Have you ever been to a restaurant with a sushi train? It’s a revolving conveyor belt that snakes through the restaurant loaded with little plates of sushi. Diners choose directly from the sushi-go-round the nibbles that appeal to them. Like at a dim sum restaurant, the plates are color-coded by price. At the end of the meal, the waitress tallies up your bill by counting the plates.
The revolving sushi bar is fun to look at and it’s exciting when you do see something you like and grab it. However, it’s easy to get caught up in FOMO (the fear of missing out) and take more than you can eat. Sometimes I’ve watched diners even snatch one of the many less desirable items like a fried onion roll (what?) or imitation crab rolls, and even pieces of chocolate frosted yellow cake. (Seriously? Who eats yellow cake at a sushi bar?) I’ll bet they wonder why they feel overstuffed and unsatisfied when they leave.
My client Tom is trying not to lose it right now. He’s a senior investment professional at a well-respected firm. By all external markers, he’s a guy everyone else wants to be. The thing is, he’s miserable, burned out and looking to leave his firm; perhaps, even the industry.
He told me that as the days go by he’s being asked to do more and more, while he’s getting less and less done. Tom tells me that his priorities are being dictated by his boss, his clients, his wife and that he’s lost touch with why he’s even doing this work, other than the money. He’s sleep deprived, nursing an injury that won’t heal, resenting his family and generally pissed off at life. He drinks a little too much (ok, maybe a lot), rarely sees his friends, travels more than is good for him or his kids, and admittedly is underinvesting in his health, himself and his marriage. Though, as he tells himself, all this kind of goes with the job, doesn’t it?
Tom and I have been working through a process of determining what’s next for him professionally, and how to reclaim himself to boot, so he can be a better leader, as well as a better husband, father and friend. He wants to feel in charge of his destiny again.
He’s been making great progress in identifying what matters to him, so his next move will be a great one. One that will actually give him a life he can enjoy.
The challenge is this: he finds it difficult not to snatch up one of the less desirable opportunities as they are passing him by – even though he knows that his quality of life, his health, his marriage and his children will suffer if he takes one of these. He also knows that taking one of these will mean he’s likely to end up in a version of the dissatisfied life he’s trying to get out of. He’s just anxious about whether he can have the kind of life he wants while doing work he finds stimulating and financially rewarding.
He tells me he’s excited to build something new, to really impact the culture of a new place. I’m with him on that front, Tom is the kind of guy who any firm would be thrilled to have. If he stays with this process, he’s on track to create an amazing life – one he’ll enjoy staying with for the duration of his career.
When I ask him to map out what an ideal day would be like for him, what culture he would like to create, at first he dulls down his answer. I can tell he’s reciting to me what he thinks a firm will give him. So, I keep pushing – “No, not what do you think you can squeak out – what do you WANT?”
I’m not trying to make Tom dream so he can have his hopes smashed, I’m trying to get him to taste a life that will make him feel nourished, valued and satisfied, instead of taking the professional and lifestyle equivalent of imitation crab rolls off the sushi train, just because it’s what’s passing in front of him.
He told me that he can’t focus on any of that right now. He has convinced himself that the first six months to a year in any new role, he’ll need to really focus on showing his new firm that he’s committed to their goals. He’ll be building a team for them. I pointed out that he’s acting like he has no choice in how his life unfolds; he’s preparing to give his power away and head down the same tracks he’s been on since he entered this industry more than twenty years ago. He’s just changing out the scenery, but not where his life is headed.
I asked him, how will your life be different twelve months from now? How will you be getting adequate sleep? How will your wife and children see the best version of Tom? If you devote the next six to twelve months of your life to doing work the same way you’ve been doing it, how will you shift gears and suddenly do it differently then? Won’t you have trained your firm to consistently expect that from you? Why would they accept different behavior from you six or twelve months from now?
