This Is What Burnout Looks Like
If there was one post I never wanted to write, it's this one. The title alone shows a level of weakness that took me over two years to recognize. But as I sit here and examine the last few chapters of my life, I know one thing for sure: this isn't about me. Whatever I could illustrate had nothing to do with me. It’s for the countless people who have asked me the same question for nearly five years and without knowing it, I was lying. It was the question everyone wanted to know. It was the question we ask when we want to know how we, too, can make something happen, whatever it may be. It was the question I genuinely tried to provide helpful insight on, without realizing I was being completely dishonest with myself. It was the simple question: how do you manage?
It’s taken me over two years, countless hours catching up on sleep, a couple of good cries, a bunch of life talks with my closest girlfriends, and more reorganization than one could ever imagine to answer the question truthfully. How did I manage to build Spire & Co, go to college, graduate debt-free, and still have some semblance of life outside the office or classroom?
The answer: I burnt myself to the ground. Then, I dug a hole and burnt myself out some more.
Before I go on, let’s get something straight. These last five years have been more than I could have ever imagined. If 17 year old me knew that she’d build a company in college, regardless of what it did to her physical state, she’d be totally thrilled. 23 year old me feels the same way. I’m not victimizing myself because, well, how can I play victim to myself? And I don’t feel like a victim. In fact, I would just have gone on with my life without writing this at all, but in all the content we’ve covered here on Spire & Co, we’ve never really touched burnout and if we’re going to talk about ambition, we need to cover its many faces. So in the spirit of this month’s power word, fearless, I’ll do the one thing I’m probably the worst at: admitting weakness.
The functional burnout method of living
I find working hard extremely attractive. I’m the daughter and descendant of miners, truck drivers, entrepreneurs, salesmen, and 16+ hour work day hustlers. Working crazy hard is quite literally in my DNA.
Unlike them, I often approach hard work like an absolute idiot. In high school, I operated under what is now fondly referred to as the functional burnout method. Essentially, I’d get between three and five hours of sleep nightly, cramming as much as humanly possible into my day, and I’d consciously work myself into the ground. Every three to five months, I’d get sick. Like, 24 hour, can’t get out of bed, body shuts down from pure exhaustion, kind of sick. It wasn’t cute, yet I didn’t mind. It was so routine I felt like I was in control of it.
My parents would frequently suggest that I “relax a little bit” or “take some time for me.” Any of the things supportive parents would say or do, my parents checked the box. There weren’t ridiculous sums of pressure. If I got a B, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. But in my mind, relaxing was for the weak. And that wasn’t me.
So I kept up that methodology in college. There were 24 hours in a day, so why couldn’t I make it all happen?
It wasn’t something I would recommend to anyone. In fact, I was amazed by those who had a good work ethic, completely blinded of my own. I never expected anyone around me, be it a friend, a Spire & Co teammate, or someone else in a group project for class, to operate the way I did. I thought I was the exception to the rule.
Every moment mattered
Plenty of people work hard and don’t burn out. Part of the problem for me was that there wasn't an off button. Not even for a second.
In order to get everything done, I capitalized on every single waking second of my day. Walking to class? I was either in a phone meeting or on my phone answering emails. Eating a meal in the university cafeteria? You bet I brought my laptop. Can’t sleep? Sounds like a good time to mentally plan our next conference. I’d even monitor my thinking space. If I wasn’t thinking about something constructive, I’d intentionally shift my headspace.
Again, plenty of people do this. I mean, there’s no way Beyoncé doesn’t have most of her days scheduled to the minute. I thought this was just part of the game I was playing. Everyone with passion used every second of their day, right? Probably, yes. The problem was, even when I intentionally took a break every so often, it was a break to create a vision board or further plan for something. It wasn’t a legitimate break. It was constructive, planned, and still check something off my to do list.
Powering through even the toughest of schedules is feasible when there is an end in sight. I didn’t have a finish line.
The accidental rebellion
Here’s the thing when you don’t have a finish line in mind: your body chooses it for you.
While building Spire & Co didn’t exactly leave room for the kind of raging you see in classic college movies, I wasn’t completely antisocial. But if I sat down at any form of social gathering, whether it was hanging out with friends, a party, or some kind of event on campus, I fell asleep. The amount of Facebook pictures I’m tagged in where I’m asleep must be a record. I probably should have been embarrassed by it, but people laughed, no one seemed offended, and, frankly, the power nap probably kept me going longer than I gave it credit for.
