Man with a sad face

If an executive laments, “I am so burned-out,” he is conveying little useful information. Like all psychological constructs that make their way into popular parlance, burnout is ill-defined and regularly misused. Most people believe that the statement “I’m burned-out” conveys the fact that they are six-sigma more stressed than they have ever been or should ever be. Not true. In the same vein, most people believe that CEOs do not suffer burnout owing to the commonly held belief that those who sit at the top corporate hierarchies give stress; they don’t get stressed. If stress and burnout are close cousins, then CEOs are, logically, burnout-proof.

Sadly, just the opposite is true. 75 per cent of my coaching clients are CEOs, and my practice has been that way for decades. As for “giving rather than getting stressed,” who cares? Burnout, particularly among C-level executives, has little if anything to do with stress. I should say, more accurately, that burnout has virtually nothing to do with distress, the noxious psychological state that occurs when a person is forced to cope with demands that exceed his capabilities.

Here’s an example of stress: You’re the CEO of a company that is bleeding red ink and your star salesperson tells you, “I need a raise or I’ll be forced to leave.” With no money to pay this peak performer and the awareness that without her you’ll never be able to stay in business, the circumstance you are in is prototypically stressful. You’ll do all you can to save your saleslady and your business, work round the clock to find a way to keep her, but unless you find the resources for that raise or reach a rapprochement with your invaluable employee, you will experience unabated stress.

This circumstance—a demand that exceeds your competence level—is not the sort of occurrence that precipitates burnout. On the contrary: Burnout is born from a lack of stress—or, actually, the absence of eustress, the “good stress” we feel when challenged to meet goals we can and do achieve. Athletes who compete against top competitors and win feel eustress; so, too, salespeople who exceed quotas, and managers who beat deadlines under budget. Conversely, however, should an Olympic-calibre athlete compete against a high school student in his preferred sport, or a salesman reach his annual quota in a few months simply by filing orders from repeat customers, neither individual will derive eustress.

Working in circumstances akin to shooting fish in a barrel are, paradoxically, far more harmful than pursuing goals you have to sweat to achieve. The reason why this is so is simple: Humans are innately challenge-hungry organisms who are rewarded [at a neurological level] by doing something “better” every day. Ask yourself: Would you go to Switzerland to ski and restrict yourself to the “Beginner’s” slope, or would you progress—from Beginner to Advanced to Expert to the Black Diamond slope—each time you mastered the preceding level of difficulty? Note that you are not paid for seeking ever-more-challenging slopes to ski, nor are you forbidden from hanging-out on the Bunny Hill with children. When free to choose, virtually all humans crave a chance to prove their worth and chafe at being kept flightless like a bird in a gilded cage.

The core cause of burnout

To truly grasp how burnout undermines and often destroys careers, it is important to get a better handle on when and how people feel “eustress deprived” at work. Specifically, you need to understand how rewards are dispensed and the manner in which they psychologically impact those who receive them.

Rewards—most notably salaries and bonuses—are administered according to a simple, straightforward formula: More is better. If I build one widget I get one reward unit; two widgets get me two units, and so on. Sooner or later I will have all the reward units I need to live happily ever after, but because I am so proficient at building widgets the company I work for continually gives me fancier titles and more of the same sorts of units I receive as a trainee. It’s like eating your favourite ice cream… day after day after day. If you consume limitless amounts, the experience grows boring. After months of having the same ice cream for dessert, most people would pass on dessert rather than eat a formerly delicious frozen treat.

Years ago I coached one senior software executive at a huge IT company [1]. His trek from “engineer” to “senior executive software engineering EVP” was meteoric because of his ability to create easily understood “user interfaces”—the steps we take and things we do to access an IT function on a computer or PDA. Amish loved working in IT, but when I met him he was starting to suffer burnout: “I’m the Dean of ‘Dumbing Down’ software and it’s killing me. I see my colleagues designing cutting-edge applications and all I do is convert what was complex into simple; a process that, I promise, is simpler than you would believe. I’m bored witless!”

