It happened during a celebratory dinner at my last job at a Fortune 500 company. I had won an excellence award and the leadership team was going to hand it over to me that night. I had gotten up an hour earlier than the usual 6am. I was dressed up, the setting was beautiful, and I was surprised by a thoughtful speech about my achievements. I had to hold back my tears, but the speech was not the reason I felt like crying.
Reaching this big milestone in my career was the moment I realized that the success I was celebrated for was not giving me the fulfillment I had hoped.
I had been walking a path in my life without even thinking twice. I didn’t have to, it was automatic. I was living life on autopilot to the extent that I had forgotten where I was actually heading. The journey started to feel tiring and I didn’t even have a destination in sight that would make it worth it. I was constantly rushing. I was always out of time.
When I was diagnosed with burnout, I understood that I had also been hurting my health.
For 28 years, I have lived in the belief that success required sacrifice. So I sacrificed. On the outside it looked like I had it all, and that’s why I gave it all until it took all of me.
One month after the dinner, I got offered a promotion. The same day I quit my job.
I bought a one-way ticket to South East Asia. In the 1.5 years that followed, I took time to heal past wounds and set a new direction for the future.
Today I can write a love letter to my burnout for helping me redefine success. I learned that real success does not demand you to sacrifice your life. Here are 5 lessons that brought my life back on track.
1. “Being busy” is not a prerequisite for success
Today’s world praises busyness. But is “being busy” a good thing? People often say they can’t do things they want to because they’re “too busy”. I was one of them. I would even say it proudly because “being busy” sounded like I had serious stuff going on. When my busyness started to cause me anxiety, I realized that busyness does not reflect success. It was rather a sign that I didn’t have my priorities straight. Instead of of keeping yourself busy with countless things, focus on what moves the needle. Set priorities, not tasks. Most importantly, create time for the things and people you love because the moments you enjoy will be the ones you’ll remember. Time is the most precious asset you have in life. You can’t get back time once it passed. You can’t buy time. Let the time you spend today be a reflection of what is important to you.
2. Be successful for you, not for others
I learned this: You won’t feel successful in life when you’re a rock star at work but you’re unhappy in your relationships, feel stressed out most of the time, or don’t have a life outside the office. Although this sounds logic, do you have a good work-life-balance? Have you ever felt like you’re swimming with the current because that’s what was expected of you or seemed right? Ask yourself: Who do I want to be successful for? For others or for myself? If your answer is for yourself, then focus on being successful in all areas of your life that are important to you. Which part of your life needs more attention? For me, it were personal goals that I had been neglecting for too long. To feel successful without sacrificing means addressing all major components of life.
3. Failure is a sign of strength
What do you typically do when you feel like you failed in something? The wrong answer is to punish yourself by being extra harsh on yourself. When I was diagnosed with burnout and noticed that my anxiety didn’t fade after a couple of days and months, I felt like I let myself and everyone else down. I even felt embarrassed. Today, I have a different view. Having failed means that you tried something new and you’ve invested a lot of passion and energy into trying to succeed. You might have put a hundred percent into your career, cared deeply about a cause, or worked on keeping a relationship alive. Whatever it was, not everybody has this type of dedication and drive. Don’t forget to acknowledge your resilience.
4. Your gut is your guide
Be honest, how often do you listen to your gut feeling? Before my burnout, I had been having a bad feeling in my stomach for a while. I didn’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning. I was dreading Mondays, and I was picturing a life in the future rather than enjoying the Now. My burnout taught me that my gut is my most critical judge and my most accurate compass. Even at times when life seems to look great on the surface, your gut speaks to you and warns you when something is off. But your gut is also silent. It’s easy to ignore it. My burnout taught me to tap inside and really listen to where my intuition is guiding me.
5. Postponing life to later is the ultimate failure
Before I started my corporate career, I used to have big dreams. I dreamt about traveling the world, about running my own business, about doing something creative. When had I stopped dreaming? I couldn’t tell. I started fearing that I will never make a change. I was terrified to wake up one day and realize that I hadn’t done the things I had been always dreaming about. When you catch yourself sacrificing your dreams because you’re too busy or scared, ask yourself: What would your 80 years old self say about your excuses? My burnout was a shakeup moment. It made me rethink what was important and it confronted me with feelings of regret. Why postpone living a great life to a time that might never come instead of living it now?