Well-Being//

I Burned Out In My Twenties. Here’s How I’ve Learned to Work Smarter Ever Since

I was lucky to excel in my career early on, but I didn't realize how badly I needed to set boundaries with my work.

Alexmia/ Getty Images
Alexmia/ Getty Images

I’ve been a senior manager since the age of 19. I was thrown (willingly) into the deep end to sink or swim and I swam… and swam… and swam, equally thrilled and terrified. At 21 I achieved my goal of becoming a Marketing Manager, I managed a team of 12 and marketed events with speakers like Richard Branson, Tim Ferriss and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

During those years working 60-70 hour weeks (plus after-work drinks, of course) was the norm, but it rarely felt like work – I was buzzing. This is what passion is, I thought.

Fast forward a few years and I moved from Australia to London where I became the divisional marketing manager for one of the UK’s largest recruitment companies. Compared to the fast-paced entrepreneurial environment I was used to, this job, where I was encouraged to actually finish at 5:30 pm, felt horribly boring. Addicted to the energy, agility and optimism of the entrepreneurial world, this slower-pace felt more like a 9-to-five slog than the 8-to-8 days I was used to. My buzz fizzled out.

Not one to wallow, I jumped ship back to Australia, started a marketing agency and began hustling.  The buzz came back and I was loving it. Addicted to what I believed was passion, I worked, and worked, and worked and worked. A walk was a meeting opportunity, a drive a chance to catch up on calls, I worked from home, from cafes, from bed. This is what you do when you find your passion, right?

Clients were coming in faster than I could hire and train staff but I refused to say “no” to new business. Having heard of so many small businesses failing, the thought of refusing work seemed almost ungrateful. A year in though and I could feel myself changing. I was tense all the time and I sensed something deep within myself that I didn’t want to be alone with.

I had spent 7 years addicted to a buzz that kept me in a loop of endless work. Rather than work less, I applied band-aids; cut out coffee, maintained a clean diet, jogged most days, did 3-4 yoga sessions a week, had at least a few catch-ups with friends on weekends… and yet it all felt somehow fake. Like tick boxes. I was never actually present for any of it. It was like I was on autopilot doing all the things a well-rounded human should do and suppressing the urge to scream, or collapse, or both.

And then, one morning I simply couldn’t get out of bed. It was Glandular Fever and it hit me hard, I was basically bedridden for 3 months. One things for sure, it gave me time to think. I began to understand that the buzz I was so addicted to was not passion, but fear. Fear of failing, fear of not being successful, fear of not making something of my life, fear of royally fucking everything up. This fear had me in constant fight or flight mode, literally buzzing on adrenaline and cortisol. I was so narrowly focused on that single work-based passion that I had no energy to be passionate about anything else in life. I had become so consumed with what I was going to achieve and become that I had no appreciation for the present.

I’m now 28, I sold my marketing business and decided to study psychology, focusing on career and organizational psychology with the underlying question of how we can create work environments that foster a love of both life and work.

While I study I’m still working as a Marketing Manager. I thoroughly enjoy and get excited about study and work but neither of them consume my life and I rarely get stressed anymore. I’m not perfect, but I’m no longer trying to be. I haven’t yet achieved all my goals, but I’m setting myself more realistic time frames and realising that my biggest goal of all is to have fun in this life.

Becoming bedridden from glandular due to overwork was so embarrassing at the time. I felt like I was weak and couldn’t hack it. In hindsight, I wouldn’t take back a day of it. If it hadn’t been such a difficult experience I know my determination well enough to clearly see that I would have been back on the overwork train immediately. I needed the time it took me to heal, not only to physically get better but also to understand that I can still achieve my goals without sacrificing my wellbeing.

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