Amish told me that he often asked to be re-assigned to different design teams, and was routinely told, “How can we replace you?” Together he and I designed a simple strategy to help him add eustress to his career—Amish would groom two Amish-like substitutes who could create user interfaces as well as he did, and demand that they replace him so he can be freed-up to pursue challenging opportunities within his company. The paradox of this “treatment” for Amish’s burnout was that increasing his workload significantly [by doing extra mentoring and training] was stress-reducing. How? Because he was working toward removing the shackles that bound him to a job that caused him non-stop feelings of ennui.

When I discuss cases of burnout like Amish’s— super-successful, lavishly rewarded individuals who want to quit their jobs—I’m invariably confronted by someone yearning to escape from a mountain of demands that seem insurmountable; who feels a need to tell me that I’m full of crap: “Let me get a few effortless wins, a few days when fish jump into my boat rather than me having to fish for them,” he’ll say, “and I guarantee I’ll feel nothing but blessed.” This belief makes intuitive sense, I tell my detractor, but it is 100 per cent false.

As TE Lawrence [aka Lawrence of Arabia] observed, “There could be no honour in a sure success.” For any pursuit to afford eustress, it must test your skills or mettle. If your chosen vocation does not enable you to derive eustress from task completion, it is only a matter of time before you will suffer burnout.

The two kinds of burnouts

What is unique—and damaging—about burnout is that it impacts the rich and not-so-rich, the experienced and novice, equally. To help people grasp this notion, I divide the world of burnout sufferers into two.

The largest cohort of burnout victims suffer what I call “Generic Burnout”—a syndrome of emotional exhaustion and cynicism characterised by symptoms ranging from chronic fatigue to anger. Those who suffer this form of burnout feel they are trapped in a job that has ceased to provide them with personal gratification or a sense of meaning. In essence they prove the commonsense notion that “being in it just for the money” is never truly rewarding.

The other cohort suffers what I call "Supernova Burnout"—the type of burnout caused by eustress deprivation after a person has enjoyed bountiful successes. This form of burnout is paradoxical to those who endure it since their belief that a history of success would protect them from suffering emotional distress. Supernova burnout proves that just the opposite is true: High achievers are actually victimised by a history of success that exposes them to several different noxious experiences.

First and foremost, a history of success at a particular trade sets a person up to suffer boredom as a result of amassed proficiency. All successful white-collar professionals will tell you that the surgery, legal work, management they’ve done for decades became “old hat”, and that as their reputation soared so, too, did feelings of ennui. Talk to pillars of the professional community who are widely admired and you will be shocked at how many will admit to wondering, “Is that all there is?” long before it becomes time to even consider retirement.

Adding insult to this injury, a history of success can expose a person to shame and embarrassment if he fails to perform as expected. The poet Robert Browning observed, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” True, and a primary reason why not being able to “reach” causes burnout. But for those who have attained great professional heights, something very problematic often occurs: Their reach, being finite, cannot possibly grasp all they [or others] want them to take hold of. As every person who is not self-employed will tell you, “You’re only as good as your last big score, and that last ‘big score’ is now the floor below which you cannot drop lest you become labelled a laggard or worse.”

Finally, the most difficult aspect of Supernova Burnout is dealing with being trapped in Golden Handcuffs. A person who gets to a point where he fears that limits on his capacity to “reach” will shame him is almost always atop a professional hierarchy and, as such, amply rewarded for all he did to get there. Thus, on top of yearning for novel challenges and fearing that inexorably greater performance demands will shame you, those who suffer Supernova Burnout must deal with the reality of having grown accustomed to a lifestyle that cannot be sustained if they say, “Take this job and shove it…”

White-collar crime

I cannot recall a week when I failed to find an instance of Supernova Burnout reported by the press. Why? Because newspaper reporters are fascinated by corporate executives, often idealised, super-powerful leaders who also happen to be the prime candidates for contracting this disorder.

