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When Our Fire Stops Burning

Steve Schlafman
Steve Schlafman
16 min read
When Our Fire Stops Burning
Photo by Paul Bulai / Unsplash

I could hear the hum of traffic outside our Flatiron office—sirens, horns, and idle engines—and I might as well have been outside instead of the four hour “partner meeting” I was in. Packed like the Holland Tunnel at rush hour with twelve of my colleagues in a white walled, stuffy conference room with no ventilation and windows, I began to drift off into a pleasant day dream thinking about the coaching training I was about to attend over the weekend. After a few minutes of disassociation had passed, I caught myself and snapped back to reality. Then it happened again and again.

After the third time, a flood of thoughts and questions began to rattle me to my core. Steve, what the fuck are you doing here? You might as well be somewhere else. You’re totally checked out. You don’t give a shit about CAC to LTV ratios, benchmarks for growth rates or novel approaches to product led growth. You’re going through the motions and you know it. Snap out of it.

An hour later when I emerged from the meeting, I felt like I had just fought a twelve round championship bout with Mike Tyson. I was depleted, confused and anxious. I needed to get the fuck out of the office, breathe some fresh air, and take a walk in Madison Square Park.

That’s when I knew something was up. Was I burnt out?

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

Andy Johns, former President of Wealthfront, takes this one step further in his excellent essay, “How to Know When to Stop.” According to Andy, when we go outside our “range of intolerance” there are a variety of indicators—hormonal, physiological, and behavioral—that tell us we’re slipping into burnout. The vast majority of high achievers are oblivious to these signals because we’re conditioned to play through pain, to keep striving and to ignore the signals coming from our bodies. Burnout manifests in many different ways: anxiety, detachment, apathy, fatigue, irritability, frustration, exhaustion, negativity, increased heart rate and blood pressure, weakened immune system, compulsive behaviors and addictions, sleep issues, impatience, muscle tension, and more.

As someone who has fallen prey to burnout more than once, I’ve come to realize and appreciate there are two types—the kind that Andy describes, where our bodies and minds break down from overwork, and another, when the fire in our hearts has gone out. They’re related but not exactly the same; you can be physically burnt out but still passionate and confident about your work and path forward. The first kind of burnout is the kind we talk about more and for good reason—it impacts millions of workers across the US. Volumes have been written about rest and recovery for treating the first type of burnout and knowing how to identify it.  

This piece is about the second kind, which I call burndown. Burndown happens when we’re out of alignment—our outer lives no longer align with our inner lives and who we are at our core. We’ve run out of innate passion for the journey we’ve been on despite pushing forward like an ultra marathoner on mile 45—you might feel like you want to “burn it all down.”

When this feeling shows up, we might be on a path someone else chose for us, or one we chose for ourselves, unconsciously prioritizing financial security or approval from family, friends, and peers. When this happens there is something deep within us—a voice, intuition, or deep knowing—that senses something isn’t right and desires a change. This can be a new career or relationship, or something even bigger. We might not even know what we desire but we know that we feel off.

Feeling the immensity of this dissatisfaction and desire, where can you begin? First, you need to determine if a break from work and behavior changes will help you reignite your passion, or if you’re experiencing burndown, which will require more significant action. I compiled this list of signs and symptoms of burndown from my own experience and from countless conversations with clients and friends:

  • When the day starts you look at your calendar and say to yourself, I don’t want to go to work, can I just hide?
  • You may notice that most of the meetings on your calendar drain you more than energize you.
  • You begin to check out in meetings, drifting off into a day dream, and berate yourself with questions like, what the fuck am I doing here? or how did I even get here?
  • You realize that the work isn’t just boring and draining but no longer speaks to who you are—values, priorities, or interests.
  • You might even say that you don’t give a shit about the work any more. You’re going through the motions and mailing it in, day after day. Maybe for years.
  • You’re somewhere else mentally, dreaming of another career that’s calling out to you. You might justify ignoring those states by calling them distractions, or saying you can pursue that calling later in life, once you’re secure.
  • You might have one foot in your day job and the other foot in a side hustle or hobby. Or maybe not a career at all, but a different way of spending your days.
  • You catch yourself thinking when I grow up I want to be…
  • Perhaps you don’t know what you want to do, but the small window in your office catches your eye a lot. Sitting in front of a desk, living in spreadsheets, or attending meetings all day, every day, you’re wondering is this all there is?
  • At times you might be looking back and asking, what have I spent my career on? and what have I accomplished? and has it been worth it?
  • You may even be saying I know I don’t want to do this anymore but can’t see your way out.
  • You just have the feeling. Deep down inside you know that you want something else, something that’s more… you.
  • You use the word “if” a lot. If things were different I would…
  • You get home after a long day at work and you want to numb yourself, turning to the TV, iPad, alcohol, or other drugs.

