On my deep misinterpretation of mental toughness.
On the morning after my 28th birthday party, I woke up convinced I was going to die.
(Well — I know I’ll kick the bucket eventually. But as soon as I opened my eyes that April dawn, I was utterly convinced that “someday” was today.)
I reached up to my bedside table with trembling hands to check my phone. It was 5:30 AM.
I was covered in sweat. As I tried to take a deep breath, I felt my pores open again and icy perspiration drip further down my back. My stomach and chest were tightened to concrete with dread and I could barely breathe.
I was going to die today.
I looked over at partner next to me fast asleep. Should I wake him and tell him?
No. I’d sound ridiculous.
… But what if I died and I didn’t get a chance to warn him, or tell him how much I love him, or ask him if he thought I was completely out of my mind?
My eyes began to prickle with tears and I sat up, shoving my fingers through my damp, knotted hair.
I felt completely insane.
OK, let’s rewind the tape.
Why did I, a perfectly healthy woman in my late 20’s, believe I was going to die on a random Sunday afternoon?
The short story is:
Because I had a hair appointment that day to go platinum blonde, and my usual colorist had cancelled on me due to a family emergency the night before.
Pause for reaction.
Now I was going to make a drastic hair change with a colorist I didn’t know, which can be the kiss of death for a high-risk process like platinum bleaching (all my ladies if you feel me help me sing it out).
The stakes were even higher for this dye job, because I had a photoshoot the following weekend. If I didn’t like the hair, I was completely screwed and it would be immortalized forever.
This was wrong. All wrong.
Maybe this was a sign I wasn’t supposed to get my hair done after all.
Maybe my intuition was telling me this wasn’t meant to be.
Oh god what would happen if I went?
Oh my god wait: What if it’s a sign from the universe that if I go, I’m going to die today?
Intellectually, a small part of me knew a shift in my colorist’s schedule was hardly cause for me to shuffle off the mortal coil. (The tiny, sane voice in the back of my mind was faint, but present.)
Yet there I was, having the worst kind of spring awakening at 5:30 AM, stuck in an utterly out-there thought loop. And the more I thought about it, the quicker it began to take shape in my head.
One little shift in plans made me feel as if my life’s entire structure was going to crumble on top of and around me.
It didn’t make any sense, but it felt so true it was terrifying.
I got out of bed and stumbled out into the kitchen on shaking legs to grab some water for my sandpaper mouth and squinted out the window into the gray light of the early dawn, trying to slow my heart rate down.
I wiped my sweaty palms down the front of my pajama shirt once, twice, three times.
What I didn’t realize then?
My brain was telling me, in no uncertain terms, that I had hit a wall.
Crashed into it and flipped over the median, actually.
I was at the tail end of the most stressful few months of my career.
I was running not one but two beta rounds of my course, wrangling several client launches that had caught fire simultaneously, hitting the road to speak, trying to stay on top of an increasing flow of wonderful fellow writers and entrepreneurs in their earliest stages asking for my help, and desperately trying to somehow maintain my presence on my blog and in my inbox.
I was committing, following through, committing, and following through.
… And I was wearing myself down to cracks in the concrete.
Granted, I wasn’t always this way.
In middle and high school my teachers lamented I was “smart but lazy”. So when the real world loomed ahead of me, as I prepared to enter college, I decided: I would course correct.
And so I forced myself to learn… how to work.
How to “rise and grind”.
How to “hustle hard, and get my paper”.
Since then, I’ve prided myself in my ability to be tough, mentally and physically — which to me meant staying in the saddle even when I’m overloaded.
I’ve made the joke close to 100 times with clients in the past:
“Oh don’t worry!” I chuckle, when they’re wondering which PDF’s, articles, inspiration bits, surveys, and drafts to send over. “I’m difficult to overwhelm.”
It’s true. It’s what I do, and it’s part of who I am.
In my day-to-day, I’m as sensitive as the next human. Sometimes I worry whether you and your best friend like me. Sometimes before I go to sleep I get shaken awake by embarrassing moments that happened in middle school. I delete Facebook and Instagram posts because they feel stupid or I look fat. I cry during movies and TV shows.
But when I’m at my desk, doing my work? I’m titanium. A steamroller. The god damn Punisher, baby.
All I have to do is keep my eyes forward, put my blinders on, and march. I don’t bitch and moan, I (rarely) melt down, and I don’t take overwork personally. If I agree to something, I get it done.
How do you eat an elephant, they say? One bite at a time.
And boy, was I proud of it.
That’s the nuttiest thing about deteriorating mental health as an entrepreneur:
Burnout is hard to spot from afar because you feel you’re required to be blind to it.
We also don’t realize there’s a fine line between working hard and working ourselves into a delusional, exhausted mess.
The first person to point this out to me was my coach Erika.
We’d been on a call for about an hour and I was pacing the kitchen floor, rambling about my plan for 5 years ahead, and rattling off what I needed to get done, how, and why.
“Hillary — “ she said, interrupting me mid-thought.
“ — What?” My hands that had been excitedly gesticulating dropped to my sides.
“You have to take a breath and slow down. If you keep up like this you’re going to give yourself a stroke.”