Tom tells me, I’m a downer, with all my reality-stuff! He tells me to just trust him; he’ll figure it out when the time comes. I remind him, if he wants a different life, he has to make different choices and communicate them. If he does, it really CAN be different. And, I remind him, he doesn’t necessarily have to leave the industry, he just has to get and stay clear about what he wants and make decisions that are aligned with what HE WANTS. Otherwise, he can expect to face this same dilemma, feeling like everyone and everything else runs his life, six months, two years, ten years from now.
Can it be done differently? Yes, it can. Let me tell you a story about Gary.
Gary is also a senior investment professional I worked with when he was making a transition a couple of years ago. We looked at where he was saying YES, when he really wanted to say NO, but didn’t think he could. One of the areas we decided would vastly improve his life was to draw a boundary around evening and weekend time. We decided to try an experiment, Gary would begin to tell new clients and his team that he would be fully available during business hours (8am to 6pm) Monday through Friday, but that (on all new matters) he and they were not doing after hours conference calls, emails, meetings, etc. They would find ways to take care of business during business time and free everyone up to actually enjoy their lives and be with their families.
Was he skeptical and anxious about trying this new approach? You bet! Did some clients and team members push back? Yep. But, Gary held his ground. And, let me tell you the best story about what happened…
One of Gary’s clients was grumbling about him not being available to discuss the deal on a Saturday. The client even went so far as to tell Gary he’d have to think about whether to take his business to a different firm who WOULD be available when the client needed him. Gary was, admittedly, sweating bullets about this threat – it WAS a client he didn’t want to lose – but he held his ground (partly out of dislike for being bullied, he’ll admit). The following week, this same client grumbled to Gary (on Friday) “I guess I’ll just have to blame you then if the deal goes south while you and I are both sitting at our kids’ soccer games on Saturday!” Gary didn’t like the thought of being blamed if the deal tanked, but he knew it wouldn’t be because he and his team didn’t work on Saturday. They were conscientiously handling everything that needed to happen during the workweek – including corralling lawyers and other professionals outside of their firm who were used to handling things during hours they no longer worked. Gary likes to say he kind of grinned thinking about his client’s kid benefitting from his having held his boundary. A couple of weeks went on like this, and the deal did close just fine. The client didn’t leave Gary’s firm. In fact, he recently referred Gary a client, saying his wife told him that everyone should have their priorities in order like Gary and his firm.
It’s not all sunshine and roses. Of course, Gary has lost some clients and hasn’t won others who find his limits “unreasonable.” But, Gary will tell you that he’s come to realize that those clients who think business has to extend into all of the other parts of the day are the “unreasonable” ones. Gary says that it’s like resisting the urge to take the crappy imitation crab roll off the sushi-go-round. Yes, sometimes he worries that all the good stuff will be taken, but it hasn’t actually been the case; that’s just the gremlins of fear jabbering. He has learned that the “good” clients are the ones that value the work they do AND their boundaries.
Finally, he and his team and his clients, and all the other outside professionals they work with have permission to have work they enjoy AND have a life. It took some time, but he’s developed a loyal culture that people envy – and he built it inside a firm he doesn’t own.
We talk a lot in this industry about being entrepreneurs and innovators and then do everything just like everyone else does it. We can get caught up in always doing what “the market” demands. We focus on product-market fit, completely ignoring what my friend Jonathan Fields calls “maker” fit.
I know, because I did it at one point in my life, too. I built my business, my baby, like everyone else’s and then ended up hating my own baby and wanting to put a stick in my eye rather than go to work. I convinced myself I’d just do one more deal, serve one more client, squeeze in one more meeting and THEN I’d take a break, slow down, do it differently. Here’s what I learned (and what hundreds of my clients have learned) – You Have To Choose What Matters – and that means saying Yes and saying No.
The odd part is that you are ALWAYS saying Yes and No, it’s just that you don’t always think about what you’re saying No to, when you say Yes.
When Gary says No to weekend and evening work, he’s saying Yes to a lot of different things. Can you name some of them?
As he’ll tell you, 50 hours a week is actually enough time for him and his team to get done what actually HAS to get done. He and his team are engaged, have enough time to think through problems creatively and serve the clients with whom they are aligned. He and his people get to the gym, have time to read something appealing, have dinner with their families, get to their kids’ games and can let their brains idle so that actual creative problem solving can happen, instead of just running around, their last nerve frayed, hair on fire and bodies spent.
