From Burnout to Being on Fire: 5 Lessons That Changed My Life

From Burnout to Being on Fire

Our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world as being able to remake ourselves.

Mahatma Gandhi

Have you ever thought about giving it all up?

Handing in your notice and saying goodbye to the dreary 9-5?

Of being your own boss, taking off for a life of travel and adventure?

I didn’t.

And yet…that’s exactly what happened.

A few years ago, I was tired and unengaged by my job in management consulting. I had health issues, and not much of a life outside work and close friends.

Since then, I’ve changed my life entirely.

Realising enough was enough, I resigned, and left the UK to travel for a few months, fully intending to go back to a similar role after a break.

But three months became six, became nine, became twelve – and I realised that I had accidentally created a new, location-independent life for myself in Thailand, with plenty of diverse interests and hobbies, and a great deal more joy.

I went from close to burnout to feeling on fire with a lifestyle as a freelance consultant and writer.

Whilst I don’t believe that the lifestyle I’ve ended up in is for everyone, the lessons I learned during this sometimes challenging, sometimes painful, sometimes exciting and always heart-opening journey are likely to help you too – without you having to learn them the hard way.

Here they are:

1. The Best Way To Go Forward Is To Stop

To give myself clear space to think about the promotion opportunity that ended up being the final ‘trigger’ that prompted me to leave, I took a long weekend away alone to give myself a little breathing space. I wanted to think about whether I was interested in the promotion and focus on myself without my day-to-day responsibilities getting in the way.

I journaled, I walked, I sat on a sturdy log under the cover of vibrant green trees while the rain fell around me. I put none of the usual pressure on myself to ‘achieve’ either work or fun.

This space, this thinking time, this ‘stop’ helped me to connect to my values, and my future, so I could make the decision to resign and go travelling.

What you can do:

Is there a decision you need to make? An issue that’s worrying you? Or just something on your mind?

You don’t need to leave the country to get some space to think. Take one weekend day where you turn off your devices, take a pen and paper and go for a walk for a couple of hours. Go somewhere new, ideally with more nature and fewer people, and write down thoughts about whatever you have lurking in your mind.

2. You Don’t Need To Skydive To Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone

Once I was in Thailand, I wasn’t really sure what I liked doing apart from work. I hated that ‘what’s your perfect day’ exercise that so many self-development books wanted me to do. I had no idea.

I wanted to ‘get a life,’ so I used my first three months to get out of my comfort zone and experiment with new interests and hobbies.

I completed The Artist’s Way, a 12 week self-directed course which gave me hundreds of ideas to experiment with. Activities I tried included: yoga, art class, photography, writing, blogging, making new friends and meeting different types of people. (Here’s a list I made after the experience of 101 activities that you can try which will help you experiment, play and increase your creativity!)

Some people and activities stuck, some didn’t, but all contributed to a better understanding of my own likes and dislikes.

(And I was finally able to write about that damm perfect day.)

What you can do:

Are you clear about what you enjoy doing? What your perfect day looks like? What you’d do if you could do anything?

If not, then try tiny experiments. Each week, pick one activity that you wouldn’t normally try (here’s a list of ideas). Keep a journal or note-book on what you thought of each little experiment. In future, include a little more of the things you love, and a little less of the things that bring you no joy.

3. You Can Change Your Mind

For good, or for bad, very few things are forever.

You can, and should, change your mind as to what’s working for you at any one point. We might have a productive working life of 40 or 50 years, and now few people expect you to do the same thing that whole time (although you can if you want to!).

I’ve made choices since I’ve been away, but I’ve also tried hard not to cling to them. For example, I started another personal development blog before I realised that it wasn’t in the ‘voice’ I wanted to share with the world – so I closed it down, and started again with this one.

Be a banker today, a teacher tomorrow. An artist today, in marketing tomorrow.

What you can do:

Are you worrying about a decision? Procrastinating making it? In limbo while you think about every possible consequence and implication?

Set a time limit (not weeks!) to make the decision. You can consider different factors (this post might help), but come to a decision in your mind.

Once you decide, see how you feel. If your gut says you’ve made a mistake, try out making the other decision, at least in your head, and listen to how you feel about that. If you feel anxious both ways, it’s probably you, if one decision feels a lot better than the other, consider going with that.

Balance heart and head, but in the end, make the decision and move on.

