty deep over the next five to seven years and I don’t know, I think some of us just felt like either we were going to just burn out doing the same thing over and over to some extent, or if we wanted to stay within this world that we really loved and do more challenging work, which we tried a few times that also ran the risks of getting us out of our comfort zone, how we could balance our work and our personal lives.
So I just think Pattern felt like … It’s something that we thought on for years. It didn’t just happen overnight. We just always were thinking, what could be this next chapter, where we could take what we’re good at and stay together as a team, bring on some people that had been around us that we admired, but what could we do that was different, that would be the next kind of white space without having to completely reinvent ourselves and in our adult careers?
So I think just thinking, could we make our own brands and our own businesses, but do them in like a unified way around a topic that felt important to us, which was when we did go through those more stressful or trying times, it didn’t really seem like there was a brand or a business or a signal in the market that was talking on this information. This is a few years ago. This is before Anne Helen Petersen wrote her article on burnout. This is before Jia Tolentino’s book or How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell. I feel like a lot of this stuff has been pretty cool. Zeitgeist, the last 18 months, which is awesome. I think for any of those people, they were probably thinking about it on their own 24 months ago, just like we were 24 months ago, thinking about this on our own and it all came out around 2019.
So I think a lot of people in America were feeling, millennials, especially the same way that we’ve been working really hard in high school and college. Then you get out and it’s the great recession or post great recession, and it’s hard to get a normal job and rent’s high and you have student loan debt and you’re trying to get a good job, but so is everyone else. It just feels a little bit like the rat race all over again, even if you are working in “the creative sector” or an information knowledge economy. I don’t know, it just didn’t feel like there was a lot of places you could go on, on your off where people were talking on this information in a first person relatable way.
So we thought, hey, here’s an interesting convergence, can we try to do something again, white space and open, which is like, try to build a new 21st century family of brands or a house of brands that are all related and working together versus just being an agency and pumping stuff out over and over. Let’s stay with these brands a little bit longer and can we marry it with the subject matter and topic that is personal to us and doesn’t really feel like there’s something in the market as much talking around it.
I want to go back to what you were saying before, about how you were starting to feel this, before it became part of the Zeitgeist. You started to feel, you say 24 months, but I also heard you said it was even longer before that, that you were starting to see that the tide was changing. What’s interesting is if you look back like four or five years ago, which is probably, I’m guessing when you guys were starting to really understand and feel this and the subtext, culturally, people weren’t talking about it. We were still kind of idolizing what I think was probably born in Silicon Valley. This idea of overwork, wearing your exhaustion like a badge of honor, the way we were kind of romanticizing the whole startup life.
It was bleeding into all other sectors. A lot of cultural stuff is seeping into the rest of the country through Silicon Valley. What I want to know is, because I know how we do it in our agency, but I want to hear how you do it in your agency. How do you pick up the signals that people can’t see yet? Because there wasn’t really a retaliation yet. I think the loudest thing I was hearing at the time was Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post started her whole sleep movement, but even then I think people thought it was kind of hokey. I wasn’t taking it seriously in the beginning.
Well, it also felt like executive performance-based or something.
Right. It was a business. It was hard to see the authentic conversation behind it, but how do you guys pick up on these signals before we even know they’re there?
Yeah. I think I’m a voracious consumer of information. I think for myself, when I say working in the knowledge sector, the information sector, working in technology, whatever, my dad’s a landscaper. I grew up landscaping for him. A lot of my friends back home, they do the awesome jobs you do when you live in a small town. So I think that the blessing in this curse or whatever, when I’m like, “Yeah, I moved to the big city and I work with computers and do all that stuff,” is that it can really offer you so much. You can connect with people all over the world. You can maybe earn more money. You can create stuff that hasn’t been created before. The downside is that like, it moves really fast and you can get really caught up on something and then the market moves right by you because you got caught up on the wrong thing.
So for every great success story of someone doubling down on something ahead of everyone else, there’s a lot of people who have doubled down on the wrong thing. It’s like everyone trying to race to this GPS location and you ways go off the main road and think this back road is going to get you there, but then there’s a tree down and you got to go all the way back. So I think for the way that I’ve always tried doing this for, I don’t know, since the early, mid 2000s is to just try to read a lot of information and look for people who I trust their specificity within a certain area and listen to what they’re seeing and what they’re saying and then try to pull out, look at other people that have nothing to do with that individual and what are they seeing or thinking in a totally different part of culture or business.
Then I also try to just keep some good people around me that usually they don’t agree with most of the stuff I think or my hypotheses, but I like that because they’re very constructively critical in terms of thinking about culture. I’m always just trying to keep my gate open for ideas and information. Then it’s just always like, I love in, for Equal Parts, our first brand, the cooking brand. Again, I guess it’s synesthesia-esque is the scene in Ratatouille where Remy is showing his fellow rat when you combine strawberries and cheese, how explosive that taste is, how much stronger it is than if you just had a strawberry alone or a piece of cheese alone, and I feel like that’s ideas. It’s like a good idea is cool on its own, but a great idea is when you have two converging thoughts or inspirations from different places. That’s where I think it’s really fun.
I’m really excited that you said that. I feel that a lot of the biggest value that’s being created in brands today is things that are happening at the edges of spaces between spaces and it relates to your work. I think people have labeled Pattern as this response to burn out, so like burnout brands. But before that it was wellness and wellness is interesting because it’s like wellness, isn’t a space anymore. It’s this layer that’s being applied to every vertical. Wellness, obviously in beauty, wellness in self care. I see wellness now in all kinds of service sectors. I see wellness even in real estate, wellness in obviously medicine, stuff like that.