Which of these resonate? There have been moments in my life where all of them were true for me. If you’re experiencing all or any of these, you could very well be experiencing burndown—at which point a break from your job may help for a little while, but isn’t the solution. In fact, these were many of the things I experienced before I decided to quit being a VC. Some were conscious and many unconscious.

The Hero’s Journey

These thoughts and feelings often manifest in cruelty to the self—I need to change, I’m doing something wrong, I’ve failed. But when we hear these inner voices telling us that something needs to change, I’ve come to think of it as the “Call to Adventure,” the first stage of The Hero’s Journey, which was coined by Joseph Campbell, the legendary author and mythologist.

“The hero’s journey always begins with the call. One way or another, a guide must come to say, ‘Look, you’re in Sleepy Land. Wake. Come on a trip. There is a whole aspect of your consciousness, your being, that’s not been touched. So you’re at home here? Well, there’s not enough of you there.’ And so it starts.”

In other words, the call to adventure invites the hero to leave their comfortable and ordinary world behind to embark on a new journey or face a challenge they can’t ignore. The calls we hear might be triggered by a pandemic, endless boredom at work, a life threatening illness, aging parents, something you hear on a podcast, a sign walking down the street, the changing seasons or a villain in your life such as an abusive boss. We can see and hear these mysterious calls but often can’t make sense of them, so we’re left, on a good day, with wonder and curiosity. On a bad day we’re left with anger and fear. What we always have is a question from deep within—do we answer the call?  

The next step in The Hero’s Journey is the “Refusal of the Call” which is characterized by obligations, fear, doubt, and insecurities. There are a variety of reasons we might ignore these signs, sometimes for years, sometimes for our whole lives. Perhaps you have a passion and knack for writing, making music, creating art, or caring for others, but your current situation doesn’t allow you to make time for any of that because you have other responsibilities outside of work such as family, debt, or just need to make ends meet. Or you tell yourself a story you’re too busy or tired to find any time. Or you’re accustomed to a sumptuous lifestyle and you’re unwilling to cut expenses and give up certain pleasures. We might be petrified. We might be embarrassed! We feel pulled in a direction by a deep longing and calling from the depths of our souls but we don’t feel equipped to meet it.

This is how I felt for years. I was drawn to writing but never made time for it because I told myself a story that VCs had to be meeting entrepreneurs, that it was stupid or not worth it or even selfish to indulge my true passion for the craft. I was afraid of failing at what I really loved. I can’t tell you how many times I had an idea for a post and then a few weeks later someone influential like Fred Wilson, Paul Graham, or Hunter Walk would publish something related. It crushed me inside because I knew my ideas and instincts were good, but felt the ground I was qualified to write about had been covered. I wondered, what’s the point if I’m not writing about entrepreneurship or startups? I also suffered from imposter syndrome and didn’t believe I was a capable writer. So I dismissed my instincts and signals from my body, my heart, and my soul. I simply refused the call.

When this happens we often experience a cognitive dissonance because we’re out of alignment—who we are inside doesn’t match what we are doing on the outside. There’s a fundamental disconnect between what we do and who we’ve become. When this happens we suffer physically, mentally, and emotionally. We’re left feeling anxious and unsettled. We can sense that something is off but we can’t pin it down. It also leads to many of the qualities of burnout Andy describes in his post—exhaustion, restlessness, overwhelm, apathy—which is our body (a.k.a. nervous system) telling us that the jig is up. Below those symptoms lies a deeper truth: we no longer care like we used to, not because there’s anything wrong with us but because we’re different—we’ve changed!

Oh my god, this is scary! We know we’re standing on the path that we’ve been walking for quite some time, pressure and momentum urging us to keep going while our gaze searches through a dense forest for a new direction. We feel if we step away, the known path will disappear with the rhythms of nature—overgrowth and time. How will we find our way back if we need to? Facing a new alignment with our inner voice, true nature, and full aliveness, we’re scared of who we might really be, and the unknown path that will take us to ourselves.

But all that we fear keeps us stuck in what we know isn’t working. If we refuse the call, we remain out of alignment in our existing world, out of the rhythms of nature in something artificial, and missing out on the growth we will inevitably experience as we walk the unknown path.

I’m Out of Alignment, Now What?

Step 1. Build Awareness

When we notice that we’re out of alignment, we can begin to ask ourselves important questions about where we are now. Contemplative practices, such as journaling, are a useful place to start so we can build awareness and take stock of where we are. You’ve acknowledged that you have changed, heard a call, and now you need to build evidence that’ll tell you who you really are. This will help you understand the adventure that’s calling you.

