We're not burnouts; we're just dopamine addicts
I’m a couple of weeks behind on reading and processing this article on “The Burnout Generation,” a long article that offers up an explanation for why those of us living in the Millennial Generation often fail to complete tedious, but important adult-like tasks such as doing our chores and paying our bills.
The author suggests that it’s burnout — a plague of workaholism that’s somehow affected everyone between the ages of 22–38 year olds living in America today. But I’d like to propose a counter-argument to the theory: It’s not burnout, it’s simply a byproduct of our “instant gratification” cultural mindset.
When I read the first paragraph about how a guy didn’t end up voting in an election because he missed the registration deadline, I burst out laughing and texted my husband:
<< OMG this is too real. >>
Back in November, I had a 7 a.m. flight scheduled on the day of the New York primaries. And despite even Tweeting about how amazing it was that Delta Airlines emailed me a reminder to register for my absentee ballot, I completely failed to do so under the prescribed deadline.
In NYC, the polls open at 6 a.m. I knew I’d never make it in time. So I did what any rational person would do: I changed my flight to 8 a.m., arrived at the polls at 5:55 a.m., and ended up pissing off about 30 people as I pulled the, “But I have a flight to catch!” card to cut the lines.
But, do I blame burnout as the reason why I failed to do the requisite paperwork under the appropriate deadline? I mean…not really. Even while under situations of severe duress and stress, I somehow manage to do things like: prepare presentations and speeches, write on this blog, and take a cross-country redeye fresh off the heels of one event to walk into the doors and host another one.
My take is that this article isn’t about burnout at all — it’s about how years of growing up in an age of “sharing out” online has literally rewired our brains to choose activities that get us more quickly to that “instant gratification” dopamine high we crave.
Reprioritizing my life
Here’s a short list of things I’ve failed to do this week:
Buy more shampoo & conditioner
Reply to my mom about a family vacation in July
Complete my expense report from the last two months of 2018
Process my healthcare claims from the same period of time
Mail a piece of artwork to my brother
And yet, somehow, I’ve managed to do all of these things:
Organize two mid-size executive events at work
Participate in two non-profit board calls
See a Broadway show
Blog every day
I wouldn’t say I’m feeling particularly “stressed” or “burned out.” But it’s pretty clear where there’s a higher sense of “instant reward” or gratification in my second list of events.
I like it when people think I do a good job at work…so I’m incentivized to participate in real-time events where I get the instant positive feedback.
I like the feeling of contributing to things I care about…so I’m incentivized to participate in meetings with larger-scale impact around issues that matter to me.
I like being on the cultural pulse of NYC theatre…so I’m incentivized to attend a highly-acclaimed production so I can talk about it with friends later.
I like the feeling I get after writing something for the world…so I’m incentivized to blog regularly in order to get that feel-good rush.
Let’s not kid ourselves: The activities where I choose to spend my time are much higher impact and carry much higher “social validation” than those I fail to do.
The “always on” generation
What’s the rush I get out of making sure I have enough shampoo in the morning? Eh. Not worth it. I’d rather just go a couple of days without conditioner rather than switch up my evening schedule to swing by a Duane Reade, then cart around a heavy bag with me all night long.
Is this lazy? Is this selfish? Is it living in the clouds?
Maybe. But here’s the thing: In addition to being a byproduct of the “always on” generation, we’re also dead-set on the, “isn’t there an app for that?” philosophy. In the midst of my short 31 years, I’ve seen dozens of examples where things that *used* to be a pain now have automated, seamless solutions.
How you get groceries (I used to have to go to the store)
How you get phone calls (I used to have to wait at home for the phone to ring)
How you get information (I used to have to use a dictionary or encyclopedia)
How you get food delivered (I used to have to keep takeout menus and call)
How you watch movies at home (I used to have to go to Blockbuster)
How you watch TV (I used to have to remember what time a show was on TV)
How you keep in touch with friends (I used to have penpals and send physical letters)
This list goes on and on and on. And yes, while my parents also experienced all of these same changes, they weren’t taking place during their formative years of growing up. I’m no psychologist or behavioralist, but I have to imagine something important happens when a Google search engine interface first appears in your late middle school years and suddenly makes the way you do all of your coursework in college that much easier.
Our parents matured in a time before cell phones and personal computers.
Kids born today are born not knowing anything else.
But my generated matured with the Internet.
And you wonder why all expect “transformation” and “disruption” out of all of the other services and stale processes we see around us. It makes perfect sense to me; we’ve seen it happen dozens of times before. We know it’s only a matter of time for everything to be optimized, automated, done at scale. My “reward” for completing any of the tasks on my first list is so much smaller compared to the “reward” I get on my second list. So I’ll prioritize list #2 every time.
Here’s something I actually thought recently:
“Wow, all of my friends are having babies. It just feels like…so much work to put into raising one human. At the very least, if I’m going to have a baby, I’d at least want to have twins so I can get a two-for-one out of the amount of effort I put into it.”
You know your cultural and generational mindset has overstepped when you start questioning the value or impact of doing the one thing all humans are designed to do: reproduce.
I’m not saying it’s healthy. I’m not saying it’s good. All I’m saying is — it’s not burnout. We’re just children of the Internet age. Bring on the dopamine.