Getting It Done Without Burning Out


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Technical Editor Kevin Cameron shares his wealth of motorcycle knowledge, experiences, insights, history, and much more.Cycle World

I lie on the bed at 4 a.m., my heart beating rapidly. Through my head rushed all the pre-Daytona tasks yet to be completed. I had not slept for a long time, I had got a lot done, but I could not sleep. I knew I had to get out of this loop because this was not fun or productive, and it had no future. I was toast.

Many have traveled this way. One friend made himself mysteriously ill every racing season—until he was able to make himself delegate the work that was wildly, obviously impossible for any one person to complete. When I first met Gary Mathers, he was managing all of Kawasaki's racing activities—an impossible number of weekends away, of upright-and-locked airplane travel, of crucial tasks without end. People said of him, admiringly, that he was able to find good people then let them alone to do their assigned work without micromanagement from him. One of those good people was Rob Muzzy, who would go with him to American Honda when Kawasaki clicked off its roadrace program. They were hugely successful in winning Superbike races. If I'd thought about it, I'd have seen that "finding good people and letting them alone" was not just rational management (and good luck). It was also almost certainly self-defense—a hard-learned method of getting it all done without Around the World in 80 Days syndrome—keeping the big wheel turning by throwing yourself into the firebox.

Mathers had worked in nursing earlier in his life—surely he’d seen plenty of burnout among medical people. The late John Britten told me, “I seem to work in five-week periods, and I don’t sleep much then.” That sounds like he’d felt the edge of this craziness and had the sense to break away when he had to.

Classic burnout is to push on until you crack, confusing madness with willpower and then finding yourself unable to continue. You are broken. The greater your willpower, the deeper you can hammer yourself into this. And the longer it will take to recover—or even to understand—the strong desire that powered you. When the break comes, you lose what had been your reason to exist.

In 1968, I was working in a shop that reproduced classic fluid mechanics experiments for educational films. We had a steady flow of visiting applied physics heavies. One day I turned from the lathe to see one of them—a man who had lived through the crash program to develop airborne radars for the Pacific War—relieving himself in our sink. He turned to me genially and said, “When I worked in Building 20 the bathrooms were at the end of a long hallway. We didn’t have time for that, and I don’t have time for it now either—I have a meeting in five minutes.”

In the Manhattan Project, in the development of the proximity fuze, in the many radar programs, experienced managers required their R&D personnel to take part in some kind of alternative activity—sports, a group orchestra, arts—as a way to give their minds regular opportunities to let go of their important but obsessive tasks to focus on something completely different.

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Kevin Cameron's By The NumbersCycle World

When you are far into machining an entire alternate universe from solid billet, you hear, “Hon, you ought to eat something. I have some nice raviolis. Can I get you something to drink?”

“I’m trying to get this done—I’m not hungry.”

I have known several young engineers who were sure they could design, build, and ride to victory revolutionary motorcycles. When I think of their stories, they are not different from any other addiction. At least two of them lost their marriages, then their jobs, and, finally, their will to do anything. In Tracy Kidder's book, The Soul of a New Machine, he describes a team developing a new computer in the intense early days of desktops. People fell into their work and management was delighted: around-the-clock development on salary—zero overtime! Great!

“Mommy, Mommy! There’s a big strange man at the door!”

“Calm down, Punkin—that’s your daddy.”

The result was classic burnout of key personnel. Once the project was finished, the very people who would be most essential to the next product development cycle drifted away listlessly into completely other activities in other parts of the country, taking their special knowledge with them. I saw the same happen to a motorcycle R&D team—highly capable people, dissipated to the four winds. I saw it in a family member who leaped from the battle to get tenure in nuclear magnetic resonance research on one coast to running a head shop on the other. Rolling papers with that order, ma’am?

Just as the work-addicted see willpower as the way to overcome the warnings from their own being, so those exposed to severe hazard can see “courage” as their salvation.

Less talked about are the results of prolonged exposure to mortal danger, discussed in the book No More Heroes by former Army officer Richard Gabriel. Now treated as "combat fatigue," it was formerly called shell shock—or contemptuously dismissed as "lack of moral fiber." But as Gabriel shows, those most strongly affected are often those who have most inflexibly held their own feet to the fire. Most of its literature deals with military experience, but the effects are felt by others chronically exposed to hazard—including motor racers, mountain climbers, and corporate carnivores. Spontaneous blindness, paralysis of or chronic pain in a limb, and a wide variety of other disturbances have the effect of terminating the individual's activity. These days we can read heart-warming tales of corner-office 100-hour-a-week types who found salvation at minimum wage, serving in a Starbucks.

Just as the work-addicted see willpower as the way to overcome the warnings from their own being, so those exposed to severe hazard can see “courage” as their salvation. But in both cases, these apparent virtues can drive them faster and deeper into some kind of breakdown. Gabriel’s book tells us that of a population of people continuously exposed to extreme danger for 30 days, 98 percent will suffer a breakdown of some kind. This in turn suggests that we carry some kind of on-board system responsible for seeing to it that we get a chance to do our reproductive duty, subtly devised by Mother Nature. This system busts us out of whatever nonsense we’ve got up to, whether we like it or not, and forces us to seek something completely different. Gives meaning to the corny admonition, “Everything in moderation.”