The only reason I didn’t burn out while starting and building my first startup is that I had already done so before. My prior burnout experience was so unpleasant, with so much collateral damage, that I had been forewarned.
This was back in 2012, and I felt like a black cloud had swallowed me up whole; everything in my path — past, present, and future — looked dark. Occasionally, after a good night of sleep, I would gain an instant of awareness that I should feel grateful for having a job, and children, and such an abundant life to make me feel this bone tired, but a more permanent shift to that positivity felt unfathomable.
It turned out my gallbladder was also full of stones, but that was the symptom, not the true disease. As I began to recover from surgery, the harder work was ahead. I tried everything one who wants to get better can try: a lot of doctor’s appointments, massage, acupuncture, yoga, hot yoga, Reiki, supplements, and therapy. One doctor suggested magnesium. Another, progesterone. Another, a high-protein diet. Another, a fat-free, meat-free diet. Another recommended I take “a dusting of an antidepressant to get through this rough patch,” diagnosing what I had as an “adjustment disorder.”
And then one day, as I was getting tired of visiting more and more people while carrying an imaginary cardboard sign saying “YOU help ME,” I finally understood my disease. My disease was ME. Somehow, somewhere, I had become a workaholic and a perfectionist. Somehow, I had stopped caring for myself. Somehow, I had become maladjusted in my own life. The only one who could fix this mess was me.
To deal with this maladjustment, two logical options remained:
- Transform my life, or…
- Accept what was in it.
In 2014, I chose both: a lot of transformation, and a lot of acceptance.
It’s sometimes easier to make changes than to adjust to reality, and so I changed jobs and moved houses. Our kids moved schools; we secured more reliable childcare. I changed the way we spent our weekends, and instead of running around all day, I began making time for a nap.
I spent more time going inward, finding wounds I didn’t even know were inside me. I discovered I’ve been feeling “not enough” ever since I’d been questioned about why I got a 98 on a test when 100 was clearly the perfect grade. I discovered resentment over my tiny ears being pierced as an infant with- out my express consent. I discovered old regrets over unsaid goodbyes when I left Uruguay at age sixteen, and that two decades later, I still struggled with not being given a choice about immigration, not knowing where I belong or where to call home, and not being capable of feeling abundance.
I call this totality of issues to deal with my “pain soup.” My pain soup, which had been simmering for decades, with life adding ingredients here and there, was now bubbling and boiling with such force that it wasn’t burning only me but others as well.
Albeit painful, this inner journey was also fruitful. Once I could face these painful emotions and feel them, I began to connect to me, the real me, to figure out purpose and value in my life. Finding meaning in the pain meant finding peace. My purpose in life was to blaze trails and stitch a safety net for our family. My purpose in life was to work, to learn, and to teach. My purpose was to create a company that had an impact on real people and employed others, and to do so on my own terms without following formulas that were not designed for me. My purpose in life was to mother two children with unconditional love, to learn from my relationship with my husband, and to offer my life learnings to those who can use them. My purpose in life was to create from pain, create in pain—waiting for it to pass might take a lifetime.
In 2015, when the opportunity to start a company came, I took it, and I made myself a promise: I would work hard, of course, but I would not burn out ever again in my life. I had already found my human limit.
I went on to start and build. The days were busy, my brain was filling up fast, and my shoulders and jaw were beginning to lock up. It didn’t take long for me to flirt with burnout: just one more client meeting, one more review of the patent filing, one more look at résumés. I remembered that the previous burnout experience had taken years to recover from. And so, instead, I choose to nap, or journal, or meet a friend, or meditate. I chose to take care of myself — day after day — and in this way I was better able to create a company that grew and made an impact, and which in 2018 was acquired by a large healthcare conglomerate. I didn’t burn out, and my startup still went “up and to the right.”
Looking back now, I see that creating something from nothing is a very difficult task. The way to make this task even more difficult is to face it with unmet basic needs and a boiling pain soup. The way to rise to the challenge to build a company is to protect my vessel for creation – to rest it, care for it, love it – so I can be at my best when I show up to create something that makes an impact.
This article is adapted from the book, New Startup Mindset: Ten Mindset Shift to Build the Company of Your Dreams.