One Year Out*

My closest friend in school recently published his thoughts on our recent college reunion. His key takeaways? Making friends takes effort, keeping friends takes even more, and doing good things for people we care about helps defeat some of the burnout many young new grads feel. In the spirit of participation, I’d like to add on to the conversation.

Just one year ago I wrote out my thoughts on what it meant to graduate from college and what my 18+ years of schooling had prepared me for on the other side of the fence. My driving point at the time was that the best years of my life weren’t going to be the years I spent in college. Today, one year out and a few days after my first college reunion, I’m asserting that sure, there are going to be four mind-blowing, life changing years outside the ones I spent in college, but the first one out of the gates has not been one of those four.  

Reunions are definitely weird. Somewhere between the parade of bowties, swing dances, and the “So good to see yous”, I managed to conclude the following:

1) I continually find that I get energy, happiness, and fulfillment from the moments when I connect with people. It’s icing on the cake when I get to engage with people I hold close to the heart.

In reflecting on his last year, my friend asserted the following: “The best moments of my reunion weekend were those in which I put others before myself. In those instances, I experienced the pleasure of seeing old friends become slightly happier, in small ways, due to my actions”. While helping others has always been a solid character trait of my friend, what was new was his understanding that keeping up with friends felt less like homework and more like a destresser. And after a crushing week at work, the thing that might actually lift his spirits up is writing a note to catch up with an old friend. Another thing to add to the to-do list that often gets put off in the day-to-day.

Earlier this year I started keeping a gratitude journal. The goal was to spend two to three minutes at the end of the night reflecting on the day and writing down a bulleted list of things that I was thankful for that day. An overwhelming majority of the time, I find myself writing down names and experiences I shared with people earlier that day. Rarely do I write something down like a promotion or a completed project at work. Yet, seemingly, the items on my to-do list (the ones that push other tasks like reaching out to a friend further down the line) are the ones that reflect these work-related responsibilities. If the energy and fulfillment value of one type of task is so high, then maybe it makes more sense to meet those tasks with equal attention.

2)  “The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest. The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.” - David Whyte

Victims of burnout probably do need rest. In response to the the trenches of the day-to-day, the conventional wisdom tells us to relax and take some time away from the blue screen. But based on the late nights I was crushing before finals, I know I’m well capable of producing high quality work under long hours, and I essentially did this for an entire four years, even more if you count primary and secondary education. Blaming burnout on long work hours might cover only half of the problem, if not misdiagnose the issue entirely.

In his latest book Give and Take, organizational psychologist and award winning professor Adam Grant characterizes people into three camps: takers, matchers, and givers. While takers take more than they dole out, and matchers are more tit-for-tat, givers tend to lend themselves more than what the immediate kickback might be. For the latter, Grant articulates that the key to preventing burnout is less about paychecks, lenient work hours, and vacation days and more about appealing to one’s intrinsic motivators by showing them the fruits of their labor.

Grant's classic example comes from a group of college student employees working call centers to solicit donations from alums. Given the long hours and the endless phone calls the job entails, a round of burnout was bound to strike the students. The proposed solution? Not a larger paycheck, more lenient hours, or more time off. Instead, these callers, many of whom were categorized into Grant's "giver" category, interacted with one scholarship recipient who explained the importance of the scholarship he was offered and how much the donations these callers were soliciting had an impact on his life. The end result was a 144% increase in alumni donations - callers averaged $412 before meeting the scholarship recipient and more than $2,000 afterwards. 

According to Grant and his study, burnout has "less to do with the amount of giving and more with the amount of feedback about the impact of that giving." Put another way, we don't burn out when we devote to much time and energy, we tend to burnout when we're working with people to reach goals but are unable to help effectively or when we can't rationalize the fruits of labor.

It’s entirely possible that some people get plenty more energy from understanding how our contributions net out in terms of impact or the overall larger goal. While a job as an employee of a large company, a teacher, or virtually any position you hold after college provides many luxuries, one thing it doesn’t provide is the immediate feedback of our labor. To reiterate point #1, when we reach out to friends, lend a helping hand, or send a quick note of gratitude it’s a lot easier to close that feedback loop and more importantly, we receive that feedback more quickly. Understanding how feedback works in a system that isn’t designed to dish out letter grades of performance in an immediate matter of months takes time, and when that feedback takes time, it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day, which leads me to my last point.

3) The game outside of college is completely different than the one I played in college. And the first year is mostly spent transitioning and learning the new rules of that game.

This is quite probably the most important realization I’ve had and where I’m going with my overall point. At the end of the day, the hardest thing to do after college is to connect the dots between our day-to-day and our overall goals and where we want to go in life. For many of us, myself included, getting a degree was always part of the plan so as long as I was in the confines of the bare minimum in order to get that degree, I never had to worry about my day-to-day as much. Actually having to think and identify where I get my energy, and consequently, where I want to spend my energy, takes a lot more awareness and intentionality that I could only gain by going through my first year out.

*After writing this out fully I now realize a more appropriate title might be "One Year In"