Back in the seventies, when people marched into the world with convictions about changing it, burnout was considered a noble affliction. It meant that you’d depleted yourself while helping others. Almost all the research that’d been done on the subject, and there’d been quite a lot, was on the people in the “caring professions”—nurses, public-school teachers, legal-aid workers, social workers, clergy. Because many of these people were idealists, and because they worked with the hardest-luck cases, they were highly susceptible to disillusionment. Those who burned out were not only physically and mentally exhausted; they were cynical, detached, convinced their efforts were worthless. They held themselves in contempt. Worse, they held their clients in contempt. They began to loathe the same people they originally sought to help. In her seminal book
Burnout: The Cost of Caring, Christina Maslach, perhaps the best-known burnout researcher working in the United States today, collected plenty of vivid, unvarnished testimony. As one Florida social worker told her, “I recently received a call at night, and while I was getting dressed, I was screaming and cursing these motherfuckers for calling me with their goddamned problems.”
Today, in New York City, everyone knows that the ones “screaming and cursing these motherfuckers for calling me with their goddamned problems” are as likely to be hedge-fund managers as any species of do-gooders. Burnout is the illness of just about any averagely driven, obsessive New York professional. Bankers, high-tech workers, advertisers, management consultants, lawyers working in their mustard-lit honeycombed Hades—all of them are as likely to complain about burnout as schoolteachers and social workers. In 21st-century New York, the 60-hour week is considered normal. In some professions, it’s a status symbol. But burnout, for the most part, is considered a sign of weakness, a career killer.