BURN BRIGHT, DON'T BURN OUT

by Leonard Felder, reprinted from ODE magazine, September 2008

When you think of someone standing up to battle the status quo, you probably envision a lonely individual facing insurmountable odds. After all, in films like "Norma Rae," "Erin Brockovich," and"To Kill a Mockingbird," the passionate change-maker is usually teetering on the edge of burnout.

When I was counseling a gifted change agent who was using art to raise awareness on important issues, I noticed she assumed that feeling burned out - after having difficulty raising money for her non-profit organization - was a natural consequence of being slightly ahead of her time.

I believe burning out as an isolated martyr is old school. I was thinking about that when I was driving my son to school. He loves to watch the engine/battery diagram on the screen of our Prius to see when we're burning petroleum and when we're recharging the energy supply without a drain on the fuel. I realized recharging constantly like a hybrid vehicle is the way to avoid burnout.

Here are a few key steps I've found effective for any change-maker who doesn't want to become another burnout statistic.

Step 1: Ask yourself if you're breathing. If you tighten up or forget to breathe fully during stressful moments, your brain doesn't get the oxygen it needs, and your shoulders, neck and back muscles will conspire to shut down all your valuable efforts at changing the world. So just keep breathing; your body needs it.

Step 2: Make sure your humour, purpose and sense of decency keep you healthy. During World War II, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl and his relatives were captured by the Nazis and taken to concentration camps, where Frankl lost his wife, brother, mother and father. After the war, he taught that the best way to stay sane and committed to repairing the world is to search for moments of integrity even when others around you are giving up on their humanity. In the concentration camps, Frankl made sure to find purpose, kindness, humour and inner mindfulness, which gave him strength, endurance and creative problem-solving ideas each day. He always looked for ways to be of service to at least one person every day. Whenever I'm in a tough situation, I bring Frankl to mind and I explore how I can be of service.

Step 3: Turn each setback into wisdom. Those who burn out tend to see each setback as an indication that they or their ideas are bound to fail. Yet if you think of each setback as a prized gift of wisdom - as one more mysterious clue that needs to be opened and explored to reach the next triumphant moment - your body and emotional resiliency won't be depleted as often. You'll be able to say to yourself, "This setback is an important piece of missing information about what I now need to include in my vision for change. I'm very fortunate for this chance to learn something so valuable."

Step 4: Find allies in places you never imagined. Often, change-makers only talk to people who agree with them, and feel frustrated or impatient with anyone who has a different point of view. Yet the most effective agents of change are those who can build alliances with people who see things otherwise. In my work, I've witnessed a coalition of pro-choice and anti-abortion groups built to help improve the birth-control decisions used by sexually active teens; Muslims and Jews working together to find solutions to water shortages in the Middle East; and edgy artists and conservative business owners collaborating on solutions to the pervasiveness of urban graffiti.

Like a hybrid car that knows when to sit quietly by a traffic light using no fuel and when to speed up to 65 miles an hour in a few seconds, we change-makers need to learn how to conserve and recharge our energy moment to moment, day after day. Otherewise we're likely to burn out, and what needs to be changed and improved will be ignored or perpetuated.

Leonard Felder is a psychologist and consultant in Los Angeles who recently wrote "Fitting In Is Overrated: The Survival Guide for Anyone Who Has Ever Felt Like An Outsider." Find out more at Fitting In Is Overrated.