But what’s also interesting about you is when you were leading Gin Lane, you guys were working with a lot of brands that were starting … I think maybe even before we were using that word so much, they were playing in the wellness space. So Hims and Hers, two of my favorite case studies ever, Sweetgreen, Harry’s, Recess, certainly. I wanted to get your take on the wellness space because it blew up synonymously with D2C. Why has this idea captivated our generation, and more than that, a follow-on question, is how does it different for this generation and by this, I mean, millennials, versus baby boomers versus Gen Z?
I think this is like the crux of it all. I guess let’s go specific and then I’ll zoom out. I think a lot of the recent trends in the market or brands or whatever, it’s been like micro wellness. I think what is cool to see emerging and I would categorize Pattern in that camp is like macro wellness. So it’s like, even some of the wellness stuff it’s like beauty or health care or self care or yoga or whatever. They’re just all these like sub sects. When you think of wellness, it’s coming out of the late 90s, early 2000s, like health and wellness stores. They have vitamins and smoothies and topical creams and then there’s the studios that come out of it for yoga and meditation, et cetera.
I think what we’re focused on is what is wellness at a homeostasis or a whole-ism level? Like how do you feel well? Not just like you don’t need medicine or something, because you feel bad. It’s like existentially when you’re bumping your head against the ceiling of what you’re capable of thinking on, how do you want to get out of bed and deal with money and family and stress and pain and feel like it’s worth it? It’s not like something you just have to do. It’s actually like you feel present, you feel enjoyment.
Pattern’s mission is enjoyed daily life. It’s like, how do we help people embrace the nuances and the grooves of daily life? Getting up in the morning, going to work or doing work, dealing with significant others or children or family, the responsibilities of being an adult and also existing in a society, that there’s so much information now that I think it’s really hard.
I don’t think our brains have evolved to deal with the amount of information we have and I think we have societally, structures that also don’t know how to deal with this much information. I think technology is just continuing to increase faster and faster. So then stepping back a little bit, why I think this is, I’ll take one step back and then we’ll take a few more back. I think you see it associatively with the direct to consumer cohort because direct to consumer, which really to me is just businesses that are digital first. That’s the language of consumer culture of our generation. That’s how our generation has basically grown up as let’s say, like purchasing adults as our native model for communication has been social platforms and then websites. It’s just a byproduct of our generation’s default way of doing business.
So if you look at our generation and you go back, you go maybe to the 70s where you can start seeing some of the laws and regulations and stuff, changing around businesses around capitalism. You have wages that have been more or less, when you account for inflation, stagnant since like 1974. I think the actual word, burnout first comes into like popular culture in 1974. There’s a lot of correlations between that and you look at how we’ve been basically, people who were born in the 80s into the 90s, when you have globalization really starting to take effect, when automation is stuff that you can hear Andrew Yang talking about now and it sounds crazy, but it’s been stuff that happened in America in the rust belt or the big industrial cities in the 70s. I think we’ve been generationally trained to work so hard and I think what I felt when I turned 30, which is just over five years ago, was, what’s the point?
Why are we running so fast and working so hard when it feels like the winners, if this is like a game of life, they’re not winning? They’re stressed out and they’re not happy. So I just feel like the matrix, the game is off a little bit. So if I’m getting super heady, I don’t selling cookware and home organizational goods is the silver bullet. I’m not delusional. It’s just, we know how to market stuff and brands and I just wanted to keep doing what we’re good at about stuff that I felt myself and our team needed. We wanted to spend more time in our homes. We wanted to spend less time with clutter, more time doing mundane activities that we could just lose ourselves and not be stressed about work or the world around us and find little flow state moments.
I think if you go back to the last few years of Gin Lane and we were searching for those types of brands. So it’s working with therapists businesses like Alma or working with brands like Recess at our antidote for modern times, or dealing with Hims and Hers or working with Make-A-Wish, just trying to explore and figure out a little bit like where does the market need to go for our generation who are seeking and searching for more than I think people were maybe looking for in the 90s or early 2000s? I think it was just a different time.
So there’s so much to unpack here. What you’re describing is brands that carry a lot more emotion, or I guess you would say emotional triggers. I think where Pattern’s brands play and the companies that you’ve created for your clients, a lot of this is about using emotional triggers in a premium space to get people to not just buy the product, but also the story and the ethos behind it and wellness, self care, all these concepts, they command a premium. It’s not just about getting the product. Either you pay a premium in price or you pay a premium in education or the time it takes to use the product. What you guys are talking about with Equal Parts and Open Spaces, like slowing down, taking your time, which can be luxuries for some people.
I don’t want to paraphrase too much what you’re saying. What I want to get at is my next question, which is how are people purchasing differently? You’re talking about a lot of emotional purchase decisions. How do you see people behaving and buying differently in these spaces that you’re operating in?
I think there’s a few trends or answers. I think post 2008, the cohort of what is dictating consumer culture in America is continuing shift to be more millennials, and it’s also fast approaching that Gen Z are an emerging bloc of Americans. I think the sensibilities are for both of them, but I’ll talk on what I think is a difference. I think millennials, that we feel burned by the government, by businesses and I think people want more insights into the businesses and leadership. They want transparency, they want responsibility. They want to hear about what it’s made of. Is there the charitable component or the responsibility of the materials or just a brand that looks like them.
I think there are more businesses that are more diverse in terms of how they’re marketed, who their leadership is, the values they have than ever before. I think there should be, I think businesses should be more a reflection of society and America is a very diverse society. So I think millennials are more of wanting to trust businesses and have an affinity for businesses and they will support those businesses by voting with their wallet.