It took me about 2 minutes to realize she wasn’t joking.
At the time, it made 0 sense. I was a card-carrying workhorse with workaholic tendencies — and I’d been historically rewarded for my relentless drive.
In college, my friends and I swapped stories of all-nighters and long hours spent at the library with tired pride.
As an intern or an agency newbie, working longer days and “going the extra mile” earned accolades and the possibility of promotions.
As a newbie freelancer, my ability to answer emails at 2 AM earned me a reputation as someone who “would do whatever it takes”.
As an entrepreneur my willingness to get shit done, no matter what the cost — including months of 14–16 hour days, and working 7 days a week — earned me my first 6-figures by 26.
My rep preceded me and I felt like finally, finally I was outstripping the “smart but lazy” label I’d been given, and becoming something else.
And yet, all the while, people telling me to slow down, to avoid burning out, and to take care of myself.
… And it was so deeply counter-intuitive to me it sounded like sabotage.
Of course I didn’t listen. Why would I have? Would you?
Whenever we’re hitting the gas hard, slamming the accelerator and shifting gears to reach our destination as the first, the fastest, or the most fabulous — everyone tells us there’s a wall ahead… But we can’t let ourselves slow down long enough to believe it.
All we can see is the stretch of horizon and the sky and the sunlight or star shine ahead, and our hands on the wheel.
The wall, if it’s even there, feels so far away — and you know what? If it finds us, we can probably blast right through it the way we do everything else. Duh.
Burnout? Sorry, no time for that, we’ve got too much shit to do.
(Sometimes shit handed to us by the same parties concerned about our health.)
Burnout is something that happens to other people. Other people who don’t have the kind of stamina and power that we have.
… And we are, of course, completely wrong.
And that’s why we find ourselves jolting awake, covered in sweat at 5 AM on a Sunday morning.
These moments are the signal flares of the terrifying truth that the idea of “mental toughness” does such an immaculate job of hiding:
That when that wall does find us and stop us in our tracks? No one can save us.
The crash is up to us alone to fix. Bystanders can give us wisdom and direction, but at the end of the day we must scrape our battered vessels off the ground to rebuild and start again.
That’s why we must stay ahead of it.
That’s why we must take it seriously.
That’s why we must learn to save ourselves.
So, on that sweaty gray Spring morning, I put my water cup in the sink with wobbling hands and made some notes.
I needed to get serious. I could no longer blast through tasks and to-do’s and grit my teeth until the finish line.
Because if I crashed? I wouldn’t just run a steamroller over my mental and physical health, I’d take a fair few teams with me in the process.
I made a few decisions:
I’d released 50% of my clients (with love).
(Of course a voice cried “What about the money?”, but I did the numbers and settled on a financial hit that would give the breathing room I needed.)
I took a long, hard look at the role I was playing on various teams, and what I really wanted.
I began to shape a vision of a future I wanted to create — though it would take time and patience, and a fair bit of cash.
I focused on intentionally crossing things off my list — the things I forced myself to do, like take certain calls, accept certain clients, even spend a certain amount of time in the gym, or make sure I did my own cooking a certain number of days each week — in order to free myself space to relax, to be calm, and to refresh.
I started to consciously put my phone away (a habit I’m reviving as of writing this post).
Now, things are better, though not quite solved. I’m learning to rethink, and reprioritize, every day.
I’m finding ways to reframe the constant urge to push harder, longer, and faster.
I still slip, of course. Years of mental training takes time to undo. I’ve worked myself into exhausted tears more than once on the road to doing what needs to be done. I’ve stressed myself into a sleepwalking session (a new, delightful trick my brain has up its sleeve). I’ve been pulled aside and given warnings not to throw myself at the end goal so hard, once, twice, three times at least.
But the difference now is: I give myself no choice but to heed and act on those warnings.
It’s not perfect, but I’m doing my best to do the work.
A yoga teacher once told me: A warrior is only as strong as she is able to relax.
I rolled my eyes at the time, but my god: she was right, and we owe it to ourselves to believe it.
We must find the space between ambition and obsession, and untangle ourselves from the idea that more, longer hours are the key to our power.
We must know that while we can do things, a constant desire to prove, to outstrip, to out work and outlast is neither sustainable nor beneficial.
We must listen; to ourselves, to those ahead of us, and to the warning signs our minds and bodies send us.
In a world and an industry obsessed with achievement, the ability to let go; to reshape and rethink, is perhaps the toughest mental skill to master.
But if we’re burned up and strung out? We give our fears room to take us over — and when that happens, we lose our ability to create, to serve, and to build, and we’d be forced to start all over again.
So my fellow workaholics, my strivers, my ambition-focused wonderhumans:
I see you shining baby. I see you lighting up the whole sky.
But take yourself seriously.
The wall, the risk, the stress, are real.
Listen. Get focused. When you feel yourself getting close to the edge, set yourself up to be your own rescue; even if it’s uncomfortable, even if it’s not sexy, even if it loses you a couple grand in the process.
You are going to make it either way, because that’s who you are.
And burning, burning bright won’t burn you out.