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The Beauty of Burnout

“The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning, and does not stop until you get into the office.” — Robert Frost The phone rings again. It’s the third reporter today calling to ask about burnout. The questions always sound the same: What warning signs precede burnout? What can employers and employees do to extinguish the fire of exhaustion?

“The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning, and does not stop until you get into the office.” — Robert Frost

The phone rings again. It’s the third reporter today calling to ask about burnout. The questions always sound the same: What warning signs precede burnout? What can employers and employees do to extinguish the fire of exhaustion? During this winter of dotcom discontent, corporate burnout seems to captivate the attention of business journalists, many of whom dial my number for comment.

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While we discuss the usual issues, I seem to surprise the reporters by talking about the upside of burnout — the opportunity to step back and examine the truly important elements of work and life.

“Every day I get up and look through the Forbes list of the richest people in America. If I’m not there, I go to work.” — Robert Orben, Fortune 500 executive

Last November, I received a note from a respected leadership consultant who works almost exclusively with young dotcom executives. He wrote:

“I have to smile. As we speak, the ‘fast company’ ethos is crumbling, and the ‘slow company’ of bricks and mortar is roaring back with vengeance … and eating many a ‘fast company’ for lunch.

“The greed, speed, and ambition that have fueled the fast company environment of the past five years have inspired great energy and technological advances. At the same time, they have spawned arrogance, burnout, and now, predictably, disappointment.

“Once again, a generation is confronted with questions of value in life: the eternal trade-off between a sane life in the long run versus a ‘big hit’ in the short run. The lottery mind-set that pervaded the Net revolution is now coming apart, leaving many players broken.

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“They’re young, mostly, and will land on their feet. But it is time to remind them of the eternal and necessary balance between life and work, no matter how enticing the imbalance seems at times.

“We learn from defeat. We gain manners, humility, patience, humor, and determination. Or we become bitter blamers. The choice is ours. It always was.”

“Hard work never killed anybody, but why take a chance?” — Edgar Bergen, puppeteer, as Charlie McCarthy

Burnout — the breaking point at which you feel too tired to work effectively or, sometimes, even at all — is nothing new to business. It typically plagues people who hold jobs that demand too much time and don’t permit a life beyond work. This time around, lots of people were willing to risk burnout in exchange for potentially high-paying stock options. For some, it worked; for many, it did not.

The immediate question is this: If more dotcoms succeeded and more options became valuable, would so many reporters be calling me about burnout? Probably not, but that wouldn’t change the primary issue — and opportunity — behind burnout.

At my career-management firm, You&Company®, we see burnout caused by imbalance — an imbalance not caused by overwork, but by neglecting personal values. Not balancing the body, head, and heart leads to a misaligned life in which the values of work, home, community, personal, and spiritual lives collide.

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Burnout provides an opportunity to stop and listen closely to your body, to your friends and family, and to your heart. Here are three opportunities for transforming burnout into realignment.

Pursue the Joy of the Unpredictable

“Never forget that life can only be nobly inspired and rightly lived if you take it bravely and gallantly, as a splendid adventure in which you are setting out into an unknown country to face many a danger, to meet many a joy, to find many a comrade, to win and lose many a battle.” — Annie Besant, nineteenth-century British political activist

We derive joy from pursuing interests and passions that do not produce any obvious benefits. Unfortunately, many people believe that joy should reside in the world of hobbies or retirement. I disagree. I say do something that gives you energy, something that resonates with you and motivates you to jump — no, fly — out of bed in the morning.

Joy is about surprises, the unexpected. It’s not tranquil, and it’s not spurred by attaining material possessions. It’s about feeling the thrill of life! It’s about experiencing moments that you will never forget.

Start Liking Yourself

“Friendship with oneself is all-important because without it one cannot be friends with anyone else in the world.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

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You will find on the outside only what you possess on the inside. And deep down, most of us don’t have a lot of self-respect. So use your downtime to fix whatever problems keep you from following the best track.

Self-discovery and self-improvement are a good start. But I’m talking about self-transcendence that leads to selfless service. Only through self-transcendence do most people begin to feel really good about themselves. As a result, improved self-respect often spurs better jobs, better outlooks, and better lives.

A friend of mine works with impoverished, inner-city youths. At first, she doesn’t teach hard skills. Instead, she encourages her kids to volunteer in the children’s cancer ward in a local hospital. Not only do her students feel useful, but also they realize how much good they can bring about. She teaches self-esteem through selfless service.

Spend Time With Friends and Family

“I think the world today is upside-down. It is suffering so much because there is so little love in the home and in family life. We have no time for our children. We have no time for each other. There is no time to enjoy each other, and the lack of love causes so much suffering and unhappiness in the world.” — Mother Teresa

I’ve seen friends burn out at work and then hide — physically and emotionally — from loved ones and colleagues. They feel embarrassed. Rather than using downtime to reconnect, they wallow in guilt.

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It is too easy to get caught up in our work. It is too easy to treasure our trash and trash our treasures. We may feel important at work, but we are only truly irreplaceable when we are with family and friends.

Burnout seems reserved for people who have more choices than they appreciate. I see it as a modern-day warning system that can help us get back on track. Burnout may just bring with it a more satisfying life for you, your family, and your future employer.

“Most people burn out because they have never been on fire.” — David Head, management consultant

To read more about the importance of passion and purpose in directing your career, read chapter one of Mark Albion’s New York Times best-selling book, Making a Life, Making a Living, now also available in paperback, e-book, audiocassette, and audio download.

This is my last column for fastcompany.com. I have enjoyed writing all 16 of them and hope you will continue to read my career-service articles at Making a Life, Making a Living. Best wishes and may you make footprints in the sands of time.

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Copyright © 2001 Dr. Mark S. Albion. All rights reserved.

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