When you say people are looking for brands and businesses and leaders that look like them, is this in contrast to more aspirational brands that are creating an image of what we should look like? Could we oppose these two or is this like a counter trend?
I think a few things. Let’s go back to like the 90s and early 2000s. This is before “influencer culture.” So basically, how do you market a brand? You get celebrities or you do zany marketing or you talk about crazy … Like Nike is interesting. They would have crazy product details. It’s like the new Air Max 3000 with this cushion that does this thing. Then they would also have a famous athlete and then they also would do a crazy marketing stunt. Those things don’t not work, but that was the default of the day. Then when you move forward into social media, which more democratize, people having voices and a pedestal to speak from, you get into a little bit of what I think you’re talking on, which is this aspirational culture, which is it’s actually like aspirationally attainable.
So like a celebrity is pure aspiration, an influencer is like, “Hey, look, I’m just like you,” but it’s still kind of aspirational. That’s a new trend that’s only like 10 years old. It’s just, if you’re growing up in it, 10 years is a long time to be inundated when everyone else starts to follow that format. I think what’s emerging now amongst other things that bifurcate continuously as this stuff works is people wanting even more authenticity and they think they can just sniff test and know when something is formulaic. When it’s that a business is just hiring a bunch of influencers, paying them money, the influencers don’t really care about the product. They just know that they can get money for it and convince people to buy it. I think people are smarter than they think.
I think politicians, sometimes you think people are stupid. I think businesses sometimes think people are stupid and I think brands that are doing well and emerging of the past few years, they are authentic and they have a mission. Their promise sounds like they really mean it and people feel and can sense that. Whether you like Donald Trump or not, I think he capitalized on being someone who is very different than the politicians. I think on the left, you have Bernie Sanders doing something similar. I think for businesses, whether it’s Warby Parker or The Wing or Glossier or Everlane or Fenty or Savage from Rihanna, these are just modern, different businesses that feel like they were made by people that share the similar values from a similar time, than a Procter & Gamble or a Unilever or big faceless businesses from the 20th century.
Right. Then going back to how people purchase differently. So obviously what you’re describing is people have … They’re more sophisticated it seems. They have a gut reaction to what it is they feel aligns with their values and what they purchase. Is there anything else you’re seeing in the way people are behaving and purchasing in this new context around how we operate in the world, the way that you’ve described it?
I was going to say on like Gen Z and younger people, I feel like that’s even more flat and I feel like that is actually even more weirdly relatable, where if you look at the emerging platforms of like TikTok, it just feels like there are bands working on TikTok and stuff and it’s just, I guess, the next class of how people use voices and channels and platforms to communicate within market. I think there’s also something that feels more decentralized and more, I don’t know, even another click into, like authentic of some of the services and brands that are doing a good job of communicating on that. I would say also in E-comm, if there’s people listening of that, it’s now that stuff has coalesced around the Shopify ecosystem, the cottage industry.
I think what’s cool is looking at where people are selling stuff through Instagram or they’re selling stuff through different applications and they’re more decentralizing or they’re using some of the no-code stacks that are popping up. So I think the playbook of having this fancy website that’s integrated with Shopify and running paid campaigns with influencers on social channels and doing some out of home, it still makes sense and stuff, but we’re going through the new start of another cycle, which I think is going to be a bit leaner, a bit faster and a bit more decentralized. I don’t know if you’ll even really need a website to run a business off of in a few years. I think the younger generation in America, or maybe millennials, we’re still laptop-based in a lot of ways.
We browse stuff on our phones, but then you go home and you go on to Amazon or your social channels or your favorite sites, and you mark it or whatever and you pull it up on your laptop and you open “different tabs” and comparatively shop. I think that the younger generation is just way more mobile native, and I think you’re going to start seeing … Look at SMS as an emerging channel. It’s like, think about the open rates of texting versus an email, or think about the continuing rich media or integrations with like SMS, MMS.
You think about, again in Asia, you have these platforms that are for chatting and communication, but also commerce. So you don’t need traditional, standalone websites, just like of our generations, you would’ve obviously located traditional standalone retail stores. So I think things are just becoming more decentralized, more lean, more about communication in asynchronous way versus old-school was broadcast and then it was like direct digital broadcast. I feel like it’s more mobile now and just conversational, which I think is cool.
Yeah. So I’m like, while you’re describing this, thinking of, am I seeing this in any of Pattern’s brands? You have a lot of great insights and I love that you have an opinion on where things are going. I know people listening are going to want to hear a bit more either about Equal Parts or Open Spaces, because I know you guys are super thoughtful in the way you create brands. There’s so much that goes probably unsaid that is behind the way you guys design the brands that you create. I would love it if you could take either of the brands right now and maybe describe some of the deeper thinking and decisions behind them that maybe as consumers, we just don’t see. Decode the brand for us a little bit.
Yeah, for sure. I’ll give a shout out to @ginlane who headed up our brand department and has helped architect for Pattern, our brands, Camille Baldwin. So she loves pyramids and triangles and bases that ladder up to stuff. I think for Pattern, our mission is enjoy daily life and then for Equal Parts, it’s enjoy home cooking and for Open Spaces it’s create space to enjoy. So the common theme is enjoyment for our family brand, as well as the sub-brands. Then they’re all centered around essentially domestic activities within the home. So we were really thoughtful in terms of how we set up Pattern. At first, when we were stressed out by work, we didn’t just try to go tackle, I don’t know, your anti-productivity apps or services within the workplace.
