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Creative change-makers: 6 ways to prevent burn-out

How to thrive, sustainably, when creativity and purpose are on the driving seat.

When you believe you can make a real, positive change in the world, you just keep going, put yourself last and head where your purpose leads you at full speed and gusto. Going out of fuel is rarely, if ever, on your mind.

It was not on my mind, when I was driving one day, my pregnant wife sitting beside me. Our 18-month old child was in the back seat. Out of nowhere, I felt a sharp, stabbing pain on the left side of my head. My vision became blurred and my speech stopped making any sense. I stopped the car and noticed I had no strength on the left-hand side of my body. I was limping.

I had just had a stroke. And I was 23 years old.

Are ideas working for you? Or are you a slave to your creativity?

This is a question I failed to ask myself for most of my life. When I got my first job at a stationery shop, aged 17, the first thing I noticed was that the very small book section was selling more than any other.

The shop, I thought, would do much better to sell books, rather than postcards and prints. And so, though I as just a regular worker (granted, my girlfriend was the daughter of the owners), over the next few months I developed a whole business plan to relaunch the business as a bookshop. Eventually it was approved. I designed a new logo; created an online shop from scratch (this was well before the age of Shopify, back in 2003-2004); reached out to suppliers; co-designed the furniture we would need; got it made to measure and came up with a new shop window display, shop floor layout, etc.

As a student worker, this was a gamble and it would probably have been much more comfortable to stay put, collect my salary and most importantly not risk ruining my future parents-in-law’s business – not having any experience of running any business myself! Yet, for me, ‘having a good time’ meant solving a problem that as staring me in the face. In this case it was redesigning a business. And I thought this was what being in a job was all about.

There are limits & there are boundaries

For creative problem solvers, limits are not impediments. They are milestones. For me, it was always a question of ‘how’, not ‘if’. This mindset, however, also meant I was never good at being mindful of my personal limits.

I never realised that I could go out of steam from being involved in three full-time projects that were equally fulfilling. I was also not effective at setting boundaries with clients or bosses. Saying ‘no’ was not in my vocabulary. What’s worse, using my creativity and seeing my impact was often a sufficient payment. This was often taken advantage of, without my being aware.

“For creative problem solvers, limits are not impediments. They are milestones.”

My stroke, back in 2008, was my first serious warning that I might not have been as invincible as I had thought.

Recovery took me many months off work.

As I felt better, I eventually started by ‘taking it slow’. For me, this meant ‘just’ setting up yet another business. And becoming more involved in a think-tank that I had co-founded. And soon, people came to me with proposals for political advisory work – which of course I said ‘yes’ to — it was a great candidate who had to be supported, I thought. And I decided to embark on ‘simple’ social impact projects, like leading an initiative to re-write my country’s constitution, Wikipedia-style.

In hindsight, I realised how disconnected from my body I had to be, to ignore a call for help as loud as a stroke and then simply go back to an even more demanding schedule!

Despite all this, did I crash immediately? No. Did I think I could pull all this off? Yes! That I was nearly invincible? Just about. I definitely thought that my causes, my purpose, was a never-ending source of fuel.

I did manage to keep it together, or so it looked, for another 10 years.

But in the end, when I did eventually collapse, I burnt out completely, into a state of permanent exhaustion, depression and chronic inflammation.

Recovery, this time, would take almost 2 years. My life, as it had been so far, had come to an end.

‘Dancing on the edge of burn-out’ is not really dancing.

Recently I read a beautiful statement from someone on Linkedin. She wrote that she ‘had been dancing on the edge of burnout’ for many years. There is such truth to this phrase: sensitive, creative, problem-solving people are indeed in a dancing-state-of-mind, enjoying ourselves at the edge of the abyss, but totally content in feeling that we are, at least in part, fulfilling our purpose, making a difference – changing the world.

Strangely for me, mindlessly pursuing my purpose resulted in burn-out. My life did not lose meaning completely, though. Recovering through a deep reset actually led me to a whole new level of purpose. Coming out of burn-out has given me the ability to gain self-awareness, perspective, develop my studies, reflect and develop a method where I can lead a balanced, mission-driven life, where the more I work, the more replenished I feel.

My creativity has become sustainable and my blissful states – that is, when I feel like I’m dancing – happen when I’m helping others find their way towards deep inner and outer well-being. I can see now how that was the problem I had always been trying to fix.

What I would have told my pre-burn-out Self

So, can too much creativity burn you out? If, like me, the pursuit is mindless (as opposed to mindful) and unsustainable, then this can and will most surely happen.

The question is: are we staying mindful of what truly matters to us? That purpose we so yearn to pursue? And will we be able to take this vision to its full potential if we are out of fuel, running on fumes, going out of steam?…

You have chosen to dedicate your life to solve society’s bigger problems. That is who you are. Though you don’t feel you have a choice but to act on this calling, you know this is a noble life you are leading. But consider if you are underestimating the power of resolving your own issues too.

You may be working towards a sustainable planet. But are you sustainble?

In hindsight, what I would have told my pre-burn-out Self is actually very simple:

  1. Stay curious about what foods work for you and which ones take away your power — I’m not talking stimulants, I’m talking deep nourishment.
  2. Practice the kind of lifestyle (sleep, social life, self-care, etc) that feeds your passion.
  3. Identify which mindset makes you spring out of bed in the morning. Do everything you can to cultivate it.
  4. Identify the toxic elements (food, thoughts, relationships) in your life. Make sure you are being able to process them and get them out of your system – not stored away as fat, pain or frustration.
  5. Each day, do more of what’s positive to you than what’s negative to you. This is your basic recipe to avoid a daily burn-out, and therefore a more permanent one too.
  6. Exercise restraint: stop working when you still have energy to spare. Eat until you are 70% full. It may be counterintuitive for us creative, all-out types, but try it, with a discovery mindset, and see how this works for you.

Remember that by making yourself strong, powerful and sustainable, you will also help others with a stronger, more powerful and durable impact.

If you want to positively influence others, consider how your personal choices towards self-care can perhaps be your greatest contribution to solve society’s problems: by making yourself fully up to the challenge.

First published here.

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