Sizzle and Pop

Let’s get this out of the way up-front: Today’s title has more to do with kitchen noises than it does marketing-speak.

I’ve flirted with burnout more than a few times. In a few cases, burnout and I went the distance, fully consummating our dark relationship.

It didn’t go well.

When I look back to those unquiet days, it’s tough to see what I was chasing, to say nothing about what I thought I was… thinking?

There are so many paths to the dry wastes of depletion. While I think I took a few of them, a look back reveals patterns rather easily.

For context, I’m thinking of specific seasons of Over-Fried Ken. Not the kind of food smells you want wafting through your home, in case you’re wondering.

In no particular order, one was several back-to-back teaching road (and sky) trips across more time-zones than I care to count. Another was during the time our house was taking on water where things should have been dry, (ice dams on the roof) my mother in-law was dying, I was (again) traveling, and my wife and I went months rarely in the same place at the same time. Third was the final season of my tenure doing 80-plus-hour weeks cooking professionally. Last, not that three isn’t enough, was the last quarter of a year in which everything hit at once, when I somehow lost my discernment – and the capacity to say “No, thank you.”

In broad terms, the patterns fall into the following loose categories:

· Scarcity

· Disregard for, and disconnection from, Self

· Conflating busyness and success

· Putting work on a heroic, distortedly noble pedestal

Simply seeing these bullet-points in black-and-white gives my gut an uncomfortable twist. Tells me, if nothing else, that there’s still a collection of somatic trauma-tendrils all too happy to dance when their tune is called.

I’m not proud of any of this stuff, but if writing about and sharing my experience is of use, if it leaves the world a less glitched-out, more human place, then I’m all-in.

There are threads that connect the points above. A big one is that they all prioritized work in general – and dramatic struggle in particular – over concern for my own health and well-being. Long hours, long distances, long separations from loved ones, tolerating things (quite literally) flooding and falling apart… all in the name of getting the work done and delivering the goods.

A lot of it shows up in the rearview as a twisted, disembodied experience because that’s what it was.

That’s an important point. It shines a spotlight on the amount of separation happening in these cases. Like an overtraining athlete denying their body’s messages to rest and recover, I drove right past the “road closed” signs and, rocks and mud holes be damned, kept going.

I did more than just separate from my physical self. Work being my addictive substance of choice, my distorted Dark Lover, I also broke the links to my emotional body and spirit.

To paraphrase a point my friend and colleague Jim Young discusses in his recent book, Expansive Intimacy, burnout is the antithesis of connection. If my experience is typical in any way, he nailed it, even in the title.

Consider this: my experiences didn’t come out of nowhere. They didn’t jump at me suddenly from a darkened doorway in a murky alley. They built, predictably, over time.

What started as well-intended effort, a little butter melted in the bottom of a pan, grew to smoking sizzle and pop. With that metaphorical pan left on the stove, I turned my back. And my consciousness. I lost connection to my purpose. In that mess, if a spark had been introduced, I’d have had a raging kitchen fire on my hands.

In many ways, it was a fire – burning from the inside out.

I wasn’t the first, nor will I be the last to go down the flame-out road. Wish it were otherwise, but as long as we remain a culture that romantically elevates heroic self-sacrifice over the humanity of those actually doing the sacrificing – in this case, the person in the mirror – there’s more to come.

What’s to be done?

If you’re a leader, pay attention to what you and your organization are asking and expecting of your people. Look at your culture and what it explicitly and implicitly demands. If you (and/or your organization) see people as nothing more tools to accomplish your goals, start by giving your head a shake and remember that you have flesh and blood human beings in your care…

And let yourself learn to see and love them.

If, on the other hand, you see yourself heading down the gnarly path to burnout, take a few breaths, then step back and look carefully at what’s happening. If the very idea of taking a few minutes to observe yourself feels indulgent and off-mission, you’re likely already in chin-deep.

In that case, call a trusted friend, a coach, a therapist, and let them know what’s cooking – and that it smells a lot like you.

You needn’t wait for the sizzle and pop to become audible. Get help.

I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention that we men are notoriously bad at getting our heads out of our dark, socialized rumps when it comes to admitting that we’re on a crash-and-burn trajectory. We’ve been told that real men suck it up and carry on.

Of course, if statistics are any indicator, the numbers on loneliness and suicide are worth paying attention to. Sucking it up appears to have some drawbacks.

Best to make those calls.

Yeah, I’ve been somewhat simplistic here. There are as many dimensions to burnout as there are people who face it. We humans are complex critters. At the same time, there’s a lot of life on the other side of bidding farewell to the insatiable deity of work and more work.

And, before we part company this week, whether you’re heading toward burnout or not, it’s worth taking the time to check-in with yourself about your Self. How are you doing at maintaining your connections to the stuff inside you that really matters?

Let me know.