The Breaking Out, then Breaking Down

Dan Harris, ABC correspondent, Nightline anchor, and Good Morning America co-anchor suffers a panic attack on National TV.

“Heard of him?” I asked my boss after a minute of small talk. “He said that his rising success did little to belay his feelings of self-doubt.  And, when things slowed down, his mind revolted.”  This is how I broke the news to my boss that I was burning out.

If I ever have a kid, I will teach them that growing older and growing up are two different things– that one can grow down as they grow older if they decide to stop growing. As you grow older, your ego asserts itself as a reductive, self-editing valve. There’s the threat of anarchy without the reign of the ego.  But, on the other side of the coin, there’s the threat of despotism where someone loses the most simple state of “I Am.” The inside voice that is the voice of the fattened ego shoves your true voice into shackles. You forget how to live in the present, how to experience awe, how to be joyful, how to listen to your inside world rather than your outside world, and all the other important things that make you jump out of bed in the morning.  You forget about the colors of foliage lining the highway corridors on your way to work, or the way the sun glints off that flake of snow, or the delicious way the leaves crunch under the soles of your boots.

Ross Finman (in “Am I the Dumb One?”) wonders if we “smart” ones are the dumb ones.  Specifically the smart “we’s” with drive. Not a work-hard-by-the-book type of drive but a work-is-play, Fridays-are-sad-days-and-Mondays-are-fun-days, down-the-rabbit-hole-we-go type of drive. But he also wonders: “Is pitting drive against happiness a false dichotomy?”

Like him, I have concluded that the dichotomy is artificial.  But, depending on how foolish we are with being smart, we can make those two things a dichotomy.  We of such hefty cerebral mass can be dumber than everyone else.  Here’s my personal story of how I dumbly forgot about where I was growing and ended up growing down.

2013 was coincidentally both my first year and my “breakout” year as a recruiter.  My bosses hadn’t planned it this way but the line of business for which I was responsible, without warning, exploded with demand.  I was faced with the task of covering requirements meant to be covered by a team– nay, a micro-army of workers.  The first day, the requirements exploded in my face, July 4th style, I freaked out and disappeared for two hours to a park with a then-boyfriend.  Made him sit on the swings with me to rock the tides of my anxiety to calmer heights.  When the emails started really piling, and my Starbucks latte grew cold, I went back to the office and got to work.  I was lucky in that way.  It was a sink or soar situation.  I mapped out the business I had to fill in all four quadrants of the United States. I still have that map plastered to my cubicle wall as a memorial of my high and fast times.

My friends knew better than to suggest Happy Hour before 8 pm with me.  My then-boyfriend accused me of having an affair with a co-worker given the fact I was in the office at all post-COB hours of the day. I, as my unapologetic self, wrote on my self-appraisal employee review: “The lion is most handsome when looking for food” – Jalal ad-Din and “You desperately want to win each battle but you never want the war to end” – Joshua Rothman.  I was hell-bent on world conquest in my field– a Genghis Khan aspirant. I could relate to what an adviser to Zhang Yitang (mathematician who cracked an 150 year old problem on prime numbers) termed him: “a burning bush, an explorer who wanted to reach the North Pole.”

I wrote an impassioned email to my CEO trilling my commitment to the game and imploring that: Sure, I was good at everything– in terms of this business cycle.  But, give me an assistant so she can take over the back-office, administrative work and let me devote all my time to the most lucrative part of the process– the business development and execution of deals– and I’ll deliver beyond what you dream in terms of bottom dollar.  Five minutes after I hit “sent,” he came out and high-fived me.  I found the perfect assistant two weeks later.  Even with my own assistant, I was drumming up so much business, we were both working over-time.  There were many a times I’d feel her sidelong pitiful look cast behind my shoulders as I told her to enjoy her weekend, and she, unable to help herself, would ask if she could take any work home.

Everyone in and out of the office kept warning me about an alien term called “burn out.” Not many people (other than entrepreneurs) understand that burn out has nothing to do with the number of hours you work. Fourteen work hours then felt far shorter than the eight hours I pull today.  I was in total flow, in mind, heart, and body. Whereas many people compartmentalize work as work, and life as life, home as home, and so forth, I had no such walls.  Every part of my life flowed seamlessly like one big current towards what I loved.

Within a few months, I had built, from scratch, a business Rolodex of loyal professional friends and clients in the thousands. I was bantering with and winning over C-Level executives, SMEs, and other nation-wide, household-name figures in specific industries. I  was trying to gulp down various superlatives and watching my money double, then triple, then quadruple.  Cinderella-story style.  The sheer scaling up of ‘have’s’ is a pretty formidable paradigm shift for anyone– much less a former public school teacher who had lived on Ramen, occasional dining ‘splurges’ (Chipotle), and her student’s smiles.   I wasn’t yet there where I could realize my dad’s pie-in-the-sky wish (that one of his kids gift him with a private Cessna jet), but I felt like I was somewhere there on the road to something Shazam!, something suckling-good in the “American dream” scheme of things.

