A First Principles Anecdote - How I Avoided Burnout at Amazon
Burnout is a real risk at a fast paced company. This is about a time I saved myself from burnout by using first principles.
No one starts their careers knowing what they're doing. We all learn from our mistakes. It's our growth from those mistakes which turns us into the leaders we eventually become.
I have found it hard sometimes to look at those leaders I admire, and remember that not terribly long ago, they were making bumbling mistakes like the rest of us. When they confidently say "You should never ever do X, it's a terrible idea", there is a good chance they actually did X at one point. It's quite possibly how they know that it is a bad idea.
As you get older, it's strange how being young feels like it was just yesterday. My kids go to do something stupid, and I can distinctly remember doing that stupid thing. I'm sure you can remember your own personal stories of growing up, and how there were moments that stuck in your mind as a life lesson. Sometimes they're small things, sometimes bigger things. Regardless, it's those brief moments in time which stick with us.
I can remember like it was yesterday when I started my first job after college. I remember becoming a manager for the first time, and realizing that there wasn't an instruction book. I remember making mistakes over the years, which made an impression on me.
I remember one particular situation clearly. It was towards the beginning of my time at Amazon, when it become clear that more time, more effort, and more focus would not allow me to continue to scale.
The time when things got busy
I was in my fourth year at Amazon. From Thanksgiving to mid-December things were crazy for teams related to the retail website. There was a date in mid-December each year which was the last day you could order with super saver shipping to get your items by Christmas. After that date, traffic would drastically drop.
My career had grown, and in those first four years I'd received two promotions. I was a newly promoted Level 7 manager, which meant I had managers reporting to me for the first time in my career. You don't tend to get promoted quickly by working slowly and methodically. I'd been working quite hard. My meeting schedule was always full from 9am-5pm (or often 6pm). I would catch up on emails before my meetings started, and I'd work for a couple hours after my meetings ended, since that was the only time I could accomplish my own tasks.
I was constantly busy. I was intimately familiar with the Eisenhower Matrix and made time for the important things. I was just slowly drowning over work which was slightly increasing every few months. That problem I had yet to address.
We entered the down time during the holidays. Rather than take a week off like many employees, I ended up spending one of those very quiet weeks almost alone in the office. I aggressively finished documents, caught up on people management issues, cleaned out my inbox, and updated some spreadsheets.
I was working long hours. I felt a level of hopeless regarding the amount of work I had been doing. I'd just spent a few days in a quiet office simply to be less behind on my work. It wasn't anyone's fault. I was ambitious and excited to grow my career. I was moving myself ahead, while barely keeping my head above water. I was no longer enjoying my job. I was reaching the point where plenty of employees burned themselves out. They ran themselves ragged until they finally gave up and quit. I really didn't want to quit.