My TEDxUTSC Talk

The Burnout Gamble

Earlier this year, I gave a talk at TEDxUTSC. Below is the manuscript. Thank you to TEDxUTSC for the opportunity to speak. This experience has compelled me to further examine my relationship with stress. I hope that my team will always hold me accountable to practice what I’ve preached.

Are you an overachiever?

If all you do is win, win, win, no matter what — and if you’ve got money (or some other benchmark of success) on your mind) and you can never get enough…and if for whatever reason, every time you step up in the building and everybody’s hands go up — please raise your hands (and make them stay there…make them stay there...and if you feel so inclined: up-down, up-down, up-down).

I appreciate you for putting up with that intro.

My name is Hamza, and I have some advice for all you overachievers in the audience:

Stop.

I mean it. I’m serious. Being an overachiever is overrated, it’s counterproductive. And if you haven’t already, you are going to hurt yourself in the process. I need you to trust me — I’m a recovering overachiever myself (I’m a full one year sober actually.)

There used to be a time in my life where I would enjoy the moniker of robot, of machine, of cyborg. When people would describe me as such, it was a badge of honour — it would make my circuits tingle. I was a human-doing [instead of a human-being]. I prided myself on sheer output; I would burn the midnight oil; I would burn the candles on both ends; I would fire on all cannons; I was on fire.

2014 was an exceptional year for me. That year, I accomplished more than I ever thought I could: I ran two simultaneous agencies, I wrote, I talked, I spoke. I did all of those things for a living, at the same time.

And that year, in the summer, I told myself that at the end of the year I would take an epic vacation. Because I needed it — I could see the signs, I could see the wear-and-tear. I said: I would go hard for the next six months, and in December, I would take off.

Now here’s the thing about being an overachiever…it doesn’t just stop [at] the professional — you overachieve even when it comes to leisure. Look at this ridiculous itinerary (I kid you not):

  1. Toronto to New York.
  2. New York to Milan.
  3. Milan to Prague.
  4. Prague to Amsterdam.
  5. Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

(I have the ticket stubs to prove it.)

My AirBnBs were booked. I had (at least) ten things I wanted to do in each city. I was going to jam-pack this trip with more things to do, and on top of that, I was somehow going to write a book called Getting More Things Done

I know, DJ Khaled. I know…

Now, [it’s] the middle of December. It’s time to go, my bags are packed. I’ve called everyone I needed to call. I’m ready to leave. And then this happens:

Cold Feet.

Suddenly my head, my heart, and my body, are completely out of sync.

I’m sitting there with my boarding pass printed in-hand, stuffing the last few things in my bags. And I look at the clock, and there’s two hours to go…

“I can still make it.”

I drag my feet, I’ve got one hour to go...

“Maybe if I hop in the cab and book, it I can still make it.”

Half-an-hour to go…

“Maybe Home Alone-style I [run] right to the terminal and grease the attendant and get in?”

It didn’t happen.

Five…

Four…

Three…

Two…

One…

I watched the clock count down, and that flight left.

I didn’t go on the trip. And I couldn’t for the life of me understand why. So for the next thirty days, I had to ask myself some really tough questions; I was mad; I was sad; I was resentful; I was confused; I was ashamed.

I felt this cocktail of emotions that I had never felt before

What happened? What the hell happened? Why did this happen? Is something wrong with me? How could I have prevented this? How didn’t I see this coming? Was this inevitable? Am I alone?

And so I spend the next thirty days doing some research while [recovering] at home. I looked up the term burnout. I’ve heard it used in different contexts, [but] I’ve never wrapped my head around what burnout actually meant. And then I discovered the 12 Stages of Burnout by Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North. And once it was visualized for me as such, it completely reframed how I saw myself in the context of my work, of my success, and ultimately, of my happiness.

It always starts off the same:

The compulsion to prove oneself (Stage One):

“Came up, that’s all me. No help, that’s all me. All me, for real.” — Drake

Me against the world; I’m going to hustle hard; I have so much to prove.

