Lessons From Burning Out

(Note: This article was originally written as a prerequisite for testing for my Level 2 judge certification, which I obtained in June 2019.)

One of the happiest days of my judge career was the day I realized that I didn’t need to be a judge anymore. I was at an SCG Open, and at the end of the first day, I was ready to stop. I wasn’t having fun, and I was ashamed of the quality of my work. The lowest point was when a  friend joked that the thing I was most excited about was cashing the check when I got home. They weren’t wrong.

I resigned from Level Three that night. In my resignation, I specifically chose to step down to Level Zero. I needed a clean break, and I knew that if I ever came back, I’d want to be sure that I’d earned whatever I got. Resting on my laurels was not an option I was ready to accept. Furthermore, I knew that there were lots of hard-working, dedicated judges doing excellent work whom I felt I’d insult if I continued to be a slacker L3.

Three months later, I recertified as a Level One judge. Since that time I’ve judged several local events. I hope to test for Level Two sometime this month.

In this article, I’d like discuss three things: why I resigned from the program, why I came back to the program, and what you might be able to take away from it.

Why I Resigned

At the time of my resignation, I had been a judge for fourteen years, a Level Three judge for eight years, and Regional Coordinator of the Mid-Atlantic for six years. From the time I joined the Organized Play department at Star City Games in 2007 through my retirement in 2018, I had supported myself, either entirely or partially, by being a judge and a tournament organizer. I became a judge because I wanted to love the community. After a while, I continued to judge because I could use it to pay my bills.

It was exciting at first. I traveled the country, running great Magic events and meeting great people. That lustre faded quickly. I internalized the stress and exhaustion I experienced as a tournament organizer, and allowed it to affect how I looked at the game. Instead of being a reprieve from my stresses and an opportunity to play, Magic had become the source of those stresses. There was no play involved. I stopped competing in tournaments, I stopped enjoying the company of players and judges, and, ultimately, I stopped loving Magic.

The central mistake I made here was my decision to turn my hobby into my job. It was unreasonable of me to expect that I could simultaneously love Magic as a fan (or love judging as a member of that community) and also rely on Magic as a means of supporting myself financially. If I had chosen to use judging to subsidize Magic as a hobby, I think I could have been an enthusiastic and positive member of the community for a very long time.

In the United States, there are now enough Magic events that provide cash compensation that some judges have decided to make judging their livelihood. I cannot discourage this enough. Apart from the economic realities of being an independent contractor, balancing an enthusiasm for the things one likes about Magic (competition, community, travel) with the things one dislikes about being a professional judge (long hours, lots of travel, conflict with players and staff) is enormously difficult. I tried to make it work for more than a decade, and I failed.

In a theoretical sense, judges can avoid burnout by consciously evaluating their relationship with the judge program (an idea on which I’ll elaborate in this article). In a practical sense, judges can avoid burnout by engineering discomfort out of the equation wherever possible. This means practicing very basic self care. No, you aren’t drinking enough water at events. Yes, expensive shoes are a worthwhile investment. No, you shouldn’t stay up playing Commander until 3 AM.

On a macro level, though, this also means ensuring that you derive tangible joy from the work you’re doing. Let the work you do in Magic enable you to enjoy Magic. This is why, when TOs give me an option between cash, product, and store credit, I’ll usually opt for store credit. It rewards me for my work and allows me to continue enjoying the game (usually, in my case, by buying cards for my Commander decks) in ways that are meaningful to me.

Why I Returned

In writing this article, I talked with a very dear friend of mine about an idea which comes from a quote most commonly attributed to the American author William Faulkner: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” To me, it means that you have to release your emotional attachment to your work in order to improve it. I loved the image of myself as a great judge. When I burned out on judging, I was unable to match the image in my head with my work on the floor, and the cognitive dissonance between the two amplified the burnout.

I came back to the judge program because I missed it, and because I was ready to move into a new relationship with the program. Rather than being an L3, with whatever social prestige that provided, I am entirely satisfied with being an L1. (My motivation for advancing to L2 is the guarantee that our local events will be run well, and to help newer judges certify and improve.) I hope to be a positive influence on judges and players in my local area. I’m fairly old as a judge (37 as I write this), and I’d love to be a grizzled veteran for our new leaders.

One of the first things I’d tell our new leaders is this: Whatever you’re doing, it’s more than enough. I worry that judges push themselves so hard because they feel like they have to. In my experience, they really don’t. Your local community will not fall apart if you don’t become an L2. The program will not fall apart if you don’t become an L3. When it comes to Magic judging, nobody is bleeding out and nothing is on fire. Conduct yourself accordingly.