Tom and I are still working on this part – alignment – sorting out what HE wants his life to look like and communicating that to the firm he’s considering joining. He’ll work hard, in fact, plenty hard – but they’ll get the best version of Tom they can get and so will his family. He’s learning how to say no, because it’s harder to put those unappetizing things back on the sushi belt after you’ve taken them, and they taste horrible when you realize you’re eating it because you have to.
The secret to having more control over your life is to get clear about what you really want and say no to everything else. That way your yes makes for a delicious life.
“Denise, there’s a call on line 1 for you. He wouldn’t give me his name and said ‘you’d know what he was calling about’.”
“Can’t you see I have my Do Not Disturb light on?” I replied. “Tell whoever it is I’m busy and I’ll call him back later.”
My assistant responded that the caller said he would hold until I was ready. I hated sales people who were that obnoxious and couldn’t hear “No” and I brushed her off impatiently with a “Fine, he can hold until I’m good and ready then!”
I went back to the project I was working on, aggravated at yet another interruption. I was behind the eight ball already on this day, with a to-do list longer than my arm and the end of the month looming ahead of me.
Years ago, my husband had asked me what I wanted for Christmas. Only half-jokingly, I had answered “Eight extra hours a day so I can catch up on what I always have undone at the end of each day!” He bought me an Ipod instead, commenting that if I had more hours I would likely just try to fit more in on my schedule. I remembered that I needed to try to find time to upload some music for relaxation onto my Ipod and wondered if there was a teenager to whom I could outsource that task.
As I was turning out the light to leave the office, late that night, I noticed that the hold light was blinking on my phone. I picked it up and said impatiently, “This is Denise. Who is this?”
The voice on the other end of the line said, “It’s your life. I’ve been waiting for you.” I dropped the phone and started thinking about how long I had been avoiding this call.
For years, everything else came first, that is … everything that felt like an obligation or a distraction. Each time I heard the whisper of this call, I filled my hours with something – another project, another committee obligation, another anything – just so I wouldn’t have to sit with the voice of this caller who wanted me to look at the meaning of my life and why I was here. I avoided this call because I was afraid I would have to do something about what I heard if I listened.
How does the call of your life haunt you? Does it come from inside you on Sunday night when you start dreading your return to the office. Is it the pain in your heart when you hear your six year old daughter cry because you’re leaving on another business trip that will have you away from home more nights instead of tucking her in and reading The Velveteen Rabbit. Maybe your call sings out the familiar phrase “Do Something” when you read about the people who have lost everything in the latest weather disaster and you wish you could get that song out of your head and just get back to enjoying American Idol.
Calls are serious business. Responding to them is how we make something worthwhile out of our lives.
Not every call is a blockbuster, star-making epic. One or two of them may take up most of our time, but other more urgent calls weave their way into our lives from time to time.
Some of them, like being a nurturing, attentive parent or riding out the illness of a friend who needs our extra attention, engage our minds and our hearts and do not earn us accolades or cover photos on national magazines. Others draw us deep beneath the noise of social conventions and impact lives in unimaginable ways. It is neither the duration nor the visibility of the call that matters.
A life-changing call engages your ability to listen to both the subtle and obvious messages that rise within you and to see the nuance of something transcendent in the role before you. You answer the call through your willingness to move beyond merely filling the role or carrying out the duties a task requires by choosing to imbue your intention and your courage into your actions.
Not answering the call doesn’t make it go away. In fact, it often escalates its frequency or intensity to capture your attention. First pebbles, then stones, then boulders raining down on your life if you continue to ignore it. The call of your life is persistent and insistent. Thank goodness, really, that it doesn’t give in to our occasional wish for it to just leave us alone so we can get on with business as usual.
When you get serious about answering your call, mentors and supporters will appear. They will guide you with teachable moments and they will appeal to your innate human longing to be more than what you presently are.
As you move toward answering your call, they will help you draw upon your courage to step into the potential that sounds quietly in your dreams.
