The truth about burnout? It’s really daring us to see beyond our status quo
On life's unexpectedly methodical call to revolutionary renewal
Friends, in this period of pandemic limbo, burnout’s everywhere. Not only among we the people, but lands near and far. Here in the American West, 1.5m acres are burning. Siberia’s in flames! And with “little to lose” under the old status quo, South Africans, Cubans and Haitians are in the streets protesting. This post is about how the world eerily mirrors back to us what we most need to see. Warmly, M.
PS, New post coming next week on the top 3 things I’ve learned to practically work with burnout.
Need to sign up or upgrade your subscription? Do it here.
Having lived through many seasons of burnout, I’ve come to see burnout as life daring us to play Truth or Dare — egging us toward the radical honesty needed to challenge our status quo; or, if we dare, to continue on an unsustainable path.
In a season of burnout long ago, I was in a job that I badly wanted out of. Running on fumes and too exhausted to look at why I was burnt out in the first place, I interviewed for a new job at a hot startup. I went in with high hopes; but it quickly became an uncomfortable round of Truth or Dare.
You see, within 15 minutes of meeting the CEO, he began aggressively questioning my integrity because I’d worked in an industry he reflexively labeled distasteful.
I’ve been in many difficult conversations — including other stress test interviews — but I’d never been attacked in such a deeply personal way. Feeling blindsided, I wanted nothing more than to explode or flee; but neither seemed appropriate. Flummoxed, I broke down and messy cried in the interview.
Now you might think that would’ve been the end of the story — that neither of us would want anything to do with the other. But to my surprise, I got an offer the next day.
After being bullied, you’d think it would’ve been a clear no-go for me. But I agonized over the decision.
I was so burnt out that I didn’t have the energy to invest another few months in interviewing elsewhere. And on paper it was an amazing role. Business school classmates told me they’d kill for for the job: “This company’s a rocket ship, hitch your ride to it! You’ll learn so much.” “In your next role or two, you’ll be ready to be CEO of your own startup.”
The consensus was that this was a golden opportunity. So, I overrode my instincts and went with the wisdom of the crowd. I chose Dare and joined the company.
But as you might expect, the CEO was a disaster to work for.
True to the interview, he ruled through intimidation and fear. And while his deafness to consensus was at times akin to Steve Jobs’ instinct for brilliance, more often it led to blindness to reality. Unsurprisingly, the company ultimately flailed and I became even more profoundly burnt out than I’d been before.
Turned out the wisdom of the crowd wasn’t so wise.
Now if the writing was on the wall, why did I put myself through burnout that was eminently preventable? Why didn’t I choose Truth earlier?
The surface answer was I was too worn out to make sound decisions.
The deeper truth was I didn’t know how to choose Truth because I’d lost touch with it long ago.
Raised to be a “good girl”, I was taught from a young age to follow the rules — to sit still when I wanted to play, play nice when I didn’t want to. (Later: to Lean In when I wanted to sit still, play nice with the Boy’s Club when I didn’t want to.)
Raised to prize machine-like productivity, I learned to override the limits of my body’s boundaries and power through because needing to rest felt like failure.
I ignored the wisdom of my gut, emotions, and body’s limits because I was socialized to trust social consensus more than myself.
Saying Yes when I really wanted to say No wasn’t a conscious decision, simply the conditioning of a patriarchal culture that offers women false belonging based on being “polite” and “kind”; and a toxic productivity culture that defines worth on hustle — sustainability be damned.
In unconsciously abandoning my inner authority, burnout was the eventual price.
Hearing my inner voice at that juncture would have been profoundly uncomfortable.
If I was going to be honest, I would have had to acknowledge that while I was good at my job, it neither brought me alive nor used my real gifts. And if I acknowledged that, then it got really uncomfortable — did I even want the career I’d spent years working toward? Who would I be without it?
If that was true… then what? What about all the structures supporting this life I’d built? Would I need to give up their comforts and familiarity?
And most importantly — what would I do instead?
I had no idea.
These questions were too terrifying to contemplate. And without the grounding of my own authentic vision, it was easier to take the path of least resistance and fall in line with an unsatisfying, but familiar status quo.
The problem was the longer I denied the discomfort of Truth, the more unsustainable the status quo became. Each successive cycle of burnout was like ignoring the mounting signals to renovate the foundation of my house; and eventually I had no choice but to rehab the whole house from the basement up.
Burnout was urging me to do the uncomfortable work of looking at where I’d allowed my foundational integrity to erode — where I wasn’t honoring my values and unique soul’s gifts, where I’d given my power away, and where I needed stronger boundaries.
I’d chosen Dare too many times, and now the only viable option was Truth.
In fact, with hindsight, I see now that the CEO was unintentionally testing the real foundation of my integrity — whether I’d listen to my own wisdom.
So, Truth or Dare?
Renewal’s waiting for us either way.
A reader recently asked: “What one piece of advice would you give to your younger self?”
My answer: Trust yourself — especially when it feels most uncomfortable.
When I look at where received “wisdom” of the status quo has led us, it’s led us to climate crisis, political gridlock and unrest, rampant inequality, and collective burnout from unsustainability on so many levels. More than any other time in history, the way things work isn’t working.
In a world of tumultuous change — where received wisdom isn’t so wise, reliable, or comforting — the only way we’ll renew the world is if we each start operating from the solidity of our inner authority, and dare to lead from our souls.
As always, I’d love to hear your reactions and Qs. I’ll incorporate your thoughts into the next post or in this new “Mailbag” segment of the newsletter!
Melissa’s Reading & Watch List
What’s giving me hope?
The Hip-Hop Song That’s Driving Cuba’s Unprecedented Protests (NPR, 3 min listen)
A few months ago, a collective of reggaeton and hip-hop stars released “Patria y Vida” — a song that’s gone viral (7M+ views on YouTube) and has become the rallying cry for Cubans: “No more lies”, “Let’s start building what we dreamed of.” It’s haunting and powerfully expresses what’s fueling the inner and outer efforts to overthrow a worn out regime.
What’s making me curious?
How the Lava Fire exploded because of status quo expectations (LA Times, 5 min)
As I write this, the Lava Fire in far Northern California has been burning for over a month. And tragically, it appears it could have been tamed when it first erupted. The 1st shift of firefighters left because experts on the ground thought it’d been contained based on “time honed expectations”. But in this current year’s state of extreme drought where the ground is not nearly as wet as it usually is, it led to an understandable, but profound misjudgment. So a small fire exploded into a roaring one that has burned 26,000+ acres.
In these times of profound change, the past is not a reliable guide to the future. Accepting received wisdom without checking it against what’s really true in our own circumstance can in cases like the Lava Fire have life or death consequences.
What’s bringing me delight?
Bunny is a 1-year old “talking” sheepadoodle whose owner trained her to speak during the pandemic using pre-recorded speech buttons. Watching this dog not just string together sentences — but explore existential questions (90 sec) and even share the content of her dreams (1 min) — has been a regular source of awe, and a highlight of my social media feed! She’s showed me what’s possible when we start listening in ways outside the status quo.
And in case you missed it…
My reflections from earlier this year on how “The answer to burnout is not (just) rest. It’s wholeheartedness.”
To learn more about the leadership coaching and organizational change consulting work I do, you can find me here.
Like this? Feel free to forward this along and tell a friend.
Change newsletter preferences: Go to ‘My Account’ page