We’re frantically searching for a vacant meeting room while dodging young bustling employees in this fast-growth startup. We finally find one with padded chairs, family-friendly art on the wall, and warm lighting. He’s the CEO/founder. We have just left a tense meeting with his senior team where they exposed their personal wear and tear from this grind for growth. It was painful.
He closes the door behind us and immediately turns to me. “We need to find them a new mission,” he says intensely. “They think they’re burned out but they just need to be inspired.” There’s an urgency in his voice. He has an operational theory he’s lived from the beginning of this adventure. Keep pushing the team with higher peaks, more challenging moments, and by doing so, teach them they can accomplish anything. And he’s been right. He’s taken this team from obscurity to multi-billion dollar valuations, covers of magazines, featured on news shows, and more. They believe in him.
High-performing leaders think this way.
Do they get burned out? Of course, they do. They are human. But instead of whining about it, they do something. Not all, but the good ones do. I know, I’m edging on the judgmental. But stay with me. They have the “watch this” versus “why me” approach to life. They seem to have thicker skin than most people. A resilience. An expectation of self that far exceeds most of us.
But where does this come from? Is it even healthy? And maybe more uncomfortable to ask, are there just some people who are better than others? Stronger? Smarter? In the book The Drunkard’s Walk by physicist Leonard Mlodinow, he explores the truth of randomness in life and concludes that only one thing gives us an advantage in life. Not smarts, education, family connections, or even money. They all help of course. But they don’t provide certainty.
But what does this have to do with burnout?
Psychologists tell us that most of our problems are perceptions of problems. Not the problem itself. Our brain works against us. With our hereditary gifts come the burden of fear, of worry about the unknown, the prospect of danger, destruction, and worse failure. President Roosevelt called it out when he said at the height of the Great Depression, “nothing to fear but fear itself.” It applies to today with COVID. So much of what we’re feeling comes from the news rather than from personal experience.
In his book Humankind, author Rutger Bregman gives a list of recommendations for life. Top on his list, stop watching the news. He concludes that after dissecting historical “truths” and finding that despite what we’re taught, human beings are not only heroic, honorable, and kind, but are all those things the vast majority of the time. News and history reflect mostly the rare and whimsical versus truth.
Again what does this have to do with burnout?
I think about my recent visit to New York City. To hear others outside of New York talk about New York you’d think the place is running amuck with violence and crime. On the contrary, it’s not only alive and well, it’s bustling with life, masks aside. Are people in pain? Of course, they are. Is it a challenging moment? Yes. But as Bregman demonstrates in his book, on a human level, people are resilient and overcome everything. Everything. History and our personal lives prove this on a daily basis.
So why do we allow our brains to override our physical truths? We seem to give more weight to the unseen than we do to what is seen, what is true. This gets me back to burnout and this young resilient founder. You see, he’s not better or stronger than most of us. He just understands a basic truth. Perceptions can be manipulated. Adjusted. Fixed. There is a dark side to this of course. Our current political environment is proof enough. But when used for good, for the benefit of others, it can be very powerful.
As both Mlodinow and Bregman suggest, the simple act of showing up. Keeping on. Moving forward. Facing life. Simply put, being persistent, makes all the difference. This founder knows that he can win and his team can win if they overcome their fear, their worry, and look above the immediate into the “watch this” possibility of life. Is this Pollyanna thinking? Of course, it is. But when applied with actions and accountability, it works.
“But burnout is real,” you say.
In fact, it is. But look at its roots. We don’t slow down because we’re afraid. We don’t take time off because we’re afraid. We compromise on our personal health, sleep, silence, and meditation because we’re afraid. Yes, we are. We fear the unknown. Instead, we need to adopt the truth of high-performing leaders and their beliefs about self-care. The greatest gift you give to your team, to those you serve, is ensuring you are healthy both in mind and body. And our misperceptions contribute the most to our being burned out. The art of showing up depends on self-care. High performers know this.
Burnout is not physical exhaustion alone. That contributes to it. Burnout is not mental fatigue. Burnout is our lack of awareness of who we are, what we do, and why we exist, our purpose. As this founder might say, we need a mission. Even if we have to make one up.
Get that work done and we’ll do as Mlodinow suggests, we’ll show up stronger and better giving us that little edge on the randomness of life. And as Bill Murray might say right now, quoting from the movie Meatballs, “It just doesn’t matter!” Yep, it’s kind of like that.