Beating Burnout

photo credit: dierk schaefer

I know I’m headed toward burnout when I start to consider a career change.  The most common fantasy is becoming a construction site stop/slow sign holder.

When I think about my awesome new job, I think about standing in the sunshine (but not the humidity), doing work that is not especially taxing, and at which I am very unlikely to fail.

In contrast, when I think about real job, I can only remember the suck–the writing that is falling flat, the grant that was rejected, the volunteers I’ve failed to inspire, the programs ideas going no where–failure in all directions.

Of course, these stories are all about the burnout state of mind and not about reality.  When I’m stuck in this place, I do not think about how fast the cars drive through construction sites, or the noise, or the fumes, or the rain, or about how difficult it would be to stand on the road all day, or any of the myriad of stresses that, as a person with no knowledge at all of the construction industry, I cannot even imagine.

I also fail to remember that I hate standing around with nothing to think about and that the challenge of solving difficult problems and making a visible impact on the world is a key element to my personal happiness.

What’s up with that?

Resetting your Brain

It’s hard to keep the great parts of your real job at the top of your mind and easy to imagine how happy you would be doing something else, primarily because of your point of view.  From the inside of an organization you see all the dirty laundry, know about all the plans that fell through, and are intimately aware of the spectacular failures that the public never sees.  Since you rarely see that side of other organizations, they seem totally put together and awesome, while you feel like you are teetering on the edge of total disaster.

To reset your view, remind yourself of how others see your work.

For arts people and other organizations that serve the general public, this is pretty easy.  Get out of your office and become a patron.  Spend some time in the petting zoo, catch the Wednesday matinee, tag-along on a museum tour.  Don’t check the crowd for donors, don’t count empty seats, don’t try to fix anything.  Just soak in the public experience of your work.  Then, when it’s done, go back to your office and see if you don’t feel a bit better.

The concept is similar for other nonprofit organizations–spend some time as close to the public value of your work as possible.  Swing a hammer.  Serve the soup.  Wash the birds.  Get onto the front lines and re-experience your connection to the work in a visceral way.

Why it works

As a leader in your organization, a big part of your calling is to fix what’s broken.  Success stories don’t require your attention, and so you let them go.  It’s a great time management technique, but it’s not so great for your motivation.  Judy Brown explains it another way:


She sells the perfect ones,

the cups and bowls without

a flaw, the ones that

with a potter’s eye and hand

she knows will likely

never chip nor break,

will stand the heat and cold,

weather a thousand washings

and remain as new

The seconds?

Those she keeps and uses,

lives with day to day.

Some have a flaw

that even I can see;

others look perfect

to my untrained eye,

but she’s aware

they won’t withstand

the challenge

of a stranger’s

daily use.

“Incomplete ideas” she calls

the ones she keeps

just for herself.

“Unfinished thoughts,”

The seconds, plates and bowls,

not flawed but incomplete.

Perhaps it’s true for

all of us who craft a thing,

who write a poem,

build a boat

shape an idea

or an enterprise.

The perfect ones,

the ones that work,

we sell or give away.

We move beyond them,

on to something new.

They pass out of our minds.

The yet unfinished thoughts,

ideas incomplete,

things that won’t work,

we look at every day.

We live more with the

flaws of craft

than with its perfect form

Perhaps that’s why

it’s difficult to see

the grace of our own artistry,

to bring to mind the gifts

we’ve shipped away from us,

to recollect the beauty of

a plate that someone

else can touch

from day to day,

while we ourselves

thrice daily

take our nourishment

from pieces that

we know are flawed.

Your Turn

What do you notice when you are headed toward burnout?  How do you get yourself back on track?


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*”Seconds” is reprinted here by permission.  The poem was originally published in The Leaders Guide to Reflective Practice. (not affiliate link)

5 thoughts on “Beating Burnout

  1. Hey, Maureen —

    Love the post and the poem! The signals of burnout (or overload) for me are a combination of slipping caliber of work and missed opportunities — those things lead to frustration that makes the grass look mighty green on the other side of the fence.

    But you’re right: every organization struggles and has its flaws. I like to say that the larger the organization, the bigger the cracks — it’s true. And so, when I take a moment to reflect on that, it brings some of the sanity back!


    • Thanks Anne! Great point about noticing what’s happening to your work. Missing those signs can accentuate the problem–being off one’s game makes it easier to believe you were never that effective anyway–so walking away is no big loss.

      The poem is one of my favorites–I had the pleasure of working with during my time with John McCann and the Institute for Cultural Policy and Practice. She’s quite amazing, and the rest of the book is also a treasure trove of useful thoughts for helping groups (and individuals) treat leadership as a reflection activity.

  2. Love the post, Maureen. Coincidentally spent a lot of time yesterday talking and posting about burnout and turnover — but from the nonprofit employer’s standpoint. Strikes me that you are essentially talking about reconnecting with WHY you do the work, which I agree is a very valuable — and powerful — to frequently remember and/or be reminded of. Wrote a post a while back very much along those lines — “The Power of Why” — that you might appreciate.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Joe, and for the link to the Power of Why. We are absolutely getting at the same point from different angles. If you manage staff, part of your responsibility is to help keep them connected to their own inner motivation. In smaller organizations, there is sometimes no one available to help make that connection, so it’s useful for nonprofit people at all levels of the organization to have tools at their disposal to help reconnect themselves.

      Either way, the “why” keeps the work engaging, rewarding and worth doing.

  3. Beautiful poem – thank you so much for posting it. She really gets to the heart of why we feel so un sometimes – un-worthy, un-competent, un-happy.

    I will remember her words for the next time I get in such a place. I’m not a non-profit person, as you know, but I am a crafter & an artist, so I know her feeling very well.

    You do indeed hang on to the seconds. Sometimes they can be reworked and eventually become firsts. Sometimes they remain forever-young, forever-unfinished. But the fact that they all stay longer lingers, and you do forget all the successes sometimes and only remember the flaws.

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