“Passion and purpose go hand in hand. When you discover your purpose, you will normally find it’s something you’re tremendously passionate about.” – Steve Pavlina
A few thousand years ago, the prophet Jeremiah suffered burnout. Decades of pronouncing judgment on an unrepentant Israel wore him down. In the book named after him, he begs for release from this horrible work, but God forbids him to leave it.
Jeremiah’s battle against burnout reveals who he really is as a leader – a mixture of character traits and weaknesses we can all appreciate.
Even when the job stinks, Jeremiah never quits. Like the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” reality show, no one wants to do Jeremiah’s job. Other prophets get to speak of magnificent future events but Jeremiah pronounces only destruction. Because the Israelites never change their ways, he never changes his message.
He is publicly fearless and faithful, privately weak and doubtful. Jeremiah stands strong against the kings and leaders who threaten him. But inside, the proud prophet crumbles under depression and resentment. He accuses God of abandoning him: “You truly have become like a mirage to me – water that is not reliable” (Jer. 15:18).
He is lonely. He further drives a wedge between him and his people when he shuns all social contact. Jeremiah would rather sit in solitude than fraternize with those he is condemning.
He slowly loses his way. The great prophet demands to know why God has allowed him to fall into this pit. Years of throwing himself into his work without any results or reward has left him burned out and resentful. The problem, God tells him, is that he has forgotten his calling. Jeremiah must return to the original vision that launched his ministry.
In 2000, Fast Company magazine asked executives how they battled burnout. An air traffic controller responded, “It finally dawned on me that the job wasn't going to change – and that I had to. That's when I started running the Chicago Marathon. When I come home and put on my running shoes to train, I stop thinking about the tower.” Another executive said, “To stay fresh and focused, I made sure that I had certain getaway rituals.”
According To Christina Maslach, author of The Truth About Burnout (Jossey-Bass, 1997), burnout is a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal workplace stressors, and is defined by a confluence of exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy.
Maslach writes in the Fast Company article, “I build certain rituals into my weekly and monthly calendar. That's the only way to make sure that I do things that I enjoy and that energize me. You must learn to fence off certain parts of your life, to protect those chunks of time, and to decide for yourself how you're going to use them. Because if you don't, then someone else will.”
Rituals may help us cope with stress, but burnout dwells deeper.
In the book of Jeremiah, God’s advice to the prophet also applies to the despondent leader: get back to your original calling and passion. At two different points in my career I proposed new job descriptions to my employers. The customized positions realigned me with my passions and abilities. I got to do what I loved, while continuing to grow and develop in the same company.
I read of one CEO who resists burnout by inoculating his entire company against it. Jason Fried, founder of software developer 37Signals, forbids his people to succumb to complexity.
In an interview, Fried says of his competitors, “Everyone tries to do too much: solve too many problems, build products with too many features…. So we say ‘no’ to almost everything. If you include every decent idea that comes along, you’ll just wind up with a half-[baked] version of your product. What you really want to do is build half a product that [dominates].”
37Signals targets customers with smaller budgets and simpler problems, which require simpler software solutions. To keep its employees fresh, the company recently introduced a 4-day workweek. Fried resists hiring people until he exhausts other means of solving productivity issues, such as streamlining processes or employing technology.
This philosophy complements Jeremiah’s lesson of returning to your passion. If I say yes to all outside influences, including everyone else’s expectations, opinions, and criticisms, I end up with a half-baked, burned-out version of myself. But if I can maintain sure footing on my strengths, while focusing on what I enjoy doing, work and life take on a whole new meaning.
He is author of Leading from the Lions’ Den: Leadership Principles from Every Book of the Bible, (Sept. 2010, B&H Publishing). His Twitter account is @TomRHarper.