Here are some questions worth pondering:

  1. What ideas and experiences am I being drawn towards?
  2. What is my inner voice (call it the heart or the gut) telling me?
  3. What inner resources, skills, and gifts do I have?
  4. What external resources and support do I have?
  5. What wants to come through me?
  6. What am I scared of?
  7. What’s getting in my way?

Be with whatever comes up—you don’t have to make sense of what emerges or label anything as good, bad, exciting, or scary. You don’t have to act on anything and you don’t need to remove these blockers right away. The first step is to simply create awareness and acknowledge where you are and what you perceive as blocking your new path. Even by writing them down, you might find that the blockers and fears dissipate or aren't as 'real' as you initially thought. In contrast, writing down your dreams and aspirations makes them more real—and feel more possible.

Step 2. Find Acceptance

Once we have written evidence of our change and perhaps where our adventure is calling us, it’s time to see if we’re willing to slowly shift into self-acceptance and compassion. This isn’t just accepting our new realizations, but also the emotional states which grow alongside them.

Keep in mind that acceptance is not purely mental activity but rather an embodied experience. In other words, we need to feel acceptance in our bodies—qualities such as relaxation, softness, lightness—because the mind won’t get us there. Our bodies tell us when we must slow down, close our eyes, breathe, and tune into our experience. Non-acceptance presents itself as struggle, constriction, and rejection—all have an energetic quality to them. Remember, we can not address what we reject and resist.

For more than three years, I was petrified of leaving the VC profession because my ego was holding on for dear life. Who would I become? How would I support my family? What will I amount to? Will I lose my friends and followers? How can you walk away in the prime of your career?  What if coaching doesn’t work out, then what? What if you let everyone down?

During that time, I refused to face and accept my fears, sadness, and anger, so I remained stuck in a cognitive emotive loop, unconsciously stewing in my emotions, and feeling like I was out of control. Deep down inside, I wasn’t ready to give up the money, power, or prestige that come along with a high-profile job. I refused the call and remained out of alignment. I kept saying I was burning myself out—a badge of honor in tech circles. But by pushing myself to fit, I ignored and rejected the person I now was, burning myself down. Sometimes I wished it would all just go away.

With the support and guidance of friends, mentors, and coaches, I had to sit with a variety of questions in order to feel and discover acceptance within myself:

  • Can you accept yourself for seeing new possibilities and wanting something different?
  • Can you be with the fear of potentially making a big change and not knowing how it’s going to impact you, your career, those around you, and your quality of life?
  • Can you be with the sadness and grief that a chapter of your life is potentially coming to an end?
  • Can you be with the anger directed at yourself for ‘wasting’ a chunk of your career going down a path you weren’t meant to walk, or no longer want to walk?
  • Can you accept yourself and your parts for being scared, sad, and angry?
  • And can you accept yourself for being exactly where you are in this moment?
  • Can you accept that it’s not your ability, it’s about your desire and willingness?
  • Can you quit saying, "I can't do it anymore!" and accept that you just don’t want to? Can you respect that in yourself?

Once I began to identify, understand, and accept the parts that were keeping me stuck, conflicted, and scared, I eventually shifted my inner state and accepted myself for who I really was and who I was becoming. Only then was I able to walk away from the VC profession on my own terms, not someone’s plan or vision for me. And here’s the proof—in all the days since, I have not once regretted my decision, looked back and asked what if?

Don’t underestimate the power of finding self-acceptance inside the storm of emotions you might be feeling. And don’t forget, we might find acceptance one day and then revert back to our inner conflict and experience these emotions the very next day, vacillating between the call to adventure and the refusal of the call. That’s natural and ok. Acceptance is a lifelong journey with ebbs and flows—be patient and kind to yourself. And write things down to keep track.

Step 3. Begin to Act

This journey (a.k.a. transformation) takes time, and it all depends on the person, their context, and willingness to change. Me, I hope to keep evolving and unfolding until the day I die. But every single one of us can take a first step as soon as we've cultivated awareness and some acceptance.

With patience in mind, I’m not advocating for you to quit your job or make any huge changes today. I’m asking you to recognize what’s happening, identify if you’re burnt out and need a break, or burning down and need a change. Shifting and changing is part of nature. And nature is not hostile.

Here are some initial steps you can take to slowly build momentum.

Practice contemplation. When we begin to realize that we’re out of alignment, we might have a tendency to either take on more or numb ourselves. Instead, continue to create awareness in your life through contemplative practices such as meditation and journaling. For example, I begin most mornings with a meditation and a 30-minute journaling session when I sit down at my desk. These two practices have been instrumental in helping me get to know myself and tune into who I am and what I really want. You do not need necessarily to answer any questions in your journaling, but to use it as an opportunity to clear the mind of materialism, negativity, and ego traps that are holding you back. Just laying them out on the page can release you, so you can begin to grow into new ways of thinking.

