Will It Be Burnout Or Breakthrough?

The difference between burnout and breakthrough hinges on a key, defining moment.

Up until that moment they actually look quite similar.

How do I know?

This year alone I’ve had coaching sessions with over 250 people who consider themselves high-performers: entrepreneurs, tech developers, executive coaches, CEOs, and non-profit leaders. I typically spend between an hour or an hour and a half talking with each of them the first time we meet, which breaks down to 2 full weeks’ worth of discussion on the challenges of peak performance (let alone our subsequent sessions together).

Inevitably when they reach out to me, they’re in the midst of a wild transition in their personal or professional lives.

They’ve come to a point where they realize things can’t continue as they have been. When someone finds themselves in that situation, they speak in remarkably consistent ways:

  • “I feel like a half-baked version of who I used to be.”

  • “I have an underlying sense that I’m not enough.”

  • “Let me just get through the day.”

  • “I feel as if I know less than I’ve ever known.”

  • “If I don’t make a change, I’m going to feel like a shell.”

And the emotional charge behind those statements is consistent as well.

In their work they swing between boredom, frustration, and checking out due to overwhelm. In day-to-day life they find that their confidence is rattled. They’re looking squarely in the face of insecurity, insufficiency, and incompetence. It’s unsettling.

They’re embarrassed because they’ve always had a track record of success, and they feel like with all the work they’ve put into figuring themselves out they should be farther along. They’ve known what to do for so long…

In fact they’re often the folks other people look to for answers, and now they find themselves at the point where they don’t know what to do anymore.

What do you do when you don’t know what to do?

It’s the most important question in the world.

How you answer it determines whether you walk down the path toward burnout or breakthrough.

In that moment where you can’t clearly see the path forward…

Where you hardly trust yourself to take the next step…

Where you’re spending all of your energy just to keep from falling behind…

Now more than ever you need to be still and silent. Now more than ever you need to be patient and receptive. Now more than ever you need to find some way to develop your own knowledge of the world.

Nobody knows how you’re going to make it through this.

Well, maybe someone does.

Bear with me for a moment while we go on a bit of a thought adventure…

Let’s call that person who knows how you make it through this “Future You.”

To make better sense of this let’s assume that “You, Now” are something like the collection of all of your evolutionary and ancestral heritage (your genetic material), as shaped by all of your life experiences thus far (physical and emotional), plus the whole as-yet-unrealized potential of what you could be.

Still with me?

“You, Now” emerged from the past interactions you had with the environment around you, for better for for worse. You’re the result of past choices and experiences smashing into your potential, making something concrete and embodied out of that admittedly abstract blob.

Now Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, had this idea that “Future You” is directing your attention day-to-day toward the things most likely to bring more of that unrealized potential to life.

In this model it does so through inklings, hunches, intuition, etc.

Of course you can drown those out in mindless scrolling, workaholism masquerading as busywork, compulsive consumption of information, or any number of other addictive behaviors.

(Why we do that is a much longer story that I’ll save for another piece. Primarily it’s because it’s scary as hell to trust oneself through a change. That’s a major stressor, and we don’t yet have the resources to cope with such a stressor. “Checking out” therefore seems like a great option.)

But those things are likely what got you into this mess in the first place.

The best way forward is to:

  1. Acknowledge that that’s what you’re doing. As body/mind educator Moshe Feldenkrais said, “When you know what you’re doing, you can do what you like.” This acknowledgement and awareness is the defining quality of truly generative action. It’s what gives you agency in your life. You can often start with a simple question: how do I keep myself from getting what I want?

  2. When you’ve gotten honest with yourself and realized what you’re doing, you then have the choice to stop doing it. As frightening as it is you must develop the ability simply to be with yourself. Stop all the “doing” that you’ve been doing, and give yourself an opportunity to do nothing in particular (please don’t confuse this with “doing meditation”). Our nervous systems thrive when we’re alternating between being fully ON or fully OFF. The half-assed, perpetually “kinda there” level of engagement is what keeps people trapped.

  3. From this place you have an opportunity to be with yourself in a new way. You have the context to be receptive toward “Future You” and actually glean something useful. You have the chance to learn something about yourself, possibly even surprise yourself. I’m going to assume that truly surprising yourself or truly learning something about yourself is something you haven’t done for a long, long time. It’s also precisely what’s needed at this crucial juncture.

The greater capacity you have to be with yourself and learn from yourself — regardless of how much a shit show the world around you seems to be — the greater you’ll become.

This is the key difference between burnout and breakthrough.

Burnout involves doing more of the same. And doing it harder, more often than not.

A breakthrough on the other hand emerges from engaging with yourself and the world around you in a whole new way. And it’s only when we cease the old habits and patterns (if only for a moment), that we have space for something new to emerge.

Chandler StevensComment