You have a choice, to just live your life, work a job, and fulfill a role or to commit to answering a series of worthy calls within this life of yours.
Listen carefully to the whispers and shouts of your calls and answer them with all the passion and cleverness at your disposal.
Use every means of introspection and mentorship available to you to help you find the courage to answer the call to make a difference – both where you find yourself now and in the place where your unique path takes you. After all, there’s a call for you on hold right now, all you have to do is answer it.
“Finally. At least now I don’t have to go on pretending anymore that it’s really what I wanted to be doing. Now I can finally do what I WANT to do.” That’s what my client Lon said after his business collapsed.
I wasn’t surprised that, after the initial shock wore off, what he felt was relief. Pretending exacts a huge toll.
Lon had expended enormous amounts of energy over the prior two decades trying to fit in, trying to prove he deserved the accolades he had been desperately seeking, pursuing promotions and deals that he was certain would finally allow him to relax and be himself (but never did). For years, he alternated between anxiety, depression and resentment – mostly because he was constantly trying to be a version of who he thought he should be to succeed.
Lon’s attempts at compartmentalization – keeping his “work self” and his “real self” distinct – and tamping down his real desires and his unique personality consumed vast amounts of energy. He told me that “everyone” did this in the industry; “No one is their real self or gets to do what they really want.” Despite thinking of himself as quite entrepreneurial, he had been trying desperately to be like everyone else, to fit in and not to stand out as “weird, eccentric or too far out there” in his approach to business.
He told me he was ready to get out there and find his next thing, before he got too stale.
When we next met, I asked Lon to outline what an ideal work situation would look like. His responses told me that he was still operating from a view of what he thought he could get, not what he would actually consider ideal. It took quite some time for Lon to get to the heart of what he really wanted. From that place, he could begin to approach a new role – one where he could feel free to express his many talents and soar.
Moments like Lon’s firing, which look like disaster, actually contain the seeds of freedom. Freedom to admit that what we were chasing so hard isn’t actually what we wanted at all. It gives us permission to turn our attention toward what we DO want and to be who we really are.
There is a curious gratitude that arises in those newly diagnosed with cancer. Not gratitude for the cancer, but for the permission to finally abandon assumed obligations and begin saying NO or YES. The gratitude of being able to say “Screw this, I’m going to be who I am and do what I really want.”
The goal, however, is to develop the willingness to reveal who you are and what you want WITHOUT HAVING TO ENDURE A DISASTER to acquire that permission.
Most of us have, at one time or another, been in a relationship – at work or in our personal life – which began by pretending. Pretending to like what we don’t, pretending to be more or less of something than we really are. Accommodating the other, hoping that once we feel safe we can actually ask for what we really want. We hide a part of ourselves, sometimes an essential part of ourselves. Giving ourselves away for the sake of belonging and then awakening sometime later with the roaring anger of resentment or the paralyzing fear of being discovered as a fraud.
We often think that hiding who we are is the safe thing to do when being who we are is our greatest strength. There are times when it’s crucial not to put ourselves in harm’s way and times when it’s important to bring ourselves fully forward or some essential fiber of who we are will wither. Everyone has had to face this choice, more than once; when to show up and when to pull back. Too often, we pull back; we hide, rather than show our true selves.
If we hide long enough, we can forget what we are hiding or that we ourselves are even hidden. And, the longer we hide, the more fearful we become of revealing our true selves and our actual desires. Eventually, who we are and what we want will no longer tolerate being hidden. Feeling suffocated, it will find a way to escape and set us free.
Almost all our faults are more pardonable than the methods we resort to, to hide them. – La Rochefoucauld
Let me put this into context with Lon’s story. Before we started working together so he could accept who he was and what he really wanted, Lon suffered from great insecurity and couldn’t find the foundation of his own self-worth. He was endlessly seeking validation and recognition, assuming that when he made a great fortune he would finally feel “free” to do what he wanted. Meanwhile, his actual resources were being squandered in the intense activity that was necessary to keep searching for a sense of worth that no one could bestow upon him but himself. Whatever praise or success he received was always insufficient because he viewed it with unworthy eyes.