The longer college went on, the more frequently I randomly fell asleep. And before long, I was missing all of my alarm clocks. Considering I never needed more than one or two, the fact it required up to ten alarms before my eyes would actually open should have been concerning.
At the same time, I was becoming more forgetful. If something wasn’t written down, it wasn’t that it just slipped my mind. I completely erased it from my mind all together. I’d forget to write an article for Spire and wouldn’t realize for over a month. I'd forget club meetings and extra credit assignments. I’d forget birthdays, anniversaries, even holidays. I was forgetting what I had to do and how much time was passing. I would just brush it off and say it was because I had so much going on. No big deal.
I kept trudging along. Stopping was for the weak and I wouldn’t be weak.
Aside from being completely blinded of the fact that I was indeed burning out, I also didn’t notice the fog that was starting to exist around me. I would sit at my computer in a daze, unaware that I was starring off into the abyss. I would miss my subway stop or get completely turned around in parts of Manhattan that I knew like a throwback Taylor Swift song. I would think I sent a card when it was still sitting on my desk. I was turning into Dory from Finding Nemo.
I know what this looks like. I know this seems so obvious and I should have noticed that things in the health department weren’t so swell. I can without a doubt say that I had no idea that my mind and body were in cahoots with each other, in hopes of getting me out of my own way. Since I wasn’t listening, they kept rebelling.
The turning point
Just before our conference in July of 2015, I was at the peak of exhaustion. Waking up in the morning was harder than even the toughest SoulCycle class. Just getting through my inbox felt like a challenge worthy of that Ninja Warrior show. I was burnt to a crisp and everyone knew it but me.
I only remember bits and pieces of those three days, which is a shame considering those two conferences will forever be some of my favorite memories of what Spire & Co was while I was in college. The fog around me was taking over. One of the original staff members who had just graduated and moved into a corporate job in New York pulled me aside during the conference and said, “Everyone is having fun but you look like you are trying to have fun. That’s not like you. You love this.” And it was true. I adored this. I waited all year for this. And here I was, so exhausted I just had my eyes on getting through it.
Those three days were wonderful. They were filled with connection, insight, and gratitude. As I was saying the final thank you, I was completely overcome with gratitude. For the team that made it possible. For the people who attended. For the speakers and sponsors who said yes. But I was tired, really tired. I’m pretty sure I cried the last of the thank you list but my teammates so kindly saved me and joined me on stage.
After the conference, I vowed to make changes. I took more time to read. I went to bed at reasonable hours. I became a religious SoulCycle rider. Something about the Spire & Co rebrand transformed my priorities. I started to recognize that if I wanted this message to matter, I had to live what we preached, which meant putting myself before the brand and anything else that fell on my to do list. It helped that our full-time employee, Hannah, lived by that motto, keeping me accountable in the process.
The problem was, though, I still never took a second to recognize how much the burnout had put me in a hole. I didn’t take time to climb back out of it. I just tried to create a tunnel so I could keep walking forward. So the year continued, never once for a second taking into account the necessity to reflect and recalibrate. Until I graduated.
The next chapter, kind of
Graduation is one of those days you never forget. Fortunately, the fog had cleared from my mind and I was actually able to be fully present. A few days later, I moved up to Boston for my first three months as an actual full-time founder, before I would head back to my home in New York. I. Was. Pumped.
Then I got up there and I decided to take two days to get organized. Bad idea. Kind of.
It was quite possibly the first time in a few years where I fully took off work. I moved in, got organized, went to a Beyoncé concert, and slept. As I sat down to make my summer plans, it was the first time I remember feeling like all the chaos of the last four years had been lifted away. It was as if I had finally put on glasses after years of squinting to see a blurry image.
Here’s the problem, though: clarity can bring on its own insanity.
Years of rushing, mindful and mindless choices, expectations, and stress, all seemed to flush my system at the same time, like some kind of horrid food poisoning. Only that food poisoning lasted months.
