On burnout, balance, and choosing a focus.
The best coaching question I’ve ever received was at the moment I least expected it, four years ago. I was tired, overwhelmed with amazing opportunities - talks, business travel, training, and projects - and just plain overwhelmed. In the midst of this, a mentor of mine reached out asking if I’d like to speak about joining his team. Exhausted but ecstatic, of course I said yes!
I was at the peak of what I could handle. When I first began in cybersecurity, I was amazed at the amount of choice. My first career path had felt much simpler: Study, graduate, and work for one of 3-4 similar players in the field. By contrast, cybersecurity was blessed with an immense variety of careers, choices, and companies. Everyone needed security, all types of security, in every industry. I could do anything! Learn anything, work on anything I wanted, for anyone I wanted, anywhere in the world!
If you’d asked me what I wanted then, I would’ve told you: “To find a role in cybersecurity where I can work with a great team, and continue learning.” I thought this mission statement was perfect for me. I was starting out in the field, and I didn’t want to miss a second of it. Based on these criteria, I’d studied up, found a role in the field, joined local security groups, attended meetups, given talks at local conferences, pursued certifications, worked on all kinds of side projects and… racked up a lot of stress in the process. The glowing opportunity of the field had become something that also kept me from sleeping or eating well, exercising, or resting. Every moment was productive. Sitting still was immensely difficult.
Trouble was, my mission wasn’t specific. At all. With this mission statement, I was torn between red and blue team roles, whether to learn about C# or SCADA or AWS, whether to work for big corporations or small consultancies, whether to blog or code or earn another cert. Some of these opportunities weren’t even the right fit for me, but they still fit the mission statement. At some point, I had to use negative reinforcement (”Think of the opportunities you could miss…”) to stay on what had been a positive path (”Think of everything you could learn!”).
And so we find myself, in a cramped hotel in San Francisco during another fantastic (but exhausting) opportunity, getting ready to speak at a massive conference but utterly drained, taking a call from a mentor with another amazing opportunity.
We exchanged pleasantries: “How are you?”, he asked.
“Doing well, thanks!” A chipper response on my part. A pause. “Actually, I’m kind of exhausted. It’s been busy lately. Good busy! But busy.”
He empathized with that - who in this field isn’t busy? Then, the follow up: “So how is your current role? What are you looking for?”
“…I’m actually not sure,” I admitted. I mentioned some common scruples with my current role: Trying to understand clients and leadership better, balancing different types of consulting jobs to ensure I kept learning, juggling reporting with tight timelines.
“Ok. But Katie, what do you want?”
I actually had no idea. Even though this was a standard interview question, this coming from a mentor caught me off guard. I just felt so tired, like I had to learn everything, accept the best opportunities that came my way, and keep sprinting.
What I hadn’t realized is that I’d outgrown my mission statement.
We take a lot of time to talk about passion, and about burnout. But what we sometimes overlook in the process is focus. That ability to know yourself, know how much you can handle, and know which opportunities are right for you. Common sense states that we can’t do it all. Yet this can sound like negative advice in the midst of all the passion and excitement the field can bring.
The most important thing you can do for your career is to decide for yourself: “What do I want?”. Be it money, work-life balance, learning opportunities, relocation, a chance to change the world, or something else - knowing your own mind will always help set your path. The pros-and-cons discussion gets a lot easier once you know what’s most important to you, what you’re not willing to compromise on. It’s different for everyone, and it will likely change throughout your life. This makes it easier to ensure that instead of doing all the things, you have the time and space to do all of one thing.
As you travel your path, you’ll need to reassess: If your mission is generic, have you already succeeded at it? When you’ve been working hard, what can you already celebrate? Is it time to take a break and set a new goal? If you’re a great pentester, is it time to specialize? If you’ve worked in numerous technical roles, is it time to focus on coaching others? Think less of the “opportunity cost” of pursuing a path, and more of the “opportunity gain” in choosing to be very deliberate about what you do with your life - and succeeding at it.
This mission statement will make difficult questions much easier. If you’re considering different job offers, should you go for the best paying, the one where you’ll learn the most, or the one with the most chances for promotion? Each of these offers is “correct” for a different candidate. You need to know your own mind to pick which one is correct for you.
This can even apply to reshaping a current role without changing employers. What have you focused on lately that rewarded what you care about: learning, leadership approval, more opportunities, a raise? What’s been missing? How could you steer towards more of this in your current role, or establish yourself as the go-to person for it? What topics do you need coaching in to succeed the way you want to?
One point I’ll always make to peers and mentees in the field is that the more you listen to yourself, the easier it will be to find your path.
It doesn’t have to go any deeper than that - no long backpacking trips or lifestyle changes required! Just take the time to be honest with yourself:
- How are things going?
- What do you miss about how things used to be, or wish was different?
- What opportunities “feel” right, and which don’t seem to line up for whatever reason?
The more you execute this thought exercise, the easier it gets. With simple questions, we can start to map the “road less travelled” with our compass of values in hand.
While it’s difficult to change everything at once, small changes over time add up. A role could grow to be far better than you expected with a new project here and there, or change to something else entirely. You might have the confidence to jump at a sudden opportunity you wouldn’t have been certain about before, because you know what fits for you. You’ll likely have more patience for these changes, since you know that when they arrive the rewards will be more than just a raise.
We all need something to reach for, however gently we progress towards it. It can change, evolve, or pivot - but if we never ask ourselves, we may never find out what that something is.
So, what do you want?
Image Credit: Unsplash