This week a couple of our fellow bloggers posted some very personal and intimate thoughts about suffering from burn-out and taking much-needed breaks. My friend and co-author Eric Wittenberg is a perfect example of someone who took his passion for a subject and successfully applied it to a second career. Eric may be the “hardest working man in the history business” and his self-induced sabbatical is very much deserved. Many of us around the blogosphere, who author books, give lectures, lead tours, and even volunteer with the NPS do so in addition to the rigors and requirements of daily life. Sometimes we are lucky enough to incorporate our interests into our careers (*hint on my upcoming announcement), but in most cases we pursue these endeavors in our “free time.” Why? Because we love preserving and presenting the legacies of extraordinary citizens and soldiers who came before us.
Sometimes the privilege of getting “paid to play” can backfire. There was a period in my last year of working with Baseball-Almanac that I could hardly watch a baseball game. I was so sick and tired of sports after writing about it for 6+ years. It took some time for me to be able to enjoy the game again. I still get burned out about halfway through the regular season and don’t get serious about watching it again until the postseason starts (as a Yankees fan that usually works out). As a longtime resident of Fredericksburg, I am completely surrounded by hallowed grounds and historical sites. That said there are days when the last place I want to be is at a museum, or on a battlefield. Other times I am extremely grateful that both reside within a short drive. Both subjects are near and dear to my heart, but they can also get on my nerves.
My own source of enjoyment in giving tours comes from the camaraderie that I share with attendees. Let’s be honest folks, the Sunken Road and Jackson Shrine have become a “been there - done that” to me, but every time I walk them, I do so with someone different. Therefore I get a whole new batch of conversations, questions and insights. My visitors keep things fresh and thankfully I have yet to spend a bad day on the battlefield. I don’t think I’d be able to say that if I gave tours every day.
The same can be said with my published works. The thrill of seeing my byline or book on a shelf is tempered, and I actually enjoy the research part far more than the writing. Perhaps that is why I have been speaking on the subject lately. The process is where I find my own personal satisfaction, not the product. When this all becomes work, and by “work” I mean the kind that you don’t look forward to doing, I’ll find something else to do. I won’t be able to do this (pardon the term) ‘half-assed.’
Over the last few months I have become more aware of the warning signs of burn-out. My recent website update was done intentionally in a way to require far less time, effort, and updates. Other than adding the occasional essay and lecture to the archives, I won’t have to touch anything in the foreseeable future. My blogging is also far more infrequent than it used to be and I am enjoying my time away from the keyboard. With two books on the catapult waiting to launch, I have no intentions of authoring another in the near future. I still have the upcoming Kirkland film and a 2010 talk on Jackson’s Valley Campaign to keep me busy. I’m doing another short piece for Mort Kunstler’s latest print, but that’s it. A few jobs, spread out over long periods of time. Nowadays, that’s the way I like it.
My point today is that we historians (whether professional and amateur) must always be careful not to allow our interests to become obligations, or our passions to become painful. I like to believe that the reason our collective works are of the caliber and quality that they are (whether we are authors, or rangers, or teachers, or guides) is because we love what we do. When we don’t love it anymore – we need to step away and recharge the batteries.
There is so much more to life than the study and pursuit of history. It has taken me years to realize that.
Make time to enjoy our time.
Don’t waste it in lieu of another’s.