5 Lessons on Ambition Burnout

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As a society, we often view burnout as a one-time rock bottom blow – but for most highly ambitious business leaders, it is a cyclical force that goes unnoticed and unresolved for years upon years. 

I know firsthand just how sneaky burnout can be, borrowing from tomorrow to push through today. 

The tools that give us the resilience to prevent or overcome this mountain of energetic debt aren’t something we learn about in school. For this reason, burnout is a thief that robs the world of innovative builders here to carry out change in the world. I’m on a mission to share what I’ve learned about ambition burnout as an entrepreneur. This is my story.

LESSON #1: I ASSUMED PASSION ALONE WOULD FUEL ME

In 2013, I became funded as a solo founder of a wellness center.I was sure that I was on my way to do great things.

I understood that starting a bigger business would require me to wear all of the hats. I assumed my relentless passion and unwavering ambition would carry me through the 12+ hour work days. 

Unfortunately, the methods and intensity of how I worked in the past proved unsustainable. The scale in which I was creating was much bigger in contrast to what I had built before. I now had a team to manage, tons of clients to keep happy, and a slum landlord who was not honoring our agreement around the building’s construction. There were many sleepless nights. I pushed as hard as I could until I hit a massive roadblock. 

I lost steam at the six month mark. By month 11, I had run out of funding. 

We often think a startup dies when it runs out of money, but I firmly believe that it dies when a founder loses their drive. The sudden decrease in my own mental focus and bandwidth created a hole that sunk the ship.

Founder burnout is something we don’t talk about enough. Sadly, 90% of startups fail within the first year. 

You can have all the passion in the world, but passion doesn’t make you immune to burnout. There’s a fine line between passion and workaholism. Workaholism is motivated by the desire to escape other life stressors.

On a physical level, my nervous system was wired to be in a constant state of fight/flight due to chronic stress and unpredictability. I was overriding my body’s signs of tiredness because I needed to get “one more thing done.”

Is it important to be determined and have grit and focus to achieve your goals? Yes. But dysfunction and obsession are traits that do not go hand-in-hand with building successful companies. 

For a founder to succeed, a larger capacity is required. You can’t build on passion alone because passion can easily be misdirected and often goes sideways without mastery.

LESSON #2: I COULDN’T SEE HOW I WAS SELF-ABANDONING

When I was chasing my desire to build a successful company, I ended up neglecting my own needs – which trapped me in my own personal prison. I was living in a constant state of crisis and I felt like I could never get ahead. I was perpetually strained and overextended. 

Here’s the interesting thing about performance limits: 99% of the time, I needed to cross that limit and burn out before discovering where that limit was.

The issue: I was stuck overthinking and completely disoriented. It’s difficult to take measurements when you are the picture in the frame. There’s a lack of perspective. 

I got caught up putting myself last without realizing it. I found myself approaching self-care activities as a reward system for when I felt like business was doing well. As any entrepreneur knows, running a company creates an ever-growing list – more and more tasks pile up until they become too much to handle. Putting yourself in overdrive to accomplish it all risks your future self and is no way to live.

While I’m not a big believer in the typical work-life balance (strict start and stop time to the day), I do believe in work-life harmony. Work-life harmony is about presence in whatever you are doing. This is achieved by managing your energy and taking yourself with you while you create and innovate – rather than self-abandoning.

The worst part of grind culture for me wasn’t the obsession with hustle; it was the attachment to living in a state of emergency until I reached the “finish line.” I didn’t have a performance strategy. I had a survival manual. 

Spoiler alert: I kept moving the goalpost and created a negative feedback loop. 

When I ran my first big business, I felt that I was my company. There was no separation. Revenue coming in and positive feedback from customers meant I was doing well. When there was none of that, my self-esteem would plummet. It’s no wonder that I lost my sense of identity when I officially closed my doors. It felt like I had nothing left to measure myself with.

My weathered relationship with ‘self’ bled into everything and was hands down the biggest reason I was trapped in a burnout cycle.