What I learned is that when you truly burn yourself into the ground, it takes some time to climb back up. It’s not something you can iron out in a weekend. A trip to the spa won’t cure it. No single book will give you all the answers. You just have to dig in and embrace the discomfort. Embrace the fact that you do not have superpowers and if you want to be who you truly are at your core, you can’t burn away all of who you are until you are left with nothing other than a work ethic and a body.
Climbing out of the hole
I wish I could say that in the matter of a few weeks I figured it all out. That would be a lie. It took me the entirety of the summer to fully recognize that I had completely crashed. But it all led up to one phone call that put everything into perspective.
“Hi Dad, how are ya?”
“Well, I’m calling to tell you that I’m on my way to the hospital. Your mom was in a boating accident today. She’s in an ambulance right in front of me. They are transferring her to another hospital a few hours north of here.”
In the hours and days that followed, we learned just how serious this was. The fact that she was alive and that she would even walk again were apparently miracles. In all the fear of what was to come, I kept thinking about how so much of our time together the last few years, I hadn’t been completely present. My mind was always 15 different places. Why didn’t I soak up my time with her? Did I really need to work through that dinner? Why did I spend that night studying more when I knew the material?
It was the ultimate reminder that while hard work and going for what it is you desire matter, it isn’t everything. What you love to do shouldn’t trump who you love, including yourself.
When she started to thankfully recover, she said to me, “Of course I was going to be fine. I’m made of more strength than that.”
It’s true. We all are made of more strength than we know. What I learned, albeit the hard way, is that we have to honor that strength. We have to take advantage of it because we have something unique to offer, whether it’s an idea, an action, a talent, whatever. We also have to respect that strength. After my mom got out of the ICU, she vowed to make herself more of a priority. She now goes to yoga, which, if you knew her, you’d know is a very big deal.
We all have unfathomable levels of will. If we want something badly enough, we have the power to make it happen. The challenge with ambition, though, is we are told there are no limits to what we can do. And that is true. However, there are limits to what we can do in a given period of time. Part of respecting our inner strength is taking care of it. It is giving your body and your mind time to recharge, and doing so frequently. It is being present, rather than giving 20% to five things at once. It is taking the time to live rather than simply exist.
By the end of that year, I had said no to things the old, burnt out me would have killed me for. But that same employee, Hannah, who taught me how to prioritize myself and was now one of my best friends, told me, “Yeah, but Em, if you do this at the expense of yourself, the happily ever after won’t even be happy.”
That truly boiled down the lesson that took me over four years to learn. We focus so intensely on that happily ever after. That picture of what pure joy will look like. All we have to do is work as hard as humanly possible and it’ll be ours. In hindsight, though, the moments of bliss I felt these past few years were always in the moments of connection, when I was actually present. Whether it was standing in front of a room filled with young women I looked up to or a game changing conversation with a teammate or driving a small cruise ship in the New York Harbor (again, shout out to Hannah), the best times were the times when I was actually there.
“It’s time to exhale."
2016 was the year that knocked me down and reminded me of my humanity. My mom told me it was time to exhale. I guess I didn’t have much of a choice. Point blank, exhaling sucks. Intensity is more of my natural speed. But by the time my “exhaling period” was over, it was the new year. The aftermath of burnout, and all the stress, unreasonable guilt, and overthinking that came with it, seemed to float away with that final, necessary exhale.
2017 was like a big hug that also gave me back my sneakers. I could run again. Not like last time. Before, I could run in sprints. Now it feels like I can run marathons. And from what I’m learning, that is what it takes to make anything you want a reality. A sprint only gives you instant gratification, but it doesn’t last and it isn’t as worthwhile.
So from my experience digging myself into a hole, here’s my advice to you: don’t do it.
Sacrificing for something you want is inevitable, but you should never give up the essence of who you are in the process. Honor the privilege of the opportunity in front of you. Seize the chance to make it happen. Respect the natural boundaries that exist, like time. And most importantly, fight like hell for the “happily” in happily ever after, which means fighting for the joy along the road to the finish line. Don’t worry about the possibilities of not getting somewhere. If you truly want it and are willing to run the marathon towards it, it’s only a matter of time until you get there.
That’s my picture of burnout. This was written so you don’t have to dig yourself into that same hole. If you’re already there, don’t wait to start climbing out. The deeper it is, the harder the climb. Choose to rise up, climbing to a greater essence of yourself instead. Trust me, the air is a lot easier to breathe up there.