Sundance panel fires up conversation about burnout and attention crisis |

Sundance panel fires up conversation about burnout and attention crisis

Discussion available for streaming through Jan. 29

“Going Nowhere: On Burnout and Attention Crisis” is available for streaming through Jan. 29 at
Actor Jonathan Majors, who appears in Elija Bynum’s 2023 Sundance Film Festival selection “Magazine Dream,” talks about how he copes with burnout during the “Going Nowhere: On Burnout and Attention Crisis” panel on Saturday at the Filmmaker’s Lodge. A stream of the discussion is available through Jan. 29 at the Sundance Film Festival website.
Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Poet and activist Tricia Hersey described burnout as  trauma during a Sundance Film Festival panel discussion called “Going Nowhere: On Burnout and Attention Crisis” on Saturday at the Filmmaker’s Lodge.

“I like to reframe burnout in my work as worker exploitation,” she said. “You’re burned out possibly because where you work is exploiting your labor.”

Hersey then described attention crisis as external forces stealing our time.

“It’s a personal and also cultural phenomenon,” she said.

In the context of the panel, these issues pertain to filmmakers, actors and other industry workers who spend well over 18 hours a day on sets and projects. But the discussion also concerns the general public, who are pulled in many different directions from family, finance, expectations and work.

Hersey moderated the panel that featured actor Jonathan Majors, comic-book author, screenwriter Adrian Tomine and food writer and film producer Ruth Reichl, who added their voice and concerns to the burnout crisis.

Reichl, producer of Laura Gabbert’s documentary “Food and Country,” a film that follows Reichl as she discusses the immediate and systemic challenges facing farmers, ranchers and chefs, believes one of the secrets of avoiding burnout is to make the job not about what the job definition is, but what people’s talents are.

“I took over a magazine (where) three editors at the top made all the decisions,” she said. “It was a company that believed in creative dissonance, which is if you make people unhappy, they’ll work better.”

So the first thing Reichl did was tell her employees that they, not the three editors, were going to tell her how they were going to work.

“I told them, ‘You’re going to decide what to do,’” she said. “I said, ‘If you feel like you need to take time off, take time off.’ And I think what we proved in those 10 years is that people work better when they’re happier.”

Unfortunately, many of the businesses in the country run the same way the magazine did before Reichl took over, she said.

“I think we need to make all of America understand that if you give people good work, they will like to do it,” she said. “They will do it better. They will be happier, and you will be happier. I had people (at the magazine) tell me they loved coming to work.”

While burnout can happen anywhere, it can hit especially hard on immigrant families, especially those who aren’t accustomed to the American culture, and other minorities, Hersey said.

“My own experiences as a black woman in America (are of) my parents telling me ‘You’ve got to work 10 times harder, because you’re a black girl,’” she said. “(It’s the) things that society is pushing on us. And that’s part of our socialization.”

Majors, who appears in Elija Bynum’s “Magazine Dream,” a feature that tells a fitting story about a bodybuilder and the harmful effects of his intense drive for recognition, said one of the symptoms of burnout is lack of passion.

“Passion is the oil in the car,” he said. “There’s a lack of accountability, and a lack of responsibility.”

The lack of responsibility is another big problem, but while the simple solution is to turn down projects, the current culture won’t allow that, Majors said.

“You’ve got this American thing happening where you’ve got to work, you’ve got to go and go and go,” he said. “Then the disappointment that comes when the Ameritocracy that you thought you were participating in has completely turned you over.”

Sometimes the people who work hard on passionless projects burn up their engines, Majors said.

“Sometimes they leave us early, and that’s scary,” he said.

One way Majors stays passionate is to maintain his curiosity, and find a way to experience the good and bad. 

Sundance Film Festival logo

“We could practice spending more time in the middle,” he said. “I can tell you that when anything great has happened with anybody I’ve seen or for myself, it is when we are at a high level of discomfort. And that’s our fuel.” 

From left: poet and activist Tricia Hersey poses a question to actor Jonathan Majors, food writer and film producer Ruth Reichl and comic-book author, screenwriter Adrian Tomine during the Sundance Film Festival’s Cinema Cafe “Going Nowhere: On Burnout and Attention Crisis” panel held on Saturday at the Filmmaker’s Lodge. The discussion is available to stream through Jan. 29.
Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

While there are no quick-and-easy solutions to stop burnout, one way Tomine has dealt with burnout is to work on projects of different levels, importance and stakes, which also means drawing something in his sketchbook that no one may ever see.

“I think it was during the pandemic, I started doing drawings for myself, which I had lost sight of,” he said. “It really opened up some part of my brain. It was a different part of creativity that can be lost when you’re on that hamster wheel of a career.”

Tomine, whose graphic novel “Shortcomings” is the base of Randal Park’s dramatic Sundance Feature of the same name, said it was important for him to get back to why he started drawing comics in the first place.

“A lot of what I’m doing now is trying to trick myself back to that mindset where there was no audience, there was no paycheck,” he said.

While Tomine reaches back to the original reasons he started drawing to deal with his burnout, Majors takes care of himself by taking naps and not creating any social media accounts.

Reichl, on the other hand, found one of the ways to rekindle her motivational spark is to find ways to change her attitude.

“I’ve had to do jobs I didn’t want to do,” she said. “(So) the idea is not finding complete happiness, but finding a bit of happiness in something that isn’t pleasant. I’m going to find a way to make this ok.”

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