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Standing in the fire – Is Burnout Inevitable?

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

By Kieron Concannon

When I started writing this piece,  I thought I was going to be telling the story of other people’s journeys, it did not occur to me that the real story, the real experience, was mine.

The more I have pondered (and wrestled with) the subject, the more I realised that the best way to serve the topic was to work from where I am, or where I have been, and how far I have travelled. To dig where I stand. Just as those who so kindly and generously offered their stories of Burnout did so with me, when they opened their hearts with their raw and honest accounts of the collateral damage they experienced. I thank them from the bottom of my heart.

So after a couple of false starts, I have arrived at the recognition and acceptance of the actual experience of my own Burnout, (in all its magnificently-painful-and-on-going-glory) and to speak from the heart, and not just do a literature review of the subject (which would be so much easier – and involve far less self-reflection).

I know that in this context I am mostly addressing social entrepreneurs. However, my (more recent) background has been in the creative industries and I have worked as artist manager, tour manager, Independent record label founder and CEO, composer, music producer and musician. But I see these areas as being very closely aligned, with many parallels between the artist and the change makers. The same but different. They share the same drives and passions and desire to serve their communities and make the world the place it should be. And without them we are lost, they give meaning and purpose to the chaos.

People often seem to have a very casual way of speaking of Burnout. It’s a bit like when we speak of famine or natural disasters around the world, yes, they are serious, tragic and unfortunate, but they don’t really affect most us in our daily lives, do they?  Often we flirt with the ideas of certain life realities, sometimes dancing dangerously close to them but safe in the knowledge we are not going to experience those realities ourselves, the lucky few. What is it they say about rats in London? You are always much closer to one than you might ever realise? Burnout, as a term or concept was apparently, first described by Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, although I am sure most would agree, it is as old as Adam.

So how did I get there?

Towards the end of the
1980’s, after a four-year stint at university as a mature student (their words
not mine) I began my short career as a teacher of 10-year-old children. It was
a difficult time in the world of education in the UK back then (not much has
changed apparently). New systems of metrics were being introduced to assess the students in something known
as the National Curriculum, and virtually overnight, all but destroyed my own
ideas of what education should be for this age group.

It took me many years to wake up to the realization that my painful experiences of working in mainstream education came down simply to a lack of congruence in what I thought education was and what they thought education was – to sum it up simply, there was a lot more fun and laughter in my version. This cognitive dissonance between my values and the value set of the institutions I was representing (and the young lives I was shaping) became deeply corrosive and toxic, but at the time I couldn’t recognise for what it was – the early stages of Burnout.

But a very old-fashioned
(deeply conditioned) part of me, (thanks dad), that couldn’t over-right or delete the old software believed I just had to keep pushing ahead,
with my work and my role that I had given up so much for.  It might be uncomfortable but “just keep
going, there is light at the end of the tunnel” (and that was where I was
headed).

 As a young man I was press-ganged into the family business, (thanks dad) and initiated
into the realm of construction and the wonderful world of Bulldozers. At first
I hated it, and then as with so many things in life, I learned to love it. Was
it the competence and confidence of just ‘how-fucking-good-I-was’ with these
mechanical beasts at the root of that love? It doesn’t matter, I was good, and
I still miss the intimate and balletic nature of man and heavy machine in
(near) perfect harmony.

What did I learn from those machines and my dad? Perhaps, inevitably, I learned to think of my body as a machine, indeed, the whole world was just one big machine, to be tamed and bent to mans will (apologies for the gender bias). There were no limits and I shone amongst my peers in my predominantly male-dominated work environment. And back then, to be ‘a man’ was everything. It set me up to take on Herculean tasks – the completion of each one came with that frisson of self-congratulatory pride at over-coming impossible odds that I soon became addicted to – and it put me on a crash course with becoming a repeat, (if not serial offender) in the Burnout stakes.