If you want to help the judge program, and your local community, put yourself in a place in the program that allows you to maintain your enthusiasm for as long as possible. Maybe that means that you only come out to judge at Prereleases. Maybe it means that you become the Head Judge for your area’s MCQs. Maybe it means you travel the world and become a staple of the MagicFest circuit. All of these are equally valid, and none of them are obligations. Assume whatever role best enables your love of the game. Anyone who tells you that you should — not could, but should — be doing more is not looking out for your best interests.

What I Learned

If I could sum up what I’ve learned about judging over the last fifteen years, it is this: A judge’s career is a marathon, and not a sprint. To expand on the running metaphor (and with a respectful nod to Riki Hayashi, who may outrun us all), there’s no point in trying to run the Boston Marathon when you’d be much happier running a local 5K. If you die when you cross the finish line, the race isn’t worth running.

The reason I burned out during my first career as a judge was that I never stopped to ask myself what success looked like for me. I defaulted to the idea that success meant more — more events, more experience, more influence, more prestige. It was a waste. As much as I loved being an L3, and all that came with it, I never stopped to ask myself if it was actually what I wanted. By the time I was deeply involved, what I wanted became irrelevant. I needed to continue judging, and that’s where things fell apart.

In order to enjoy a long, satisfying career in the judge program, you must prioritize your wants and your comfort above all else. Honor your commitments once you make them, but do not commit to anything that crosses your boundaries. You are not obligated to fly across the country, sleep on a hotel room floor, and subsist on a diet of chicken fingers and Monster for the sake of performing deck checks at MagicFest. Quite the contrary. If anything, you are obligated to avoid doing things that will impinge on your ability to be an engaged and enthusiastic judge.

Let me be clear. If you want to be a road warrior, travel to an event every weekend, and make a career out of being a judge, that’s valid. All I’m suggesting is that you make that decision only after considering what you want out of it, what you need in order to sustain it, and what it will cost you to pursue it. Make the decision because you’re passionate about it, not just because it’s there.

What’s Next

My relationship with Magic — and specifically, my relationship with the judge program — has been one of the central relationships of my adult life. I’m proud of the work I did, and I’m excited about the work I’ve yet to do. My biggest regret is my failure to consciously build that relationship into something that I could sustain. I didn’t need to burn out. I could have done things differently and, now that I’ve started over, I can.

My goal in writing this article is to explain my mistakes and to help other judges avoid them. If you care for yourself, if you do whatever is most meaningful to you, and if you make that decision with full consideration of the benefits as well as the costs, then you will have a long and enjoyable career in the judge program. If you white-knuckle your way through a brutal schedule of events, chasing compensation and approval, without any consideration for your own comfort or needs, well, you will burn out and quit.

I delight in the hope that my experience — and, particularly, my mistakes — might be of use to the reader. If anything I’ve written has enabled you to enjoy your career in the program, then I’ve achieved a great success.

This article would have been significantly worse without the input and contributions of some great judges: Charlotte Sable, Elliot Raff, Emmanuel Leal, Eric Levine, Mauricio Morua, and Patrick Cool. Thank you all very much. This piece is much stronger for your involvement.

If you have any questions, or would like to discuss anything I’ve raised here, please feel free to contact me through JudgeApps. I’m also regularly active on Twitter as @MisterNBS.

Until next time, thank you for this time.

They Always Come Back

I resigned from the Magic judge program in November 2018, but I didn’t throw away my shirt. For the last few months, it’s hung in my closet, still clean, along with the two pairs of black Propper tactical pants that were the bottom half of my judge uniform. I still have my name badge.

Prior to my resignation, I was the Regional Coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic US region. I held that role for six years, until I allowed my contract to pass along to one of my dearest friends, Eric Dustin Brown. I’d made no secret that I wanted Eric as my successor – he’s charismatic, hard-working, and we share a lot of the same values when it comes to community leadership and development. In a call back to the “let’s pretend” days of my childhood, I’ve often joked with him that we are the Judge Program version of superlative hip-hop group Run the Jewels: Eric as a Caucasian Killer Mike, loud and out in front, and me as a shorter, fatter El-P, charmingly misanthropic.

At the time of my resignation, I was thoroughly burned-out on Magic in general, and on judging in specific. I became a judge in 2004 and threw myself into it head-first. By 2007, I was essentially a full-time professional judge: I worked for Star City Games, the world’s largest secondary-market retailer of Magic cards, as an event coordinator and judge manager. My work weeks would consist of pulling orders for our customers, answering emails for our judges, and providing input on how we could run bigger, better, Magic events.

