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The Upside of Burnout: How to Turn it From Problem to Opportunity

anxiety burnout personal May 21, 2020

Originally published in Inc. Magazine.

I'm 40 years old, and I've burned myself out twice so far in my career. In both cases, it was painful, terrifying, and yet life-changing in its positive effects.

The first time happened in my late 20s. I was in the final year of finishing up my PhD. The stress of graduate school combined with a serious bike accident left me drowning in waves of anxiety, depression, and fatigue. The second time happened just recently, in a milder form. It sprung from a combination of stress, long hours, and forgetting to rest. 

Each time it happened, the conventional corporate wisdom of burnout as bad made the whole experience much worse than it needed to be. It's the story that says: burnout is bad. If it happens to you, something is wrong with you: you don't have enough grit, you didn't work out enough, you didn't meditate enough, or you weren't on the right diet, drugs, or supplements. 

With this story in the background, it's no wonder that burning out in the modern world of business feels like a kind of professional death.

Is burnout bad?

When I look closely at my experience of burnout and the experiences of others, a common theme emerges. While painful, burnout can be a catalyst for making the hard decisions that we tend to avoid in our ordinary lives. 

My first burnout experience, for example, gave me the courage to leave a cushy, but uninspiring, career as a professor. It also pushed me to create new habits. I changed my diet and started doing yoga and meditation daily. In the end, it even led me to co-found a new business and co-author a New York Times bestselling book. Without burning out, I would probably still be sitting in faculty committee meetings, bored out of my mind, wishing I had the guts to take a risk. 

When things are going "just fine," after all, we tend to settle. We have a greater tolerance for uninspiring work, relational drama, and living in ways that aren't quite aligned with our highest purpose. But when burnout enters the picture, tolerance is first to go. We don't have enough gas in the tank to deal with the drama and that's often just the motivation we need to make the hard decisions to change.

If you find yourself riding the edge of burnout, here are three strategies you can use to avoid the risks of burning out and experience more of its powerful benefits: 

1. Let go of the illusion of control.

When there's no gas left in the tank, we start to see more clearly a truth about life that was there all along. We see that we have only a small amount of control over the things that matter most: our career, health, thoughts, sensations, and future achievements.

This can be a rather grim realization. But it can also be a catalyst to let go of the steering wheel of life, a move that leads to greater freedom and often, paradoxically, more success and happiness.

2. Question the idea that burnout is bad.

To master burnout, we also have to let go of the conventional wisdom that "burnout is bad." This narrative reinforces feelings of shame, hopelessness, and anxiety. So instead of focusing on the "bad" of burnout, look for the positive transformations it incites. See what happens when you begin to see the corporate world up-side-down, when you live in a world where losing (burning out) is the first step to an even bigger win

3. Exercise discriminating wisdom.

Burnout lights the fire of change. But, sometimes, this fire can grow too intense. At times, it can become too intense to handle alone, in which case you need to seek the help of a professional. At other times, the surge of motivation that arises from burnout can lead you to make rash decisions that might not be in your long-term best interest. So it's worth treating major, life-changing, decisions with care.

If you have the thought you should leave your job and move to Bali, for example, sit with it for a while. Give yourself time to make sure any life-changing decisions truly are in your long-term best interest.

We shouldn't seek out the experience of burnout. Nor should we make light of the crippling experience of anxiety, depression, and shame that accompany this state. Burnout can have serious consequences, and it's not to be taken lightly.

The point here is simply this: if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of burning out, it's important to question the "burnout is bad" story and to remember that this intense emotional journey has the power to positively transform your life and your career.

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