The Glorious Gift Of Burnout And Rising From The Ashes

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According to legend, the mythical bird hailed as the Phoenix, burned itself on a pyre and rose from its own ashes every 500 years. Radiant and blazing, the creature is said to have seen the collapse of the world three times, and because of this is thought to possess vast knowledge and depth. 

For some, the Phoenix represents our human capacity for vision and endless inspiration. For an entrepreneur on the precipice of burnout, perhaps the Phoenix can offer a metaphorical remedy, an emblem of reassurance that sometimes in order to give birth to a new solution, you must first let the old one go down in flames. 

When there's nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire. ~Stars, “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead”

It began to grip me five months ago—burnout. I’d returned home from Davos feeling overwhelmed with exhaustion and disillusionment. While I felt honored beyond measure to be in the snowy alps among all those politicians and business leaders, I was also acutely aware that one of the biggest public perceptions of the event is that its attendees are “out of touch.”

There was so much talking, so much noise. People asked, where’s the connection to the beneficiaries you say you want to support? Where’s the soul? Where had my soul gone? I lost it somewhere between JFK Airport and the Zurich train station. 

In hindsight, I now see that it wasn’t everyone else’s talking that triggered me. It was the stark realization that for months, all I’d been doing was talk. I talked at conferences about the importance of the intersection of tech and social good, but I wasn’t making time to check in with the community I was supposed to be serving—the frontline activists and techies steadfastly pouring their energy into helping others. I was (gasp!) out of touch.

My work was all smoke and mirrors. Fortunately, wherever there’s smoke there’s fire. 

For a long time, TheToolbox.org didn’t have any funding. Every door I knocked on slammed shut in my face. After a year of hearing “NO,” I almost threw in the towel. And then I let it happen. During my burnout, I let all the preconceived notions I had about building a business burn to the ground. And now we have some funding coming in, along with a renewed vision and a new plan. Additionally, the entrepreneur and activist in me has been reborn. 

Here are some tips and insights the helped me allow burnout to work in my favor. If you’re approaching, dwelling in, or recovering from such an episode, I hope this helps. 

Keep the big picture in clear view. Get back to the why—your purpose. 

If I’m not actively creating something in my life, I’m actively destroying something.~Elizabeth Gilbert

Two years ago, I hired a business coach, who gave me an exercise that was chocolate for my brain. I was in the middle of promoting a campaign for a project close to my heart, and I was struggling. My coach stepped in and shared the five levels of attention. They are

Vision

Planning

Details

Problems 

Drama 

“You need to stay at the top in the vision and the planning,” she said. You’re too focused on the details, which are directly correlated to problems, which lead to drama.” 

Some of you may be thinking this is easier said than done. You’re a one-man or one-woman show. You’re an independent consultant, and therefore you have to pay attention to the details because there’s no one else to do so. You’re right. But when you feel yourself ripping your work or creativity to shreds, take a step back. Draw a diagram of your vision and start remapping your plans. You’ll instantly feel better, I promise. 

Whether we’re building a relationship, a home, or a company, drama inevitably minimizes our ability to keep our vision—our purpose—in clear view. Stay at the top. Be that Phoenix rising with endless vision and inspiration. Your dreams need you as much as you need them. 

Your work is a gift to others. Treat it as such. 

“The longer you work in social impact, the more it will stretch your consciousness into places you never knew existed.”  ~Anonymous at Clinton Global Initiative three years ago

Someone once suggested that the humanitarian tech initiative I was building with Peter Gabriel may be a solution looking for a problem. And well, that’s because it was. There was a need to support humanitarian tech developers and promote the tools they create, but not in the way we were doing it. NGOs were telling us what they needed. Businesses were telling us what they needed. A few of the activists themselves tried telling me what they needed, but I didn’t fully listen. Why? I didn’t think I could deliver. I suppose I was suffering a bit from imposter syndrome, and I was operating from a place of lack. So I shot aimlessly in the dark at a bullseye that wasn’t there. 

Fast forward a year to me once again asking our audience what they need, and their asks are much more specific, or perhaps, I’m finally listening and I’m no longer afraid of taking a leap.

