Justin Jacoby Smith is an organizer, web geek, Buddhist, and poet.

Shakespeare on Avoiding Burnout

The next part in the series on control of your time and attention will come next week.

In the meantime here's this, which I posted on /r/productivity the other day.

Today's Classic Poems post at Slate looked at Shakespeare's "Sonnet 29," which goes like this:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

The Classic Poems post writer looks at the piece as evidence that even a world-historic writer of Shakespeare's stature could sometimes get depressed about his writing, to say nothing of the other miserable states of affairs in his life: he was likely in massive debt, his plays doubtless made him enemies in the theatre, and so on.

I took something slightly different from this revisitation, though: as a person (and a writer) who's struggled with feelings of inadequacy and burnout--"with what I most enjoy contented least"--I was most interested in seeing how old Bill got out of his darkened state. Predictably, it's love; this is a sonnet, after all.

Here's where it gets interesting, though: there's considerable academic debate to this day about whether Shakes was writing the sonnets as autobiographical outpourings of his deepest heart, or if they're just creative exercises and attempts to master the sonnet form. Let's take a side in that discussion and imagine that this is a creative exercise--what's Bill saying to us about how he escapes burnout?

Haply I think on thee, and then my state, ...sings hymns at heaven's gate; For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

What's he done? He's stopped and thought of something that rewards him, that repays his love with a sense of fulfillment. He's remembered that he has a thing he loves to do that makes him feel complete. It's not hard for me to imagine that he could be talking about the act of writing itself, the work he does every day.

His path out of burnout is choosing to remember why he loves what he loves, and reminding himself that the effort of his love is rewarded with a sense of satisfaction. Once he's done that, he may as well "scorn to change [his] state with kings," because there are few better feelings in the world than loving and being loved in return--whether your love is a person, or work that means something to you. There's lots of reason in his work to believe that Shakes' knew that, and maybe he was trying to pass some of that on to us here.

Smart guy.