As I explain on the page introducing this blog, 18 years of owning and running my own business took a toll on me. By the end of it, I was totally burnt out. The inner spark that had given me the energy and motivation to build a thriving company was well and truly extinguished and at the time it felt like there was no way of getting it back.
I used to go to work in the morning hoping to feel at least a semblance of the excitement and passion that I used to feel a few years before. I spent hours reading online newspapers or browsing Facebook, instead of getting anything useful done. I found it difficult to concentrate. Everything, anything, was more interesting than what was happening at work.
The business was doing great. We were winning challenging projects and everything was going swimmingly well. There was every reason for me to be totally pumped. Instead I felt – nothing. That is the most horrible thing about being burnt out. The lack of enthusiasm and engagement. The feeling that nothing quite matters all that much any more.
Throughout my career I always aimed for the top, climbing from peak to peak as I took on more and more challenging and rewarding projects. I would strive for a major goal, expecting to feel a sense of fulfilment once I got there. However as soon as I made it to that point a new goal would appear – another peak to climb! I guess that at some point I got tired of climbing. I started to wonder when I would get to the real top, the final peak, where no new peaks would suddenly loom up ahead. I wanted to make it to my destination and look down instead of always looking up and discovering there was still a long way to climb.
I cannot quite pinpoint when it all started. Burnout crept up slowly and by the time I realised what was happening I was well and truly in its grip. The way I would describe it is as follows. When I started the business I was a rugged rock with lots of edges and jagged pieces on which lots of things got stuck. Projects, ideas, opportunities- they stuck to me and I drew energy and motivation from them.
Over the years the wind blew, carrying problems and stress and other bits of grit and sand that slowly wore away at the rock. All the jagged edges and rough bits on which stuff that motivated me used to stick were worn away. I ended up totally smooth and rounded, like a pebble. Projects, ideas, challenges, successes – they simply slipped right off me, like water off a duck’s back.
As the erosion continued it felt like all my nerve endings got closer and closer to the surface. Problems that I would have previously considered inconsequential suddenly appeared almost insurmountable. The feeling of constantly being on edge did not only impact my life at work. It followed me around wherever I went, effecting my relationships and my family. Burnout does not only impact your career, its like a corrosive acid that eats away at all aspects of your life.
Once I realised that something was wrong I started to read lots of articles to understand what had happened to me and find a way of “fixing” it. I came across an article that spoke about entrepreneurs, most of whom are creative people with a type A personality. When burnout strikes, it warned, the feeling of exhaustion can make you think that you need a holiday. A week or two of doing nothing and tuning out. This would be a mistake, the article said. Entrepreneurs who are already feeling totally disconnected and disengaged need something new to motivate and energise them, not even less stimulus than they have already.
This made sense to me. Even though the idea of coming up with a project and making it happen was exhausting, I recognised that I had to do something, anything, to snap out of the malaise. So I dug deep to find something I truly cared about and realised that what I wanted to do with my life at that point in time had nothing to do with business. I wanted to set up a brand new project aimed at helping disadvantaged children in the community. For the first time in a long time my entrepreneurial juices were flowing and I threw myself into the project body and soul. I felt like I had a second wind, a new lease of life. I was still not enthused about the business, but at least I no longer felt like a zombie.
I also invested more time and energy into myself. I set my alarm clock half an hour earlier and went for long walks every morning, before my family had even woken up to start the day. The early morning walks helped me clear my mind, giving me time to reflect and reorganise my priorities, while giving me an energy boost for the day ahead.
Gradually, the energy started to come back. I felt excited about something again and the spark was rekindled. I can’t describe how wonderful it was to feel like myself again.
Today I can say that I am well and truly back. I have now sold the company but am still running it as part of a much larger corporation, and I am totally excited about all the new opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. Once again I see new peaks to climb, but this time I realise that instead of always looking up, every now and then it is important to stop, take a break, and look down, reminding myself of how far I have come. I now know how important it is to keep a sense of perspective and I will never allow myself to be turned into a smooth, thin skinned pebble again.
So if you are reading this and recognise some of the signs of burnout in yourself, my advice is to take action immediately. The sooner you do something about it the better. Read about it, talk to someone, ask for help. Do not be ashamed or embarrassed to admit that you have pushed yourself to the limit and now need to get yourself back on safe ground.
Many people experience burnout at some point in time in their career. If we treat it as something to be ashamed of, something to be hidden, then all we are doing is making it harder for ourselves and each other. As far as I am concerned the more people speak out about it the better. That way when entrepreneurs (or anyone really) feel this way and search online, they will realise that they are not alone. That’s the first step to recovering.