Unpacking the feeling of burnout

How the “talent curse” hinders personal growth and organizational diversity (and what to do about it)

Meet Michael González, a professor who has been recently appointed to a prestigious tenure-track position at the fictional institution of Pebble Creek University. Michael is not real, and neither is Pebble Creek University. But his story, ubiquitous and reoccurring in the academy and beyond, embodies what Jennifer and Gianpiero Petriglieri call the “talent curse.”

Like many freshly minted graduates, our character, Michael, strives for excellence and knows that advancing his career means making tough choices. Michael dedicates almost all his day to research, spending less of it on teaching and other extracurriculars from which he once found purpose and inspiration. He is often overcome with stress and lives in fear of the mind-numbing pressure to “publish or perish.” For these reasons, Michael feels dispirited, tired, and questions the worthiness of his achievements. But he continues to work around the clock, internalizing a set of self-expectations to perform, publish, and bring more attention to his ideas because, in Michael’s view, his research expertise makes up much of his identity.

One may ask, how many people like Michael are out there? According to Jennifer and Gianpiero Petriglieri from INSEAD, more so than we think. In their recent article in the Harvard Business Review, the authors describe this ubiquitous experience as “the talent curse,” the phenomena in which high potential individuals are identified as future talented leaders, therefore placed on the fast track. Over time, however, these individuals turn their talents into an identity and feel trapped by their own and others’ expectations, such that they must always deliver and perform. Rather than accelerating in growth, these individuals conform and suppress the idiosyncrasies that once made them stick out in the first place, hindering personal growth, engagement, and even risk taking.

But is the “talent curse” the same as burn out? The authors do not see it that way. The “talent curse,” which may be becoming a common trend across industries, embodies emotions that are more nuanced and go beyond simple feelings of exhaustion. In many ways, our talents have come to define us and our identities, rather than being a resource that we can choose — or not choose — to use at some point. As the authors write, “every opportunity becomes an obligation, and every challenge becomes a test.”

And it is not just young corporate leaders who are prone to the curse. For instance, consider the journey from graduate school to the PhD. In my own experience, personally and anecdotally, young graduate students begin with a charming naïve optimism and intellectual curiosity, insofar that they are willing to take on more risks, get lost in libraries while looking for serendipitous inspiration, and dedicate more time on side projects just for the sake of learning. As we end our studies, however, doctoral students begin to change. Many become preoccupied with image (Are my publications in top journals? Does my CV look good enough?). They shift from using their talents to constantly trying to prove them (How many times have people cited me?). And worse, some may feel that their present work is empty and only future opportunities will be meaningful (The grass must be greener on the other side!).

Of course, these emotional experiences are real and also incredibly dangerous at both the individual and organizational level, and not just for reasons of workplace attrition. Rather, ambitious workers become conformist followers instead of the talented leaders they were supposed to become. They fear showing their true colors and become complacent to push for changes they once believed in, thus co-creating uniformity rather than diversity of thought and practice. As a result, those organizations that do not tolerate plurality will start losing out, both on the war for talent and sustainable business practices.

So what should we do for ourselves and those under the “talent curse”? According to the authors, the first thing is to recognize that language is important. When praising our colleagues (and ourselves), we must celebrate each other for the things we do and the talents we have, rather than identifying ourselves as a talented person and making this a salient part of our identities. A corollary to this point, then, is that we must tolerate diversity of thought and practice, such that we must not forget to embrace our quirkiness and the idiosyncrasies that collectively make our organizations a rich and dynamic environment to work in. And lastly, we need to start looking out for our colleagues and be prepared to have interventions when the moment arises.

The crux of it all is that we must always be aware of how we relate to our talents. Every day, ask yourself: What is the source of my talent? And where does it come from? In doing so, we learn to separate ourselves and our identities with our talents, uncoupling them from something we own, to something we choose to use.

We know that success is the process during which we continuously improve, adapt, and evolve throughout our lives. Understanding our relationship with our talents is just one way we can achieve more.