Getting A Grip

Yet another copywriter has contacted me today, rattled by the footsteps of burn-out coming up behind him, getting louder.

It’s a constant threat, for everyone who works hard and deep in their business. For decades now, people have had a good laugh at the expense of the guy going through his “mid life crisis”. It’s a standard issue joke. The guy is not to be pitied, but mocked.

Bad form, you know, wandering away from the shackles of work. Even for a brief adventure.

Bad form.

Well, it’s not a joke after you’ve put some miles on the old chasis. I have good friends going through legitimate “What’s it all about?” crises, and the pain is real. After slaving away for The Man all their adult lives, they’re now looking back on things, rather than staying focused on what’s coming up. Not a whole lot left coming up, it sometimes seems.

For most people, much of the hot-and-heavy action is now in the past. And that realization will unsettle you.

This most recent example of near-burn out, however, is still in his early twenties. It’s now officially an epidemic, from where I sit. I’m seeing people from every stage of life going into wicked tail-spins, so it’s a subject worth revisiting. Often.

But a steady drumbeat of “you gotta take off more fun time” advice doesn’t cut through the nonsense clean enough. People hear the message, but it doesn’t sink in.

Too much work to be done, and done today. No time to even think about time off…

So let’s try another angle: I just read a book review on a new release titled “Happiness”, by a guy with pop psychology credentials. I won’t be reading the entire tome, because I “get” what he’s going on about — life, it turns out, isn’t about acquiring things or even meeting goals. Studies prove that more toys and recognition doesn’t make you happier.

Instead, what the “happiness” doctors know is that a Zen-style awareness is the only way to guarantee you’re happier than normal. You gotta groove on the little things in your life — just being with friends, breathing deep, living well, that sort of thing.

Hardly a revelation. Worth a nod, though.

But what struck me in the review was this quote from a 10th century Spanish governor: “I have now reigned about fifty years in victory or peace. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call. I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot. They number to fourteen.”

Fourteen days, in half a century of being The Man. No money worries, respect up the yin yang, made up his own rules and forced people to follow them, probably a harem.

And he was only happy for a fortnight.

I feel richer than Bill Gates now. I’ve studied people all my life, and long ago realized that money wasn’t the answer to happiness. Nor new cars or new lovers or new anything else. There’s a “sweet spot” where you have enough dough to make the rent for the forseeable future, and enough romance to keep your hormones on a low boil, and a car that’s fun to drive… but those needs are easily met.

Looking back, I was more ecstatic about the first hundred-dollar check I earned as a freelancer than I was about the small fortune I just cashed for a single job. Decades after the overwhelming chaos of my first super-intense young-love affair, I’m pretty happy I don’t have to go through that kind of sweet pain every day. And I still miss my dinged-up old ’80 Celica rattletrap GT liftback — one of the ugliest cars ever made, but a low-slung spaceship for me. I’ve never sat in a cockpit as snug, comfy and compelling as that used-and-abused Toyota.

I drove it for ten years. When I shut the engine off the last time, it never started again. Exhausted, ready for the yard. But honored, because it made me happy.

I feel rich because I can count many days of happiness in my past. And — more important — I’m eagerly looking forward to many more. I have to plan for them now, of course… where in my wayward youth they were difficult to keep from happening spontaneously.

I’ve never NOT known what juiced my system.

And now — with all these books coming out about happiness, and all these people expressing fear of burn-out — I realize how rare that self-knowledge is.

I am not the happiest guy on the planet. I’m pretty sure of that.

But I wouldn’t WANT to be that guy. Much of the pleasure of a well-lived life is anticipation. Like that first check in my career, it’s often the struggle, and not the arrival, that is the most fun and adventurous and breathtaking. You never get to repeat your first trip to Europe, or your first breakthrough in business, or your first kiss.

Those are special moments.

