How a hectic schedule and chronic health problem took me to the brink, and how I came back
“You’re only working 12 hours a day? What are you, weak? You’re only working half days. Listen, kid, working nine-to-five is just keeping up with the Joneses. Work nights and weekends also, then you’ll smoke ’em.” That was the mindset.
And there is truth to that mindset. Kill yourself growing a business, and you’ll do well. At one point, I owned the fastest-growing sign company in the Columbia, South Carolina, area. It fizzled out when my business partner couldn’t keep up with my pace. For at least five years, I had the fastest-growing pool company in Greenville, South Carolina; not the biggest, but people were going to know my name. I succeeded. As my bottom line grew year over year, my wholesalers would tell me how proud they were of me as they watched their bottom line grow as well.
In 2018, I had a gross sales goal to obtain at all costs. My business coach said, “You can’t do it.” My accountant said, “Maybe next year.” I heard the same thing from everyone I told about my goal. But I accomplished that goal — at all costs. What I didn’t realize was exactly what that cost would be.
As it turned out, the cost of achieving my goal was my physical and mental health. Even though I hit my goal in mid-December 2018, I felt no satisfaction from the accomplishment. In fact, I felt worse than I did when I set the goal.
Unfortunately, burnout is very common in our industry. It’s common in our culture. There have been few times in history when a civilization has been more overworked than ours. The reasons are many; the consequences are real and, in some cases, devastating. Our industry has even seen very good craftsman get burned out to the point where they have taken their own lives. Overworked. Underappreciated. No hope in sight. I heard it put once, “We only have 10 months to make 12 months’ worth of money.”
At the end of 2018, as I looked into the future, I only saw more work. What good is it to do the best work out there if you’re only going to continue to do that work 80 hours a week, 52 weeks a year until you die? Sure, I built a good business. We, as a company, have very high reviews. We make sure our work is better than most. But I found myself locked in a never-ending cycle, feeling hopeless.
The straw that broke this camel’s back
Docked an hour away was one of my real passions: a 24-foot Helms sailboat. It wasn’t the sailboat itself, but my passion for sailing. Ever since my teenage years, my goal was to make enough money so that I could take my family on a sail around the world. We would visit exotic places and my children would learn about other cultures. In the three years we owned that boat, I can count on one hand the number of times we actually took her out. It was time to sell.
On the day I took her new owners out for a test run, she handled more beautifully than she ever had before. She seemed to like them. She took the light breeze as if it were a steady gust and scooted along like a knife through butter. She tacked perfectly just before we headed back to the marina. The deal was done. Money in hand, I headed home. Despair started to fill my heart and tears filled my eyes. My dream was slipping away. The voices in my head grew louder: “You’re working for nothing. Two decades of work was for nothing.” The adversary had me, and I was too weak to fight back.
Broken and discouraged, I still had 80-plus hour work weeks ahead of me. “You’re alone,” the voices said. “Your wife doesn’t care about you. Your business coach has taken you as far as she can. Your accountants are just glorified number crunchers. Hell, even your lawyers are just waiting for you to get sued.” The worst part is, I listened without retort. I was done.
Opening my eyes
7 a.m. Friday: Yet another staff meeting where we discussed the same thing as the last one.
8 a.m.: The staff meeting was over, and it was time to wrap up a few things before a trip. It was Mother’s Day weekend and we had planned to go camping a couple of hours south in Georgia. The forecast through the weekend was 100% chance of rain. Imagine it: myself, my wife and three kids under age 8 trapped in a “cabin” one-third the size of a singlewide trailer with no chance of going outside. Oh, and the pool at the campground was being renovated. Our plans? FUBAR.
Then it hit me — where will the weather be good? In this case, Florida.
10 a.m.: I got on the phone, frantically making calls. A buddy recommended a place, and I was able to book a resort-style room at a wonderful place just south of Orlando. Another buddy helped us find a flight at a decent price.
Noon: Plans in place, dog off to be boarded, get the kids picked up quickly from school. Packed up and ran for the airport.
2 p.m.: We were on the plane and wheels up. It all happened so fast, the kids still didn’t know what was going on. We went from FUBAR to in the air in fewer than six hours.
Sitting pool side at the resort the next day, I thought about what was happening to me. It creeped in so slowly. Burnout does that. I came to the conclusion that I needed help.
A few days later, back to the grind, I had not fully learned my lesson. Another breakdown or two later, I sat down with my business coach and spilled my guts. She said I needed a doctor, and I finally listened…after yet another break down. Yeah, I’m hardheaded.
Sitting in the doctor’s office, everything inside me poured out. After a few visits, he diagnosed me with a mild manic-depressive disorder magnified by how hard I was pushing myself.
It begins with acknowledging my chronic health problem and actively treating it. Among my doctors, myself and my business coach, we came up with a plan:
More me time. Take a break. Take a day or a few to recharge. No more seven days a week. Savor the moments.
Medication. Doctor-prescribed medication to help manage stress.
Have a plan. Know what the goals are, what the end game is and where you want to end up. It’s all key.
Build a team. You don’t have to go it alone. Have people around you who can be trusted and are on the same page.
We now spend a lot more time with family and recharging, and the breakdowns are few and far between.
This is but a sliver of the vast topic of extreme burnout. It’s only a small part of my story. Please feel free to send me yours. If any of this sounds familiar or you are feeling overwhelmed, please seek help and know that you are not alone.