Success cannot mean meeting all their needs while repressing our own.
I hit what feels like a brick wall of burnout – not the metaphorical kind, but the clinically measurable variety whereby the brain and body start to go on strike to protect themselves, the health-compromising kind where systems start to involuntarily reject work for the sustainability of the vehicle.
After two decades working at a best-in-class corporate law firm with an intense work ethic (during which I have worked frequent weekends and holidays and slept at the HQ building through superstorms and flooding to help keep operations running round the clock), and now after the workload doubled during the past two years to help clients navigate a rapidly evolving pandemic economy. I don’t think I have a 97th wind to access for even one more sprint.
I know I am not the only one asking these questions. As evidenced by the statistics and coverage about “the great resignation period” we are seeing and by the stories of shared confusion and collapse that I am hearing from my peers, I think we’re all wondering… how might we come fully alive when we are actually burned out and depleted?
Signed, Done Grinding
My first response was to say that rest matters, that sleep matters, that you matter. That the way to being fully alive? It’s not by being an empty husk of a person.
But, when you didn’t write back, I reflected.
Wondering if my first take missed the mark.
Because, of course, you likely know all that. Maybe you need a reminder, but you probably already know about boundaries and self-worth. And while it’s always worth repeating, I’d bet money that you already know how you must first value yourself if you’re ever going to be fully valued. With your 20 years of work-life, you’re not so naïve or such a noob as to be blindly loyal to a firm that, if you left tomorrow, would be posting to fill your seat the same day.
So, I’ve stayed curious. Asking, what’s the real challenge here?
And that’s when I started to feel it.
How I’ve not only thought that it’s okay to do as you’ve done, Done; I’ve hailed it as a mark of excellence. After all, told from another angle, sleeping at work shows a commitment to making an impact. And saving the firm from near disaster is anticipating the businesses’ needs. All to be the person the team counts on.
BUILDING UP, UP, UP
I got the work assignment without much warning. I had been off to meet some running buds when I got stopped in the hallway by the president of Apple USA. He had never spoken to me 1:1 before. Jim Buckley knows my name, I had thought delightedly.
As he showed me his spreadsheet, I wanted to understand how one product was profitable and growing while every other product (literally every other Apple product at the time) was declining in operating margin. He asked, could I help?
And what could I say? That I’d never done anything like what he was asking? That I had no idea where to start? No. I said, absolutely, I’ll help. I’ll learn. I’ll figure it out.
As he walked away, I walked back down the hall and into my bosses’ office, explaining the challenge. And she said, yeah, he [meaning, Buckley] had been trying to find a “sucker” to take that mission on.
Having just said yes, I felt trapped.
To make matters worse, my boss said something like, well, if you feel like going on a fool’s errand, go ahead. But, she added, my day job was still my job. I would get no relief from any of my current work.
(The irony — if that’s the word? — of this completely missed me at the time. How the entire revenue stream of a global 100 company was tanking at a record pace, but boss man was worried about the “optics,” so his attempts to fix it was kept on the down-low. So underresourced that it became the job of a relatively low-leveled program manager …as a side hustle. )
At that time, I did what business experts advise. Say Yes, they implore. Lean in, always. Hustle Hard. Be the one whose leaders can come to count on.
Which is why I thought, “I’ll just show her!”
Which I (and other teammates) did. Product sales grew from 2 to 180 million in just over a year.
But long before the market success, I sat there alone. First, I called in favors and bought dinner out of my own salary to help people understand what I didn’t know about that part of the business. I got up early and missed workouts to make east coast calls until I asked some questions no one had thought to ask thus far. I slept in the office as I taught myself advanced PPT skills to create an excellent clear packaging of the proposed solution. And, I pulled an all-nighter, rehearsing the pitch into the wee morning hours.
The way I saw it then? Adding value was how one got valued. Not so much a choice but just how it is. It never occurred to me to expect leaders to treat me as already worthy.
RAN AROUND IN CIRCLES
After all, firms hire talented, capable people like you.
But instead of valuing them at the get-go and asking themselves how to enable EACH person to add their value, firms ask people to hustle to prove one’s worth. It’s like asking a child to prove that they are lovable when, of course, each child is already lovable. Respect at work, like love, is unhealthy if it is conditional. And if you’ve ever been in any relationship where you have to “prove” your worth, you already know how arbitrary approval can be.
If we were to name this culture? It’s the one that values “high-impact players.”
Are you taking on challenging assignments? Yes!
Are you anticipating and meeting the needs of the business? Check. Are you delivering for the business? Hell, to the yeah.
And do it over and over again.
All so the boss man can come to count on you.
The construct of high-impact players ENSURES the business needs are served.
While it leaves to CHANCE that the one delivering ALL that value is equally well-served.
And wanna know the most egregious part?
The “high-impact players” who can deliver and not get burned out? They are the ones who can afford to pay for take-out, to have someone walk their dog, and do all the other things that need doing. Like laundry. It’s incredibly likely a person whose spouse is a stay-at-home spouse, so the children are cared for while doing their “high impact work.”
The culture that celebrates high-impact players, in other words, is a culture that supports that some (same) people rise while the rest die trying, much like a meritocracy.
AWAY, AWAY, AWAY, AWAY, AWAY
And so you ask, how can we come alive at work if we’re all depleted and spent?
I wish it were as simple as having you or I set better boundaries or the like. Because that would mean the answer could be something you and I could control all by ourselves.
But that would deny the power of social norms and how belonging precedes the ability to do stuff. Which far better explains how work compels us to ignore, even repress, our own needs. It’s not a personal weakness. We, humans, are social animals.
But perhaps you already have part of the answer. You asked, how can we become alive.
Finding the “we” is the work, the work of us. Find and fill your circle with people who will have your back. The ones who will challenge how much you’re ignoring them and say, hey, you deserve better. The friends who will tell you deserve to rest, you deserve sleep, you deserve respect at work.
Create social crews, so we create new social norms, Norms that center Onlyness.
Which by the by isn’t about anti-capitalist, but pro-honoring. Honoring not just a few but inclusive of EACH of us, accounting for those whose humanity is constantly challenged. Immigrants or Black people, or women. EACH of us.
We do the work of being fully alive by being together on this.
It’s undoubtedly why our column club exists. It’s why I show up to this work. So you can hear yourself ask the question, and how we learn new ways of being.
And so next time? Well, then you won’t feel alone when you say “Yes of course I want to help you deliver and meet all the demand our firm has. But the answer to that is not for me (or anyone else) to become a human sacrifice at the altar of work. The answer is not to be depleted and exhausted. Instead, let’s allocate some 20% of your time to connect and recruit folks to join up so that, together, it’s designed right.”
DON’T WANNA FEEL THOSE METAL CLOUDS
The social norm of “high impact players” asks us to leave it all on the field. And to smile while doing it. (Or blame ourselves for being exhausted!)
The business says, look up and see the cranes in the sky creating height and growth for the companies we work for. But this takes our eyes off the prize. If we look at our own lives, at the ground level, and see the catastrophe of feeling hollowed out, we know that even though it’s good for the business, it’s not good for us.
Let’s work to change that, shall we?