Jim Harnish: Avoiding, or dealing with, burnout

You and your organization may love the hard-charging approach to your work. But the only people for whom you are irreplaceable are your family and your friends.

I've never coached a national championship football team, but as I watched University of Florida coach Urban Meyer discuss his decision to take a leave of absence to “fix” the health problems brought on by his highly-driven lifestyle, I recognized the weary look in his eyes. I could hear my wife's voice in his wife's words, “I wish for him to enjoy his kids and do stuff with us as a family. That's what he's been feeling guilty about and part of his misery.” When a reporter asked, “Is it what you do or is it who you are?” Meyer wisely replied, “Yes.”

My Midlife Crisis

Meyer is 45. My crash came at 42. I had poured myself into birthing a new congregation which was one of the fastest growing churches in Florida. We had just completed a massive, multi-million dollar building program. I was carrying responsibility in my denomination and was active in the Rotary Club in our community and the PTA at my daughters' high school. Anyone with any sense would have taken a break. But not me. It was full steam ahead. Until my body forced me to stop.

In “Men at Midlife: Steering Through the Detours” (Abingdon), the book in which I told the story of my midlife crisis, I said that I felt “like the coyote in the 'Roadrunner' cartoons, flattened by a steam roller and left like a pancake on the highway.” I spent three weeks in bed with a raging case of pneumonia. I didn't go to work and I didn't care. Everything turned a dull shade of gray and nothing seemed interesting anymore. When the pneumonia had passed, my physician told me what I already knew. I had all the signs of a classic depression and I needed to see a good psychologist. That's what I saw in Urban Meyer's eyes.

With the help of a patient and persistent wife, some ruthlessly honest friends, and a therapist who wouldn't let me off the hook, I began sorting out the issues around what I do and who I am. I'd like to say that “fixed” it. That's what Urban Meyer said he hopes to do. But the “who you are” stuff is never that easy. I wrote that “the expectation of a dramatic ‘conversion’ is destined for disappointment. Personal transformation usually comes gradually as we walk down well-beaten paths, discovering things we have been too busy to see.”

I am who I am, with a typical “Type A” personality. But I keep growing, changing, and learning how to tame the wild beast that drives me. Along the way I've learned some lessons I could share with guys like Urban Meyer.

Lessons for Urban...and Others

1. Listen to your body. You may lie to yourself, but your body will tell the truth.

2. There's no use changing “what you do” unless you deal with “who you are.”

3. Don't think you can “fix” this on your own. Find a “tough love” counselor who won't let you off easy.

4. There's no quick fix. Go deep. Don't settle for the simple answers.

5. Institutions and organizations (including churches) love what highly-driven, over-achieving, neurotic workaholics produce. They say they care about us. They may even tell us to slow down. But they love what we produce more than they love us. If we let them, they will chew us up and spit us out.

6. No one is indispensible. There will be another coach. The same news report that contained Meyer's announcement began discussing who his successor would be. The only people for whom you are irreplaceable are your family and your friends.

7. Tend to your soul. Who God says you are is more important than what you do.

8. Lighten up. “Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly.” (G.K. Chesterton)

And finally, as a Florida Gator fan, I have to admit that our rival coach, Bobby Bowden, who finally retired at 80, evidently learned some of these lessons along the way. This may be a page to take out of his playbook.