And that leads perfectly to working harder (Stage Two); the 9-to-5 becomes the 9-to-7 [which] becomes the 9-to-9. And before you know it, you’re neglecting all of your needs (Stage Three); your sleep, your food, your family, your friends — the things that are supposed to give you the energy to work hard, you are now sacrificing for short term gain. And this is where things start to get ugly. After this stage, you start to displace conflict (Stage Four):

“Hamza, we’ve got to talk right now.”
…Not right now, I’ve got too much on the go.
“Hamza, but we really, really need to talk.”
…I can’t. I can’t talk about this right now.

And then you start to revise your values (Stage Five), the things that are supposed to be the foundations of your person. The values, the attributes — the beliefs that you hold dear suddenly become malleable. You start off every day with a finite amount of willpower. And with every decision you make during that day, some of that willpower is eroded. This is a concept known as ego depletion; now imagine being in a state of ego depletion perpetually [that’s Stage Five for you]. And then you start to deny the problems that you’re having (Stage Six):

“Hamza, your work is suffering.”
“No it’s not! What are you talking about!?”
“Hamza, you’re not pulling your weight.”
“Yes I am!!”

People become antagonistic [towards] you. And then you begin to withdraw (Stage Seven). Naturally, you pull away from work; you pull away from your family; you pull away from your friends. And before you know it, a certain randomness starts to creep into your life (Stage Eight): you start drinking…you start smoking…[maybe you stop existing habits]. Things that you didn’t think you would do, you are certainly you starting to [do] now; you’re starting to do things that people are noticing as odd. And then, you begin to diminish and devalue people and the roles of people in your life (Stage Nine); your co-workers, your family, your friends, are [all] less than humans now — they are just these nagging voices in your life that you want to get away from.

Nobody’s good enough.

And then comes the inner emptiness (Stage Ten). Everybody’s got goals and their own definition(s) of success. For the most part, you’re able to visualize them. But when you’re in Stage Ten, your goals become obscure. You don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t know where you are; you begin to question everything. And then comes the depression (Stage Eleven). This is different than sadness — this is a deep, dark, pinging, throbbing, pain; a hollowness, an emptiness; a perpetual haze over your life. And before you know it, you’re burned out (Stage Twelve). Physically, mentally, and emotionally, you’re gone. It hurts, and it’s embarrassing. Especially, if you’re an overachiever like me.

Now here’s the thing — in seeing the visualization of The Twelve Stages of Burnout, I realized [that] this wasn’t my first rodeo. I’d been here before, in different degrees. I’d flirted with burnout at almost every professional milestone in my career. First as a student, right here [at UTSC]. Like a lot students in this room, I wasn’t satisfied simply with one student organization — I threw myself at ten; I didn’t just take four courses — I maxed out — I took seven, I took eight; I threw myself at my academics [and] at my extracurriculars; I tried to cram as many lifetimes as possible into a single lifespan. And I’m never going to be able to live down [this particular]…manifestation of burnout: it was two weeks before a major conference, and I was a Publications Manager. I was responsible for turning in print materials. And two weeks before [the deadline], I just wasn’t in the right headspace. I didn’t have the work done. I was too embarrassed to tell people about it. So what did I do? I pulled out [of the conference]. I let my team down. And I’ve never been able to reconcile with those negative feelings.

And it happened again as an intern: I was working at a record label, and I was so eager to please my boss that I would work fifteen hour workdays. And then after that, I would go help my boss at shows. [There was] one particular stretch of seventy-two hours where I might’ve slept three or four hours. I woke up at the end of this bender to the rapping of the door in the office bathroom. [Turns out] I [had] passed out in the office bathroom for eight hours.

It was deeply embarrassing, deeply shameful. It was just not me, not the brand of who I am [or was trying to be].

[But] it continued to happen. It happened to me as an employee, it happened to me as a founder; I was predisposed to burning out. Something had to change, and I needed to look at the root cause of my burnout.

And I discovered that I had a very unhealthy relationship with stress.

