The Flaw of Self-Expectations - My Introduction to Burnout
A critical understanding of your self-expectations pertains around how you fool yourself. We’ve all been there…
“If only I had that job”
“If only I had a house”
“If only I had a boyfriend who loved me”
Then I’ll be happy.
It is with a heavy heart that I break this news to you, but that is simply not true. We fool ourselves in life, where we set these goal posts and milestones and work towards them, only to be left feeling not much different after we get there. You still feel shitty some days. And then there is just another flawed expectation that we impose on ourselves. But they still don’t make us happy, and if you don’t believe me there have been countless studies to back this up.
The funny thing is, I read all about these studies but I thought I was different. Surely that can’t apply to me. And so, I continued the pursuit that nearly killed me.
Since its inception I had fixed my eyes on Tesla. I decided at a young and naive age that I was going to be an engineer at Tesla, building electric cars and living in California. I literally had the Tesla logo pinned to the center of my dream board.
So a little more context about myself. When I set my sights on something, I used to pursue it with an unhealthy intensity. And that is exactly the approach I took with Tesla.
“If only I had that job”
I worked my ass off for over 10 years since the inception of this dream of mine and buried all my insecurities and problems into this identity I was forging around myself. I was to be Cole Powers, the Oshawa kid who grew up to be the Tesla Engineer. I doubled down on school. I bought my first car and started working on it to get the hands-on experience. I picked up two jobs while still in school to save to go to the University of Waterloo because they had a coop program. And I was incredibly fortunate that most of those plans lined up.
I was admitted to the University of Waterloo for Mechanical Engineering and got some awesome work experience in the automotive industry. Then the fateful time came where I landed my first interview for Tesla. I had an interview with the recruiter before any technical interviews. Looking back I bloody well performed a ritual before that call. I went up to my room three hours before the interview, crushed a workout to get my energy up then sat at my desk in silence listening to the most motivating music I had.
After an eternity, my phone rang on my desk.
A 650 number from Palo Alto, California.
This was it, I thought to myself. I’m finally here after years of relentless pursuit.
I answered that call and it went awesome. The recruiter was convinced I was a great match and he couldn’t wait to introduce me to the technical team. His words, not mine. I was over the moon.
A week went by as I waited for his email of next steps and it didn’t come. I emailed and called and got no answer. Two weeks and my deadline to submit my job with the university was approaching.
I never heard back from that recruiter.
So naturally, I worked harder, and vowed to apply again next term. After a treacherous six months, I was right back in my room preparing for another interview with Tesla. This time they skipped my recruiter call and accelerated me right to the technical interview. It was scheduled for 2pm my time on a Friday, and I blew off all my classes that day (by this point I usually wasn’t attending them much anyways).
By 2:15pm my heart was sinking. I sent the interviewer an email. And got no response. On Monday I got an email apologizing for missing our interview, with a rescheduled date. We were back on.
I finally got my call and knocked it out of the park. Three more technical interviews and I had received a job offer as a Systems Integration Engineer on the Powertrain team. Now the only thing that was between me and my dream were three months of school.
My flight was booked for San Francisco for January.
Fast forward four months and I was in the midst of my internship. I was working pretty long hours and no happier than I was in all those years before. In fact, if you ask anyone who was close to me, they would say I was in a worse spot than I’d ever been. I was working 10-12 hour days not by necessity but by choice. I’d bike home at 8pm and have a few glasses of whisky each night, and bike back to work by 7am to get a workout in before the workday started.
By late February, I was wearing out. I fell out of all my routines, and finally admitted that I really wasn’t enjoying myself at Tesla.
I was miserable.
My roommate came home one night after working an even longer day to the following scene.
It was 9pm and he entered our dimly lit apartment. The living room had a loft bed cordoned off by a curtain from the rest of the room. Between the kitchen and this central room sat a small round table where I sat that night.
In front of me were a half-drained bottle of Famous Grouse, and a family pack of sour patch kids. I had been sitting there in silence for hours drinking. The glass in front of me sat the sweet amber of scotch that numbed the disappointment I felt each day.
Disappointment in my dream job.
Disappointment in our apartment.
Disappointment in myself.
Truth is, there was nothing wrong with Tesla. And California was awesome. Weekends were filled with experience and adventure. The issue with the situation was in the expectations I had set. I idolized and romanticized the company and the job. When I finally got there, I realized it is still a workplace, and not some fantasy world I had concocted in my own mind. I didn’t agree with some things there. People worked their asses off, which I really respected, but work was life and it felt wrong to me.
I ended up leaving my internship a week early and flew back home to Canada. When I landed back home, I remember tearing up walking out into Pearson. I went straight to Tim Horton’s and got an extra-large black coffee.
My time at Tesla broke me.
After a few weeks back in Canada I was lost. I had been in relentless pursuit of my Tesla dream that I hadn’t thought past that moment. Compound that with the fact that it wasn’t what I had dreamed and you get burnout. I had no motivation left, and didn’t care for much anymore. I had no idea what to work towards.
I guess it's true what they say; never meet your hero.
Looking back now, I am immensely grateful for my time there and I recognize that my lack of enjoyment was purely my own fault. I had unrealistic expectations of myself and the job, and poor Tesla never had a chance to satisfy me. That said, after that breaking point, my soul-searching led me to double down on self-development, understanding burnout and fulfillment and ultimately led me to the place I am today. And for that I am immensely grateful.
However, it is important not to overlook the fatal flaw of this dream of mine. I placed everything in the assumption that being an Engineer and Tesla would make me happy. In reality, it was the darkest hours of my life, and for that reason I share with you the following lesson: