THE BLOG

Burnout: Time to Abandon a Very Costly Collective Delusion

04/06/2014 11:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2014

As I've been out on the road talking about Thrive, it's been inspiring meeting people and hearing their stories about how they're trying to navigate our culture of overwork and burnout. "I don't remember the last time I was not tired," one young woman told me after my conversation with Sheryl Sandberg at the San Francisco Symphony Hall. And many others -- men and women, young and old -- echo that same sentiment. Especially among the young ones, there is one question that has been coming up again and again, which is some variation of "hey, it's OK for you to say 'you don't need to burnout' now that you're already successful, but what about those of us just starting out who want to succeed?"

It's a good question -- and it seems like a logical one. I say it seems logical because its premise is actually flawed in a number of ways. First, there's the assumption that professional success and a successful life are one and the same. Defining success in that limited way is a result of using the flawed (and limited) metrics that Thrive is an attempt to get us to move beyond.

Because we are more than our jobs. Who we are at work isn't the totality of who we are. And confusing the two will -- sooner or later -- lead to choices that are antithetical to thriving. Our world is full of the casualties of this confusion -- hyper-successful people are depressed, addicted or suffering from stress-related diseases.

The second way the question is flawed is the dangerous assumption it makes that overwork and burnout are the only path to professional success. Even if professional success is the most important thing to you, depriving yourself of sleep, never letting yourself recharge, never disconnecting, not allowing any time for quiet reflection and for those you love -- is not a sustainable career strategy. Not only are quantity of work and quality of work two very different things, at some point -- more quickly than you think -- they become inversely related.

But it's amazing how deeply ingrained this myth is. When I was talking with Oprah about the book for her Super Soul Sunday program (the conversation will air on Mother's Day), she told me how, in the early years of her Oprah show, she'd work so late that she'd get home and collapse on to her bed without even having the energy to change her clothes. Of course, you might be inclined to attribute her enormous success to that level of overwork, but as we discuss on the show, that's clearly not the case. Oprah didn't become Oprah because she worked so much she didn't even have the strength at night to change out of her clothes. She became a success -- both professionally and personally -- because of her phenomenal talents, her deep capacity for empathy, her gift for telling stories and touching hearts, and for urging people to live their best lives. Oprah wasn't successful because of working so late she had to sleep in her clothes (and, no doubt, many other manifestations of overwork), she was successful in spite of that.

Similarly, I'm reminded of Erin Callan, who recounted in the New York Times last year her story of rising to be the CFO of Lehman Brothers and resigning just before the entire company collapsed. She recounted how her job always came first, even at the cost of her marriage. After leaving the company, she was devastated and had trouble recovering. "I did not know how to value who I was versus what I did," she wrote. "What I did was who I was."

Now, having had time to reflect, she realizes she was more than her job:

Until recently, I thought my singular focus on my career was the most powerful ingredient in my success. But I am beginning to realize that I sold myself short. I was talented, intelligent and energetic. It didn't have to be so extreme. Besides, there were diminishing returns to that kind of labor.

She concluded: "I now believe that I could have made it to a similar place with at least some better version of a personal life."

And that's the point: The need to get rid of the perilous belief that overwork is an essential precondition of high performance and effectiveness. Far from it.

As Bill Clinton once said, "every important mistake I've made in my life, I've made because I was too tired." Sun Tzu's Chinese military treaty The Art of War is one of the most popular books among CEOs and business executives. We'd all be better off if CEOs read instead The Giving Tree or Make Way for Ducklings. Empathy and collaboration are more valuable tools for career progress in our modern interconnected economy than the idea that "all war is based on deception." As Wharton professor Adam Grant makes clear in his best-selling book Give and Take, those who give their time and effort to others end up achieving more success than those who don't. Salespeople with the highest annual revenue are those who are the most motivated to help their customers and coworkers; the engineers with the highest productivity and fewest errors are those who do more favors for colleagues than they receive. Grant also cites research indicating that companies led by CEOs who are "takers" end up having more fluctuating, volatile returns.

And in Thrive, I quote a large number of scientific studies that confirm the profound negative effects that overwork, burnout, and sleep deprivation have on practically every part of our mental and physical health and performance. As the Harvard Medical School's Division of Sleep Medicine explains, sleep deprivation played a critical role in the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez spill and the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion: "Sleep deprivation negatively impacts our mood, our ability to focus, and our ability to access higher-level cognitive functions." And for anybody wanting professional success, higher-level cognitive functions come in pretty handy.

Writing in Forbes last week, Michael Thomsen notes the widespread adoption of the culture of extreme burnout in Silicon Valley and among tech startups, three-quarters of which are failing. "Could it be," he asks, "that the myth of the obsessive careerist whose dedication to work follows him to bed every night is actually a grand farce of worst practices and general dysfunction?"

A grand farce of worst practices and general dysfunction indeed! That is the collective delusion we have all been laboring under at tremendous cost to our health, our relationships, our productivity, our creativity and our planet.

Good ideas are much more valuable to a successful business than exhausted employees. They are the lightning in a bottle everyone is trying to capture. And we know for a fact that nothing kills creativity, intuition and originality faster than sleep deprivation and burnout. "It may be," writes Thomsen, "that accepting the normalcy of non-stop work is encouraging a culture of unusually bad thinking, painstakingly propped up by those charged with turning thought into real product." He concludes by asking, "How can any work ethic connected to such dimming of cognitive function produce anything worth having?"

And while burnout dims our cognitive function, mindfulness tools like meditation increase it. In one scientific study, researchers at Leiden University found that various meditation techniques can boost both "divergent thinking," which allows us to come up with many different ideas, and "convergent thinking," which helps us produce one specific solution to one particular problem.

Fortunately, word is finally starting to get out. The list of CEOs coming out as meditators is getting longer each year. There's Mark Bertolini of Aetna, Ray Dalio of Bridgewater and Marc Benioff of Salesforce to name just a few. They're all testifying to the truth that recharging and renewing ourselves and performance at work are not exclusive, but in fact deeply and necessarily connected.

Instead of role models being held up for "working 24/7," we should be selecting role models based on how well they work. Such a gallery would include Padmasree Warrior, the chief technology officer of Cisco, a $43 billion company. Warrior meditates daily and goes on regular weekend digital detoxes. In an interview last year she explained her approach:

The important thing to remember is it's not about balance, it's about integration... The important thing that I would like to add to the conversation is to really focus on making sure you're integrating all four aspects -- your work, your family, your community and yourself. And it's not about trying to spend equal amounts of time every single day on each of these things, but making sure you're paying attention to all the things that make us up as a whole human being.


We all have to find our own way. There are many different paths, but we have to start by discarding pre-Copernican calculations based on the faulty belief that overwork and constant busyness are the center of the universe.

But, to circle back, even though it's clear that taking care of our human capital will actually help our careers, we should remember that our careers do not define us. The goal is to thrive, not advance up the corporate ladder.

I'm not saying don't have big dreams and don't try to excel at your job. I'm simply saying that we shouldn't allow professional success to define us. We're more than our to-do lists. And we don't have to wait until we get a corner office for our lives to have value and meaning. We can thrive wherever we find ourselves right now, and being exactly who we already are.