Now we’re going to define stress as the result produced when a structure, system, or organism is acted upon by forces that disrupt equilibrium or produce strain. I had an unhealthy relationship with stress. But I wasn’t alone:

We are arguably in The Golden Age of Stress.

This is possibly the most stressful we have ever been as a species.

In fact, 69% of employees reported that work was a significant source of stress for them. We all feel this relentless pressure to perform, and there’s multiple stressors that contribute to this feeling: the fear of job redundancy, layoffs due to an uncertain economy, increased demands for overtime, etc.

But it’s not just affecting us personally — it’s affecting the entire economy; we are losing $300 billion dollars [annually] in lost productivity caused by absenteeism, turnover and healthcare expenditures. This also includes death.

The Japanese call it “Karoshi,” the Chinese call it “Guolaosi.” These words literally mean “death by work.”

“Death By Work.”

Take that in.

Sixteen hundred people in China die every day from working too hard. I’m not talking about labouring in the fields, I’m not talking about working in a factory. I’m talking about sitting behind a desk, staring at a screen for upwards of ten, twelve, fifteen hours a day. Dying because of hemorrhage, internal failures, seizures…it’s brutal.

And the kicker? The most stressed [generation]?

Millennials.

A lot of you in the audience today.

…I had to dive even deeper. Why was I so predisposed to stress? Why was I so predisposed to burnout? Fifty percent of it was external — factors outside of my control: [being a] first generation student from a lower middle class family, and a racialized minority; my father wanted me to fit conveniently inside the career trinity [of] doctor, lawyer, engineer (you can imagine the dismay when I said I wanted to be a marketer.) My back was against the wall, and I had more to prove from the jump.

But then the other fifty percent was me indulging in these feelings. I begin to like being an overachiever. The dopamine release was intense. With every number I put on the board — with every achievement — I built a certain momentum. And I begin to relate to quotes like this, from Mr. Kobe Bryant:

“To think of me as a person that overachieve, that would mean a lot to me. That means I put a lot of work in (except in the last two years of my career) and squeezed every ounce of juice out of this orange that I could.”

And then I began to see it. I saw it clearly in December of 2014 while I was recovering from burnout:

I saw that every single day, for the last however many days I’d been working and studying, I was gambling. I was gambling with my health and my well-being. I wanted success, however I defined it.

Success requires effort. 
Effort induces stress .
And (unregulated) stress can lead to burnout.

Now some of the variables over here were never going to change: I still had a lot to accomplish, but maybe — just maybe — I could change my response to stress. And so I applied a risk assessment framework to this problem. Could I reduce the impact of stress, and could I reduce the probability of stress? And I looked at The Twelve Stages of Burnout again. Where did things start to get ugly for me?

Stage Four.

In fact, I was at my most productive when I was in the first two stages. And I could sustainably operate in them. Every now and then, I had to dip into Stage Three. But soon as I touched Stage Four, that’s when I went all the way down the dark road of burnout.

…Know this: you can avoid burnout. You can make the transition from overachiever to high performer, and have all of the benefits of being an overachiever (without all of the downside.) It’s going to require you to make the transition and develop a state of productive anxiety. Now, Special Cloth Alert: I’m going to give you some Major Keys. I’m going to give you some MAJOR KEYS. I’m not going to leave you hanging, I promise.

The first thing you need to do is to unlearn stress (Major Key #1) in its entirety and regain control of [your] situation. Unlearn stress, and consider this: the reason why you get out of bed every morning according to Thomas Hobbes is because the engine of the human [being] is appetite and aversion. We are drawn to things, and we are repelled from things. And what are we repelled from? Pain, hurt, stress, etc.

If I asked you: “Do you want to tomorrow to be a stressful day?” Everyone in here is going to say: “Hell no!” But according to Dr. Kelly McGonigal, author of the The Upside Of Stress, there’s two type of stress:

  1. Good Stress.
  2. Bad Stress.

In fact, simply reframing a stressful situation as one in which you are experiencing good stress is enough to change your mood, your opinion, and your attitude in that moment.

