Brain Injury to Burnout to Breakdown: What I learned in my longest winter
You get the same lesson until you learned it. Now, I’ve learned. At least I hope so.
I was recovering from a traumatic brain injury when my grandpa called me to come over for a “meeting.” It was a cold winter day in January 2015.
Grandpa told me that I was moving too fast, trying to do too much. He exhorted me to take my cues from nature.
Bears don’t hunt in winter, he said. They hibernate. They cuddle and snuggle.
The words were a shock to my system. My grandpa was an amazing man. Generous, wise, learned, savvy in business. I knew he loved me. But he was formal and reserved. This was a man who wore a jacket and tie to a 2-year-old’s birthday party. Greetings were a kiss on the cheek, not a hug. He didn’t bounce us on his knee. Cuddle and snuggle were not his language.
Grandpa had built a successful business in England before leaving it to come to New York to help his father and then started over here. He valued hard work and discipline.
And yet, here he was: telling me to slow down, to take my cues from nature, to look at how the bears cuddle and snuggle in the cold winter months.
Grandpa asked me to promise him that I would take his advice, slow down, and rest.
Ordinarily, I would be quick to resist. I could hear the echoes of my mind pushing back:
I don’t have time to slow down. There is too much to do.
If I don’t work hard then I won’t see results in my business. I don’t want to be perceived as lazy.
There isn’t time to stop and rest. If I stop I won’t be able to keep up. I’ll fall behind.
Times are different now. Things move faster.
These were not just my fears; these are the fears of a culture addicted to busy and seduced by the hustle.
I knew it was futile to push back.
First, it never made sense to argue with grandpa.
Second, grandpa wasn’t oblivious to the changing times. He was the first in the family to get an iPhone, and always the first to upgrade his phone. He often stayed up late to surf the web on the computer in his study.
Third, people who live long and successful lives have a few secrets.
Fourth, I had received strict orders from the doctor to rest. My instructions in those early days of recovery were draconian: limitations on screen time, physical books, podcasts, music, writing, and phone.
I was in no position to argue, so I agreed. I promised.
From Brain Injury to Burnout to Breakdown
Almost three years later, I’ve learned a lot about the value of rest. I thought the brain injury in 2015 was the end of the lesson. It turned out that my lesson was just getting started.
2016 was my year of burnout, but I didn’t recognize it until it completely shut me down in the early months of 2017.
On the heels of burnout, I experienced a breakdown. My body, my spirit, my emotions, my mind: everything shut down. It was too much.
Anyone who stopped to look could have seen these things coming. I had been working steadily for over 15 years without ever fully disconnecting from the world.
What Fuels Our Drive
Our cultural ethos of “work hard” and “hustle” is tied to a fear of what will happen if we slow down, or even — dare I say it — stop entirely.
There’s a palpable fear that if we shut down — even for a few minutes — we will miss something big: the latest news, opportunities, deals.
We are so afraid to disconnect for fear of what we might miss, that what we actually miss is the opportunity to connect for real.
We are so afraid to slow down for fear of being left behind, not realizing that in the stillness awaits the wisdom that could allow us to get farther, faster.
We are so afraid to hamper our productivity that we miss the real key to productivity.
Ironically, we are living at a time when we (and by “we” I mean most reasonable people) have a greater awareness of how our behavior affects the planet.
Our conversation cannot be limited to what we are doing to the earth. We must recognize that this is a relationship. The rhythms of the earth affect us too, whether we like it or not.
The more we disconnect from these natural rhythms, the more we risk a breakdown in our internal rhythms. Our sleep cycles fall into disarray. We lose our sense of where we are, and, indeed, who we are.
What I Learned in the Darkness
With each hit to my energy, I was forced to deepen in rest. I spent weeks or months at a time off-line. I drastically cut down on books, movies, podcasts, TV shows, and social media. I limited activities and commitments. I broke the habit of “busy.”
In the darkness, I learned to see.
In the silence, I learned to listen.
In the space, I learned to feel.
I learned that “time management” is a red herring in productivity. Because even if I had all the time in the world, I couldn’t do anything without energy. Without life force.
As these lessons finally sank in, I realized I had to make this change permanent, because unless I chose to pause on my own, life would continue to find ways to force me to pause.
I started to incorporate more space and more rest into my days, weeks and months. I learned that grandpa was right about the need to live aligned with the fundamental laws of nature. Everything in nature goes dormant before reemerging. We are no different.
I learned to listen to the wisdom from the earth. It tells us when to slow down and when to speed up.
When I start to feel like I have “too much to do” and “not enough time,” I slow down instead of speeding up.
As it turns out, this creates sustainability and amplifies productivity.
This is the Time to Reclaim Our Rhythms
Today is the Winter Solstice. In the northern hemisphere, it is the shortest day of the year; the longest night. This is our cue from the earth: slow down, go inward.
Reflect. Rest. Rejuvenate.
Forget about what you might miss. Focus on what you’ll gain.