Lon was driven in the name of ambition and the need to be accepted. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to work toward something or with wanting to belong. The harm comes when ambition is used as a tool to solve feeling unworthy. Or when the cost of being accepted is giving up who we are instead of entering true relationships that can affirm and enrich who we are.
The way our path unfolds depends upon which voices we listen to. Do we adhere to the expectations of others or do we honor our unique desires? Do we stay loyal to the voice that’s mapped our journey to a partnership with others we don’t respect or to the one that admits en route to the airport that we love eating dinner with our children, that we no longer want to travel for work?
Whether we stay our course or use one course to find another, the core question is: Why do we sometimes hear our soul whisper and sometimes ignore its shout? But one thing is certain; it’s harder to hear your soul while hiding.
Hiding who we are is often predicated on a strong fear of what might happen. We think, “If I show who I really am, I will be rejected or damaged or hurt.” Or “If I tell my partners I don’t want to travel anymore, they will lose respect for me, leave me out of the next fundraise and I’m likely to earn less.” When we are able to listen clearly, we remember that being who we are is prompted by an inner urgency that won’t let us escape the moment at hand. An inner voice informs us, “If I keep muffling this feeling, if I DON’T speak my truth, a part of me will die.” So, we tell it, “Later, not now.” And it shows up again and again, nagging. Or perhaps in the form of a crisis that demands our attention.
How do we know when to pull back and when to bring ourselves forward? How do we know when to come out of hiding? No one really knows. But one act leads to the next and the reward for speaking our truth, even if alone or to a trusted friend or coach, is that such authentic speech clears an inner path by which we can discover and build the courage to reveal who we are, what we want and it will lead us to the life we long for.
If you are not yet certain how to speak that truth of who you are and what you want, or are afraid there is no way to get what you want in your work and are hiding parts of yourself or your desires, call me. Let’s have a conversation about how to begin the journey to the life you long for and deserve. It really is possible. In fact, it’s essential. And, you know it. Don’t wait for your own version of a disaster to give you permission to own your life.
“The real work of our life is to be who we are everywhere – alone, in relationship, at work, and in public.” – Mark Nepo
On a scale of 1 to 10, how was your year? How do you plan to make next year better?
I’m a stickler for completion. Completing tasks, conversations, relationships. Most of us are not taught how to make endings, to finish old business, so it doesn’t follow us into the New Year. We close the books on our businesses, and do year-end reviews with staff, but somehow doing the same work to actively turn the page in our lives and our careers evades us. I have a solution.
For many years, I’ve been following a simple process to gain perspective on the year as it ends and to intentionally choose what I want to pursue in the year ahead. Even more effective than New Years Resolutions (which are soon to be broken anyway and usually made without much reflection or planning), I’m looking for patterns, beliefs and circumstances so I can consciously opt into which I carry forward and which I leave behind as I step into a brand new year.
You know my mantra is Chase What Matters, Do What Counts and this periodic review is the way I hold myself accountable to continuously enhance my life and to winnow out that which doesn’t belong anymore.
It allows me to revisit the pleasures from the year which has passed and begin to make sense of the disappointments and challenges. Even more, it points the way to issues that I need to seek some help on for the year ahead so I can live the life I intend. This simple act of closure and completion has been a key part of refining how I run my business and how I lead my life. It’s a tool I come back to throughout the year, as a blueprint for decision making so I continue to align my choices with what matters.
I have a handy two page list of reflective questions that guides me through a gentle process to close the year with a sense of ease and to outline proactive action steps for the year ahead. It’s been invaluable to me. You can find my version here and adapt it for your own use.
I’m looking forward to spending time with you in the New Year and to being of service as you Chase What Matters to you.
REFLECTIVE QUESTIONS TO CONTEMPLATE AS YOU TURN THE PAGE
CLOSING THE BOOK ON 2018
- What did I embrace in 2018?
- What did I let go of in 2018?
- What changed for me in 2018?
- What did I discover about myself in 2018?
