Burning or rusting?
We’ve all heard about burnout — probably more in the past 18 months than likely ever before. You go and go until you can’t go any more. Whether this is with work, hobbies, side hustles and any general endeavour that consumes a lot of our time and energy. This was absolutely the case for me earlier in the pandemic. I took on new hobbies, I got a promotion and worked from the wee hours into the late hours, I threw myself into anything and everything that came my way. All this “free” time that the pandemic provided needed to be filled. Right? Wrong.
I feared that by just cogitating, I was losing valuable living and learning time. I feared the rust if there was no fire. A curious predicament which is only made worse by today’s FOMO culture. In my case, it was not FOMO as we know. It was fear of stagnating and the unknown that comes with just being.
As in the figure below, Gmelch identifies an optimum zone of stress stimulation for most effective performance lying somewhere between the fear of stagnating and the compulsion to overexert oneself.
In my case (which may be mirrored by many), some of the most vital lessons had to be researched because they go against the status-quo of modern success. The lessons I needed to learn wouldn’t come from any one source. Those people telling me it’s ok to take a rest, don’t burn yourself out were not the same people sharing messages of modern success without over-exerting yourself. It seems illogical that this one source of information was hard to come by, but often the teachers’ values are not aligned.
On my search for a lower degree of stress, I stumbled upon the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) which spun out of Google. Their mission involves making mindfulness and emotional intelligence practical and accessible. I attended one of their 3 day workshops with people from all around the world. I sensed that many of these people carried or experienced their stress in far more impactful ways than what I was experiencing. I felt lucky that I was entering the workshops with a fairly low perceived burnout.
Fast forward 2 months after these workshops and I suddenly perceive a greater level of burnout, yet I have changed jobs to leave behind the wee-hours-to-late-nights gig, I have stepped back from a couple of committees and volunteer involvements to take more down-time. What gives?
A little further research into this counterintuitive result kicked up some aligned notions from Mastery by George Leonard. Leonard discusses the idea of flow and having a series of activities that come easily to us; almost mindless but comforting tasks that give us a sense of easy success in our daily lives. As I considered flow, I became overly aware of the recent transitions I had gone through that were flow-less:
- I started a new job in a brand new industry — totally out of my routine and scope of understanding i.e. a whole new learning curve.
- I began training to be a Firefighter, where my most preceding knowledge came from Station 19.
- Even my passion for coaching had to pivot. There was no on-field instruction time and we had to deliver content for education virtually — a paradigm shift from a physical activity that both myself, other coaches and players missed dearly.
After going through a quick self-reflection upon reading about Leonard’s flow, I realized there was very little in my day that gave me that sense of ease, mastery and ultimately satisfaction that I was doing a good job. Sure, I have chores, but I don’t know that anyone can truly express a sense of flow in washing the dishes.
Both Gmelch and Leonard are on to the same thought, expressed in two different ways. For Leonard, simplicity enables mastery — either by training to the point of comfort with a task or the task being easy to the point of quick win mastery. Similarly, Gmelch recognizes that stress is ultimately what is needed to both boost and regulate our performance.
Combining these ideas was the biggest learning moment for me in these past 18 months. On SIYLI’s workshop, I struggled to throw myself into meditations because I simply felt I wasn’t getting it. However, recognizing that regulating stress and giving myself quick wins or mastered moments will spur me on to complete some of those harder tasks. Give yourself a healthy mixture of challenges and mastered skills or tasks to sustain your time in the optimum stress and optimum performance zone. Best of luck.