From broken compass to breakdown
While beliefs and core beliefs both shape how you see yourself, the latter are more insidious—they’re like a tiny invisible compass deep inside your character that directs your movement through life. You unconsciously sustain them by focusing on evidence that reinforces their existence, ignoring that which contradicts it. My compass was broken. The symptoms I was experiencing were as long and embarrassing as a disclaimer on a pharmaceutical product. Perhaps, though, the biggest symptom was being overworked.
At the time, a senior vice president asked my team to deliver concepts for a top-priority project. What an opportunity! Sadly, my team was at capacity, and nobody could put in the extra hours. So I decided to model hard work and took it on myself. I stayed up late for weeks and neglected everything else—sleep, diet, exercise, my family. I was on my way to Karoshi, the Japanese term for “death by overwork.” In the end, I produced an enormous amount of beautiful mocks that, although duly acknowledged, was all for naught.
And yet, deep down, I knew that would happen. I knew that I was doing busy work for my own perverse gratification—but I couldn’t stop myself. Something inside of me impelled me to keep moving.
I wasn’t completely oblivious; I knew I wasn’t at my best. I was so desperate for help that I was grasping for whatever I could find. I took courses on productivity strategies, got executive coaching, read self-help articles. While they gave me momentary relief, the positive effects were fleeting because I was treating the symptoms, not the root cause.
A trip to the emergency room is what helped me to identify that underlying condition. After I turned in all those beautiful—and ultimately pointless—mocks, the adrenalin wore off, and the physical and emotional pain hit me like a brick. Suddenly, I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move my hands. I couldn’t even focus my eyes. My wife rushed me to the hospital and the doctor diagnosed me with burnout. She gave me a shot of steroids, prescribed some medication for the pain, and sent me home to “take it easy for a few weeks.”
Take it easy for a few weeks? That’s the worst-case scenario for somebody who always needs to be moving. All I could do was lay on my couch in a state of physical and emotional paralysis. I remember the notifications coming from my phone—concerned colleagues, family, and friends checking-in—and I had neither the desire to speak with anyone, nor the willpower to turn off the buzzing phone. Worst of all, my daughter had been diagnosed with an illness and needed me. But I couldn’t be there for her. I couldn’t even be there for myself.