Embracing Burnout as a Catalyst for Growth


In Southern California, we have officially entered fire season. Growing up here, I have witnessed many brush fires, some that came so close to my home or office that ashes have darkened the sky and covered lawns and cars. When the smoke clears an ugly black wound is left on the earth until the first rains come. When they do, they bring with them the bright green shoots of life that vibrantly proclaim themselves against the charred dirt.

While fire destroys, it also cleanses and restores. In fact, there are many seeds that open only with fire. Fire, while frightening, has a purpose in nature and in our lives.

So it’s interesting then that the term for disillusionment and loss of passion has been known as “burnout.” While there are many books on how to fight burnout, there are also reasons we can be embracing burnout. It can signal to us that it’s time for a change. It can bring opportunity. If there are seeds that grow only after a fire, then it also follows that there are facets of ourselves that we discover and explore only when “fire” sweeps through our internal lives. I’ve been there several times in my career, and personal life. From experience I’ve learned that we can always come through it.

embracing burnout
Photo: Don Despain

Turning burnout into a catalyst for growth.

1. The phrase, “This too shall pass” is liberating. That said, while waiting for “it” to pass, find small ways to make changes to your day. Meditate for three minutes a day, add a short walk at the beginning or end of it, drive a new route to work, try a new coffee shop, wear purple mascara –anything! I am an enthusiastic proponent of doing something new every day no matter how small.

2. Look for inspiration everywhere. The phrase, “Success leaves clues” is one we would do well to remember. Through the stories and work of others, we can always glean vital information on how to go forward.

3. Be of service. By this I don’t necessarily mean in the traditional sense of volunteering, although that works too. What I mean, is asking the simple question, “How may I be of use today?” And, to whom? How can I help someone, or how can I help myself if that is ultimately who I should help that day? I’ve always been astounded by where this leads.

4. Start saying yes! Whenever you have been involved in something for a long time, be it a job or a relationship, there is that time when general malaise sets in. And then it feels just too monumental to get things going again. One way to create movement in our psychic lives and our hearts is to say yes. Yes to things you’ve wanted to do and things you’ve never even dreamed of doing. Last year I said yes to going on a camping trip on an island with 300 people, taking classes in mixology, watercolors, Spanish, and guitar. I said yes to a bike trip in Portugal, without even knowing how hard it would be (really hard, yet so rewarding). These weren’t risky actions in the same vein as bungee jumping, skydiving or shooting the rapids, but they were small things that can be done to shake things up, and that lend a new lease on our daily lives.

5. Create energy by setting intentions. Essentially these are glorified “to do lists” but they are “big picture” items I want to accomplish that week or month. And I kept them separate from the  page-long list of actions I make out at the start, or end, of each day. I always use 5-by-7 colored index cards, and my razor-point Sharpie. By making my energy cards into a special ritual, it gives them more importance. And the sense of accomplishment is one that makes me feel as though I am always moving forward in all my goals for my life, be they personal or professional.

Embracing burnout means to see the fire as beautiful; not as something that only destroys, but that also rebuilds, and can give us new perspective. There is a Chinese proverb (isn’t there always?) that speaks to this …

My barn having burned to the ground,
I can now see the moon.

embacing burnout
Desert Fire #1, ©Richard Misrach, Cibachrome

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