What to do When You Feel Burned Out.

Last May, a photocopier and the smell of popcorn prompted a conversation that changed the rest of my year.

I was planning camp for 2018 at the Mission. This is the hidden side of summer camp. It involves emails and PowerPoint and thinking up new strategies based on what didn’t work last year. One day, as I was walking down the hall to pick up something I had sent to the photocopier, I smelled popcorn.

I don’t even like popcorn, but my curiosity propelled me to find the source of the smell. Around the corner, in the common area, a woman from the Mission stood by the microwave as kernels burst inside. She noticed me enter the room, and I said hello.

Do you ever stumble upon conversations that make you feel suddenly aware that you must pay attention? That was my experience speaking to this woman. Her words were substantial and caring. What surprised me, though, was a warning that no one has ever given me before.

She told me to avoid selfish ambition.

At first I was confused by this advice. I think the word “selfish” threw me off. It is icky and jagged and not a word I like to associate with myself. Plus, what does selfish ambition even mean? I accepted those words with some skepticism, nodding along as I listened.

Later, though, back at my little desk,  I wrote down the words selfish ambition in my notebook, tracing over them in black ink until they were thick and scribbled. They felt important, even though I had no idea why.

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Normally my September is a new beginning. It marks a new year of school, a new season, and is a major transition point that forces me to shift my mindset. When September arrives, I usually cram my life with new goals and plans and activities, academic or otherwise.

This September, though, all I wanted was a break. My spirit needed some rest and quiet. My family spent a week at the edge of a lake in Northern Ontario and the gaping space in the noise and my schedule felt like water for the dehydrated. My weariness didn’t have to do with camp. I’ve done that for years and, even though it is tiring, it is always a good kind of tired. This felt different. It went deeper into my heart. I wasn’t excited for the semester ahead. I was dreading school and the work rising to meet me. This feeling has been increasing for years, I think, semester by semester.

My external and internal self were getting out of sync.

I was burning out.

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What do you do when you are spiritually and emotionally wrung out? How do you proceed when the sparkle of a new season is replaced with dread?

As I wrestled with these questions last September, I remembered that conversation I had with the woman making popcorn. Selfish ambition. The words circled back to me, and I suddenly realized that every September, my priority is to chase goals that will push me ahead. Me.

The burnout was coming from a completely skewed set of priorities. 

I’m in my early 20’s and, honestly, growing up in a culture that glorifies hustle and startups and being part of every extra-curricular activity to bulk up your CV is a very real pressure. Success is the altar so many sacrifice themselves on. And for who?

This is the question I wrestled with. Who was I actually working for? I think that sometimes we get caught up in working for this elusive and imaginary group of people who judge us- you’re in and you’re out- and we’re looking for approval from them so we feel like we belong, matter, and measure up.

Selfish ambition.

It’s sneaky, right? I realized that I needed to make some major changes, at least for a little while, in order to back away from the precipice of burnout.

In a way, this was scary. I thought I’d fall behind. As I looked deeper, though, that fear was coming from my own heart and a lack of clarity in terms of what health and success look like for me. I concluded that I may have been running in the wrong race.

Winning the wrong race is still losing.

Instead, I made some very conscious choices. I needed time to reevaluate and, in a way, meet my true self, the one hanging out in the back corner behind the slush pile of opportunities and goals and hustle. I did three things:

I sharpened my focus. I chose a handful of major priorities and said good-bye to the rest. In reality, my life didn’t change too much. I had more breathing room, though, between the things I actually wanted to focus on. I was simply more intentional with my time.

I rested. I don’t mean self-care stuff like face masks and bubble baths, although those things are perfectly fine. I mean deep-in-the-bones resting and taking care of myself. I actually went to the doctor. I went to bed on time. I wrote more. I talked to good friends. I got an extension that replaces my Facebook feed with an inspirational quote. I wrote fewer emails. I tried to combat the issues that were giving me stress in the first place so rest could be a baseline rather than the prize at the finish line.

I acknowledged that it takes time. Realigning yourself is something that happens over time in a million tiny shifts. I had to learn, personally, that not working doesn’t equal no value. There are different value measures for different kinds of activity: resting, brainstorming, working, playing, talking- it all has value, and that value is increased when you mix those things together rather than hyper-focusing on only one. It creates a more balanced, healthy self. This mindset shift, however, has taken time and a few missteps to fully grasp.

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These solutions sound like common sense because, in a way, they are. Burnout can make your spirit feel tissue- paper thin, though. It can feel like there is no way out from the crush of things to do, even small things. What I understand a little more now, from experience, is that burnout is not just about doing too much. It is about doing too many things, good or not, with the wrong motivation. This requires an inner adjustment and a personal journey of uncovering that takes time and space and reflection.

My encouragement to you: follow the smell of the popcorn. It may lead you toward life-changing wisdom.

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