Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

Dealing with burn-out

In the period of 2003-2005 I was suffering from a fairly serious case of burn-out. I had pretty much all the symptoms even if I didn’t know about them (I only learned about the clinical side of burn out afterward) and didn’t feel like being near a computer, or thinking about, or doing any kind of business. I wasn’t suicidal, and if I was, I’m not sure I care to remember or admit to it, there are limits to what I’ll put out here for the world to see. Not caring whether the business died, or if we’d be poor was a weird feeling after spending years fighting as hard as I could to make it a success. Fortunately it didn’t, but if it had, I could not have cared less at that point.

The reason I got into this situation was in part because of my nature, and in part because of some fairly nasty things that had happened during the first 5 years of running camarades/camarades.com, and working 14 hour days programming for years on end, but let’s just take that as a given, the more interesting question is not how I got in, but how I got out.

The first year was the weirdest year of my life to date. I did almost nothing but sleep. Well, that’s not really true, I did plenty, but it had absolutely nothing to do with any of the work that I’d done up to that point. I couldn’t look at a computer. We’d moved to Canada, to a place in Northern Ontario called ‘St Joseph’s Island’ to live on a small farm, about as far away from ‘civilization’ as you could be, nearest small town 50 km away. Meanwhile, the company was still making plenty of money, so I didn’t have to worry too much about that.

We’d hired some local people to help in the running of the business, so I had my hands free to pursue whatever struck my fancy, or to do nothing at all. This is a very luxurious position to be in, and I’m very much aware of it.

I didn’t look at my email, I didn’t write a line of code, I didn’t go near a computer. All I did was sleep, or physical work, cleaning up around the house, that sort of thing, as long as it didn’t require thinking. I never slept so much in my entire life.

The farm we had bought after being there for a year came with a small house. My plan was (my dream, actually) to get it to be serviced by renewable energy exclusively, solar and wind power. The first thing we did was to dig a hole in the side of a hill near the house in order to house the batteries for when the sun wouldn’t shine and the windmill wasn’t turning. Such spells are not unheard of in that region, and any renewable energy system needs some storage capacity to stabilize its input, which can be very variable.

We asked for and received a lot of help in the community there, people contributed with advice and sometimes with some of their time. After a month or so of hard work (and learning to drive a tractor, a backhoe and doing concrete work, including a ‘floating’ roof) we had a 10’x10’x10’ concrete cube sitting in the side of the hill with a hole cut in for a doorway. That doorway was a bit of an accident, the initial framing for the doorway failed during the pouring of the concrete and had to be fished out from the forms.

Meanwhile my email inbox was filling up further and further but I didn’t even care, and there was enough dust on my computer that you’d wonder if it was still running.

After completing the battery bunker we started working on an extension to the house, a workshop, 40’x28’ two and a half floors high. We designed and built the extension (with the help of Chris Stevens, without whom this would have never happened without injury or fatalities), in another 5 months during the summer.

If you’ve never built a house it is probably hard to give you a feeling of how much work a building that size is, it took the three of us (my wife, Chris and myself) every day of that summer to get it closed in before the weather turned. Northern Canada is predictable in the sense that winter always arrives just a little earlier than you expect, and this was no exception, the last of the roof shingles went on the North side of the roof when the frost had already come during the night.

The solar panels had been installed, and I vividly recall cutting the line to the power grid, making the house independent. We learned real quick on how much power was consumed by which activities, and got to be experts at turning out the lights behind us. That winter was brutal, the heater that was installed malfunctioned a couple of times (an outdoor woodstove) and we needed the backup generator quite a few times negating the whole idea of independence.

The next summer we started work on building a windmill. Now, a windmill is not something that you just slap together, so the first thing I did was to join an online forum of renewable energy enthusiasts, after dusting off my keyboard. I learned what I could from them, and spent the summer making failed prototype after prototype, throwaway designs just to test a certain idea. The amount of knowledge that goes into making a windmill is huge, and I re-learned quite a bit of high-school math, lots of physics and electrical theory. The lower space of the building was converted into a workshop, and little by little I collected all sorts of metalworking tools, a lathe, a mill, drill-press, welding gear, and so on.

Finally, after several months of tests, I’d settled on a design and called for quotes on having some of the more exotic parts (laminates) made. Of course, I could have gone and bought a windmill, but the whole idea was do to it myself, possibly (in the longer term), getting into the windmill business. Having the laminates cut was going to be very expensive, no way would this project ever fly without being able to make the laminations either in insane numbers (using a machine called a tool-and-die cutter) or by somehow making them one by one using homebrew tools.

I’d already worked in the cad-cam business in the past, so I figured this might be an option. I bought a hand-held plasma cutter, adapted it for computer control and we built a rig to mount the cutter on, so a computer could control it (did I just slip back into computers?). Of course such a machine needs software and I quickly slapped together a piece of code to interpret dxf (autocad) files so the stepper motors of the plasma cutter table could be controlled.

Of course, I told myself that was the only piece of code that I was going to write, just this once. After making the laminates we wound them using copper wire, and the whole thing was assembled, and it actually worked.

But a generator without blades does not really work well as a windmill, so I started studying blade geometry. More math, lots of time… On the forum, I met a guy from Texas, and he came over to help with the blades (Hi RonB :)) and we made three blades in a few months’ time, by adapting the plasmacutter to become a wood milling table, with some software changes.

A small python program was written to help design the blades and they were cut from laminated white pine blanks and lovingly covered with epoxy by Ron.

Finally, after 18 months of work, the windmill was ready to go up. Due to a terrible miscalculation on my part, the governor failed to work and the first storm was the longest 3 hours of my life, but everything held.

So, that’s how I got out. I never really noticed that I got back in! Little by little, I found reasons to re-use my old skills doing new things totally unrelated to my previous work. Now, of course I realize that being able to take the long way around like this requires a steady stream of income and support from your spouse.

But the essence of the ‘method’ may hold true for others as well. When you’re burned out, change, do something that is as far away from what you were doing when you were burned out.

Don’t force yourself back into it, take all the time you need. Physical labor is a good way to recover from burn-out, building a house or doing physical labor (with the associated pay cut) is a very satisfying thing to do in its own right, it is easily the hardest I’ve worked in my life, going to bed in the evening I usually slept before my head was on the pillow. But I recovered bit by bit because of that. Playing around with tools, learning new skills (and re-learning old ones) helped tremendously, anything but programming. And then, when the time was ripe, my hands more or less automatically found the way back to the keyboard.

Now, 8 years later, I’m still not back up to 100% of where I was before I literally broke down. I’d say I’m running at 50% or less of what I was like before, energy wise. I purposefully spend several hours every day around the house doing physical stuff to maintain a balance. I rebuilt an old farmhouse and I restored / repaired several cars. I feel much better now than I did 5 years ago, and I fully expect that to continue. I spent 2 years on a forum and I’m slowly gearing up for another major project.

I program on a daily basis now, still quite a bit of that is ‘fooling around’ but it is fun again and I enjoy learning new programming skills and to see what else there is that the world of software has to offer. I really hope that my new balance will help me to avoid a repetition of my burning out, if you feel that you are on the road to a burn-out the sooner you arrest your slide the better you’ll be able to recover and much quicker as well. But be prepared to make drastic changes in your life, that may be the way out.