In reality, this machine-like thinking got me through a lot. On the flip side, it also got me into a lot of trouble. Burnout, as far as my peers were concerned (and me I guess), did not officially exist back then (no one told them about Freudenberger) and indeed, it was a luxury most of them could not afford, even had they believed in such a mythically implausible idea, (for them the existence of unicorns was more likely than this thing Burnout). But the tragic consequence of this unaknowledged and misunderstood condition was thousands of grey lives lost to alcohol and depression – and the carnage continues.

The Price You Pay

The real life consequences of burnout are significant and not to be underplayed or taken lightly.  I believe I am still living with the effects of it some 3 decades later. For many years, after leaving education and wrestling with my values and trying to reconcile why I walked away (the old software could not handle the walking away bit) I suffered physically debilitating symptoms (later identified or labelled as M.E. or chronic fatigue) for some 12 years. How do I get there?

All those working at the
edges, the change agents, the authentic artists, those hoping, aspiring and
working for a better world will recognise just how easy it is to get there.
Those who put themselves into those spaces of, too much work, too little
resources and too little support (and too little self-care perhaps?). Mix that
with the unbridled passion to make the world the better place it should and
could be and we have ourselves a Burnout cocktail.

The Going is Easy, it’s the coming back that is tricky

After a period of time (or
as I like to call it, a living hell)
I was able to start the journey back, the journey home. I was lucky; I had the
support of a loving wife and son, a family to hold me. I started to learn new
patterns of behaviour, more systems thinking rather than the old mechanistic
patterns I had inherited, and slowly, I began to leave the world of the White
Walkers, the army of the dead and return to the world of the living and Jon
Snow…
OK, forget the GOT melodrama for a minute, it’s important to say here, not
everyone makes it back in one piece. It’s true what they say, prevention is
better than cure. The wounded healer? There are better ways to learn the
hard-knock lessons that Burnout has to offer rather than sacrificing oneself on
the altar of good intentions and magical thinking. Remember, we forge the bars
of our own prison or the bonfire of our own Burnout, be conscious and be
careful what you wish for.

Standing in the fire takes courage and tenacity, but just beyond that fire lies
the flower of fragility. It has a name. It’s called being human. We are not
machine. Our culture attempts to define us by our strength not by our weakness.
But, perhaps, it is this actual fragility that will ultimately define each us –
just as it will surely define our planet in the next 10 years. Revel in the
strength but be tempered by the fragility and know that we are both and whole.
Balance is the key.

Is there a better way?

Start to listen for the wee
small voice inside, it speaks from the deepest levels of what you need. It
knows and will guide you if you can listen, if you can trust, if you have the
courage to go deep and really listen.
But it is so very quiet and needs stillness and space to be heard. It is the
voice that carries the sense of who you are and what you are connected to at your
deepest core. I find it in my sword practice. I find it (or it finds me) in my
meditation practice. Its important for each of us to find that connection, when
we do, we no longer search for the path, the path finds us. What is it that
will take you there?

Winnie the Pooh – How do you do nothing?
Christopher Robin – when people ask me what I’m going to do I say nothing, then I go away and do that.


(From Christopher Robin. Disney. 2018)

Kieron Concannon (MA) is a multi-instrumentalist Musician, Martial artist, Ethnomusicologist, Sound Healer, writer, composer and founder of the Irish Harmonic Ensemble. Kieron is also a co-founder, and CEO, of one of the UK’s most influential Independent Record labels (FDM Records) and has worked with some of the biggest selling artists on the planet today. He is an active member of the international Art of Hosting community and is also a Flow Game host and facilitator. He is nearing the completion of his book about his time in the music business ‘A Hero’s Journey Through the Music Industry’. He lives at the top of an Irish mountain – and does his best to live an intentional life.

This is an
abridged version of a blog that will appear shortly on Kieron’s new website
Kieron Concannon.com.

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. What a thoughtful and honest piece, you’ve always been a gifted writer! ‘Fragility; as it will define our planet in the next 10 years ‘ loved the mix of personal and global. More more!

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