My work weekends – two to four each month – consisted of running Magic tournaments for anywhere from 30 people to 3,000 people. I spent a lot of time in cargo vans, and easily ate my body weight in overpriced concession stand food. At the time, I’d yet to turn 30, so the prospect of living out of a suitcase didn’t seem untenable. I was making more money than I’d ever made before, and in certain circles, I was well-known and well-regarded. I’ve often joked with friends that, in imitation of Ron Burgundy in the movie Anchorman, I was “kind of a Big Deal.”

What I didn’t realize at the time, and what it took me more than a decade to figure out, is that I was both unhappy and unhealthy. I’ve never been a fitness nut, and while I was working myself ragged every week, I wasn’t taking care of myself at all. I figured that my anxiety and my depression were personal shortcomings, rather than chemical imbalances in my brain. It wasn’t until I began seeing a psychiatrist in 2018 that I realized that there wasn’t anything wrong with me as a person, but that my brain was doing a crappy job of giving me the chemicals I needed to feel okay. But I digress.

I left the judge program in November 2018, with no intention of coming back. I’d been a judge for fourteen years, and I didn’t want to be a judge anymore. I had gotten to the point that I often criticized other judges for reaching: clearly disinterested in engaging with the game, or the program, showing up at events to collect a check while underwhelming everyone around them. In my case, it had been this way for several years: There was a period where judging comprised a significant portion of my annual income. While people will often speak enthusiastically about the idea of getting paid to do what they love, my experience was the opposite: attempting to make a living from Magic killed my love of Magic.

When I finally gave myself permission to resign from the judge program, a funny thing happened: I fell back in love with the game. The introduction of Magic: the Gathering Arena gave me a way to play the game without all the things I don’t like about Magic: the crowds, the wait times between rounds, the rude players with vaguely misogynistic (or worse) attire and an attitude to match. Playing Magic no longer took the commitment of an entire day. I could (and often do) play Arena during my lunch break from work. Since I didn’t have to care about tournament policy, or the secondary-market value of a booster box, I could relax. I wasn’t obligated to be a guru. I would hear about massive tournaments and the inevitable logistical issues that would result, and a part of me would chuckle and think “thank God that’s not my problem anymore.”

Many people get into judging because they love the game, and they want to help their communities. The Magic community contains some of the best friends I’ve ever made in my life. I’ve had experiences as a Magic judge that otherwise would have been completely unavailable to me: I was stranded in Barcelona for a few days, once, due to repeated plane malfunction, and spent my evenings getting inebriated on Spanish sangria while listening to a septuagenarian British cat burglar tell us stories about his life. I tried feuerzangenboule in Germany with my girlfriend at the time, a doctor of nuclear chemistry and an even stronger judge than I was. I even got to tour the corporate headquarters of Wizards of the Coast, the company responsible for creating Magic, on two separate occasions. I love Magic, and I love the Magic community. I don’t think there will ever be a time I won’t know how to play the game.

So, in February, I re-tested for Level 1. I studied, but I didn’t study too much. I worried, but I didn’t worry too much. (How embarrassing would it be to fail?, I thought to myself on more than one occasion.) When my proctor, Clay, told me I scored a 92%, I felt very pleased. I’ve judged one event since, and while I don’t have the same fire for judging I once had, I enjoyed myself and I think I did a fine job.

This weekend, I’m driving to Wilmington, North Carolina, to present at a judge conference. I want to be a part of my regional community and, hopefully, contribute positively to that community in the ways I wasn’t contributing as an RC. I want to spend time laughing with my friends, and I feel very confident that’ll happen. And I can’t wait.

Disconnected

It’s been a month since I deleted my Facebook account. I don’t miss it. I’m still active on Twitter, still lurk on Reddit, still talk to people on Signal and on Slack. It would take a significant effort to go fully dark, and it’s not a change I’m willing to make.

When I heard that this morning was the first day of F8, Facebook’s annual developer conference, I paid attention. I wanted to hear that Facebook was committed to providing a service that took its users’ privacy seriously. That didn’t happen. Apart from the announcement of a function that will allow users to clear their stored app and website history from Facebook, nothing suggested a commitment to user privacy and data security. Oh, but Facebook is going to add a dating service to compete with Tinder. I am skeptical that it will go well.

