When Ambition Gets The Best Of You: A Story of Modern Burnout

For the past couple of months, I’ve been sleeping on my parent’s couch, weathering a mental storm of life-crippling proportions.
After 9+ years of wellness without a major mental health struggle, this one struck out of nowhere and caught me off guard.
The struggles I’ve been through, while unique to me, are IMO far too common in today’s hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world – one that sees us pushing farther, faster, higher with no end in sight.
Some of us reach a breaking point health-wise (physical or mental), others reach it financially or in their relationships.
I’ve spent some time exploring why and how my recent struggles happened and wanted to share some insights with you to offer insights into your own wellness journey.
Here are some thoughts from an 8 week of struggle this past Summer…
1) I was living by the idea of ‘find a way to say yes’
I read a blog a few months ago that shared a number of quotes from business leaders. Of course I have heard many times the importance of saying no from many, many leaders, but a quote from Michael Dell – Founder of Dell Computers – ran counter to that and I immediately fell in love with it.
The idea of the quote was that ‘everyone tells you to say no all the time, but I try to find a way to say yes’.
The idea of the quote is brilliant, but in practice, it’s either not practical or at least not practical for most people. Likely less practical still if you’re someone who lives with a mental illness.
Being the human guinea pig I am for trying and testing all sorts of wellness and productivity ideas, I gave it my best shot and did everything I could to say yes to every invitation, every collaboration and every opportunity for about a year.
I now realize that trying to say yes to every opportunity is not sustainable and we must prioritize what we need to do and what we should do (based on our current commitments) over new opportunities/what we want to do.
This brings me to my second insight…
2) My ‘Sustainable Success Cycle’ was not so sustainable
The Sustainable Success Cycle is a framework I created and have promoted in speeches and workshops over the past few years as a way to make any success we create for ourselves sustainable over the long term.
An example of this is when I wanted to go fully self-employed with Mavrixx. I said to myself that I could push to my absolute limits for 6 months to make it happen, but that if I did that, I would likely crash soon after if I did so. Instead, I adjusted the timeline to allow the transition to be more sustainable and although there were still challenges, I was able to handle the transition period.
The ‘Sustainable Success Cycle’ (original) is focused on 3 parts: 1) Modelling; 2) Momentum; and 3) Accountability
In my efforts since going fully self-employed 2 years ago, I’ve focused on momentum far too much and this past Summer, I got to the point of not being able to keep up with the momentum with everything that was happening.
I’ve decided to update the framework to better reflect sustainable success in my current perspective of it…
The ‘Sustainable Success Cycle’ (updated): 1) Model Success; 2) Live Your Sweet Spot; and 3) Build Accountability
Living your sweet spot means finding that mix of growth and stability; the balance of living within and outside your comfort zone; of pushing hard and pulling back.
It’s all well and good to push beyong our comfort zone, but we must return regularly to our comfort zone to not lose our sense of self. The comfort space is the strong foundation we build from.
3) I was pushing too much, pulling too little
After working 12-18 hour days for most of Fall, 2015, climbing Aconcagua in January, returning to work-sprint-mode from Feb-May and then climbing Denali in May/June, I returned to Vancouver to climb another couple of mountains that pushed my limits and had Rainier expedition lined up for the following weekend.
An opportunity to attend a retreat came up and I thought it would be a good opportunity to pull back and shift out of mountaineering mode for a bit
Never having really been to a personal development retreat before, I wasn’t sure what I had signed up for, but was excited for some chill, good times, with good people in a beautiful setting up the Sunshine Coast. While it was all of those things, it was also a hard-core spiritual growth experience that was described as exponential personal development. It was like personal development on steroids getting super raw and real and uncovering and processing deep emotional wounds. I described it afterwards as the weirdest, wildest, most powerful event I’ve ever attended. While it was a great experience and I and many people got a lot out of it, for me it was bad timing and the opposite of the relaxing environment I was in need of.
Note to self – do your homework. But also… no regrets.
4) I failed to fully understand the confidence – competence loop
With Denali successfully summited, a clean slate ahead of me and a say yes to everything attitude, I was kickstarting a ton of projects and initiatives and side projects, many of which could be full time jobs on their own.
My confidence and confidence in starting new things was detached from my competence in being able to fulfill those commitments and it came to bite me when the stress of being able to handle it all began to pile up.
The confidence and confidence I had came from tapping into a powerful flow state post-Denali and post-retreat, which leads me to the last error I’ll touch on…
5) Not understanding the Flow Cycle well enough
The Flow Cycle is something Steven Kotler decoded and describes in his book ‘The Rise of Superman’ and involves 4 states: Struggle, Release, Flow & Recovery.
I listened to the audiobook about a year ago and the idea of popping into flow stuck with me, but I was focused solely on the flow part of the cycle and didn’t realize that post-flow, we need to be ready for recovery and struggle once again. I also didn’t clue into the fact that playing with flow is like playing with fire – as highlighted throughout the book with stories of extreme adventurers (some of whom have died in their adventure pursuits).
Post-Denali and post-retreat, I was in a complete flow state where everything was as close to perfect as it’s ever been in my life. Every conversation, every day was amazing and I felt on top of the world and worst of all, I believed that was the new reality I would forever live in.
When the neurotransmitters began depleting, the stress piled up from the new commitments and the settling back into ‘reality’, all of a sudden I didn’t have the energy or mental horsepower to keep up with the life I was living during flow.
My mind turned negative and fear got the best of me to the point of a 2 month, unplanned crash/forced rest and recovery phase with an incredible amount of emotional turmoil and pain both for myself and my family.
Lesson Learned:
I have learned a lot from this struggle and am in the process of building a life and lifestyle that sits on a stronger foundation and one that’s more sustainable, but there’s one lesson I’m reminded of that at times I dislike, but I accept as fully as anything…
To be willing to experience life fully is to be willing to struggle fully and experience pain fully.
And that’s not something I’m willing to give up.
*Article on the Flow Cycle: http://bit.ly/KotlersFlowCycle
*Rise of Superman / Steven Kotler’s website: http://bit.ly/RiseOfSuperman

Brent Seal

Brent Seal is a Speaker, Trainer and Adventurer and the Founder of Mavrixx. Based in Vancouver, Brent is the creator of The EDGE High Performance Wellness Training Program and the MINDvsMOUNTAIN Adventure Program. Brent is a Co-Creator and Co-Host of the Balancing Our Minds Youth Summit held at Rogers Arena and he’s likely Canada’s 4th worst ultra-runner.

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