Why we’d rather burn out than slow down

A man standing in an empty office


Do you ever wonder how many of the people you see on a daily basis are just walking shop fronts with nothing left inside? How many are trying so hard to grind out a few extra miles when clearly the oil change is long overdue? I am one of those people – I am burnt out. I feel embarrassed saying that, because anyone who knows me would never guess it. I’m usually so full of energy for people, so optimistic, so “let’s do this!” Underneath this is a dark, nasty secret. I crash every day as soon as I get home from work. I used to have a glass of wine to unwind; now I don’t even have energy for that. I just pass out shortly after I’m through the door. Yesterday when I got home I went straight to lie down on the carpet because I felt like my clothes were too gross to lie on the bed, and even though it hurt my neck, I just fell asleep there. But what a fraud! The whole day I was interacting with people, smiling, having insightful conversations. I gave a presentation to a crowd and was truly energetic and engaging. I was switched on for everyone else, but I crashed as soon as I got home. And I do that every day. This, friends, is burnout.  This morning I actually couldn’t get out of bed. I gave myself another hour to sleep, another hour, but still I couldn’t move. I got online and took leave for the day and proceeded to sleep for most of the day. When I came to I got on my phone and started answering work emails again in my bright, cheery tone. Who am I? What am I even doing? All I can do is keep pushing ever faster down the same old highway leading to exhaustion and illness and hell. This, my friends, is burnout.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why would we rather burn out than slow down and refocus our attention on the things that bring us joy? I think that as the social fabric that’s supposed to hold us all together as a community disintegrates into threads (I’m clearly not very optimistic about where the world is headed in general, but this is not the time for that!), we having a growing thirst for meaning. Some of us may have heard from our elders, “Find a career that you love, and you’ll never feel like you’re working.” Well, that sounds lovely, but it’s a load of shit. Yes, you should follow your passion, but if that passion takes you into a traditional workplace, whether it’s a company or a hospital or a public institution of some sort, you will find yourself in a world that’s not all about passion. It’s about politics and efficiency and appearances and the bottom line. So that means that every ounce of sweat coming off your brow for that workplace is not necessarily furthering your passion or making the world a better place; it’s likely going to politics and efficiency and appearances and the bottom line. That means you’re not likely going to see the fruits of your labor in society. After a while you may question whether what you’re doing is really achieving anything of meaning for the world after all. But the emails keep flooding your inbox, projects keep starting, meetings keep taking place, and you need to be there and be switched on. So even though your soul is losing its sense of meaning and direction, you keep pushing onward. And when you run out of steam, you paradoxically try to push even harder. Until one day you stop. You have a mental breakdown or worse, a heart attack and your body actually forces you to stop this madness. Because you need meaning to live just like a plant needs water. Many of us, after this quick “break,” however, will get right back on that damned highway to hell. We would rather burn out again than dare question the lack of meaning in what we’re doing.

So what’s the solution, huh? We have to slow down and take charge of our sense of meaning. I had a friend growing up who would smell everything she came into contact with. It was so bizarre – she would even smell boxes and papers and things most people wouldn’t think to smell. We would be in a supermarket together viewing the same items, but she would pick them up and smell them. Even though we were in the exact same environment, we were focusing on different things. The workplace is no different. You can go in each day and focus on trying to make an impact on the world and work your ass off and burn yourself out eventually OR you can go into the exact same environment and focus on your favorite fonts for email replies, focus on who is at the coffee shop downstairs when you’re waiting in line, focus on who has gotten fatter and who has gotten skinnier, whatever the hell you want to focus on! And then you can pick up your things at the end of the day when everyone else is on their way out, and with the blissful smile that you get when you’re walking out of a spa, just say “See you tomorrow,” to them all and go home. The difference between View 1 and View 2 is that in View 1 you will need to drink yourself into a stupor or pass out when you get home and in View 2 you might feel like watering your garden or going for a walk around your neighborhood. It’s a major difference. It’s the difference between burning out and slowing down.

