Lessons from my burnout
It was 2008 - I had been with McKinsey for several years. I had just survived two extremely demanding projects and was feeling down about the prospect of continuing to work as a consultant. I met with the leader of the professional development team to discuss my options - including quitting. She wasn’t ready to let me go, and it turned out I wasn’t ready to quit either. We agreed to give it one more try.
I went to work on a project whose junior partner was someone I really liked. He told me he had everything under control, and that this would be an impactful project that would reignite my interest in the firm. I flew into Sao Paulo for the first meetings with the client and, on day 2, I learned that I had a disaster in my hands: the project the partners thought they had sold was much simpler and smaller in scope than the project the client thought they had bought. I had a team of two consultants, but would need a team of six to pull it off. We desperately looked for help, but there was no one else available, so we would have to figure it out by ourselves.
The reasonable action would be to sit down with the client and discuss the situation, but the senior partner of the project wasn’t a reasonable person. So, with no other option available that I could see at the time, I accepted the predicament of having to “take one for the team.”
I worked for over 100 hours per week for 6 weeks straight, not exercising, skipping meals, and, on my good days, sleeping 4 hours a night. Then, during a progress review meeting with the client’s board, sharp pains shot through my chest. I thought I was having a heart attack - and panicked even more because I knew the chances of surviving such a condition in my early 30s were not in my favor. I left the room, called the paramedics, and prayed they’d arrive in time to revive me in case the worst were to happen.
The few minutes I waited felt like hours.
The paramedics arrived and assured me I wasn’t in immediate danger, but suggested that I meet with a cardiologist that same day to rule out anything more serious. That same evening, I was consulting with one of the best cardiologists in town. He patiently listened to my story, asked a few questions, and ordered a bunch of exams. But he also told me he was confident of my diagnosis: I was burned out, physically and mentally. He was right.
Since it wasn’t anything urgent, I tried going back to work the next day. I was sure I was stronger than any stress and that my body would fully recover. The chest pains returned with a vengeance. I had to stop and face the situation.
As I began talking to friends, I learned that my situation was much more common than I had ever realized. If I wanted to get back on the horse, I just needed to pop an antidepressant to numb the pain - I was told that was what most people did. But numbing the pain wouldn’t address the causes that had brought me to that situation, and I knew for a fact I had to deal with the bigger issue.
I took a 4-month license from work to get to the root causes of my burnout. I started seeing a therapist regularly to talk about what I was going on.
I learned a lot about myself during that process. I learned that I will do the right thing even if that is not the easiest solution. I learned that I had to pay more attention to my own needs instead of trying to please everyone else. I learned that I always have the option to say “no,” which empowers me to choose which consequences I want to deal with. I learned that I didn’t want to continue doing something that was hurting me just for the prestige and the perks.
Burning out let me to completely reevaluate who I was and what was important to me. I didn’t learn everything I had to - life has made a point of showing me that in some other occasions. But it made me stronger, better, more mature. My burnout sculpted me into the person I am today, and I sure am glad for that.