When I was 29 years old, I thought I had successfully ticked many boxes of things I wanted to achieve in life. I married the love of my life, became an accomplished pianist, had built and helped others to build several companies and realized my dream of living on an island in a house next to the beach with a view of the ocean.
Yes, happy. But everything comes at a price. The triple and sometimes quadruple responsibilities of the different ventures I was involved in, the wide variety of people and cultures I was dealing with and my own personal ambitions certainly took a toll on my work-life balance at the time.
Without learning meditation and practising diligently, I have no clue how I could have managed this phase of my life otherwise. There was a period in which I literally wouldn’t sleep. I’d meditate for 1 hour, then work for 7 hours, then again meditate for 1 hour and work for 7 hours, and finally meditate for 1 hour and work for 7 hours. Mathematically speaking, this is the maximum I could fit into a 24 hours period (3×8 hours, with 8 hours split into 1+7). It went on for several weeks and I’ve documented this experience with a couple of friends at the time.
Despite managing this challenge successfully from a workload view, the whole episode eventually burnt me out. At the time, I didn’t really know what a burnout is, how it would feel like, what the comparison to a depression was and so on. I just noticed that my interest in starting further ventures or even continuing the existing ones and pushing them further, was gradually reduced.
On reflection, there isn’t that one specific reason I could pinpoint it to, but multiple ones. First of all, when you meditate for 3 hours a day (even if it’s split into 3 different one hour sessions), and you don’t sleep during those phases, your consciousness, and with it your interests and priorities, shift. A natural (almost healthy) “lack of interest” in the more worldly things develops.
The lack of sleep (or richness of deep calmness rather) also meant that I wasn’t experiencing this natural and small form of “death” which occurs every time we go to sleep and wake up in the morning. Good or bad, most people have experienced this to some degree, for instance:
Being angry at somebody in the evening doesn’t mean you’re angry at the same person in the morning and the elevated feeling of a wonderful realization in the evening may not last into the morning hours either. You could be waking up with a headache or in a bad mood, nonetheless.
So if the lack of interest, brought about by a constant form of happiness didn’t cause my burnout, what did?
Analyzing this period now, I realize that at the time I stopped two things I usually enjoy doing: playing the piano and cooking. Both are creative works and in retrospective I should have noticed: once I let those slip, something is wrong.
In fact, the sheer volume and diversity of the work I was doing required so much of my creative energy, that it took up this reservoir completely. Despite not having any physical ailments, my mental capacity to create something became incapacitated and I eventually had to take time out to rebuild that. So while creation in itself may be unlimited, your individual creativity – depending on the creative energy you’ve got available at the time – isn’t.
Without meditation, this “work-overload” could have certainly had much more physical consequences and after what others have shared with me in the meantime, I’d still consider this a minor burnout comparatively. But I can completely understand that people who experience a burnout , can easily slip into possibly longer depressive phases afterwards. In fact, there is a clear link between burnout and depression.
What can be done?
First of all – entrepreneurial life shouldn’t be this way. And yet, to many, it is. I was one of them, but today I’m changing my perception. It may be hard to see the first burnout or depression coming. But, when analyzing one’s self afterwards, we can make out some symptoms that act like signposts for us to be aware of – like in my case the depletion of creative energy in relation to a huge workload and no sleep – or in a more general way: lack of interest.
It’s important to learn about the root causes of those things that affect us beyond our control, before they come back to haunt us. Especially with subjects like depression or burnout, that are often not easily understood and publicly hard to talk about.
To me, a better effort is needed to coordinate and share experiences and observations that people have made and recipes they’ve come up with in those phases so that these could be reduced to a bare minimum. Even better: one burnout should be more than enough in one lifetime.
I’d be very interested in your own experiences, especially the triggers you’ve come across which can cause burnout or depression, the signposts that accompany them and the recipes used to overcome such phases in life. And as prevention is better than cure: what do you do to avoid burning out in future, to manage the triggers and not meet the signposts? Is it possible?