A few years ago, I was considering a crazy idea.
I was thinking about retirement.
I was in my late sixties, and things were going well. It was the right time for my team and myself to think about the future and what it was going to look like. As we talked, it seemed like the future was going to look like I wasn’t around.
I even went so far as to put a jar of marbles on my CEO’s desk—Mark Cole literally pulled out a marble every day to help him and the team keep count of the number of days I had left until retirement. I thought it was a brilliant idea.
Then, a friend of mine asked me one day, “John, do you still love what you do?”
“Of course,” I answered. “I would never do anything else.”
“Then why would you quit?” he asked. “Why not keep doing what you love?”
After some reflection and soul-searching, after discussions with Margaret and Mark and the rest of my team, I made the decision that I wasn’t going to retire. I was going to stay in the game—I was going to keep teaching and mentoring and adding value to people until the day I die. I had Mark dump out the jar of marbles and tell the team, “Let’s keep going.”
I told this story on stage a few months ago at Live2Lead, and I had a big jar of marbles with me. When I got to the part about dumping out the marbles, I literally turned the jar upside down and emptied hundreds of marbles onto the stage.
It was loud. It was messy. But it made my point.
I love what I do, and I love who I get to do it with, and those two factors more than anything else are how I stay energized for the work we do. We’re in more places now than ever before, chasing a bigger vision than ever before, and I wake up every day knowing that what we get to do together will transform the world.
But I’m increasingly aware of just how many people don’t wake up with that feeling. There are hundreds of thousands of people who wake up every morning feeling burnt out. And that number is only increasing.
In fact, the number of people experiencing burn-out is so significant that the World Health Organization released a statement earlier this year that “burn-out” is now an official medical diagnosis. Just this week, Harvard Business Review published an article citing six common causes of burn-out and how to avoid them.
I looked up the origin of the phrase burn-out and found that it has a few different definitions that all boil down to one commonality. Whether you’re talking about a fire that burns every available source of fuel, a rocket that runs out of propellant, or the breakdown of an electrical device because of too much current, burn-out happens when energy fails.
People world-wide are experiencing burn-out because they’re running out of energy for their work. While in some cases that’s a sign that people need to find a new job, I believe that in many cases it’s a sign that people need to find a new source of energy.
Or, perhaps more accurately, rediscover their energy.
I’ve taught for a long time that there are three places to find energy that are available to anyone:
- Purpose—this is your “why”, the reason you exist, that thing you were made to do. It’s the intersection of your imagination, joy and pain.
- Passion—this is your “what”, those strengths and skills that make you unique. Passion is fueled by purpose, but it is more than purpose; it’s the action you’re willing to take daily in order to bring that purpose to fruition.
- People—this is your “who”, the faces of people familiar and unmet, the men and women who will benefit from the work you do with your life. People are the reason behind your purpose and passion; they are the ends, and everything else is the means.
Burn-out isn’t to be taken lightly, but it’s also not a hopeless situation. If you feel like your fire is getting dim, taking time to fan the flame can go a long way to extending your work life. Find a book to rekindle your passion or attend a conference that can turn up the heat on your purpose. Spend time around people who remind you of the value you add to others.
We need leaders who can burn bright without burning out. Stoke the fires of passion, purpose and people, and wake up each day loving what we do and who we get to do it with.