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20 December 2023

Losing Your Way

Written by
Fred Jones

Some people wear their busyness as a badge of honor, some as a defense against organizations who aren’t interested in boundaries or limits. But when you start having a side conversation with yourself, when you dare to utter under your breath the word “burnout,” you know you’ve crossed a line.

Burnout is more than simply being tired. The situation you are in asks a lot of you without offering enough in return. It may also mean you’ve lost your way. And you may feel as though the road you’ve been on is heading toward an unexpected dead end—no doubt a complication to whatever else is contributing to distress these days.

Perhaps part of this thing we call burnout is the inevitable consequence of so many things that, despite trying, won’t submit to your attempts to get them under control and to add them up to something you can operate in a sustainable way. You may also sense you are too alone and without a safety net. Likely, you haven’t caught up with your experience of what’s happened, what’s changed and who you are becoming. You can’t quite find the throughline in the story, and the mood inside becomes perpetually cloudy. You know adjustments are needed, but you don’t know which ones fit.

Lest you amplify any self-blame going on, let me point you toward what may be the map you’ve been using as a traveling aid through life and work. It was available for the taking, acquired earlier, under the premise of good destinations if you commit to the road. You may have believed the map’s implicit promise that everything would be okay and work itself out. Tried and true, or so they said. And believing in the capacity of others to keep the promises you believed they were making (i.e. employers, governments, religious communities, families). 

Circumstances change. Not every person, group or institution is fit for what’s changing, leading to failures that you are left to absorb as you cope.

We all lose our way now and then. I’ve been somewhat lost at least a time or two. Ask me about 1983, 1994, and 2016 and even again recently. It is a feature not a bug of how our not-so-fixed “self” meets and gets disrupted by an ever-changing “world.” You find yourself in a transitional state between the familiar, perhaps slipping away or taken away, and the unfamiliar, throwing prior experience for a curve. Rebecca Solnit wrote of getting lost as an opportunity if turned into a question about how to step into it. Not how to prevent it.

When the maps fail us, the answer isn’t necessarily to find a new and improved map. It is to change the way we sense the landscape around us, get reoriented, and traverse the world, learning as we go. Brad Stulberg, in his book Masters of Change, warns against taking roads, metaphorically speaking. Roads are somewhat fixed and designed to resist change. Finding and making paths, however, becomes adaptive and on them we become what he calls “rugged” and “flexible.”

Stepping forward, once reoriented, benefits from openness and an experimental mindset. Serendipity awaits. Rather looking for what will “make everything will be okay,” you learn and become resilient. You encounter the world anew. You grow.

This is not easy. The benefits are not automatic. There may be some letting go needed, including some identity-tied ways you see yourself and how you want to be seen by others. The promise is that path-making wayfinding as an approach allows you to rediscover—even redefine—yourself and the direction to move in next. You can gather up comrades along the way. New ones, perhaps, if the old ones can’t fully walk alongside you.  

The liberating message here is that you don’t have to figure it all out, now and forever. The big action is to make some time and space here and there (regular is better) over a season (think: months) to reflect and explore. Find someone who knows that’s what you are up to and who can support you. Listen to yourself and the questions that you are holding, however unspeakable they may seem. Don’t rush for answers. Keep track of how your questions lead you, and how they change.

You might find that you are delivered to the possibility of living in the present differently, more fully, more meaningfully, with all of the joys and sorrows that you encounter, the vitality of life and even the specter of death. You may not be able to move away fully from that which has been burning or hollowing you out, but you may be able to find or renew a source of vitality, even enchantment, that keeps you going. No longer burning you out, but lighting up the way ahead.

Fred Jones, a colleague with Cultivating Leadership, is the creator and curator of Meanwhile Studio. This includes a set of guided and self-paced quests for adults who are in transition or wanting a more sustainable way to live their lives. Fred helps individuals and organizations sort out what is becoming important to them and take action, accordingly. For upcoming Meanwhile events, including a free webinar called “Finding Your Way,” go here.

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