Even in the beginning, I had a worry.  I knew myself–  the kind of stubborn perfectionist who could be welding her sword outward one moment, then seppuku style the next.  Big guts to guts spilling.  For all that I knew about the importance of self-awareness, I didn’t do anything to stop myself from getting buried in KPIs, other empirical figures, and an empire– way too far beneath raw, fertile soil. I found myself burrowing into the outward representations of concepts, and uprooting their ‘fathers.’

Then, It came.  Quiet, non-heady times where I was not a full-on Jihad style fighter. (Jihad meaning struggling and striving in an idyllic not  perverted sense of bloodied holy war).  The big battles and wars lost.  I was now, still, a skilled member of my trade.  A rare sniper who could slink into any field and steal some fat skins to the delight of my company but who was, at the end of the glorious day, without a big cause.  I needed a banner to feel great enough to be good.  Without an action-film type of speed, I stumbled.

Tobias Van Schneider wrote “The Cake is a Lie:”  There is no value in protecting a cake no one can eat.  Happiness will either result out of eating the cake, or cake but never by protecting.”  I had a cake I left on a stand, laurels I left resting, fat left congealing.

In the past month, I read about Mark Cuban, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, Jack Ma, Carl Icahn, Donald Trump, Richard Kirschenbaum, Jack Weltch, etc.  These were the legends of our times who were un-brazen and relentless enough in their search to dare and risk defeat, do crazy right things, (in Kurt Vonnegut’s words) “jump off cliffs and develop wings on the way down.”   These people felt both like brethren and aliens.  They were armed with their various strengths and faults– impassioned to the point of gross misunderstanding by the masses, flowing and loving into their points like a three year old with his questions and his coloring books.  They knew how to see treasure stories hidden in every day life, and how to drink from floods better than fortunes.  These were ‘mad men’ who danced their ways, without the backdrop of music, into thistles and puzzles that became gardens.

I’m not yet these legends who went hungry, bankrupt, and taken over.  People who know their ability for big wins can ‘suffer’ their big losses.  I’m not yet these people.

I am instead one who smacks her forehead in anguish when some intuitive friend asks: “So…how are you going to try to think less by thinking about thinking less without thinking more?”

I am one who no longer wakes up mid-night with an itch to rifle online through resumes, as if I was a captain looking for sea treasures. I do wake up mid-night to drink in a futile effort to go back to sleep. I know about frazzled hair, panic attacks, and humility more than I know about sleep and easy living.  This type of ‘am’ and unknowing aside, I still have my lessons  and something of a hunger left that I recognize:

“If you love doing something, do it, but don’t put conditions on it– don’t need it to love you back. Do it because it’s what you have to do.” – Ryan McDonough

Change before you have to. —Jack Welch, former CEO, General Electric

When you are doing work that you know is completely aligned with what you want, you are willing to do things that frighten you.

Martha Beck (life coach extraordinaire) affirms that your right path will always taste (smell, feel, sound) like freedom.

I logically reason that the more emotional and social path is better, but I emotionally feel my more logical and socially constraining path is what I would nudge them towards – Ross Finman

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.- Shakespeare

One of the biggest ironies here is that once I had achieved “critical mass”, I stopped focusing so much on making money … but once I stopped trying so hard to make money, I was able to make even more money.  Part of this is of course related to the idea that “it takes money to make money” but I think another big part of it is mentally unshackling yourself from making money so that you can focus on building actual real world value … and learning how to capture the vast majority of that value for yourself.

Creative Burnout by Ash Huang: how do you know when it’s over? You won’t spend time thinking about protecting what you have, but rather, creating the new

Loss is a scary thing. What is that loss that matters most, we might and should ask ourselves?  Is it the money, the shortfall of projected earnings?  Is it something more intrinsic (ego, life meaning, etc.)?  This may sound wildly preposterous but I do observe, for my role models, losing a good part or all of their fortunes was like losing a parking voucher.  Ramifications might have been bigger but I propose analogy because of the way in which they went on ahead.  They just went ahead like it was God’s gift to them in poignantly pointing out something weak and went about fixing it up.

Loss is a normal thing.  When you are a hamper-height babe, you are moving– totally mindless of the last moment in which you’ve fallen and picked yourself up.  From the stub of a fat knee to a push of an ankle, it’s all so much the same. It’s total idiocy to think of the experience in its parts rather than its whole.  You are an adorbs- little panda bear reeling back on long stilleto legs.

Loss is no monster.  Loss is a window.  I’m still struggling to eat that cake while breaking through all the saccharine layers back to the basics.  Still struggling where I don’t know if a year/years later from now, I’ll be a risen-again Dan Harris or a victim to my own choices.

If you are struggling, if you need a pep accountability talk…a walk through the technical know-how’s of whatever you are trying to achieve, consider reaching out to me.  Even if it’s ‘just’ the (first mentioned) pep talk because mindfulness is well over half the battle.  Let’s help each other.  Let’s share,  create value, scale in our risk uptake, mentor, live joyfully in the present, be uncomfortable, get bruises, break down and build up, be broke and better.   Let’s.


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