It may be true that not everyone needs to be fired up about what they do for a living. Perhaps it’s also true that people who are fired up about what they do for a living don’t necessarily live happier lives. That’s hard for me to fathom because for me, what I do for a living consumes a lot of my life and if I’m not fired up about it something inside of me is dead, or at least gasping for air.
However, it is definitely true that work-related burnout, especially among founders and entrepreneurs, is reaching an epidemic. And this burnout comes at a huge cost, not only to their businesses, but to their personal wellness.
I was in my early days of consulting when I read a quote that has stayed with me for more than 20 years.
“Every morning, I come to work, pour gasoline on myself, and light a match. For the rest of the day, people just come to see me burn.”
Of course, that is based on the quote often attributed to John Wesley,
Set yourself on fire with passion and people will come for miles to watch you burn.
Barring the effective, but unsustainable, use of gasoline and matches, how do we keep setting ourselves on fire, day in and day out? Especially when day in and day out we’re confronted with news of global tension, political and corporate malfeasance, economic threats, and acts of violence. How are we supposed to find the energy or enthusiasm to even be fired up enough to face the day?
What I’ve discovered about passion is that it will keep you fired up, and it will keep you from burning out, but it requires fuel. And that fuel is purpose, not gasoline.
If you go around asking people what they’re passionate about something will probably become obvious to you, as it has to me – most answers will start with the same four words.
“I’m passionate about helping …”
That might be followed with “people” or “animals” or “the planet.” It might be a subset of one of those categories like “kids” or “domestic abuse survivors,” or “dogs,” or “our oceans.” But for most people, when they think about what really gets them fired up it starts with making a difference that helps someone or something.
And making a difference isn’t an activity, it’s the reason for the activity, the outcome that makes the activity worth the energy expended. It’s the fuel that keeps the fire alive.
Look at any successful business and I would bet that somewhere in the founder’s story is a moment when they decided they want to help someone or something outside of themselves. Sure, they had their personal “whys,” the bills they needed to pay, the trips they wanted to take, the family they wanted to provide for, the cars they wanted to buy. But any successful career or business would have met those desires. The reason they chose this one, the one they’ve poured their heart and soul into, was directly tied to a greater purpose, an outcome that provided fuel for the fire when the path was hard and the money seemed to be a long time coming.
Sometimes we stumble onto our purpose. That was the case for my friend, John Holahan. He was working for Monsanto/Pharmacia, going through the Executive MBA program at Washington University on Monsanto’s dime, with no intention of becoming an entrepreneur. Classes on entrepreneurship weren’t required for the executive track, but he signed up anyway.
His team in that class had to come up with a business idea, something they could flesh out as a concept, not something they were expected to actually get off the ground. While brainstorming business ideas John told his team a story.
He had a co-worker at Monsanto whose mother was in hospice care. She had dysphagia, a swallowing disorder, so a thickening agent had to be added to all of her liquids. She hated the taste, and the powdery texture. She told her daughter that she was dying anyway, she wasn’t going to put up with those thickeners just to stay alive a little longer.
Her daughter thought that maybe, as an engineer, John would have an idea for something that her mother would tolerate that would also thicken liquids enough that she could drink them safely. He suggested xanthan gum. They tried it, and although it was difficult to mix, it passed the taste test and the texture test. His co-worker always credited his solution with giving her a little more time with her mother and he’d always had the idea in the back of his mind that maybe there was a way to make a xanthan gum based thickener that was easier to mix.
John’s classmates were gung ho about using his hypothetical product as the basis for their business model. But for John it turned into much more. At the urging of his professor, he pitched his idea to the rehab team at a big research hospital. He still wasn’t thinking of it as a real business, but he did believe that his idea could help people.
As it happened, by the time he took that class his employment with Monsanto had ended. And by the time he got a big job offer from Express Scripts, Simply Thick, a line of thickening formulas based on John’s original idea, had been launched. While the security and dependability of a corporate position might have seemed like the smart choice, John knew he was doing something in his own company that was on purpose for him. He figured he could always get another corporate job offer, but he might never get another opportunity to help people the way he could if he stuck it out as an entrepreneur.
John may not have been looking for a business that let him tap into his passion and purpose. But call it accident or destiny, he was drawn to create something that used his talents to help people in life or death situations.
For most of us who are founders and entrepreneurs, or the kind of business leaders we call “intrapreneurs,” that’s exactly what keeps us going. It’s knowing that we’re helping people in a way that is both important to us and that uses our natural gifts. It’s staying connected to the outcomes of our work that gives us the energy for the work.
Not that we never lose the spark. We do. I’ve had to redefine my purpose and reignite my passion several times, and I’ve developed my own methods for getting fired up again. It’s been a major life and brand overhaul every time, but it’s also been worth it every time, because not being on fire, for me, is a little like being dead.
I’ve also worked with clients who were burned out, dying a little inside, who didn’t think they would ever really care about their work again. And their paths back to being “on fire every day” have taught me a great deal about avoiding and recovering from burnout as well.
Everything I have learned about being on fire comes down to these two things – doing work that is on purpose and doing work that allows you to use your natural gifts.
If you’re in that place right now, burned out, exhausted, no idea how you’ll have the energy to do anything ever again – do this. Sit down and make a list of every little thing you’ve ever done that helped someone. Don’t judge, don’t question whether or not you can make money at it, don’t assume that anyone else would have done the same or better. Just make a list.
And when you have that list, highlight the events that carry the most emotional weight for you. Which times did you walk away with the deepest satisfaction? Which times still bring a smile to your face or a catch in your throat? Those are the things to focus on when you’ve lost your connection to purpose because those are the things that you’ve connected to in the past.
Now look for other trends.
Who are you most likely to help? Children? Animals? Students? Survivors? If more than one category is dominant what do those categories have in common?
How are you most likely to help? What kinds of problems did you solve? Technology? Language barriers? Abuse prevention? Government advocacy? Navigating geographical areas?
What gifts or talents were you most likely to use to help? Did you teach? Did you communicate? Did you solve a puzzle? Did you organize? You’re not just looking for things you’re good at, you’re looking at the talents that are most natural for you to use when you want to help someone else.
Maybe you’ll find that, like John, there is one story that jumps out at you. You may write down that one event that still fires you up, that one event that, if you could have that feeling every day of knowing you helped someone live a little longer, gave one person a few more precious days with someone she loved, it would be worth the work and the risk. Or maybe your results will be more like my own, maybe it will take many stories before you see the themes of where and how you are being called to help.
Either way, these stories are the clues you have left for yourself. If you pay attention they will lead you into a business or a career that allows you to go to work every day on purpose and on fire.
Photo: Getty Images