Sometimes it takes a death to remind you the value of life. I received this reminder when I received several messages to tell me the CEO I used to work for had taken his life at 59 years old. The last time I had seen him was in a coffee shop where we had chatted about the changing neighborhood and the noise from the upcoming techno festival that day we were both trying to escape. Everybody who knew him was shocked because he was a very kind, caring individual. He’d been the CEO of one of the worlds 10 largest insurance companies and after entering tough financial times and its first quarterly loss in many years combined with a failed take over attempt led to him being dismissed without even a replacement being named.
During the years I worked on a variety of corporate communications projects for him I saw he was always interested in the average person being one himself at heart. The joke in the office was his secretary was better off than he was: he would drive to work in a 10-year-old Volkswagen Jetta while she would arrive in a brand-new Range Rover. The CEO apparently gave into the pressure, mostly from falling from grace in a very closed society in Switzerland where failure is taken very seriously and after Japan and Korea has the largest number of executive suicides.
I’ve worked in corporate roles at the headquarters of major industries ranging from financial services to chemicals to high-tech to pharmaceuticals and everywhere I’ve seen the same phenomena no matter what the company or how good the culture is they believe in. It’s called stress. People competing against each other for the top bonus and to be sure they score enough points not to be considered in the next round of layoffs in an ever more unsecure world. And of course layoffs mean fewer employees doing more work. And at the top level the bigger they are the harder they fall — so how do you survive in this jungle?
Some of the tricks I’ve learned to keep myself from burning out are the standard tools most therapists advise like having a good diet, getting plenty of sleep, exercising and most importantly having the right attitude. I was a lucky survivor and the key was being able to maintain a positive focus — what I called the Big Picture. Seeing beyond the 9-to-5 existence because the 5 to 9 existence is what mattered more. Having a real life in a world where financial security is an ever-increasing pressure as uncertainty looks at us from every corner.
And I’m happy to report that having lived the corporate high life and the starving artist lowlife there is a point in the midst of both extremes where a place of tranquility and equilibrium exists. I know this to be true because it’s gotten me through all those years of a corporate existence to the other side where now I engage that world on my own terms. I was lucky not to burn out and I learned how to follow my bliss as the saying goes — keeping focused on what is important. Some of those simple things like family, friends and enjoying life that we forget when we get on that treadmill of existence, worried about our future, regretting our past and forgetting that the best times of our lives are the ones we’re living now. And if you do put some wrong words in an email you will in fact live to see the next day. It helps to be able to step back and see that the stress you experience is largely the stress you yourself create. And if you are indeed in a situation where pressure comes from all sides then you must look for the center of the cyclone. That still point in the midst of this whirling storm called life so that you can maintain your personal peace and end up blissed out and not burned out.