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I AM EDITOR: Rediscovering the Why (Am I Doing This?)

You know what you're doing (no, really, you do!), but it's also important to check in with your why.

Published onNov 21, 2023
I AM EDITOR: Rediscovering the Why (Am I Doing This?)

Caitlyn E.M. Trautwein

Associate Managing Editor, Journals

American Society of Clinical Oncology

It’s the end of a long day at the end of a long week of a series of long weeks in a long month comprising a very long year. And you sit at your computer, exhausted, frustrated, and wondering:

Why am I even doing this anymore?

One of the classic symptoms of burnout, or stress, or a variety of other mental health challenges, is the sudden or gradual snuffing out of the love you once had for the things you do. This can be your hobbies, commonly, but often it is also a diminishing of the passion you once held for your job. Some of us may do a job simply because we’re good at it, or just because it’s a job and we don’t have any particular embedded passion in the work itself. This is fine and should be further normalized in our society. The idea that every job should be the sole goal of a person’s life is impractical and pushes a narrative of living to work, as opposed to working to live. That being said, sometimes we do find passion in our work, and in my experience, editors are deeply invested in their journals, the work that gets published therein, and the excellence they can contribute to the process.

So, what happens, and what can you do, when that investment fades?

I have experienced this dulling of my enthusiasm for work three times in the course of 10 years working in publishing, and each time it was due to burnout caused by some external reason. The first time I simply moved on from a job that had turned toxic and no longer served my goals, vision, or growth. It was not an easy decision, and it took time to go through the stages of grief (denial that it was as bad as it had become, anger at how I was being treated, sadness that a company I had been excited to join had not stayed what I thought it was, acceptance that I could not stay where I was) as well as to find something new that answered my needs. But something new I found indeed, and my enthusiasm found new fuel and support to thrive.

The second time I started to flag, I restructured my own attitude towards work, focusing more on myself and my emotional strength and well-being than allowing work stress to leech into my daily life. Juanita Goossens-Roach of Cambridge University Press & Assessment discusses this idea perfectly in her column of July 2023, Being Your Whole Self: Disability and Neurodivergency:

“We should rather recognize the differences between pressure (which can be good) and stress (which is never good),” she says.

This distinction has been very helpful for me in regaining control over my burnout, allowing me to keep the pressure which pushes me to further my professional development and excel day to day while also giving me permission to let the stress of work slide away to join other unhealthy work habits like imposter syndrome and perfectionism. Once I had reoriented my attitude and emotionally stepped away from my work a little, I found that my work ethic and ability to do my job did not suffer, but I felt so much more relaxed and relieved in my day-to-day function. I found a similar result when I finally bit the bullet and allowed myself to do therapy for my anxiety and talk to my doctor about anti-depressants. Both anxiety and depression are common in my family, and I am not the first of my family to seek assistance, but I honestly was concerned that if I treated my anxiety, I would “lose my edge,” as my brain put it. This could not be further from the truth. My better-managed anxiety and depression make me happier and more at ease, and I am still the focused, goal-oriented, detailed editor I always was. Embrace the pressure, the push for excellence; never embrace the stress which only leads to diminishing returns both personally and professionally.

The third time I started to feel dull and restless, I realized that the reorientation and rebalancing of my own stress had not answered some of the needs that were not being met in my work environment. I was much less anxious, much happier in the work itself, but the problems that had caused my burnout had not changed, and as such it was time to seek another new adventure. But I knew, from my previous experiences, that I did not want to leave publishing. I knew that passion was still there. I just needed to find a place that would allow me to continue showing it.

The actionable takeaways that I have employed in the instances above are simple. And they are a good place to start for anyone suffering from burnout or wondering if they’re even passionate about editing anymore:

One – Do not tolerate an unhealthy work environment. If your workplace is toxic to you for some reason, whether that be an abusive coworker or manager, unhealthy work-life balance, etc., you are never stuck in once place. It is always good to try and solve internal issues at the source, but sometimes you don’t have any option but to take your talents elsewhere. You may not be able to jump ship to a new job right away, but take the steps of looking at opportunities around you, networking, and applying to open positions. Change is scary. It is so easy to worry that you’ll trade bad for worse. But the easy answer to that fear is – if you find a situation that is worse, move on again. You already did it before, successfully; try, try again. But if you stay in a place that is not good for you out of the fear that you won’t find better, you definitely will not find better, and there are many companies out there doing incredible work while also empowering their employees.

Two – Analyze the source of your stress and burnout. Why are you feeling a loss of love for your work? Are you over-stressed by your job? Try what I described above, a rebalancing of your priorities and perspectives. Work will always be there, the next morning, the following Monday. You will never need to search for an opportunity to push your nose to the grindstone, or work unpaid overtime. So, prioritize when you allow yourself to do those things. Your time is valuable, as is your mental health and work-life balance. Only a true emergency should invade your downtime which allows you to rest (which is healing) and recover, and those should not be often. Rest is productive, and it is of value to your employer as well (a rested, happy employee is a productive, excellent employee). Tackle feelings of imposter syndrome which may push you to unhealthy habits, employ good boundaries in your work-life, and acknowledge that even if something goes wrong, you are well equipped to handle it (and it likely isn’t the end of the world anyway).

Three – Do not be afraid to change. If your workplace is no longer helping you grow, there are so many other amazing places to work where you may find your passion is met by those around you and the work being done. A toxic workplace isn’t the only reason you may find the need to change jobs. Perhaps there are no longer any opportunities for you to grow within your role or department, or perhaps you want to try a different facet of publishing. Change can also occur without changing companies. Perhaps there is an opening in a different department, and you want to give it a go (i.e., you have a passion for journal marketing and want to try that instead of production work). The point is, be willing to go for it. Put yourself out there. Just as with the advice in point one above, you are never stuck. You never have to feel like you need to keep doing the same thing just because that’s what you’ve been doing for however long. As we continue to innovate and rediscover the publishing landscape, we should feel free to continue innovating and rediscovering our passions and interests. You can support this by participating actively in professional development, here at ISMTE or other organizations, and learning about other societies, other steps in the publishing process, or new technologies that may require you to be the expert who guides the way into a new normal.

Finally, following the recommendation of item number three above, you may indeed find at some point that editing, and publishing, really are no longer for you. If this is you, reading this column now, I have limited advice to give on this subject, having never experienced that desire myself. But what advice I do have is supported by those I know who have changed careers from editing to something entirely different (or changed careers from one thing to another, whatever that may have been). And that advice is the same – do not be afraid to change. The excellence and competence that you bring to your work now will serve you just as well in something else. There will be challenges: perhaps you have to go back to school, or start from scratch at the bottom of the totem pole. As long as these are mere hurdles, and not deal breakers, you have the strength to leap them. Ask yourself, what are you interested in? What work do you want to be contributing to the world? Once you have that answer, all you have to do is follow through. And you can do it. What you bring to the table is valuable and worthy, and only you can bring it.

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