- What was I most grateful for in 2018?
- When did fear hold me back in 2018?
- Where did I demonstrate courage in 2018?
- What surprised me in 2018?
- What made me smile in 2018?
- What were my 3 most significant accomplishments in 2018? For each, list the following:
- The skills that helped me to make it happen
- How my life changed because of it
- What I learned about myself
- How did I celebrate/acknowledge (or, if I didn’t, how can I do it for future accomplishments)
- What were my 3 most significant challenges in 2018? There may be more than 3, use the ones that come to mind first. They may have tested my limits, my patience or may be big or small. For each, list the following:
- How did I deal with this challenge
- What new tools or allies did I uncover that I could use in the future
- How did my life change because of this challenge (even if it’s not yet concluded, what would feel good from the challenge in the end)
- What was my favorite moment of 2018? (Get in touch with the sights, smells, sounds, who was or wasn’t there, what was I doing, what made it amazing?)
- What were the gifts from 2018? What really stands out and mattered to me?
- Is there anything from 2018 that I need to still let go of, say goodbye to or forgive myself (or someone else for) or just need to empty onto the page?
Summarize 2018 in 3 words
OPENING TO THE STORY YET TO BE WRITTEN FOR 2019
- What am I looking forward to in 2019?
- What am I feeling apprehensive about for the year ahead?
- What life lessons am I taking into 2019?
- What area of my life do I most want to develop in 2019?
- What part of myself do I long to nurture in 2019?
- Fast forward to December 2019. I’m sitting in a café, musing over the last 12 months, where do I want to be …
- … in my work and wealth
- … in my relationships
- … in my free time and my sense of meaning
- … in my body and my home
- 3 unhelpful beliefs I’m ready to release
- 3 duties or commitments I’m ready to let go of
- 3 interests, skills or hobbies I’d like to learn or improve
- 3 things about myself I positively love
- 3 ways I could be kinder to my body this year
- 3 dreams to bring to life this year (personal or professional)
- How can I bring more of a sense of calm and grounding into my life this year?
- My secret wish for 2019 is …
My Blueprint for 2019:
This year will be the year I finally ….
I will nourish myself with …
I will make more time for …
I will recharge my batteries by …
I will open my heart to …
I will pay more attention to …
I will learn more about …
I will release my attachment to …
I will say no to …
I will say yes to …
And, because of this, in 2019, I will feel …
I fully believe in the possibilities that await me in 2019 and all that it holds for me.
“I’m burned out,” Mitch told me. “Work shouldn’t suck this much.”
“How much SHOULD it suck?” I asked him.
I suggested he check out this humorous video about careers and burnout . It would be funnier if you didn’t see yourself in it, right now.
Children dream about their futures, they imagine things they can do to effect change, to have fun. They don’t voluntarily choose tedium and stress. They know that work shouldn’t suck. And, by the way, before you think to yourself that work isn’t supposed to be fun, research has shown that the opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression.
My client, Mitch, was convinced that if he switched firms and made more money he would feel happy and engaged again. Of course he would, for a little while. But the story would continue to be the same one he’d lived through three prior firms. Mitch’s stress was through the roof, he was sleeping less than 6 hours a night, felt frantic about finances and hadn’t had time for friends, let alone time for himself. He was constantly doing triage and felt like everyone else was driving the direction of his life, not him.
I broke the news to him that if he didn’t dive into what was driving his burnout, it would follow him to his new firm. Probably quicker than he even thought was possible.
“What do you mean ‘what’s driving my burnout”? It’s the crazy people I work with and the fact I’m under appreciated and underpaid doing it. That’s why I’ve gotta get out of here.”
“Perhaps,” I replied. “But what will YOU do differently in your new firm?”
“I hear you. But the first six months, I’ve gotta be head-down, really driving it hard to show them what I’ve got. It’s gonna be a lot of ‘in the weeds’ work and then I can settle in and look at the stuff you’re talking about. My family is cool with that.”
Work is where we can make ourselves,
work is also where we can break ourselves.” — David Whyte
I’ve seen it for decades, how a move to a new firm with an increase in compensation actually does make clients happy. Superficially happy. For a short period of time.