Reveal yourself. Share what you’re discovering about yourself with someone you trust such as a life partner, family member, friend, coach, therapist, or mentor. You can reveal as much or as little as you’re comfortable. There are no rules or “right ways” to do this. In my case, I approached my wife, Eliza, after spending time with Jerry Colonna, the legendary CEO-coach and co-founder of Reboot, and uttered the words, “I think I want to be a coach.” Her initial reaction was, “You’ll be an amazing coach one day, but can’t you do that when you retire?” That’s when I discovered that I was unwilling to wait until retirement, but it took seven more years until I was fully ready to say goodbye to my old life and identity as a VC. Saying it out loud planted a seed that was able to germinate over time. And I wouldn’t have been able to answer the call without Eliza’s support, encouragement, and patience despite her initial reaction. This step will make your situation immediately less dire because you have shared it with someone else—you are no longer isolated and the problem loses power when it is shared. Revealing yourself is a beautiful act of trust not only in another person, but especially in yourself. Remember that the people who love and support you want to be included in your life. And if there is any initial resistance, it may be an opportunity to defend the part of you that is yearning.

Embrace your wholeness. We contain multitudes. We have many parts that help us navigate the world—some are friendly, wild, and helpful, while others get frightened and hold us back as a way to protect us from failure or vulnerability. The safety lies in discovering, understanding, and accepting all of our parts, including who we really are rather than who we are supposed to be (which is a constellation of parts!). Begin to look forward to where you are starting to have these thoughts of change, embrace the parts that are scared, have been rejected by you or others, or that are coming online now.

Journey into nature. Stepping outside and connecting with nature is healing, inspiring, and expanding. The outdoors also have a calming and grounding effect. Go for a walk in the woods, hike up a nearby mountain, or sit by the ocean. If you live in a city, find a park you can wander around or a bench to ponder on. Breathe and listen to what’s coming up. While getting out into nature isn’t meditation, it’s meditative. When I was out of alignment and struggling with the path forward, I spent hours riding my bike in the Catskills and sitting by the Ashokan Reservoir, staring into its reflective waters. If exercise isn’t available to you, you can create space by accepting silence, sitting quietly with no devices, tapping into the season of things.

Prioritize rest and recovery. When you’re out of alignment your nervous system will react as if you are under threat. That’s why it’s easy to confuse a lack of alignment with burn out (though they are not mutually exclusive). Taking time off and resting is essential business when you’re out of alignment. Get sleep. Take baths. Stretch your body. Go on vacation if you can. Care for yourself and take it seriously. When I was on my journey, I prioritized rest because that was the least of my priorities when I was investing. My first step was giving up late-night email and putting down my devices at 9pm so I could prioritize at least seven hours of sleep. You have to slow down to be able to hear your inner voice and catch glimpses of the unfolding miracle.

Get support. Don’t forget to get support along the way—a therapist, coach, or mentor—when preparing to answer the call. It can be difficult to get clarity alone. Reach out to friends to share your journey—it’s possible your call may trigger their own.  I’m grateful for support from countless friends and providers who helped me through the darkness and abyss all the way through becoming a coach and writer. I know I couldn’t have done it without them.

The Path To Alignment

Author and activist Parker Palmer wrote in Let Your Life Speak:

"Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”

Answering the call isn’t selfish—it’s an act of service to yourself and those who are lucky to reap the unfolding benefits of your full alignment and aliveness. By shifting away from VC towards coaching and writing, I finally connected with my deep longing for service, creative expression, and autonomy, while also expressing them outwardly in a truly authentic way. The results have been everything I dreamed of and more—less stress and anxiety, a happier home life, a healthier body, a thriving business, satisfied clients, and overall a better life. Paradoxically, by becoming closer to myself, I became less self-centered—closer and more available to everyone in my life and beyond it. For the first time in my life, I feel fully alive and aligned. Instead of wanting to burn everything down, I want to build. Instead of destroying myself, I want to create.

Remember, finding alignment and the right path takes time. My journey took nearly eight years from the moment I told my wife I thought I wanted to be a coach and when I actually left VC. As I unpacked what had brought me to the point of change, I understood that my journey had been far longer than that. Our culture and capitalism sell immediacy and shortcuts, but there’s beauty in slowness. When you take a step back and look at nature, you’ll see it’s “patient, steadfast, and steady.” There are no quick fixes—embrace that. It is your life.

You'll never know when the call will come, but it will—how unexpected life can be! Forgive, be gentle and patient, and don't forget to enjoy the adventure with a smile.

2022BurnoutLifeCareer

Steve Schlafman Twitter

Exec coach. Writer. Student of Change.