You may say, now wait! Where is the meaning in that? What is the point of going into work and being lazy every day? Let’s first talk about meaning and then we’ll get to laziness. Your meaning is your meaning. No one else gets to determine what’s meaningful but you. For my friend, it was smelling everything in the supermarket. For you, it may be achieving world peace. BUT if your sense of meaning inherently depends on the actions of others (i.e. world peace), you must realize that you no longer have control over your meaning. And that’s dangerous. Because people are always going to be idiots to some degree. And sometimes societal trends will work in your favor and sometimes they won’t. The point is, if you think you can single-handedly create world peace or improve the health of a whole population (I’m looking at you, doctors!) then you are a lunatic. People will still do drugs and start fights that might escalate into wars. You should not be hinging your meaning on them. It’s okay to hope for world peace and a healthy society. It’s not okay to make them your life’s meaning or your responsibility. You need to simplify your meaning so that it only involves you and takes all of those other idiots out of the equation. So maybe you could revise your meaning from improving the health of a whole population to be, “I really want to have an easy-to-use package of tools to give people when they’re reading to make improvements to their own health,” for instance. Now that is achievable and that is a good use of your energy. And when you have  some drug addict come into your office asking for more pain killers, you can just start thinking about what you’ll order at your next coffee break. That idiot is not your circus, not your monkey.

Speaking of coffee breaks, I think we need to take more of them. Have a look around your workplace, and find the laziest schmoozer you can find, that person whom everyone mysteriously seems to like even though they accomplish nothing. Let’s call this person Trish. Trish comes in at the same time every day, not a minute before 9. She takes forever to get her lunch into the refrigerator and she calmly puts her desk in order and then she walks to make herself a tea. She smiles and says hi to everyone, and everyone says hi back to her seemingly oblivious to what a lazy waste of a paycheck she is. She types away at an annoyingly slow pace all day. She takes personal calls that seem to last forever. She makes inane comments in meetings that for some mind-blowing reason upper management seem to praise. She disappears three times a day – twice to get coffee at the coffee shop (always at peak times when there’s a long line, so you know, she has to wait) and for a leisurely lunch (she brings cutely packed lunches). And then when 4:45 p.m. rolls around, she starts to gather her things, says good-bye to everyone and is out the door promptly at 5. You hate Trish. But Trish needs to be your new standard. Why? Because when Trish gets promoted and you don’t, instead of getting angry, you should learn from Trish. Because Trish’s promotion is telling you something about what your workplace actually values. It values politics and efficiency (doing exactly what we need to do and nothing more) and appearances and the bottom line. They don’t give a shit about the things you value. And that’s okay because…

You’re your own boss. Even though you work for a workplace that doesn’t hold the same values and hopes for the world that you do, you get to make your own life decisions. You’re an individual, so that means you get to decide what gives you meaning and how to accomplish that. So let’s say you want to provide people with tools to better their own health. Well, how would you most enjoy doing that? After all, your the boss. Maybe you would enjoy writing a children’s book to teach healthy eating habits. Maybe you want to become a Dr. Oz-like YouTube sensation with helpful how-to videos. Maybe you just want to ask your friends to come hiking with you so that you both get some exercise. Totally up to you. You might even be able to use your workplace to carry out your sense of meaning. Maybe your workplace has access to cool graphics design tools. Maybe your professional connections might be able to help you with what you’re really trying to achieve. Maybe you use your coffee break to plan your next blog post or your next cabin in the woods. Up to you. You are your boss. You decide your meaning and you decide how to execute it. All while showing up to your workplace and being a Trish and taking comfort in the fact that you (thankfully!) are not the boss of that ship because you have your own ship to sail and it’s going to chart new waters and find a place of meaning and bliss for you. And that, friends, is called slowing down and taking the helm.

Let me know how you go!


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