Until the voice of their heart rises up again and says, “Are you kidding me? We’re still doing this?” Then they think “If only …” they worked at another place, made more money, (you can fill in the blank) THEN they would be happy. And they are, for another short period of time, until the voice speaks again.
HOW BURNOUT SNEAKS UP ON US
The 12 Phases of the Burnout Process were mapped by Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North (and not necessarily in this sequential order):
- Compulsion to Prove Oneself (turns into compulsion to work harder)
- Working Harder (to prove yourself, irreplaceability, doing it all)
- Neglecting Their Needs (no time and energy for anything but work)
- Displacement of Conflicts (inability to see yourself as the source – 1st physical symptoms begin to arise)
- Revision of Values (your job becomes your new value system, hobbies & friends and needs get sidelined)
- Denial of Emerging Problems (intolerance, aggression, sarcasm, talk about time pressure & stress as “status”)
- Withdrawal (social contact becomes minimal, isolation, alcohol or drug use increases)
- Obvious Behavioral Changes (along with rebuffing anyone who points out these changes)
- Depersonalization (self and others lose value, focus only on present time and future success, increasingly blunt)
- Inner Emptiness (in an effort to overcome this, an increase in addictive activity & exaggerated importance of work)
- Depression (exhausted, hopeless, indifferent & a sense that life is meaningless)
- Burnout Syndrome (collapse physically and emotionally, may have suicidal ideation as the only escape from the situation)
IS IT REALLY BURNOUT – OR IS IT SOMETHING ELSE?
One of the questions I’ve been asking clients lately is whether what they are feeling is actually burnout – meaning they are fully depleted – or if it’s really “boreout” – a loss of meaning or purposefulness.
The literature and research on burnout seem to focus on its origin as stress and overwork.
Few of the people I talk to are actually physically exhausted from the actual work they do. These same people would easily tackle in their leisure time much more arduous physical endeavors than those they do in their work lives – that is, if they allowed themselves to HAVE leisure time.
So, if they’re not actually exhausted by the work they do, what is draining the life force energy from these people? It’s the constant effort it takes to ignore the internal questions …What’s the point? How does what I’m doing even matter?
I’m not one to say that our work lives aren’t stressful, but in most instances I encounter, the sense of being overworked and stressed comes from a sense of disengagement with the WHY of their work.
Time and again, I encounter people who ask me “Is THIS all there is?” or who say “I should be happy, I mean, other people would kill to have this job and this life I have.” And, often, they say – “If I’m going to give up this much of my life, then I damned well better make more money to keep doing it.”
The stark absence of meaning from what they are doing rears up and begins to gnaw at them, fueling this sense of unhappiness that may eventually even lead to terminal cynicism – about work, about their industry. In fact, often, about life in general and their cynicism that they even deserve to be happy.
SO, WHAT’S THE ANTIDOTE?
Research shows that the antidote to burnout (or boreout) is engagement.
Burnout manifests itself as symptoms of long term exhaustion and a diminished interest in work, in cynicism and inefficiency. It is that state of melancholy and listlessness known as ennui. The book Diagnose Boreout (by Peter Werder & Philippe Rothlin) calls out the absence of meaningful tasks, not stress, as what saps people. There is little incentive for people to approach their clients or employers or patients and say to them “What’s the point of what you are asking me to do? This is meaningless and it’s doing nothing to fulfill my potential or to improve the situations in life that most pain my heart.“
When a person is left questioning the meaning of their action and feels inhibited to make a change, the characteristics of learned helplessness take over and he or she becomes listless, disengaged, the sense of powerlessness increases and THAT, not the work itself, causes the stress.
Interestingly, “boreout” got almost no attention from the media. Burnout became the buzzword that has taken over. Entire approaches to reducing stress have focused for decades on attempting to alleviate the escalating burnout that is cascading across industries, generations and swaths of our workforce. Urging us to work more efficiently, to acquire things or experiences to counteract the stress. Entire industries are built upon servicing our burnout, instead of asking what’s really driving it and how to fix it.