Man with handcuffs
Devoid of challenges, super achievers often indulge in white collar crime

Why this is so is not instantly obvious. To understand the vulnerability of CEOs to Supernova Burnout you have to take a dispassionate view of their careers starting with the arduous climb they must make to get to the top and, frankly, how mind-numbing the life of a CEO can be if he does his job correctly. CEOs earn millions if they delegate to superstars, hire to their weaknesses, groom successors, and when confronted by perplexing problems, knowing which consultant can find a solution quickest. Given how most CEOs spent 18-hour days proving their worth before they landed the “ultimate job in the corner office,” you can well imagine that being in charge can be a breeze… and, potentially, dull if not flat-out boring. This is not to say that CEOs face no challenges but, rather, a CEO who does his job in an ideal manner can, paradoxically, expose himself to eustress deprivation without knowing it.

What happens to these men [women rarely suffer Supernova Burnout [2] . At the end of the article you can also see Why women are less likely to suffer Supernova Burnout]? They often engage in white-collar crime. I am not alone in holding this view: About 2,000 years ago the ancient Roman Senator Publius Cornelius Tacitus observed, “We are corrupted by prosperity.” When people are corrupted in this way, observers invariably ask, “He had the world in the palms of his hands… what made him do it?” The answer is Supernova Burnout, not, as common sense wisdom holds, greed or lust for power other than power to control whether or not one enjoys eustress or endures ennui.

The most clear-cut example of a CEO suffering Supernova Burnout I am aware of is that of a near-billionaire shopping mall developer Adolph Alfred Taubman. Back in 1983, after a stellar career, Taubman stepped-in to rescue ailing British auction house Sotheby’s from a hostile takeover. At the time he was well into his 70s and a member of the Forbes 400, which made Taubman an ideal White Knight: He had more money than he could ever possibly spend on himself, and was free to “do good” through philanthropic activities.

Actually, Taubman’s penchant for philanthropy was well established when he went off to save Sotheby’s. He made huge donations to the University of Michigan [including gifts to the Taubman Medical Library and Taubman Health Care Center], as well as sponsoring a number of disease research projects. The problem is that the passive giving-away of money generates little eustress. Pride, yes; a sense of satisfaction in knowing you have helped others, sure. But “giving” is not achieving, involves no overcoming of obstacles, and generates no eustress. Thus, when in 1983, Taubman was clearly hungering for a rewarding challenge that would be able to generate eustress, he decided to become Sotheby’s White Knight. He delivered, too: he made good on his promise to save the firm, and five years later in 1988 took it public.

But two years later, after an investigation into alleged price-fixing between Sotheby’s and rival auction house Christie’s was launched, Taubman was publicly humiliated. A jury found him guilty of price-fixing, which led to him being fined $7.5 million and imprisoned for 10 months, both as a result of anti-trust violations. Why?

Man looking at his shadow
When others perceive you as larger than life, you tend to believe them

For over 30 years I have worked with executives who have committed financial crimes as senseless as Taubman’s when they had absolutely no need for money. Based on this clinical experience and other data, I am 100 per cent certain that Taubman’s motivation for engaging in criminal behaviour was not greed: The psychological pressures born of eustress deprivation, “let down,” ennui, and related feelings, drove Taubman to dare the devil and endeavour to defeat him by engineering what he viewed to be a “harmless” price-fixing scheme. Had he gotten away with it he would have felt high as a kite. Instead, after amassing roughly $200,000 in ill-gotten gains, Taubman’s life was in ruins.

CEOs are not the only people to suffer Supernova Burnout. Any high-achieving man wanting desperately to escape the circumstances he sought to be in after years of arduous work to get there will fall victim to it. Multi-millionaire monetary fund managers begging to break the grip of Golden Handcuffs, academics willing to discard advanced degrees to escape the mind-numbing tedium of academe, and musicians and actors who report being crippled by the demands of constantly needing to answer calls of “encore, encore” when what they want to scream at audiences is “Ciao!” These are the brightest and best, so why can’t they reason their way out of the dilemmas that give rise to Supernova Burnout?

The reason, in large measure, is the perception that others have of these people. It’s hard, if everyone you meet says, “I want to be you when I grow up,” to shout, “No, no, my life is horrid!” Much of our self-definition comes from the perceptions of others, and when “others” keep insisting you’ve got it good, you have to wonder if you are crazy for thinking otherwise. In addition, things are not always horrid for those who suffer Supernova Burnout. The problem is, when it comes to any- and everything related to their careers, the urge to rip themselves loose from ennui is maddening.