The most jarring thing about leaving Facebook has been the absence of people. It doesn’t take long to realize just how much of one’s social circle relies on one service, and how it enables passive awareness of what’s going on with your friends. (I’m sorry, but I really only know a few birthdays.) I spoke with a friend recently, who suggested that a mutual acquaintance was going through some rough times and was struggling. I was surprised by this; I had no idea anything was wrong. Of course I didn’t know, I thought.

Maintaining relationships takes effort. Facebook can reduce a lot of that effort and, in its absence, I have to do a better job of reaching out to people. It’s a lot easier to mash that “Like” button than it is to really listen to someone talk about something that brought them joy, or a struggle they’ve recently conquered. It’s not something I could do consistently, day-in and day-out, for everyone. Still, I think it’s worth trying. Relationships are important. Connection is important. We are important.

 

Gifts to Future Me

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As is sometimes the case, I feel depressed. I do not suffer from depression in the clinical sense, but incidentally, as I suspect most humans do. I had thought to tell you about Michelle Wolf’s speech from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but if you’re on social media, you’ve probably already seen it, along with a half-dozen hot takes. I don’t need to pile on.

When I feel like this, I really don’t want to do anything. I just finished my final exams for the Spring 2018 semester at the local Community College, and I bought myself a new video game as a reward for finishing my exams, but I haven’t been moved to sit down and get into it. Instead, I’m’ sitting in front of my laptop, in my pajamas. Writing. Building habits.

When I feel like this, I find it useful to leave gifts for future me. I do things that I don’t want to do right now, but things that will benefit me tomorrow. These are generally mundane chores that will add to my quality of life: I fold my laundry and put it away (the only difficult parts of doing laundry — I am a pro at putting my laundry into the washing machine, and I even set timers to remind me to put it into the dryer), I make sure I have a lunch for work tomorrow. I try to get a reasonable amount of sleep so that I don’t feel like a zombie in the morning.

There’s something about depersonalization that can make self-care more appealing when one is disinclined toward it. A dear friend of mine, when they hear me getting down about myself, will sometimes say to me, “I need you to be nicer to my friend Nicholas, please.” I’ll chuckle and roll my eyes, but sometimes it actually works. If you have a problem that seems insurmountable, imagine yourself providing advice on that same problem to a dear friend. And then do that.

If depression is something you struggle with, you might find this self-care guide useful. It’s helped me every so often.

That’s all I have for today. By the time you read this, it’ll be Monday. May you have an easy, compassionate start to your work week. If you don’t start your work week on Monday, may you have an easy, compassionate start to your day. Be well.

Two of My Favorite F Words

Two of my favorite F words are feminism and forgiveness. Recent events have made them extremely topical.

I love the word “feminism” because I believe it is the future. I genuinely believe that patriarchal societies are actively harmful to the people in them. I don’t think the toxic, traditional definitions of masculinity are doing any favors for anybody. There are lots of boys and young men who suffer because they cannot bear the pressure of living up to what they’re told a Real Man should be. There is no Real Man. There are advertisements that will tell you what a Real Man looks like, but it’s all so you’ll buy whatever product they’re selling to relieve whatever flaw they’re looking to exploit.

A society that identifies archetypal standards of behavior based on gender hurts everybody. I’ve found that living an authentic life, consistent with one’s values and goals, provides more opportunities for joy and connection than a life spent constrained by the definitions of a society that wants to sell me diet pills and light beer. Patriarchal society inhibits authenticity. Feminism does not.

I love the word “forgiveness” because I think it’s a path forward. One of my favorite poets, Buddy Wakefield, has a fantastic poem titled “Hurling Crowbirds At Mockingbars,” which contains the line “forgiveness is the release of all hope for a better past.” (I believe he credits this quote to the Rev. Kathianne Lewis.) It’s a tremendous poem overall, one with which I personally identify:

I … suck at forgiveness, toward myself or toward others. I’m working on it. But I love the word forgiveness because, for me, it represents personal growth in a way that really appeals with and resonates with me. (There’s another line in “Hurling Crowbirds …” that talks about “telling the truth in order to get honest responses.” I also like that line quite a bit.)

“Friday” is also a word I like quite a bit. I hope this Friday presents you with many opportunities to relax, connect with the people you love, and take care of yourself. I’ll be back on Monday. See you then.

Failure, Etc.

Over the past two years, I’ve been studying to become a professional database developer. I’m learning JavaScript, PHP, Python, and SQL, and I’m sure there will be more to come before I finish my degree.

Reader, I am not a very good developer. Learning new things is extremely difficult, even moreso when they are outside your normal intellectual fields of study. (In college, I majored in Literature, and then in Journalism, and finally in Philosophy. I was pre-law before my first college career ended abruptly, but that’s another story for another time.)

