Recessions can be a good thing – they force us to “cut the fat” in our budgets, hone our focus on the most important business goals, and re-evaluate what matters most in our lives. It is no surprise then that recessions are a time when we see a rebirth of Entrepreneurialism. As traditional job options shrink and as a collective we become more aware of what we really want to achieve, many people take the risk they would otherwise avoid – pursuing their dream.
But along with this great pursuit comes a downside – burnout, anxiety and stress. We ask ourselves: “What have I done?” “What was I thinking?” and our friends and loved ones question our risk, wondering if we can weather the storm of building something new.
Why Stress About Stress?
Robert Sopolsky, PhD is the leading authority on the study of Stress and its impact on the human body, and the Chair of Neuroscience at Stanford University. In his book, “Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers” he explains why humans suffer more severely from stress than any other species on Earth.
The problem, he tells us, is our human capacity to worry. “If you are a zebra running for your life, or a lion sprinting for your meal, your body’s physiological response mechanisms are superbly adapted for dealing with such short-term physical emergencies. But when we consider ourselves and our human propensity to worry, we see the critical difference between us and the zebra or the lion.”
In other words, we are capable of “anticipatory” stress – or the unique ability to worry about things that might happen well in advance of the possible occurrence. Unfortunately, just like the lion or the zebra, we have a similar response to all types of stress – no matter how big or how small. We respond to having our stomach ripped out by a lion in basically the same way that we respond to making our upcoming tax payment. What’s more, we respond to worrying about the tax payment we have to make next year the same way that we respond to having our stomach ripped out by a lion today.
So, while our bodies are designed to respond to stress in the moment, giving us the short spurts of energy we need to outrun, say, a lion, instead we prolong this same level of stress over months or even years. And this is bad. Because when we prolong our very simplistic stress responses we make ourselves sick. Just some of the damage we can do includes:
- Slowing our metabolism
- Raising our blood pressure
- Bursting white blood cells
- Poor digestion
- Decreased sex drive
- Brain damage
Change Your Response to Stress
Dr. Sopolky shares research done on rats that show when they are given a “shock” at regular intervals and then those shocks are reduced, they are “happier” than rats that were never given a shock at all. Think about this for a minute… Yes! That’s right! “Change the way even a rat perceives his world, and you dramatically alter the likelihood of his getting a disease.”
So, the real question is… how can we change the way we perceive our situation?
First, we need to listen to our bodies and recognize what we feel. In my line of work, people often come and ask me if I can help with their public speaking skills. They inevitably say the same thing: “It’s not my content I need help with, the problem is that I get nervous – I am afraid.” I can tell you now, that is not the problem. After 20 years of public speaking, I still get nervous. The nerves will always be there. That’s the way my body tells me that I care, that I think this is important. So the real problem is in how you respond – instead of with paralysis & dread – you view the nerves and stress as a way to fuel your excitement and engagement… You don’t have control over feeling nervous and stress, but you do have control over how you respond.
Avoiding burnout is not about making stress go away. You are going to feel stress. Period. It’s how you respond to stress that counts the most. The real question is when your body tells you that you need to rest, you need a vacation, you need to rejuvenate… do you listen? Or do you just keep red-lining? How do you respond?
Know Your Why!
One of the easiest ways to make this shift in perception is to remind ourselves of why we do the work we do. I recently had the pleasure of attending lunch with a nationally respected author. I had just finished my book, Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership, and I met her at a cocktail party where authors gathered. She is a professor at an Ivy League university and closely connected to Washington politics, etc. She is an international traveler with homes in several countries and from my perspective, simply “way out of my league!” I was nervous to introduce myself and had only a few seconds to give her my card before she had to leave for another engagement. I took the risk of emailing her for a follow up meeting and she invited me to lunch. I was thrilled!
When the lunch finally happened, it did not go as I had envisioned. I wanted to share my book with her and possible build out my network. Instead she arrived looking tired, stressed and fed up. It turns out she had a few coffee meetings before lunch and in her words, “everyone wants something!” She then told me that it was more than that, she woke up that morning and realized that she was experiencing all of the classic signs of “burnout”. She was no longer passionate about her work, and she was tired of running, running, running.
It amazed me that someone I admired, who seemed to be “living the dream” could feel this way too. I understood in that moment, that no matter who we are, or how successful we may seem, stress and burnout can jump out and grab us when we least expect it.
Why does this happen?
In Evolutionaries, we talk about the concept of finding your “Why” in life and in work. The concept comes from a process developed by Simon Sinek called the Golden Circle, and it refers to knowing Why you do what you do.
It sounds incredibly simple, but in our experience, most people don’t know their “Why” in life. (Hint: It’s not just making money!) Once you know Why you are pursuing the dream you are pursuing – why you chose this goal, why you want to achieve it, and why it will matter on a larger scale to your family, your community, and your world, you are in a stronger position to fight burnout.
See the Bigger Picture
Once you know your Why, you can become truly Evolutionary – not just in your own business, but in your community and the world. This is your commitment to the “Big Picture” – and when the worst in life brings you down, it is this work – with social collectives that believe in the same cause – that can keep you afloat.
Social collectives are in the DNA of the human race. We are hardwired to seek a campfire – the people we want to affect, and who most affect us in return. Our civilization and our values are built on resilient and powerful social collectives.
When we leave this precious life, this is what will matter the most – how well did we foster our social collectives? What impact did we have in our communities of choice? How did we tie people together and build the bridges it takes to make our communities stronger? If we get to the end and we can say – I did that well – then we have probably had a very good life.
Look at the people around you. How will you better connect? How will you strengthen your social collective? What purpose will you bring? This is your life’s ultimate pursuit. It is the opposite of burnout. It’s your legacy.