Try these techniques to address supernova burnout

Boss helping his colleague
Seek new sources of eustress by mentoring your potential replacements

Each client I coach has individual needs and a unique case of Supernova Burnout. I abhor “one size fits all” remediation, and never use it. That said, I can give you a few generalities about what you should do if you feel ennui overwhelming you or, better yet, if you fear that someday what is not exhilarating will bring about ennui:

» ASK FOR HELP

A surprising consequence of having a history of being successful is that it makes simple requests for assistance extraordinarily difficult to make. There are many reasons why this is so, the primary one being that successful people are known to overcome adversity by trying harder and harder… the “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again” model. Operationally, success comes to them on what psychologists call an “intermittent reinforcement schedule” that trains them to “push” much longer than, say, someone who has not succeeded after protracted effort would. As a result, successful people have their “help-asking muscles” atrophy over time. If you force yourself to ask for help, you open yourself up to novel problem-solving approaches that often contain opportunities for eustress generation you would never think of. On a more fundamental level, since people are intimidated by those who are successful, asking other people for help sends the message, “I’m a regular guy… don’t run away.” Not only does this posture open the door to new challenges, it makes you appear vulnerable.

» ADMIT VULNERABILITY

This suggestion is a corollary to point #1 above. I give it its own place among the suggestions I present because it is so important.

As noted above, success is intimidating, and unless successful people who need help solving problems acknowledge their feet of clay, no one will risk approaching them. Conversely, when a successful person acknowledges the need for help, he engenders waves of support owing to the fact that his gesture is unexpected and flattering to the person it is directed at. Even if being vulnerable does nothing in terms of eustress generation, it is far simpler to tolerate ennui if you are not lonely at the top.

» PICK A FIGHT

Virtually all people experiencing Supernova Burnout feel that their future safety and security will be jeopardised by the failure to live up to inexorably increasing performance expectations. Unfortunately, what all humans do in circumstances where they fear the worst is to become six-sigma more risk averse than justifiable. In my coaching practice I find extreme cases of Supernova Burnout driving once-assertive people to be terrified of disputing or opposing views that contradict their own. For these reasons [and others], I counsel people suffering Supernova Burnout to “pick fights”—the intellectual kind, not fistfights. Why? If fear has caused a person to be professionally risk averse, no new challenges will come his way unless or until he sticks his neck out. Beginning this process on an intellectual level is a safe first step toward disputing the fear that all will be lost if you fail to live up to expectations born of past successes.

» DO NOT OVERHAUL WHO YOU ARE; NEVER ATTEMPT TO REINVENT YOURSELF; RE-APPLY YOUR STRENGTHS IN NOVEL WAYS

Freud said, “Character is fate,” and while a bit hyperbolic, this belief is more right than wrong. We are who we are from age three. What we do with who we are, however, can be bent, twisted and moulded in infinite ways. A shy introvert can never be a politician just as an extroverted “people person” cannot fit into a librarian’s job description. Why is this important to focus on when combating Supernova Burnout? Because if you know you have a strong core component to your personality—eg gregarious machismo—you can stick to your primary job and move, step-wise, into new opportunities for eustress with confidence.

During 1999 – 2003 a very rough, macho, he-man who previously had “careers” as [first] a US Navy SEAL [commando fighter] and then a professional wrestler, became the Governor of Minnesota. This man, Jesse Ventura, spent his life re-packaging, in small steps, his “core self” which is that of a tough guy. By this repackaging, a man who was a member of the most elite fighting force in the US Military and then a “sham-wrestler” on TV, got into politics and charmed the electorate of a populous state in the USA. By doing so, whenever a career he was in bored him or became too challenging to master, he morphed—true to his core—into another version of himself.