We thought of like, why don’t we just rethink home and rethink it as a little bit of a sanctuary where you can put your phone down. Equal Parts was our first beachhead brand, because, well, for a few reasons. I think home cooking was a remedy that a lot of our team were using to deal with the stress of work when it got intense. They would come home and get lost and not think about email or Slack or some Asana board or whatever it is while they’re focusing on the heat and simmering and putting stuff in the pot. Putting some music on, pouring a glass of wine or some whatever, nice ginger ale.
We also saw it as a nice beachhead into the home and tying back to the earlier conversation, we have this notion where we have like a hotline. We have like, you can text professional coaches who we have on staff and we saw that and cooking as a great beachhead into the home to better understand our audience. We did consumer interviews and research, but we ran a half year beta of just trying to understand the behaviors of potential customers in America, in their late 20s, early to mid 30s, whatever, when were they cooking? We found out that people were doing a lot of meal preparation and meal planning on weekends, and that they would then cook based on that stuff Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, but no one was really cooking on Thursdays and Fridays and sometimes Saturdays.
So we understood the rhythm and flow of our audience through SMS, and that also helped inform then how Open Spaces came in, which is more of like a multi-zone brand. So Equal Parts is focused on helping people rethink their relationship in the kitchen and the dining room and Open Spaces is really for every room in your apartment.
We wanted to have a little bit more information on the behaviors of our customer, which the texting service allowed us to just talk to hundreds, if not thousands of customers, before we rolled out Open Spaces to get a better picture of what their days were looking like and where there were pain points. So we’re always testing, we’re building websites with fake brands and running ads. We’re always doing focus groups and consumer interviews, and it’s not like that dictates what to do. We’re just trying to get as much information as possible and then just try to push where we think the space of the industry is in an adjacent way.
We’re never trying to be revolutionary. We’re always just trying to evolve things to feel a little bit new and different, but they’re not so far away that they’re hard to grasp or see, or make that cognitive leap. We’re very fortunate enough that we can try to do something we’re passionate about, and I just hope for entrepreneurs today or coming up that are younger or people within the organizations that those entrepreneurs will build, that people feel more confident to be vulnerable and more confident to talk around topics for business that maybe are harder to do or say.
I’m just trying to break, I think a lot of what became the normal culture out of Silicon Valley, as you said. We did an interview for Open Spaces, our brand that just launched and it’s awesome. I’m excited and Equal Parts is doing great, but in the interview I said, “We went to creative with Equal Parts.” I don’t think we were as disciplined as we were when we were doing Gin Lane projects because we wanted to be undisciplined and I think Pattern has wacky watercolors and it’s all painted and the website loads in and you can’t click anything for 10 seconds. It just breaks every best practice and it worked really well.
I think we tried that for Equal Parts and some of it didn’t work. It was hard to see the products. I think some of the brand storytelling was just all in the way of the actual product details. The websites were full of crazy progressive graphic animations and we had to really listen to market and pull back and fix a lot of stuff. I think being honest about that is important, whereas we’re still in market, we’re still learning, but I’m not going to lie and just say like we had everything figured out and hopefully that makes it easier for other people to talk about the challenges of trying to run a business or working in a business. I’m not saying that our business is also run perfect.
I think sometimes people do work late and do get burnt out and we’re trying to be better about, unmarried, secondary caregiver time off. So we’re trying to push that. So I don’t know. I think it’s just talking about stuff as you’re working through things is healthy. It’s like what therapy is all about. I just feel like in business culture, you just have to be all 20th century alpha, I have it all figured out and pardon my French, it’s just bullshit ad it’s not healthy
Listening to Emmett makes you realize that there are two stories happening around burnout. There’s the surface level story around the burnout that we feel as consumers and as individuals and how that affects our purchasing behaviors, how we move throughout the world, how we relate to brands and the kinds of solutions that brands are trying to create for us, either through their products or through their storytelling. But there is a different narrative around burnout that is a bit more internal. The burnout that we feel in our interpersonal relationships, the burnout that we feel and the lack of satisfaction that we have, the burnout that’s harder to articulate and harder to name and something that I thought was worth exploring.
I spoke with Abby Crumb, who’s a licensed therapist who has explored the subject of burnout extensively, not just with millennials, but Gen Z people in her practice as well. She’s explored the idea of the burden of potential, which is one of the precursors or causes of burnout. It’s an interesting concept that maybe can start to explain where the lion’s share of our burnout is coming from and how we can deal with it.
So the burnout potential is essentially the pressure we feel around potential. So you can think of it as if you think of the phrase, a waste of potential. Like we have a fear of that. So the burden of potential is that pressure to manifest or reach the height of your potential and we just get so many messages in this culture that you need to be almost like started at age zero with that, that it becomes this shackle on you from a really early age. So it starts to feel like a burden.
So how did you come across this in your own work? What was the genesis of this thing? Because I think we all feel it, I just don’t know that we’ve ever named it.
Yeah, and it’s funny. So I spontaneously said it, but then I looked it up and I wasn’t the first one to say it, but I was actually working with a high school student who was the hope for her community because she was really smart and she had talent. So everyone in her community would kind of say, “You’ve so much potentially,” and she was just like, “I don’t want to hear that one more time.” I said, “Oh, it feels like it’s a burden,” and she was like, “Exactly,” because she knew not did she have the potential, but it was being witnessed by other people. Once it’s witnessed, then it’s like, oh, I really have to act on this or people will really know that I haven’t gotten to the height of my potential.
Out of evolutionary biological psychology, there’s this thing about status that we’re actually wired not to lose status. What will happen is, so they give this example, like, let’s say there’s a guy in Indiana and he’s the smartest guy in his town. Then everyone’s excited for him to take the SATs and see what college he gets into. So the night before the SATs, he’ll get drunk and fail it because then he can say, “Well, it’s because I got drunk.” He never has to actually show that, what if I can’t actually get into Harvard or something like that.