LESSON #3: I CARED TOO MUCH ABOUT WHAT OTHERS THOUGHT

My self-worth was dependent on my ability to achieve. No wonder I found it challenging to publicly admit this internal battle of feeling fatigued and a slave to running my own company. I felt extremely isolated in business and I didn’t know who else would understand. I was afraid to be seen as weak, lazy and a failure while my friends celebrated big wins.

Although the business world has come a long way, there is still a stigma attached to conditions such as burnout. When you’re mentally exhausted, there’s a sense of imposter syndrome and incapability. Sending out an email that normally takes two minutes can take an entire day. And when I felt I wasn’t being productive enough (which I wasn’t), I further drained my energy by doing even more just to save face.

What we tell ourselves in our mind during a phase of burnout couldn’t be further from the truth, such as: “This is just who I am.” Thankfully, I sought help from mentors, coaches and people I knew I could confide in. Establishing a support structure was huge in finding my edge and controlling my drive without tipping over. 

Flash forward almost ten years later, the Covid-19 period inspired more people to discuss the correlation between performance and mental wellbeing openly and without shame. This has been beneficial to all types of work. For instance, I’ve noticed popular founders and investors tweeting about taking a step back from social media to reset. Letting go of expectations and being more transparent and authentic can prevent the possibility of burnout.

LESSON #4: I WAS THE ONE COMPLICATING MY LIFE

I’m the type of person that proudly lives outside my comfort zone, but what I realized on my journey with burnout was that I was comfortable in the chaos. This was an issue.

I had become accustomed to an over complicated life. This didn’t necessarily help me get closer to my goals as a creator. It was a coping mechanism for stress and it created more stress. 

So often, as a founder, I have tried biting off more than I can chew. I have let impulsivity and my mind drive me fast in the wrong direction. Creating a complicated life was a way to distract myself from solving an issue or avoid responsibility. 

Eliminating tasks that were not a priority on my forever-growing to-do list, cutting back on social engagements and downsizing day-to-day decisions gave my brain a necessary break when I was feeling mentally exhausted. Simplifying even the smallest elements in my life positively affected my burnout recovery. I aimed to let go of the unnecessary. 

E. F. Schumacher says, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

LESSON #5: QUICK FIXES MADE THINGS WORSE

Learning how to release my grip on the cycle of burnout was not an overnight process. There are plenty of wellness gurus preaching to get rest, yet no amount of sleep, intermittent fasting, water, and exercise will instantly recharge your deteriorated battery. I took a sabbatical after my first round of burnout and I still came back to work with the same die-hard habits.

The way you approach work is often deeply ingrained in your subconscious and self-worth. It’s why focusing on superficial mindset tips you find on Twitter written by ChatGPT isn’t going to be effective – unless you’re also a robot.  

For so long, I had been overdoing it by matching the intensity of the workload with the intensity of physical exertion and calling it discipline.

I pushed myself to the limit with vigorous activities daily because it felt like growth. As a way to unwind, I “stress-laxed” with passive scrolling. This was a recipe for adrenal disaster and cognitive overload. Even with the occasional tech breaks on a Sunday, I could never cancel out the over-efforting and constant stimulation I had endured during the week. 

I wasn’t meeting my basic needs at critical moments. It felt like I was holding my breath and only allowing an exhale on occasion.

Most high-performers rely heavily on logic and struggle with overthinking motivation. It’s easy to get lost in the seek-and-find addiction with so many mental models and hacks on social media. I learned that I might get results in the short-term using adrenaline as fuel. But as the company expands, a more sophisticated source of power is needed while operating in an environment of high uncertainty. 

Hacking my way through the day might have given me a boost to complete a task, but in the end, it was my personal boundaries that allowed me to access optimal states of clarity, creativity and innovation.

Of course, on my ever-evolving journey, I can set the structure of a routine, justify my rebellion and overextend myself from time to time. Resistance is the human condition. However, with effective tools, it’s possible to remove interference to access a true flow state and create sustainable traction in business.

I’ll leave you with this: if you want to grow your capacity so you can hold more, you will be required to stretch. But burnout from ambition isn’t a rite of passage to achieve success.

Are you or your team stuck in a burnout cycle and ready to break free like I did? Let’s talk about it! Contact me to set up an initial performance assessment today.

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