You, too, can do this to avoid Supernova Burnout. Any successful professional who does not suffer stage fright can teach about his area of expertise. Are you afraid of being in front of an audience? Write a book. A client of mine who was trapped in Golden Handcuffs just did this and is elated about the prospect of selling his book on TV talk shows and radio programmes. He’ll lose money every day he “hawks” his book, but the challenge of educating audiences about his message has him walking on cloud nine.

If you believe you cannot write or teach, seek new sources of eustress through mentoring your replacements. It sounds morbid—“When I retire [or die] you’ll take over,” but just the opposite is true. Nothing is more eustress generative than to be told, “Thanks; you made me a better person.” It conveys not only worth but efficacy in the world. Only some people influence others. If you cannot do so in academe, writing, politics or public speaking, a one-on-one mentorship will give you the same results and, when you’ve succeeded, time to try to surmount challenges you had told yourself you couldn’t consider “given all my responsibilities.”

The brilliant psychologist/philosopher William James said, “There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man’s lack of faith in his true self.” If you can test the limits of your “true self” with confidence, you will never be left unchallenged, devoid of eustress, and subject to the ravages of Supernova Burnout.

Why women are less likely to suffer Supernova Burnout

boredom-and-burnout-the-two-sides-of-a-coin-3The simple answer is that it is not genetics… at least as far as we can tell today. Maybe J Craig Venter and the scientists at Celera Genomics Group will pinpoint which of the three billion building blocks of genetic code cause women to be supernova burnout resistant. But for the moment, this disease resistance is a function of nurture, not nature. Specifically, because of the manner in which they are socialised, women develop a propensity to seek “connectedness” with others whereas men have no such drive. To state this gender difference in simplistic terms, while males would be more likely to view being King of the Hill as a virtuous, gender-consistent outcome, females would typically see it as anathema to their sense of identity. More often than not, females would far prefer to be “most popular” than, say, most likely to succeed, if—and this is a crucial “if”—success were defined in terms that connote occupying an isolated position atop a performance or social hierarchy.

Here’s the tricky part of a woman’s capacity to avoid suffering supernova burnout—while connectedness can be extraordinarily beneficial, the downside risk of seeking to retain interpersonal connections is that you are vulnerable to the psychological pain that ensues when connections are threatened or broken.

According to demographic studies of mental health [3], 20 to 26 per cent of women will experience diagnosable depression at some time in their lives, compared with 8 – 12 per cent of men. One reason cited for this disparity is that women suffer more from depression [and, in related ways, stress] because of the manner in which women experience the implications of broken interpersonal ties. Whereas a jilted male could be expected to cope with his negative feelings in ways that are likely to externalise emotional pain [eg becoming physically aggressive or becoming distracted by acting-out or abusing drugs], women are socialised to not externalise emotional pain. Because women have a more nurturing nature than men, and as a result of their earliest socialisation experiences adult women fear separateness and broken ties, they traditionally make greater efforts to either sustain relationships or resurrect ones that appear to have faltered or failed.

Here’s the surprise: The ongoing burden of feeling “I should make this relationship work” will, in the short term, lead women to experience stress and, over time, it is likely that psychological depression will ensue. This is particularly true if a woman concludes that the failure to keep her relationships thriving is a function of her powerlessness or helplessness. That said, women don’t “stay the course” and deny they are in pain; they acknowledge psychological pain and reach-out for help. Whereas men need to be macho, project invincibility, and infallibility—isolating themselves from resources that could facilitate their problems born of success—a woman’s propensity to stay connected with others is one of, if not the, most effective inoculations against Supernova Burnout there is. It affords perspective on the paradoxical, and often grossly illogical, problems born of success, it provides coping strategies, and above all else it provides a network of support that conveys, “Should you falter, we’re here to catch you.” A male, projecting, “I am a rock… I am an island” invincibility will crash and burn should the real-world stressors born of success pierce his façade.


[3] Greenglass, E. (1997). Gender differences in mental health. In H. S. Friedman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mental Health. San Diego: Academic Press.


[1] All names and job descriptions used in this piece are crafted in a manner that preserves my clients’ true identity.
[2] I address this gender difference at length in my book, Reclaiming the Fire: How successful people overcome burnout, Chapter 5.

A version of this article was first published in the February 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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