After my short-lived stint as an Internet retailer came to an end, I decided that the best way for me to make a living while not having to run Magic tournaments or make Frappucinos was to learn how to code. So here I am. I take online classes and night classes, two per semester, and it’s enough to keep me busy.

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This resonates with me on a very deep level. And I don’t even watch Adventure Time.

I was a precocious child. I started reading at an early age, my childhood IQ scores were enough to draw attention, and I received a lot of positive attention from adults for my precociousness. In retrospect, I think I developed some unhealthy habits regarding approval and self-esteem as a result. I still try to shake them today. (The first part to fixing a problem is admitting that you have a problem, right?)

I bring this up because struggling with programming has led me to confront some challenging feelings (yay, feelings!) about no longer being precocious. I’m pretty solidly average at most things, but I’m definitely below-average when it comes to programming. I know that, eventually, I may become sufficiently competent that somebody would pay me to program for them, but there’s a lot of hard work between now and then.

On the other hand, what an opportunity, right? I’m closer to 40 than I am to 30, and I’m learning new things. It’s pretty incredible, even as it’s humbling and frustrating. I’m grateful for the opportunity to better myself and develop my brain. I’m learning that it’s okay to not be brilliant at something on the first try (or the second try, or the third try …), so long as you are willing to fail, and learn from your failures, and improve as a result.

Now, if only I could keep that in mind when I struggle my way through finals.

Mise.

So, I played in a Magic: the Gathering tournament on Saturday.

This is not a thing I normally do. The last time I played in a tournament was almost two years ago. While a younger version of me had aspirations to become a professional Magic: the Gathering player, those aspirations have long been dead. (True story: when I graduated high school, my parents paid for me to go to the US National Championships that summer, as a spectator. When I came back, I promptly told my parents that I was quitting Magic.)

I think Magic is one of the greatest games created in my lifetime. It’s a game that rewards creativity, logic, reasoning, and psychology. The friends I’ve made as a player, tournament organizer, and judge have been among the finest people I’ve ever known. My involvement with Magic has provided me with unique experiences that I’ll cherish forever. How many of you have been stranded in Barcelona overnight, getting lectured by a septuagenarian British cat burglar over a pitcher (or three) of too-strong sangria?

It’s no surprise to anybody who knows me well that my enthusiasm for Magic has waned over the last few years. Ever since I became a judge in 2004, Magic has been a major part of my life. I worked as a professional tournament organizer for the better part of seven years. I ran my own business selling Magic cards on the Internet for nearly three years. I’ve been a contractor for Wizards of the Coast, the company that produces Magic, since 2015. I honestly don’t think there will be a time in my life where I won’t know how to play Magic.

Yet I’m getting older. There was definitely a time in my life where I would wake up at 4 AM to drive three hours to judge a Magic tournament for ten to twelve hours, get paid less than $100, and then drive home that night. That time has passed. I value my free time differently. The community has also changed. There are only so many times I can correct a young, white, college-aged boy on his use of “gay” or “retarded” at a Magic event. I’ve had to reprimand players for wearing shirts with slogans like “Cool story, babe, now go make me a sandwich.”

While the community has changed, it is still a community with which I identify. It still possesses many lovable characteristics, and some of my favorite people. I like to think that I can help make it better for others. Hence, getting in my car and driving to my favorite game store in the world: Atomic Empire, in Durham. (To quote my good friend Aaron “Cluze” Lacluyze: It’s a great shop. You should check it out.)

To my slight surprise, I had a really good time! The details of my play are irrelevant, other than that I dropped out of the tournament after two unsuccessful rounds, and decided I’d rather treat myself to lunch at Cook-Out than play another round or two in hopes of maybe winning a pack. There was a time where I would have focused on playing the tournament out, in hopes of getting that pack, but that time has passed.

I consider myself to be more competitive than the average person. I definitely cared about winning, but as soon as it was clear that I wasn’t going to win, I thought about what the loss was going to teach me. Playing Magic, and losing at Magic, provides me with many useful opportunities for introspection, and that appeals to the parts of me that would like me to be a better version of myself. (This is an area with many, many opportunities.)

So, yeah – I went to a Magic tournament, I lost a bunch, and then I had a cheeseburger and a milkshake. I got to be enthusiastic about Magic with other people who are enthusiastic about Magic, and that counts for something. I don’t imagine I’ll ever pick up Magic as a competitive hobby again. Still, I’m glad that I was able to engage with the game and the community in a way that felt positive and helpful to me. Maybe I’ll do that again sometime.