I always felt irritation at Woody Allen movies (back when they were good) when he just refused to abandon his neuroses to the moment, and had to screw a good thing up because he couldn’t shut off the nonsense. Of course, done right, this is the crux of that kind of comedy.

But a lot of people just nod and commiserate — because they recognize the behavior. That’s just the way I am too, they say. Why are you laughing?

If finding out what the shrinks have discovered about happiness is something you need to pursue, get the book. Let me know if it’s any good. Also try “Learned Optimism”, one I can recommend without hesitation.

But mostly, I just wanted to inject some more street-level reality into the conversation. Even a poor man can experience great joy, if he’s wired into life and living in the moment. And even the richest man can have a poverty of the soul that defies soothing by worldly treasure and pleasure.

The key to finding out what makes you happy… is to begin finding out who you are. That is NOT a default position in most human brains. You have to go in and do a manual set-up in your hard drive.

What I teach are the shortcuts to making it big. I have always focused on the shortcuts because I’m lazy, and I want more time off.

You’re doing it wrong if you use the shortcuts in order to fit in more work.

Think about it.

And stay frosty.

John Carlton

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  • Michael says:

    (Apologies for the formatting not transferring across…) Even a poor man can experience great joy. They can also suffer from burnout. Some of the people I’ve talked to that now live on the street do so _because_ they suffered burnout, and are yet to recover. . .
    Some of the lucky few wake up one morning and realise the last five or ten years of their life have been wasted. I’m reminded of a quote “I turned my head away for a minute, and ten years went by.” This begins another process of self-discovery, or mid life crisis, depending on what definition you choose. This can last weeks or years depending on how equipped the person is. . .

    Even fewer wake up, and realise that what they have been doing is their true calling. People like you, John, who then take the steps needed to balance their work with the rest of their life. . .

    Others suddenly realise they have been overworked when something they have (usually taken for granted) breaks. It could be their marriage, their body, their friendships, or their business. Because the pressure people put themselves under never limits itself to just them and it flows, like water under pressure, to fill in the low pressure areas of their life. . .

    Still others struggle in their work with poor or in-effective methods. Only realising they are inefficient when the workload increases to a level that causes the cracks and gaps that have always existed to become obvious. Usually those cracks have been apparent to everyone else for a long time. Other people easily notice the three or more coffees a day to keep you going, the forgotten hobbies, the poor diet (usually with a high liquid component), the uncontrolled anger at trivial events, and the many other common signs. . .

    Unfortunately, as copywriters you know that human nature being what it is – the cure sells better than prevention. It’s not until the people under pressure are given a direct punch to the kidneys that they realise they need to change. That punch may come from anywhere, at any time. Those lucky few that act and find the right solution to get a little more training and awareness are prepared and are able survive or even dodge the punch when it comes. . .

    You need to keep writing about this John, your readers need to understand and _act_ to save their own lives. Burnout can kill. Burnout can even result in fates worth than death – severe stroke for example. And yet burnout is easily preventable. . .


  • ken oneill says:

    Burn out is no joke. I may only be 27 but i have allready had on bout with it . It is a terrible thing to deal with , much worse when you can walk away . when your emplyer does everything possible to make it worse . Or you have nothing to fall back on. No escape.

    It was hell for about a year. Looking back though i am glad it happened this early. I have plenty of time to change course try new things . no wife kids or mortgage to worry about . I also know the signs personally. I won’t let it happen again .

    But there are many people i worked with 15 to 20 years older than me .. making the same crap money trying to feed a family . Stuck in crappy jobs .. with the only option they have to deal with it ,being drinking a few or more than a few beers when they get home from work .

    With the pace of society today burn out is going to become more and more common.

    the option for people . is not just to have fun stuff in their spare time . But to get off there ass and find a career they enjoy that can pay the bills .


  • mark says:

    I don’t worry about not making money from my writing on “the nets”, to me it’s all about creating value.

    But if you go out to party tonight without me,
    leave the back light on so I can crawl in the house at about 5 am.

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