Generosity Burnout

HBR recently did an interview with me around the idea of generosity burnout. It’s part of the challenge that Adam Grant is exploring after the huge success and impact of his book Give and Take.

There’s a longer article on HBR by Adam about the general concept of generosity burnout. It’s a good read and it’s helpful to me as I start working on my next book, Give First.

Several people have picked up from the tone of some recent blog posts that I’m wandering up to the edge of this. I’m at my limit emotionally and made a conscious decision a few days ago to change modes through at least the end of Q2. I cancelled all my work travel in Q2, uncommitted to a number of things that weren’t already in process, and generally decided to focus my energy on what I’m currently working on, rather than add to anything new, especially in the “this could be fun but I don’t know why I’m doing it” category.

I already say no 50+ times a day. I’ve also tuned out a ton of noise around things I can’t directly impact. That’s not the issue. Instead, it’s remembering to ask myself “do I want to do this while I’m in my current mode” at least twice before I say yes to anything.

Also published on Medium.

  • Yeah, I reached burnout a while ago. And I sat in on this webinar — it was good. But it was more talking to how big companies need to change so that they don’t burn these people out. It also made me think how the startup ecosystem burns out the most helpful people (the more helpful you are, the more requests you get — if I’m burned out, YOU must be a smoldering crisp!). In fact, I almost turned down mentoring at Techstars Barclays London because of the drain on schedule (kills most all of the first day, and then weekly sessions for 12 more weeks, and then ongoing requests, all for $0. I don’t need to be counselled on ‘Give First’, but at some point there’s a limit to how many free product/deck reviews, fundraising advice and investor intros a person can be expected to give. I’m not sure what the balance is, but once I find myself getting cranky & feeling taken advantage of, I know I’m near it! PS I went ahead and signed up for the TS Barclays mentoring — full day next week 😉

    • Thanks on Techstars! I hope to weave a bunch of good stuff into the book about this.

  • mark gelband

    Amazing how precious time becomes as we have relatively less of it. Self-care seems more paramount than ever in our Trumpian reality… And being a parent taught me very early on that self-care is the first step in being able to give first.

    Be well. Looking forward to the book.

    • My self-care has been lacking. Shifting back to it.

      • mark gelband

        My most basic daily practice includes three simple things in this order: 1) one thing for myself that helps me feel better about who I am first – self-care – diet, exercise, work; 2) one wonderful thing for someone I love; 3) one thing for someone less fortunate than I am – in need in some way. All of this is wrapped in daily appreciations – for my relative good fortune, simple pleasure, my partner, my children – their presence, beauty, what they bring in the world.

        I fail of course. But when I am in the rhythm, I am maximizing, smiling and sleeping damn well.

        As I’ve mentioned previously, we are fortunate to have your transparency regarding the importance of mental health.

        If there is something I can give, you know how to find me. Enjoy your day.

        • Mark – great list of three. Thank you for the idea.

          • Yes you love the number three. I’m glad you posted this, I was going to be one of those people to ask you to come to a robotics conference. Take care of you first.

  • Sam

    I’m a fan of Derek Sivers’s advice on this topic: If it’s not “hell yes!” then it’s “no.”

    • Rafael Rivera

      How do you ask for feedback in those situations?

      • Too many people ask for advice/feedback, with no intent on acting on it. If someone’s not willing to act on what they learn, it’s largely a waste of time for both sides.

        • Rafael Rivera

          I would agree, and personally feel I use the information differently. I don’t take it as truth but I like knowing how the person was processing my pitch as well, and how to redirect or focus the next pitch.

      • David Grampa

        If they are either disinterested or committed then what’s the difference? If your goal is to raise money then simply move on. If your goal is to improve your pitch then you are wasting everyone’s time.

        There are so many resources online today. A quick Google search for “why vcs won’t say no” answers your question. Searches for “angel investing” or “venture capital” will explain how it works from the angel or venture capital perspective. Read posts on Quora, law blogs, angel blogs, etc. Attend Meetups, Startup Grind events, Startup Weekend hackathons, etc.

        All the resources are there and all the tools are there. You just need to help yourself. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to help someone that refuses to help themselves. I think that’s Drew’s point.

        I’m not trying to single you out. Just trying to add to the conversation. In fact, happy to hear your pitch and provide my feedback. You can find me on LinkedIn.

        • Rafael Rivera

          I should have mentioned these investors are in friends and family round. Mostly without start up experience, or just qualified investors who focus on more tangible investments. I would love to get a feedback pitch. I can buy you coffee and skype. Your time is worth something and picking up lunch or using a delivery app, is a way I generally ask for the help even through skype. I have googled and have done the homework. (I mean, we are on a very specific chatboard. Venture deals is a great source for an early stage overview of the space. ) is personal brand. I couldnt find on Linkdin but if you email me, I could search through that?

  • Rafael Rivera

    I’d agree about saying No, it must desensitize the process. The hardest part is getting feedback on the entrepreneur side when you meet with Angels and VC’s. You look for help and it seems as if you are just waiting for the right one to say, “Ok now, this is worth my time”. Over commitments hurt products more than they help, but it’s also hard to know when they disinterested or just committed. They usually act the same… #LifeTold

  • For you simply saying No must be exhausting. I was speaking with a friend about networks. One of the keys is knowing who to ask, and when to ask.

    • It’s more exhuasting to say “yes”

  • As a mother of two and a COO of a scaling company (and before that running a newsroom team, which was actually worse if you can believe it), this is something I think about often. Sad to say I sometimes end up in that depleted, soul-crush, haven’t-cut-my-hair-in-months space before I realize I’ve ended up there yet again. It’s important and rewarding to be selfless, but then it’s also important to say no. At one point when my kids were very small and my commute was very long, I did get pretty good at wielding the “No.” The PTA moms would come at me to rope me in, and I would tell them I was already too deeply involved in the “Just Say No” committee. It probably didn’t register with them until I was already out the door that there was no such thing at that school and that it was a committee of one.

  • Mike Morrison

    We’ve been consciously trimming back and weighing all incoming requests. There are only so many hours in the day. I’ve done plenty of “that sounds like fun” projects, but now the intent is to focus on just a handful of OUR projects, like our artist management software, our music festival, and our families. Those projects are hugely rewarding for us because we get to help artist directly and that is one of our primary objectives. Less is more!

  • Brad, thanks for linking the original article from HBR. Though it initially appeared to be in the category of TLDR articles, its 9-pages of text revealed 24-karat gold. I have PDF’d a copy into a permanent archive of re-reading.

  • Michael MacCombie
  • The term I’ve heard is “compassion fatigue” …many caregivers, therapists, customer service agents, volunteers, and doctors experience it. It can lead to stress, depression, or even “vicarious traumatization” if not managed well.

  • If you have to say no 50 times, it might actually be decision fatigue you are experiencing:

    • Yeah. I have to say no 50 times A DAY. And I probably am still suffering from some jet lag from my Australia trip.

      • No doubt. So do you have a system or assistant to ensure your precious decision bandwidth is prioritized wisely?

        • I have an assistant. But I also have a problem saying no.