So we do that because if you lost status or some kind of talent in the tribe, you would get kicked out. So that’s just wired into us that if you ever hit a height, like let’s say you’re an Olympian. I imagine the day after the Olympics, if you can’t qualify again is really scary because it’s like, how will I ever hit that height again? So even hitting our potential can almost be depressing in a way, because it’s like, where do I go from here? That was my whole sense of worth.
This is fascinating because I feel like you touched on a lot of things. One, I feel like I hear a little bit of imposter syndrome in this. People feel like once they’ve reached a certain height, they have to keep proving that they are that person. So they feel a bit of imposter syndrome, which reminds me of Carol Dweck’s work, where she talks about the fixed mindset versus the growth mindset. I have a personal story here even. So my sister is a high school teacher and when we were kids, I was in the gifted and talented education program. You’re familiar with that? Right, okay.
So I was in GATE and I even had to be bused to a different school from my school and there were only 10 of us and it was like this little tribe, but my sister was telling me years later, while I was in college, that now that they’ve had time to do long-term studies on these kids, they see that these kids really feel a sense of imposter syndrome. They have a fixed mindset because GATE taught them that this is how good you are at an early age and it didn’t give them room to fail. I still am deprogramming myself from having such a tremendous fear of failure. The burden of potential you’re talking about truly, there’s no other word. It is a burden because it takes up so much mind space. You feel the heavy weight of having to prove that you are capable of what people see in you. That’s super heavy.
We have systems in our culture like GATE that actually, and now that things are so public, now that you can peak in high school when everybody sees it, now that you can be an entrepreneur that has a super early win and does tremendously, and then fails the next time, have you seen this a lot in your millennial patients? Have you seen this burden pop up over and over again?
All the time. It’s constant because it is almost embedded in our culture that you are supposed to be, and it’s from parents. So parents feel this pressure to also manifest their kid’s potential. So there’s kind of this message. I remember when I was a kid, if I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, my mom was like, “You should do a cookbook.” There was just like the encouragement, which was meant to be encouraging and helping me find my path. I do think paths are more meandering than we like to pretend they are. So if you’re good at football at an early age, that path is just set from like, it’s just like, oh, you know what that’s to look like. The high school and the clubs sports and the all that, and there’s not like, “This year I don’t want to do football.”
Parents are scared to do that. “Well, why don’t you just stay in football and then we’ll see how it goes when you’re 40.” They just can’t because they’re scared. So there’s all this stuff, “Oh, millennials are so…” All this stuff people say about millennials. That they’re entitled and lazy and all this stuff. It’s not really bad. It’s that everyone’s forced to find in what way they’re special and then we get to points like we can’t all be special all the time. So you get into a workforce where, when you’re doing unspecial work, which is what we’re required to do sometimes, you actually feel shame.
So I think there’s a way in which it does get avoided, but not because people are just lazy. I just don’t even believe in laziness. I believe we are a product of the culture in a reward and consequence system. So there’s very little reward for being the person to do unspecial work.
So unspecial work is, this is important for us to talk about here because it relates to burnout a little bit, which is the larger topic of this discussion. It seems that there’s different definitions of burnout, but the definition that I’ve seen, which I think was on the Vlogbrothers. Hank was talking about this, is that when you are doing something and the treadmill keeps running, but the dopamine hit stops coming, meaning you’ve stopped doing something that’s passionate for you. That’s one way I’m interpreting it. This pressure to constantly do what makes you feel passionate about it, I feel like it’s caused us to muddy the waters. Maybe we don’t even know what we’re passionate about because so much of that is signaling to the world like, I am doing this special work, like you said, but maybe the thing I’m passionate about is super mundane. Do you see that? What are your thoughts on that?
So what I think it’s that, yeah. What I think is important is everything’s going to include menial days, mundane days, but you have to be okay with that at least a little bit. If you don’t like the practices in football, I don’t know why I keep using some metaphor, but if you don’t like practicing and all that other stuff in between, you only like making touchdowns, that is going to be a miserable life for you. The people who really, I think do well and mentally well in these sports are people who like practice, even when it sucks where they can still have a bad day. They can still not love it all the time, but they have an affinity for it.
They don’t mind the middle parts. So a lot of people get so pressured into picking something they think they’re good at, or maybe you’re talented at, but you hate every aspect of it except when you excel. Then I think you get stuck in this cycle where you’re just going to be unhappy most of the time, unless you’re “winning” or succeeding at whatever it is.
Do you feel like a lot of our burnout as a culture now is coming from this disconnect that you’re describing and the burden of potential?
I think where it’s coming from is more the treadmill. Treadmill is a metaphor that just comes forward for me all the time, which is I’m not allowed to get off the treadmill and if I do, something bad is going to happen. I was just listening to somebody and they talked about this thing. Let’s say your work says, “Hey, you can take mental health days whenever you want.” Well, there’s still going to be this thing where you feel like, oh, I don’t want to be the person that looks like they need that because I don’t see anyone else doing it, versus if you were required to have mental health days. Then people would actually take them or they would be forced into taking them and get the benefits of them.
Do you feel for some reason, as a culture we’re idolizing overwork?
Absolutely. It really has become, not to get too much into the religious and spiritual, but it has become the replacement, I think for that. I’m not someone who’s attached to a particular religion or that you need spirituality, but I do think we need something beyond our lives and right now that is work for so many people, but the belief system is like, you give everything to this, you know what I mean? And that that is how you’re going to prove your worth. Especially when you hear the criticism about millennials, how could we not? Everything’s about them being lazy and entitled. Part of me wonders, so when someone sets a boundary with you, does that make them lazy?
