Stepping Out Of The Hole, or How I Learned To Save Myself


Standing in a hole looking up at the sky

You know the old adage about the person who walks into the hole over and over, before spotting it and walking around it and then avoiding it altogether? That’s been my entire work career. I’ve been trying desperately not to step into the hole.

I’ve been burned out twice now. In both cases, I realized I was burnt out not before or during the burnout, but after it was too late to pull back. And this bothered me. If I was so susceptible to burnout, how could I spot the early warning signs so I could steer clear? Why was burnout always a trailing indicator, the last thing you’d notice?

As I’ve been looking for that answer, I’ve learned to watch organizational culture. What do they reward? What do they punish? What do they insist their values are on paper… and what do they practice in their darkest hours?

This time it started innocently. I starting upping my hours at work. And then… well, I felt like I needed to save people.

I have a terrible savior mentality. I want to be the one who saves people and organizations from themselves. It’s a little narcissistic, but it’s also a certain level of martyrdom. I want to be the hero.

I’d been pushing through for nearly six weeks on the current project, and I was tired. So was everyone else. And I knew what this looked like. This was about grooming addicts. And then putting the needle in front of them and telling them the only thing meaningful was the stick, and the rush. Only this wasn’t heroin, this was work.

“Pull your weight” was management’s refrain. And we did. 10 hours a day. For five days a week. But that wasn’t enough. 50 turned to 60, turned to 70. Chasing the rush.

There’s that drug metaphor again. You’re not work-high all the time, you’re not living.

Meanwhile, I’d been watching my team’s hours.  I made the work known, tracked, and available. There was a backlog. I could work out ETAs, definitions of done. (When you’re in UX, you have to know some project management in order to survive in a corporate world.) They weren’t working weekends. I was proud of that.

(I suspect that my willingness to be measured and smart with the team made someone mad.)

And then, one day, every red flag went into the air. I was watching a presentation on organizational values. And… well, it read like a recipe for workaholism. Do things, fast. Act fast. Don’t think. Don’t close the feedback loop. Ask what the customer wants… about learning how to figure it out. All values that only need to thrash and frustration.

And I knew those values. If you’d asked me, in the heart of my two previous burnouts, what values I upheld, I’d have said similar things.

And that’s when I saw it. I saw the hole.

And I saw I had a foot halfway in it.

I pulled back.

I quit the next day.

It was one of the toughest things I’d ever had to do, quit without any job waiting for me. And it was also the easiest. At long last, I could finally save myself.

Since then I’ve been working to get my UX consultancy off the ground. I cannot say it’s been easy — there’s a lot of stress in building up a practice and a list of clients, even in a design-friendly economy like this one. And yet, I’m OK with it. I don’t have to save anyone. Instead, I’m just focused on helping people understand and solve their design problems, and then I move on to the next client.

I no longer fear stepping into the same hole again and again. I still fear. But the fear is new, different, and exciting. I’m financially poorer, but I’m also… dare I say happy? Well, at the least, not unhappy.

I would not recommend my path to everyone, much less anyone. But ask yourself if you’re acting like the savior, the martyr to your organization. Because that’s not healthy. Martyrs can only die once.

Author: Dylan Wilbanks

Dylan Wilbanks is a web roustabout, raconteur, and curmudgeon currently practicing as a user experience designer in Seattle. He’s spent over 15 years designing, building, and perfecting online experiences, and every once in a while does a good job. Occasionally, he speaks at conferences like SXSW and Webvisions. He created one of the first Twitter accounts used in higher education, but that was an accident, and he's really sorry about it. With Kyle Weems, he co-hosts Squirrel And Moose, a podcast about designing and building the web, when they remember to talk about it. He likes nectarines. You can read his tweets at @dylanw and learn more at