There’s always more than one way to reach a goal, and there may be bigger and bolder methods and milestones needed to achieve your mission than you originally thought. Reaching success isn’t done following a linear path. Your clients or audience will tell you what they need. Listen to them. If you’re not ready to deliver, give yourself time to reassess and determine what needs to happen so you can be ready—so that you can give of yourself. Think with abundance. Celebrate your wins. Be full of yourself and you’ll have that much more to offer. 

If you feel like you’re thinking too small, you are. Take it to your community. 

“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.” ~Ani DiFranco

Whenever I’m thinking too small it’s typically because I’m feeling imprisoned by my own fears and insecurities. My own self-gratification. My own ego. My own pain. I can feel it in my chest, the tight discomfort that comes with thinking small. It transpires when I’m not genuinely thinking of how I can be of service to others. Up until a few weeks ago, my morning runs along the Thames River consisted of internal arguments that went something like this. 

How can I scale our product? Why hasn’t our first round of funding shown up in the bank yet? How will I get our second round of funding? Am I leading my team down the right path? Why did our partner not return my e-mail yet? It's been a week. What is our mission? Why am I doing this? Is it time for Happy Hour yet? Why? Why? Why? Me. Me. Me. 

This is when the scarcity mindset settles in—the idea that there isn’t enough time, resources or support. This of course is all bullshit. 

One day, a good friend said to me, “You don’t need more time. You just need to decide.”

“But I can’t do it alone,” I said.

“Stop thinking you have to,” she replied. “Ask for help from your community. I mean real help, not just posting requests on Facebook for referrals.” 

This has been a tough evolution because I typically have a hard time asking people for help, but ever since the burnout, it’s gotten easier because it’s been the catalyst for all the newness I’m feeling and creating. 

If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re a creator and a collaborator, which means you have a community. Share with them. Give to them and receive from them. Be specific with your asks and generous with your ideas. You’re not alone. Being a part of a community that aims to provide people with the support and tools they need to empower themselves is a magical thing. It’s bigger than any one of us individually, and is in direct proportion with the power we possess as a whole.

Surrender Your Need for Constant Control 

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” ~Lao Tzu

A few weeks after I returned from Davos, my nomadic lifestyle finally caught up with me. I woke up one morning and couldn’t walk. With my lower back fully in spasm, it took an hour for me to get out of bed five days in a row. I started seeing a physiotherapist to address the issue, and since then have made discoveries that go beyond my physical ailments. 

One day as he was cradling my head and rotating my neck, he said, “Will you please close your eyes so that you can’t track the movement? I mean, I know you like to be in charge.” 

“Are you saying you think I have control issues?” I asked. 

“No, just that you like to be in charge. You run your own business, after all.” 

“True, but I only like to be in charge when it comes to my business. I prefer leaning back in almost every other scenario.” 

“Interesting.” 

I then thought about how when I’m with my family or my closest friends I feel deliriously happy that they’re in charge of where we’re going, what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it. In those moments, I am the most carefree. I am the most myself. I can be this way because I trust them to be in charge. I can surrender. 

“When it comes to my work I need to be in complete control, even though I'd rather not have to be,” I said matter of factly. As soon as I heard the words leave my mouth, I realized I needed to reevaluate the way I'd been handling things. 

I can’t surrender in business, I thought. Or can I?  Yes I can, and at times I must. The more I live, the most I see that there’s beauty in not having all the answers. There’s grace and power in living in the question, even in business. If the answers haven't presented themselves yet, then now isn't the time to take action. 

A small team came together to help build TheToolbox.org eight months ago. They are brilliant thinkers and doers, and we forged a relationship based on the confidence we have in one another. But for a long time I didn’t lead with trust or openness. 

After experiencing a few traumatic business deals in the past, I’d been in survival mode for so long that I didn’t know how to let go of my need for control. However, shortly after my back went into spasm, I finally realized that my team and I couldn’t make sustainable progress unless I hung up that hat. I understood that without truly letting go, creativity and collaboration didn't stand a chance. I had to let go of fear and leave it in the ashes. 

If you’re feeling stuck, get out of your own way. Surrender. Lie down and talk with someone who’s a good listener and who asks questions that make you think and reflect. Listen to your body. And like the Phoenix or the temple and Man at Burning Man, where I know so many of you are heading in August, Burn Baby Burn! 


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