10 years ago, I lived what appeared to be a perfect life. I had recently married my high school sweetheart. I was one year short of completing my PhD. And I was on the fast track to realizing my dream of becoming a professor of political philosophy.
On paper, everything was perfect. Marriage – check. Friends – check. Long list of academic degrees – check.
But in my mind, everything was a mess. The stress of grad school, a recent bike accident, and my own inability to navigate negative thoughts and emotions left me in a state of constant anxiety and unease.
Why Talk About Burnout?
I feel compelled to share this because we now hear so much about the science and statistics of burnout. We know that:
But all these stats and studies obscure something important: the actual experience of what it’s like to burn out.
For me, here’s the best analogy I can come up with. Burning out made each day feel like running a marathon at mile 25. Physically, it felt like extreme fatigue, like I had to use every ounce of will to get through everyday life tasks: going to the store, attending meetings, or dealing with logistics.
Mentally, I experienced an unrelenting mind-stream of what Kierkegaard, the 19th century existentialist philosopher, called “fear and trembling.”
The most minor challenges – a flight delay, a long drive, or a disagreement – felt completely overwhelming. At one point, I remember lying on the ground next to my luggage in the terminal at Newark Airport waiting for my flight. An elderly woman came up to me and said, “aren’t you too young to be that tired?”
The Existential Cost of Burnout
Living in this painful physical and mental reality was hard. But there was something even more difficult: facing the identity-shattering insight that I was no longer the same person I used to be. That young, idealistic, and joyful self had been subsumed by a person drowning in shame, anxiety, and a sense that life itself was unfair.
Another way of putting it is that life became very small. I did my best to duck discomfort and avoid challenges. I travelled less, talked to my friends less, and worked less. I entered a cocoon of safety to shield myself from the pain. My comfort zone shrank to TV, email, and getting lost online.
Exiting the Abyss
Luckily, this story has a happy ending. As it turned out, burning out ten years ago pushed me to use my life as a laboratory for understanding how to train the mind and move beyond this state. I started meditating daily. I picked up a regular yoga practice. I investigated all sorts of other inner technologies that ultimately helped me unravel these chains of limiting belief and fatigue.
My life today isn’t perfect. From time-to-time, I still feel strung out from the stress of working in an early stage company. I still feel pain and discomfort. I don’t live in a state of perpetual bliss.
All this training hasn’t changed the challenges of business and life. But it has changed how I react to them. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said it best: “We are disturbed not by the things that happen but by our thoughts about the things that happen.” That’s the shift that started to slowly unfold over the last decade. I’ve noticed that I’m less attached to my thoughts about what should be happening in any given moment, more able to accept what is happening.
This shift sounds subtle and abstract. But it feels like living in a different world. The irritation over a critical comment, the fearful thought, or the wish that things were different – these mind states just aren’t as sticky as they used to be.
For me, mindfulness turned out to be the mental equivalent of WD-40 – it smoothed out the rough edges of my mind and helped me live with greater peace.
Mindfulness and Burnout
It feels edgy to share all of this. But I’m writing this in the hopes of opening up a dialogue about the challenges of living in the modern world. I spend a lot of time hearing the stories of wildly successful professionals who are quietly struggling with stress, anxiety, and the sense that there’s no time to relax and simply be.
On some level, we’re all struggling with these demands of the modern age. We’re all trying to win at the impossible game of being the perfect partner, employee, leader, parent, and friend.
It’s this challenge of thriving in the digital age – what might just be the most pressing professional challenge of our time – that I want to explore through weekly posts on LinkedIn.
In a world that celebrates the “always on” state, I think it’s helpful to have a counter-perspective. I believe that we need reminders to break out of what Thoreau called our ordinary habit of “slumbering” through life. And I’m excited to explore how we can adapt the amazing practices of mindfulness and other inner technologies to the demands of modern life.