Because there have been times when I’ve had to set boundaries and the people of older generations hate it. Because it’s like, “How come you get to do that? I didn’t set boundaries. I was, you say yes to everything and I don’t believe in that,” but that is part of work culture. Like just be a yes man and I just don’t buy into that.
I do want to get into the religion as well.
So let’s assume, which I think for some people, this will feel very personal, but even though it sounds so cliche and we don’t want to believe it, we have many new religions. Work is one of them and I’ve talked about this. It’s because our other institutions are failing, religion itself for a lot of people is failing. A lot of people are moving out of religion and more into a spiritual realm where they’re deciding what their connection to the universe or themselves is. The thing about religion though is that it has clear rules, clear boundaries, and it delivers.
That’s why it’s so hard for atheist groups to create a substitute for religion, which they’ve tried and we’ve done work with atheist organizations and when people leave religion, there’s just this gaping hole where yeah, we’re all looking for meaning and it’s hard to have that without religion. So when we look to work to give that to us, is there ever a context that you see where work could actually give us enough meaning to bring us happiness the way like a religious system might have?
Absolutely. I do think that, and that’s like when we talk about getting into flow states, when we talk about when your work and your joy merge, and it doesn’t mean you’re happy every day. Happiness is not like an end point, but even in the work I do, I feel like I’m really close to that and especially because I’m in private practice and I can work for myself, I do feel like I’m closer to that. Work is a very fulfilling purpose for me. So I do think it can be that. I think corporate culture and capitalism make it really difficult. I don’t want to get rid of work. I think there is something to work that’s really meaningful to people’s lives. It’s more the systems that are the organizers of work right now.
So did you have an experience with the burden of potential?
Yeah. So for me well, so it’s interesting that I mentioned the story about my mom. I think from a young age, I did already have kind of, no one ever sat me down and said you should make something of yourself. I didn’t have one of those high pressure. I was almost like the opposite. Like if I got a C, my parents were like, “Okay,” but there was something of, do something important. I don’t know where that quite came from, but many people in my family did go on to do big, important things. So I think there’s growing up in the shadow of giants. So if you’re somebody who your family member did something important, I think that adds to the burden.
So then I moved out to LA and I was doing standup and improv, and I remember specifically telling my own therapist that I was like, “I’m never really happy because if I have a great show and everyone loves me, I feel like anxiety. How am I going to produce that again, and if I have a terrible show, obviously I don’t feel great about that and if it’s neutral, then again, that’s ordinary. That’s average. That’s not good enough.”
I don’t want to gloss over this. You said it like it was nothing. You moved to LA to do standup and improv. That’s huge. I don’t meet too many people that do that. People move to LA to be actors, but standup and improv, which sound like my personal nightmares. You wanted to make a life out of this before you were even thinking of therapy, like that’s who you were.
Well, and I am more of a risk … Whenever I say that and I’m always, I’m very fearful of risk and people look at me and go, “You did stand up.” So I totally get that and I don’t know exactly what came together to allow me to overcome my fears to do it. It’s a thread in my family too. A lot of like funny, and we’re Jewish. It’s very much like humor is how you get status. I was at a training and I have a mentor and I was just talking about myself and she said something like, “So in your family, applause was love,” and it just hit me like a ton of bricks. I was like, “Oh yeah,” that was it. That’s how you got status in my family, was being the funniest one at the table.
So I think a lot of my journey into standup and my mom did put me into my second grade talent show doing standup, wrote me an act, which I don’t know what it was about. Like the school chicken nuggets. I can’t imagine what that act was, but I remember when they called my name to audition and I had what my mom had prepared for me, they were like, “Abby?” And I just sat there. I didn’t raise my hand. I just pretended there was no Abby there. So I think it just started there where I needed to prove something, and the things I love about stand up is you do get to talk about larger cultural issues. I do like to challenge things.
I do have opinions. I like ultimately what standup is, and it provided a lot for me watching standup comedians when I felt on the outside, like in high school and things like that. The world of standup though, is a little different, and I definitely felt that burden. So I just realized I was never going to be happy in that world.
So how did you come to therapy, then?
So I was in therapy and then I realized, and then also a good friend of mine was in graduate school and I realized that’s what I really … I was at the time also volunteering at a hotline. So I was already doing counseling. So when she told me about her graduate school program, I just said, “That’s exactly what I want to do.” I remember saying to my therapist though, “I don’t see how these are going to merge. I have to kind of kill one to do the other.”
She was like, “You’ll be surprised. I’m sure they’ll come together at some point.” I kind of like, okay but the truth is, now I do workshops. I’m speaking and this feels so much better, just what I’m doing today with you to be able to talk about meaningful things and my humor is in there, but not have to be the funniest person in the world and make it onto a certain stage or something like that. I’m just allowing, if I have the opportunity to speak, I take it and that’s how I use it now.
What you just described, it sounds like that was your way of dealing with the burden of potential. Like you found something else that still gave you the same outlets that you wanted, but it seemed like it was your openness that allowed you to get out from under that burden. What’s the antidote to this burden that we all feel?
I think it’s like baby steps. Whenever I’m guiding a client through this process, you don’t have to do anything impulsively. If you’re like, I really feel burned out at my job and it really isn’t what I want to be doing, it’s just starting to figure out … And the thing is, it’s really hard to ask, like if I was to give your listeners some generic questions to ask themselves, it sounds so generic. That’s why I love being with somebody one-on-one because I can really dig into people’s stuff, but to really think about again, when we talk about flow state, what could you do all day every day and enjoy it? What gets you into that place where you can let go of the rest of the world. These are at least going to start to create baby steps into something.
