By Christos Tsolkas
It was very late and I was exhausted but I was too wired and charged up to sleep. You know the feeling! We had launched an ambitious year-long program for young guys with potential to grow inside our company and all the participants were getting together in the morning to discuss their individual projects and key learnings. It was going to be an intense day of discussions and activities.
Scrolling through my phone, I came across a blog post by someone who’d gotten burned out in her job at a high-flying startup and finally made a heart-wrenching decision to quit. “No Glory”. The author perfectly described a feeling I knew very well. I was frequently worn out by long hours at work but I loved it. It’s an amazing experience to be engaged by creative problems that need urgent solutions and to lead teams and confront challenges and advance an agenda. But it can take a personal toll as well. Sometimes the line between “pleasure and pain” gets very blurry.
Would I even recognize it when work wasn’t making me happy any longer? Would I have the courage to walk away if I did?
The woman who wrote the article talked about how hard that decision was for her. She loved feeling essential. She loved feeling totally used up. She loved being part of something bigger than herself, something purposeful. But eventually she got completely worn down, and realized that she needed to cut herself off. It was incredibly painful for her but it also allowed her to see life differently, and she was building up a new and better life now. I was so touched by her honesty and openness and her willingness to explore what was right for her.
So I shared her post and wrote her a brief message thanking her for telling the world her story, then I finally fell asleep.
The next day was as busy and full as I’d expected. What a great experience. All of the young “cadets” in the program had lived a year of adventure, satisfaction and hard work. They’d pushed themselves intellectually, creatively and even physically really hard.
The last ceremony of the day was filled with awards, thank you’s and good vibes. I was very happy. But even as the others celebrated, I was already thinking about the next steps, the next bet, the next asks for a bigger experiment that would be even broader in scope.
In a beautiful room with a magnificent lake view, we continued to talk about the year, drinking wine, taking selfies, sharing memories and promising to stay connected. Coming down from all the excitement, I was feeling very tired and decided to say goodbye and head home when I found myself surrounded by the program cadets.
One of the cadets, Georgia, brought up the post I’d shared the night before.
“Did you really believe that?” she asked. “How do you know the difference between being super engaged by your work and being completely consumed and used up?”
“Yes,” Phoebos, another one added. “How do you recognize when you’re really satisfied and fulfilled? What are the signs of happiness? How does it look like?”
It turned out, they’d many of them read that “No Glory” post and my comment! At first, I was alarmed. I couldn’t even remember what I’d shared!
And then it came back. The burn out. The used-up exhausted feeling. The courage to walk away. No wonder they were confused! We’d spent the year fully engaged by all-consuming projects. Many of the cadets told me they’d never felt more alive.
I wasn’t sure how to answer their tough questions, so I put on my mentor hat.
I said to Phoebos, “Listen, my friend. Happiness is about Meaningfulness which in turn is three things: Mastery, autonomy and connection. You’re happy when you get to increase your competency in your work, when you have control over your own time and life, and when you’re also developing new friendships and networks and getting lots of smiles, hugs and selfies in the process.”
Everyone liked that answer, and we all laughed and hugged one more time, and then I headed home, totally exhausted.
Of course, I couldn’t sleep again. I’d been dreaming of bed, and now the questions wouldn’t stop flying through my head. The answer I’d given Phoebos and the others felt a bit canned to me and automatic. Was it also true? What are the signs of happiness?
When I think about happiness, I often think about my father… singing in the bathroom, singing in the living room, singing on his walks. I know that he is happy. But for me, that’s never been enough. I’ve always wanted a different kind of happiness… not quite about achievement but more about self-actualization and feeling engaged and fulfilled and, yes, also worn out… a type of happiness that sometimes requires unhappiness and frustration and even disappointment!
Exhausted, I finally fell asleep.
An Answer in the Morning
When I woke up, still groggy and half-asleep, I checked my phone automatically and noticed I had a notification.
It was a message from the author of the very blog post about burnout and quitting!
What a surprise! I didn’t know her at all! I just had sent her a brief appreciation note and she’d responded with gratitude and an invitation to collaborate and keep talking. She was a real kindred spirit, and I felt so happy making a new connection in a world where great things can suddenly become possible. Her message made my day.
Suddenly, I was totally awake and filled with hyped-up energy. I had an appetite to solve one of my current problems. I was flooded with ideas and a sense of creativity. I started understanding behaviors of others, I couldn’t explain before. Wow! I always keep a pen and a recorder nearby to capture what’s going through my head for those sort of aha moments. I got to work taking down my thoughts, expanding the ideas, drawing connections…
At some point, that morning, it dawned on me. These are my signs of my happiness.
· Sudden clarity and understanding. A yes-damn-it.
· Your new understanding allows you to see life from a different lens.
· You figure out ways to make the most out of your mistakes.
· You feel confident enough to say sorry, or I was wrong.
· You feel generous in your heart toward others and eager for new alliances and friendships.
I decided to write those thoughts down and share them with Phoebos, Georgia and the rest. My simple message:
“Don’t waste your time. Life is a gift. Figure out what makes you happy and harness it!”
Push ❤ if you want to read more of this