The remedy for burnout is not changing firms, earning more money or taking a luxurious vacation somewhere. It’s wholeheartedness. Reigniting the embers of meaning and purposefulness in your work and in your life.
Burnout is actually a form of depression – anger turned inward – because there is no available outlet for it to be externalized, for the person to say – “What you’re asking me to do is mindless, nonsensical and the talents and treasures I have are going to waste and I feel angry about that!“
Enhancing the engagement of people in the work they do, really evaluating the meaning and utility of the work they are asked to do is what cures burnout. Working on engaging the potential of each person in the company and affording them official recognition for their efforts. The sense of belonging, an ability to recognize that what they contribute is giving something back and that their risks to make things better are recognized. These are the values that, if left unmet or violated in one’s work leads to the frustration and sense of disillusionment that sets in and has been wrongly diagnosed as burnout.
The generally articulated worry is that attending to a sense of purposefulness will mean workers will stop doing what needs to be done. Bullshit! In his book Why We Work, Barry Schwartz reminds us that people are uniformly willing to do difficult, even boring, repetitive tasks if they see a benefit from their work. Over time, we have been lulled to sleep in thinking that doing mindless, endless, meaningless work is justified because the sole benefit is that we get paid. Not if we get paid and that only allows us to survive in monotony for another 10, 20, 30 years … all in the hopes that we will finally earn enough money and be able to do something meaningful when we retire.
It breaks my heart to hear someone say, “Well, I only have to do it for 7 1/2 more years and then I can retire and do what makes me happy.” Are you kidding me? That kind of life force tyranny wears away people’s souls and their hearts and traumatizes our children as they watch us and think that’s what their future holds.
REKINDLING THE EMBERS OF LOVE FOR YOUR WORK IS THE CURE
Gail Sheehan, in her book New Passages, coined the phrase Middlescence, as a period of second adulthood. A time when we ponder the questions we faced first in adolescence … Who am I? Where am I going? Where do I belong?
We look again for the meaning of our life and ask the questions Where am I and what has it cost me to get here? And, was it worth it?
The reason these questions arise is because there is a breeze that stirs the embers lying under this seemingly burned out core. It’s not that we are burned out, used up, left as ashes. It’s that we keep dumping ashes on top of our inner fire, smothering the embers, instead of feeding them good dry seasoned heartwood.
When a fire has used up all its fuel, what is left is simply ash, the burnt up remains – what was unable to be used.
That’s not where someone is who is asking the questions you are. Or where Mitch is. No, you are beginning to uncover the glowing embers that reside under the blanket of ash. The embers are the partially burnt pieces of fuel and still contain usable energy. Energy that is so deep in the center that the air and oxygen hasn’t yet reached it and caused combustion.
That’s why these questions are “burning” in you, nagging you day and night … Is THIS all there is? Your heart cannot believe that is true. In fact, it will NOT believe it is true. Even as you shovel another layer of ash upon it to quiet it. No, there is a gust of wind that picks up a single ember, or maybe even a shower of embers and floats it to something new that will catch the flame.
THAT is where you need to put your attention. On that single spark, the ember that is floating, for now, waiting to find dry tinder upon which to land. Your spark is not gone – and it will not be put out. Right now, it’s fueling your disillusionment and your inner anger that you haven’t yet vented. The anger that’s turning itself inward into a form of depression we call burnout. It may be that you don’t even HAVE to vent it; it will gain its flight somehow.
Embers remain for a long time even after it appears that a fire has died out. They are the more constant and enduring form of heat. Different forms of fuel catch fire and burn at different rates and different temperatures depending upon the amount of energy expended, upon the surface area exposed, upon the shape and size of the fuel. The combustible heartwood of your life is ALWAYS around you, it just doesn’t burst into flame because they haven’t been exposed to the spark.
What can we do to heat you up? To expose you to the things that will energize you. I promise that when you are energized, that spark will reignite those embers lying dormant within you.
And then, with your heart on fire, you will be a mighty force to be reckoned with.
Burn, baby, burn.