How Zachary Burton Thrives with Many Careers (Geologist, Playwright)

by | Apr 5, 2021

Meet Zachary Burton. He is a fascinating fellow who navigates careers in the arts and sciences. He is able to connect the dots among his seeming disparate interests with dexterity. And indeed, his chosen pursuits are mutually beneficial. You’ll find his reflections below both revelatory and inspiring.

Zachary’s careers

  • Founder, board member, and advocate in the mental health sector
  • Geologist, environmental consultant, space scientist, researcher
  • Playwright-producer-codirector-actor, poet, editor
  • Perennial volunteer

On his motivation for having many careers

I think for me, I’d feel stifled, suffocated… just dishonest to my true nature if I prevented myself from wholeheartedly exploring and engaging with my diverse and ever-evolving passions. Not only do I feel my life is made richer and more meaningful by my varied involvements, I also am certain I am much happier.

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On how long he’s had these careers

I’ve worked as a geologist and scientific researcher since college (which admittedly wasn’t long ago), through my Ph.D. at Stanford (where I worked with two multibillion-dollar oil and gas companies, the US Department of Energy, and NASA), and into my current work as a consultant. I dove into the theatre world as a playwright, producer, co-director, and actor in 2018 when I co-founded The Manic Monologues. I’ve been involved in the mental health sector since 2017, with my involvement expanding especially rapidly during the pandemic. I’ve been writing poetry intermittently most of my life.

Advice for aspiring multi-careerists

I’d probably say two things: 1) start today, and 2) you can “start small.” You don’t have to hand in your two weeks’ notice to get going on crafting that bestselling novel, to set up coffee chats with prospective angels for that early-stage funding you know will push your startup concept to launch, or to take up a serious passion for volunteering and giving back alongside your corporate gig. There doesn’t have to be some big launch or ribbon-cutting ceremony to announce your foray into simultaneous pursuits of passion.

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On overcoming obstacles

In the midnight hours of May 8, 2017, while in my Ph.D. program, I climbed to the top of a five-story Stanford parking garage at the height of a mania-induced period of psychosis. I didn’t jump, because my mom happened to pick up my frantic phone call. After an extended hospitalization and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the tremendous support of family, friends, and my boss allowed me to begin to rebuild, to recover, and ultimately, to thrive and embrace life than ever before. It wasn’t until after this pivotal life moment that I fully embraced throwing my heart and soul of multiple causes and careers I care about, and it was only in the wake of this experience that I co-founded The Manic Monologues, had poetry published in Wall Street Journal, received my Ph.D. from Stanford, and began to give back to mission-aligned organizations in serious ways. (The Manic Monologues received a nomination for the 2021 Drama League Awards.)

On how multiple careers are mutually beneficial

Aside from the colossal benefit of feeling more fulfilled and a thousand-fold more energetic in my day to day due to this multi-careerism, there are too many benefits to mention, but as a snapshot:

I used my Ph.D. fellowship stipend to bootstrap the theatrical premiere of The Manic Monologues, and in general, the paycheck I earn as a scientist and consultant subsidizes my efforts in the mental health and theatre worlds. My poetry about space science won me a literary art award at an international science conference, was picked up by WSJ, and brought attention to my work as a research scientist. Stanford and Exponent (my current employer) have done numerous features on both The Manic Monologues and on my Mars research via NASA, and my theatre and mental health work has brought to life unique interactions and innovations with partners in healthcare, the nonprofit and international development world, the energy and oil and gas industry, religious organizations, and more.

On managing personal time

As much as I eagerly power through 80, 100, or more hours on my various “career” passions each week, I have found taking breaks — and I’m talking putting a pause on my geology Ph.D. for three months to go work in social impact management in southern India, taking a year off to work on goat cheese farms in Chile and teach for the USDOD in Germany, heading of for a four-week vacation to Miami, New York City, and Houston, or simply taking most of the week off to prep for a friend’s birthday party or to work in the garden — to be absolutely critical. I come back from time spent truly “unplugging” with family, friends, and loved ones more invigorated than ever.

On what he wishes he had learned earlier

I’m young, and I feel very fortunate to have landed on multi-careerism early in my Ph.D. program. But hey, if I had landed on it even earlier — all the better! Probably would’ve helped a bit with my classic college angst around that question of, “So what am I going to do with my life?”

Overcoming the stigma of having many careers

Our motto at The Manic Monologues is actually “disrupt stigma.” This is in reference to mental health conditions, but serves as a general call to shatter prejudice, stereotypes and misinformed beliefs, discrimination, and negative, harmful views across all of our sectors, communities, and backgrounds. Compared to battling stigma surrounding mental health, the stigma I have encountered regarding multi-careerism has been fine for me to manage (nonetheless, present!). Broadly speaking, I am hopeful to see changing perspectives and shifts in the way we work (whether the embrace of remote jobs or more compassionate policies toward working parents) that I think will ultimately erase stigma multi-careerists face.

On what he shares with colleagues

As part of my effort to disrupt stigma in the mental health space, I’ve sort of come to embrace a mentality of “putting it all out there” — that is, an approach of openness and honesty in the hopes of normalizing these diverse experiences we all have (whether of mental health, or of the four incredible careers we’re juggling all at once). I don’t go evangelizing multi-careerism to colleagues in the workplace, but happily speak about such to friends and strangers alike (e.g., delivering a pandemic-era TEDx essentially on this topic early last year).

On sublimating ego

Running an organization, advising executives, and serving on nonprofit and NGO boards may indeed seem at odds (in terms of ego) with my job as a scientist, where I work for others (some of whom are managers but a few years out of their own graduate programs). But, for me, I gain a huge daily boost by reminding myself that I have so much to learn (and always will), and would hope to never presume that my perceived seniority makes me “too good” to learn from someone “junior” to me. I love connecting to new folks across sectors and across a range of experiences — and I learn something new with nearly every conversation.

A Day in the Life

I’m a strong advocate of getting a full, healthy night’s sleep — but will admit that for me I can pop out of bed most mornings after 3 or 4 hours, while other nights it might be 7 or 8.

Each day is different, of course, but here’s a sample:

  • 5:52 am – Wake up, splash iced coffee into a mug, hop on a call with London-, Mumbai-, and Geneva-based global mental health financing group collaborators
  • 7am–12pm – Refill iced coffee, fire off emails, dive into client projects on a historical oil spill, soil and sediment chemistry, or some other environmental forensics investigation (10–10:45 am interlude – Quick turnaround on final manuscript for an upcoming peer-reviewed scientific publication on Martian landslides from time spent as researcher with NASA/SETI)
  • 12–5:30pm – Continued consulting work, team meetings, long chat with younger brother
  • 5:30–7:30pm – Execute some complex, lavish recipe to break my intermittent fast (or just throw together a massive salad), phone friends
  • 7:30pm–1:20am – Prep for an upcoming (virtual) production of our play at a large national theatre, hop on weekly board meeting with mental health coalition in Nairobi, do a bit of geology work, edit stories about resilience and growth for a nonprofit with which I volunteer.

 Where to find Zachary


Kabir Sehgal is a Multi Grammy & Latin Grammy Award winner, as well as New York Times bestselling author.

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