Learning from burnout, allowing myself to be inspired, and finding joy.
Twenty years with the same company and at the height of my career, I suddenly found myself uninspired. I genuinely loved my colleagues and the people I served, but I struggled to find the joy in my day to day. While I knew there was still a great deal of growth for me professionally, I feared I had stopped growing as a person, and I started to feel stuck. A lot of people depended on me, and I couldn’t let them down, so I dug as deep as I could and used up every ounce of energy in my being to be for them what they expected. At the end of each day, there was very little energy left for my family, and almost nothing for me.
Over time I felt a growing need to make a real change in my life. But thinking about leaving the only real place I had ever worked was like playing with the idea of divorce – and I had already done that before. This was the only life I had known, and to entertain the idea of leaving was terrifying. In the fall of 2018, I had the opportunity to attend an institute for women leaders at Harvard University. Hearing the stories of women whose lives did not always follow a straight path, women who had made it their mission to grow through the challenges they faced, and who had sometimes found their purpose later in life inspired me. It planted a seed of wonder in my soul that gradually grew into the belief that a more fulfilling life awaited. Almost two years later, I left my job, taking a year long sabbatical to explore what the universe has in store for me and how I can better serve others.
It took a month and half of writing, reading, netflix watching, and a slow return to working out again for me to finally acknowledge that I had suffered textbook burnout. The first time I said it out loud – to a former colleague at lunch one day – it was like a small weight had lifted from my shoulders. Repeating over time helped me learn that burnout was not a professional weakness. It was the result of my total commitment. Burnout was not a failure to do my job well, it was a failure to take care of myself. I had forgotten to put my oxygen mask on first.
A sabbatical, if used well, provides a privileged vantage point from which a person can reflect on their life, their work, and how they want to spend their future. Now, three months into this “me” time, I find I am drawn closer and closer to the feeling I got at the Women’s institute at Harvard. I am beginning to create a vision for my future that involves me doing only those things that bring me joy. In my extensive reading and personal reflection, I find myself adhering to ideas like “the universe falls in with worthy plans” (Julia Cameron) and “Happiness is letting go of what you don’t need” (Bill Burnett and Dave Evans).
Making decisions for my future has involved letting go of the things that don’t necessarily bring me peace or help me grow. It hasn’t been easy: humans are creatures of habit, and we hold on to what we know because change comes with too much strife. Over time, my vision for my future will come into focus, but I am committed to following my heart. Chances are, I’ll end up taking on a number of different projects because I am realizing that there are a lot of things I’m interested in. First up: I’m becoming a credentialed coach so that I can work to support others in the way I always wanted to, and I continue to write. My bucket list is long, and little by little, I’m going to work through it.
There are no regrets. We waste too much time on the option we didn’t choose – wondering if maybe life would have been grander, better, more fun, richer if we had taken the other path. It’s time to embrace the now. To celebrate who we have become as a result of the choices we have made, and to make every moment count. It’s time to explore, try, learn, grow, and discover our potential.
At 47, my life is just getting started… and it will – by design – be full of joy.