Instead of looking at stress as what we defined it as above, maybe it’s time to look at stress as this: a measurement of how engaged you are with the things that bring love and growth into your life.

Another One (Major Key #2): become a high performer and reduce the probability of stressful situations in your life. Now, some stress is inevitable. Maybe you can call it good stress. Maybe some of it is bad. But overall, you can reduce the probability of it happening.

If you’re not familiar with the Icarus myth let me give you the Spark Notes version:

Daedalus and his son Icarus are trapped on the island of Crete. Now, in order to escape (as they are surrounded by water) Daedalus builds two contraptions: two sets of wings made of wood, wax, and feathers. They fly out, and Daedalus tells Icarus, “Don’t fly too low, because if you get close enough to the ocean, the foam and the mist is going to make your wings soggy. And you’ll sink to your death. At the same time, don’t fly too high, because what’s going to happen is that the wings are going to burn. They will melt, fall off, and you will die” So they begin to fly. They find a nice altitude. And what does Icarus do? He gets confident, he gets cocky, and he flies too high. The wings melt, and he plummets to his death. Daedalus, on the other hand, makes it all the way.

Like Daedalus, I want you to find a new altitude. Find that perfect place, find that sweet spot of productive anxiety.

For me, it was the first three stages. But for you, it could be different. Whatever it is, it’s going to keep you in perpetual productivity with [just] a little bit of anxiety.

Another One (Major Key #3): Reduce the impact of stress. A year and half ago, a couple of friends and I got together and we wrote a blog. We produced a blog called Year One. And what we did, is we reverse-engineered the careers of 175 people who we deemed to be extremely successful: athletes, politicians, artists, activists, you name it. And we distilled their careers down to a very early point in their lives, to hone in on one particular attribute — something that geared them toward lasting success. And overwhelmingly, we found that one value [above all else] gave the most guarantee of lasting success: resilience.

Resilience is your ability to adapt to stress. Now, how do you develop resilience? The Greeks had a solution for this as well:

Hormesis.

Hormesis describes the process by which you consume a small amount of poison that’s otherwise lethal for you (it could kill you in a full dose). But it’s administered in small doses. And doing so actually builds up your tolerance to that very toxin. How do you manifest this now as a human being? Instead of running, dashing, flying, and bounding towards [the edge of] your comfort zone and outside of it, you take baby steps. Do one thing every day that scares you. Step outside of your comfort zone gradually. Because burnout occurs when you are continuously beyond your comfort zone. That’s a high risk activity. When you’re an overachiever, you’re always engaging in high risk activity, and there’s diminishing returns. What you really want to do is remain slightly uncomfortable all the time and thereby [ground] your risk factor.

Initially, you’ll have moderate risk because you’ve diminished and reduced the probability and the impact of stress. Over time, as you build up more resilience — as you continue to relearn stress [and] continue to make that transition from overachiever to high performer, you’ll gradually move back to a place where eventually…stress in your life is rare and trivial.

Now, this is the [revised] trip I’m taking. One leg short. I told myself: let’s take it easy; let’s not go as hard on myself as we did last time. Not a lot planned, to be honest. I’m still going to be doing some of the things I wanted to do in the previous trip, but for the most part I’m going to relax. I’m going to recharge. I’m going to restore. Because I’ve made the transition from human-doing back to human-being. And that came from my rethinking of, at a very comprehensive level, burnout.

Burnout.

Just look at that word. Take that in…burnout.

It’s not the fire that’s the problem, it’s the absence of the fire.

The fire. The symbol — the metaphor for passion, for desire, for action, for activity, for movement, for fuel…

Once that’s extinguished, that’s the real problem.

So if you’re going to take anything away from this, it’s simply:

Burn Bright, Not Out.

Thank you for taking the time to read/watch my TEDxUTSC talk. If you think this is an idea worth sharing, I’d appreciate it if you could throw me a like. Or better yet, pass this along to someone you know who could benefit from this message. Let me know what you think in the comments, or by dropping me a line at hamza@hamzakhan.ca