Sometimes you climb a mountain, and you realize it was the wrong mountain. That’s the sentiment you get when you’ve spoken to people who have reached the pinnacle of a career and then realized it wasn’t the career they wanted. It wasn’t right for them. It didn’t fit. Rex Baker is a former journalist who now runs a mission, and in Breaking Out of Burnout: Overcoming Mid-Career Burnout and Coming Back Stronger, he shares some of his experience and a lot of his perspective on burnout and how to break free.
The Truly Important
It’s important to note that Baker’s redirection allowed him to focus on how he wanted to leave the world rather than how he wanted to live in the world. Mid-career, or, more commonly, mid-life, crises have people reevaluating what they thought was important and making course corrections with their lives. It’s more than buying the sports car to try to regain some youthful vigor. It’s more than scuttling the life they have for something different. A mid-career reevaluation brings you face-to-face with the reality that wherever you planned to go – if you had a plan – isn’t where you ended up. Bob Pozen in Extreme Productivity admits that, while he had many plans, his path rarely followed them.
Sometimes the dream job – whether that’s in front of a camera or as the leader of a company – isn’t the right job for you long term. Somewhere along the way, we get distracted by something that seems desirable, and we lose track of what we long for most in our lives. When I started my career, I couldn’t have told you that I’d be working on burnout. I was enamored by the technology and figuring it out. However, my goal today isn’t to figure out technology (the challenge is gone in that). The goal today is to help people live better lives. Technology isn’t the problem. The problem is that we’ve not supported people into learning how to be happy and fulfilled.
Generation X, as we’re called, had great expectations. We were raised to believe that we could do anything. We didn’t get participation awards and we expected that if we worked hard, we’d get rewarded with success. (See America’s Generations for more.) Most of us will have to accept that our lofty ambitions for ourselves didn’t end up happening. News flash for you, I’m not an astronaut.
Having great expectations can be a powerful driver that propels us forward into being more than we could be without any drive. I remember a single word that a teacher said about me while I was within earshot. “Potential,” she said. I remember that it was the best thing she could have said – and the thing I resented most for many years. If she had said I was great, then I could coast. If she had said that I didn’t have potential, I could coast. However, to say that I had potential set me up to strive and try to reach that potential. (She was a kung-fu master of Mindset before the thing existed.) She set up in me an expectation that I could do great things.
While great expectations are powerful forces for good, they leave us vulnerable to burnout. When we can’t connect our perception of reality to those great expectations, the rubber band pulling us forward can snap. That’s what burnout is: our expectations and results being so far out of alignment that we can’t sustain the gap any longer.
With today’s children expecting to do better than their parents, they’re set up for an expectation that will be difficult to meet – especially since their parents are the Gen Xers, and they were very productive. The other problem is that we set expectations that the world will reward you for just showing up. Participation awards, ribbons, and trophies taught our children that they deserve to be rewarded for gracing us with their presence rather than doing the hard work it takes to get the job done. We’ve set them up for the problem.
In twin engine airplanes – and larger – there’s generally a panel that illuminates cautions and warnings. Each caution and warning has a specific indication calling out a function of the aircraft that isn’t working as intended. Any time that any caution comes, on the master caution light comes on as well. It’s a bit redundant to ensure you can always see when there’s a problem, and it’s a way of focusing attention to something that may become a critical problem soon.
Baker views burnout as our emotional system’s master caution – or worse, master warning. It indicates that there’s something wrong. It may not be something that we fully understand yet, but it’s something that we need to pay attention to. It’s important, and if we don’t pay attention, we may crash and end up in burnout.
Burnout may be, as The Joy of Burnout also indicates, a way for us to wake up and pay attention to the things that are not right.
Short Term vs. Long Term
Baker posits that burnout can be either short-term or long-term. That is, we can experience episodes or periods of burnout driven temporarily by circumstances or long-term burnout that we can’t seem to shake. I think he may be articulating the difference between a momentary loss of hope, where we’re shaken so completely that our coping mechanisms take some time to catch up, and a loss of hope that we’re going to need help with or changes to recover from.
Short-term burnout simply needs relief of the pressures that are causing it. By simply giving enough space for our coping mechanisms to catch up, the burnout will eventually fade. That’s why some folks will recommend some time off work, a special event of self-care, or some other momentary solution that will seem like magic to help the person recover.
However, when I’m speaking of burnout, I mostly speak of the kind of feelings of inefficacy that loom over a person for weeks, months, or years. I’m talking about an exhaustion that doesn’t go away after a long weekend or even a week’s vacation. Something has done serious damage to the hope that things can get better – and that’s a problem to be solved. (See The Psychology of Hope for more about how hope works.)
Who is Responsible for Burnout?
Baker explains that he doesn’t agree that you can blame other people – or your job – for being burned out. The idea is that an individual must take responsibility for themselves. I agree with Baker that individuals need to be responsible for addressing their burnout but for slightly different reasons. Here’s the thing. If you break a bone, it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. The person whose bone is broken is ultimately responsible for healing. It’s that simple. Fault and blame just don’t matter. What matters is finding a path to health.
Much is made of a bad fit between an employee and an organization. That bad fit, they say, is why we have burnout. I’m closer aligned to Baker’s thinking that the problem isn’t fit – it’s expectations and the ability to feel like those expectations are being met.
Starting the Healing
If you’re in burnout, the key is to understand what you can do differently to change your results. Baker quotes Charlie Jones as saying, “You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.” One might expect, given that I’ve read a book every single week for years now, that I’d recommend reading. Sure. However, how do you change the people that you meet? That requires getting out of your comfort zone and doing something different.
With burnout, it’s not that you need to make one connection to solve the problem. It’s more likely that you need to find people who you can connect with and who can shine a light on the results that you are getting and perhaps make your expectations a bit more reasonable. (By the way, loneness is a key challenge. Look at Loneliness for more – and try to increase your connections.)
Do the Work
As I mentioned in my review of Seeing David in the Stone, James McDonald says that many people wanted his success, but few people wanted to do the work. The thing is that whatever you want in life you must work for. It takes courage to get back on the horse. It makes winners to do it faster. (See Peak for more about becoming the best at something.)
If you’re interested in Breaking Out of Burnout, maybe it’s time to do the work of reading the book.