For me, that was graduate school. I was like, “Let me try this,” and the more I did it, the more possibility showed up because if anyone had told me, all you hear when you’re in graduate school for psychology is there’s too many therapists. It’s saturated. You will never make private practice. You’re going to have to work in an agency. It’s going to be miserable. So that’s why so many people, again, have trouble getting off the treadmill because all you’re going to hear is messages like, “Not a good idea. You have a good job.”
So it’s really overcoming the fear and actually stepping into the unknown, seeing if you actually die off the edge, which rarely happens. So that’s why so many people need support to do it because I think it’s really hard to do on your own because you will get a lot of messages that it’s not possible to do anything else, but what you’re doing.
That’s really good. I’m going to jump in here and say like, from a cultural perspective, a lot of our listeners are our founders and brand strategists. These things matter to us because they give us a touchstone into what people are thinking, but more importantly, how they’ll probably behave. So how does a fear of reaching our potential affect the way that we behave, the way that we plan our lives, even the ways that we buy and consume, the ways that we relate to each other? How does this manifest into our every day?
I think it just makes us really fearful. I do think there’s this other way, besides fear. So this is Kristin Neff’s research, but she researched why we self criticize and the number one reason we do is motivation. We think self-criticism is the only way to motivate ourselves, but there’s really a lot of other ways to motivate without such a cost. So if you criticize somebody or yourself, it will motivate you, but there’s so many costs at the end of the day. We can actually encourage people into doing good work. We can actually inspire people into doing good work, and I would love to see that.
I see it a little bit, like I just saw this commercial for LeBron James doing a calm for the Calm app. That’s great. Athletes should be paying attention to their mental health. I think Michael Phelps did BetterHelp. So just to start saying, we don’t have to criticize ourselves into success, that there are other ways, because we don’t act like that in this culture. We say, “No pain, no gain.” You have to berate yourself and I just don’t think that’s true.
So self-criticism is like a script, and scripts kind of become our identities. The burden of potential, or even just this potential that you have, I know for me, it’s been my identity since I can remember and I know how destructive that is. Do you find that people are often, their identities are really, really deeply intertwined with whatever their potential is, or is there a gap? Is there some breathing room that we can create space in where we can start to change that story?
Yeah, there’s definitely a gap, but I do think for most people, it’s my potential is my identity. So whatever I’m going to become, this future self, that becomes what everything’s about. So the way I’ve reframed it is not that I have to become this particular thing and get attached to a really, again, fixed idea of what the best future for myself is because we’re terrible predictors of what will make us happy. So I think when you think of potential as an unfolding, and if I do … So this actually comes from recovery community like AA, but they always say next right step. So that’s where I’m always going with people. So they go, “Oh, well I do want to go and get my MBA, and I want to change careers and I want to do this,” but like 50 years and they get way too overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.
I go, “What’s the next right step for you, if you want to move in that direction?” I trust there’s an unfolding that may look different than your idea of it and for me personally, I’m like, “I have an idea of where I want to go,” but right, for instance, just how this came about, this whole talk. This was just because we got introduced in a way that I couldn’t have predicted. So when we think of potential as something we don’t have to control, but that unfolds naturally when we take the next right step, that to me is so much more freeing than I have to create this reality in which I’m a superstar.
When you say that, it makes perfect sense and it takes a lot of that pressure off. And I feel like people are waiting for that permission. There’s something else you talked about reminded me of a study that I read about how we love to shop because it’s actually a very imaginative act, especially when we’re shopping for clothes, because you’re imagining your future self. A lot of us even buy clothes that we don’t have an immediate use case for them right now. Like we’re not going on vacation, so we’re not going to wear this bikini or we don’t fit into these jeans right now, but you imagine how you’re going to feel in that future state and you imagine what people will think of you and how you will be perceived in that future state as well. It’s also sounds like, this example and what you’re talking about too is a burden is that like, it also prevents us from being present in the moment. It’s always pushing our mindsets to the future.
Exactly. That’s what it is. It’s all future-focused and you’ll be happy in the future and you have to suffer this now. So it will be better in the future, and how many people have gotten to that thing? Maybe you did get the NFL contract and you’re depressed. So then you don’t get the promise either. You know what I mean? I think it’s terrible what we do to kids in high school. What I hear from my adolescent clients is like, the school counselor come in, “You need to know what you’re doing. You guys are sophomores. Get on it.” The truth is, you don’t, you just don’t know.
So why are we forcing people? Someone’s going to give you an answer because they feel pressure to, but it’s not really how things work. So we’re always focused on this future that’s going to be better versus what’s working for you right now. That’s where I think the best data is.
I think, not to persist too far, but that’s what we’re seeing with the brands that we talk about on this podcast. A lot of brands that are trying to bring us back to the present, because it’s almost like this recoiling against whatever you might want to call it, aspirational or this future sense of who you can become. There’s this new narrative that brands are employing that forces us to come back to today and just be very engrossed and present in what you’re doing now. We were just speaking with Emmett Shine in this conversation. He was talking about how they decide to start in cookware because when you cook, it’s really hard to do anything else or think about anything else. When he said that I felt it because I can do anything.
I can even, I hate to admit this. I can even be feeding my kids and be thinking about work or thinking about things I need to do, or resisting the temptation to look at my phone, but not when I’m doing things like cooking. I think that’s why I love it because it’s so much of an escape and that just occurred to me. I think I’ve always said I just like cooking because I’m good at it, but that’s probably not the truth. So in your research, there was a line that stood out to me and you said, “It can be hard to believe there might be more than one way to reach our potential and live a satisfying life.” Why is that? Why is it so hard for us to see alternatives?
Because again, we get this message, again, from very early that you need to get on your path and hang out on it for 30 years. So it’s like, if you miss this boat, that’s what they’re saying to the high school kids. If you miss this boat and don’t get in the right college, well, that’s a real problem and it’s not true. How many people didn’t get into the college they want or didn’t even go to college and they’re fine? So it’s, again, a fear-based thought. It’s not accurate. So I think this idea that there is mystery in the world and nobody gets an insurance policy.
We are all going to have joy and excitement and thrills, and we’re going to have failures and sickness and decay. That is part of the whole human experience. Nobody gets to avoid that. So instead of setting it up that there’s this one way to happiness, get on that treadmill or homelessness. Bye, and everyone’s successful is just waving bye in your loser canoe. So it just doesn’t happen. It’s not true. So if you look at anyone’s story that is successful, there will be many detours. Nobody has a straight line.
Yeah. That’s probably one of the greatest lies we tell ourselves generationally. I can’t speak to other generations. As a very, very late stage millennials, I feel like … It’s easy to understand and internalize, we have this burden of potential. We’re all feeling burnout because there’s a huge disconnect between who we think we should be and who we are, which by the way, is the same definition of shame. Who we think we should be or what the world expects of us, versus who we actually are, which is interesting. There’s a lot of shame tied up in this, but it’s hard to accept that if you know you are capable of great things, that that can be more than one thing and you can be happy by just choosing one of those at the expense of another.
That’s the thing is like, and that’s why I do believe all paths come together. I love this quote. “We often reach our destination on the road we took to avoid it.” So I think that even if you get on a path that you think you’re avoiding, or if you get on a path that you’re like, “Well, I’m going to community college. My life is over,” we will reach where we need to get to, if we can stay on the path, which is very painful when we don’t know.
So the detour some people take sometimes is into addiction or substances or just things that really do take you so far off the path. It’s hard to get to your destination, but again, those things, I know so many people who are in recovery, that that was the best thing that could have happened to them. They’ve learned skills for life that get them to where they are now, but what I see of people who really do realize their potential, they have a lot of support.
It reminds me of, I don’t know if you’ve seen that Netflix documentary called Losers.
Exactly. That’s in my article because I-
Oh, was it? That’s probably how I’m remembering it. We’ll link to that in the show notes too, because that is an incredible series about people who were at the height of their careers and then they lost somehow. It’s just unapologetically, honest stories of people who really, they talk about the disappointment and they talk about the loss, but then you start to see that that’s not the end of the story for a lot of these people. The other thing that I’m hearing when you’re talking about the burden of potential is that there’s this undercurrent of uncertainty and we’re living in a world that is so incredibly uncertain already as it is. It feels like a lot to ask us to also embrace uncertainty in the tiny things that we can control, or that we feel like we can control in our life path. What role does uncertainty play here? Because it feels like a lot of this is about giving up control.
It really is. You don’t have to embrace uncertainty, but we do have to accept it as a fact of life. We spend a lot of time trying to deny just universal realities and like I said, we’re giving people the illusion that you can go through life without uncertainty. If you want to become a doctor, you know what? Uncertainty is gone. No, I speak to people who are in medical school. I have a lot of doctors in my family. It does not get rid of uncertainty. So again, this is one of the lies we tell ourselves. So you don’t have to embrace it. Maybe it’s more pleasant if you do, but we do have to accept it as a reality. That even when, if you pick a really steady course, that we will get detoured. So if we can say … I really liked something a mentor told me, which is, “We’re limited by the feelings we’re willing to experience.”
So if we are not willing to experience uncertainty, we will have a limited life because we will only choose safe things that we think we know, which again, even if you choose the safest thing, you can get blindsided. We limit our experience by saying, “You know what? I’m not going to even take that risk because I can’t tolerate.” There is that moment when you like, let’s say you send out a job application and you have to wait for the response. That is unbearable.
That we’re just like, “Well, that was unpleasant. So I’m going to avoid that at all cost,” but if we can actually tolerate that experience and in a way accept it and not try and make it different than what it is, we can have a more expansive experience. So if you’re unwilling to feel disappointment or loss, you will live a limited life and it will provide less opportunities for joy.
So this is just an exercise in being willing to feel the full spectrum of emotions and accepting them for what they are?
We’re part of that, 20th century hustle culture, work by any stretch means, whatever and I didn’t like how I think it had designed my life. I didn’t have balance. I didn’t have as good of a relationship with my parents who, as I got older, I was more able to understand what they had gone through. I think it was hard for me to be present in relationships. I think a lot of, when I turned 30, I didn’t want to be like that as much. I think that is probably one of the personal inspirations for Pattern was trying to make a culture of business and all that, that I’d grown up in that was more supportive of just reframing goals and balance. It’s not all about money and making money. I understand maybe it sounds easier if you can have a little bit of money, but I do think that’s our goal in America, but it doesn’t make you more fulfilled.
Interesting Links & More Reading
- How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation (Buzzfeed)
- Releasing Yourself From the Burden of Potential (Medium)
- The Company That Branded Your Millennial Life Is Pivoting To Burnout (Buzzfeed)
- What Having A “Growth Mindset” Actually Means (HBR)
- Losers (Netflix)
- Work as identity, burnout as lifestyle (Ezra Klein Show)
- What is burnout? (vlogbrothers)