4. You Can Still Be Happy If You Don’t Have One Great ‘Passion’

I was always ‘ok’ at lots of things, but never felt like I had a passion, or vocation. Others in my family had ‘vocations’, where their day job ‘jobs’ were as much part of their identities as any other quality.

I was a psychologist, and enjoyed it, but didn’t identify with it in the same way. But I didn’t feel like that about anything else either.

In the end, my experiments showed me that what made me happy was building a life with many different building blocks that I enjoyed. There was no one magic ‘passion’ bullet.

What you can do:

Worried you don’t have a passion? Worried you should? Worried you do?!

If you feel you have a vocation, but you’re struggling to get traction on a career, you could think about whether you ‘need’ to do this as your main earner, or whether it would still fulfil you if it was a hobby.

If you’ve always worried that you don’t have one great passion, then let go of that worry. Think instead about all the different aspects of your life that you enjoy, or love. Create a patchwork quilt of a life out of these.

5. You Take Your Personality With You

This took me a little time to really ‘get’.

I think I thought that once I got to my Thai beach, I’d be a relaxed, easy-going slacker who’d bum around on the beach, sleep and read in my hammock.

No.

I took my own busyness, active mind, perfectionist tendencies, worrying nature and drive right with me to the beach. I’ve worked in hammocks and hotel rooms, and I’ve been anxious on beaches and in bars.

Once I really understood that you don’t leave the ‘less helpful’ bits of yourself when you travel, I worked with those just as much as I did my external circumstances.

What you can do:

Do you know what you’re running from? Is it your own habits? Your own behaviour?

If you think you want to change things in your life, look inwards before you look outwards. You need to do the work on yourself, just as much as the work on your life. (Here’s a cheat sheet on self-care which will help you with some of this stuff)

You Don’t Need To Chuck In The 9-5 To Use These Lessons In Your Life

And equally, you don’t need to move to Thailand to learn valuable life lessons.

Wherever you are in the world, whatever stage you are in life, whoever you spend you time with, you’ll have knowledge and experience that you’ve gained, and could share with others.

Tough times, joyful times, hard times, happy times – all of these provide life lessons.

What wisdom could you offer that could help others live a better, happier and more fulfilled life?

I’d love to hear it.

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14 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Eric August 25, 2015, 4:28 am

    Thailand is a lovely (and cheap) place to figure out what to do next though … went there hot off a failed ESL teaching gig, and ended up becoming a content creator by the time I left to go back to Canada!
    Eric recently posted…Infographic: the second screen is here to stayMy Profile

    • Ellen August 25, 2015, 7:55 am

      I agree, I love Thailand! I fell in love with it very quickly, much to my own surprise! Plus there are some really interesting people here, which definitely has helped to inspire me.

  • El D August 25, 2015, 9:49 pm

    Two things I’ve learned: 1) Everyone has a story and 2) Never assume. These have stood me in very good stead in life. Interesting piece, Ellen, especially the “You take your personality with you” idea. Thank you.

    • Ellen August 26, 2015, 6:04 pm

      Those are great pieces of wisdom El, thanks so much for sharing. It makes me think of the (Plato?) quote “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” You just never know what’s going on with other people.

  • Vicki August 26, 2015, 3:30 pm

    Love, love , love!! Number 1 and number 4 especially resonate for me Ellen, but I love the whole piece. Beautiful story of letting life emerge. xoxo

  • Ellen August 26, 2015, 6:06 pm

    Thanks so much Vicki, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I think in the modern world of busy-busy 1 is so easily overlooked, but I also think that 4 can be a real nightmare – if we believe we have to have a ‘magic passion’ to be happy, and we don’t have one, we can think we’re a failure – whereas actually life is much more of a tapestry of many different threads of interests, loves, desires, feelings and so on. You *can* have a passion, but you don’t *have* to have a passion to be happy! Wishing you a lovely week :-)

  • Heather Sinclair August 29, 2015, 5:28 pm

    I am *so* with you on every point.
    It was a camping trip that helped my husband finally decide he really did want another job.
    It was not just reading about, but going to poetry or book-reading events that helped us discover that there’s more sides to life than we thought.
    We’ve changed the focus of our blog 3-4 times, and every time we’re getting closer to something we’re absolutely passionate about.
    We’ve come to terms with there not being “one” perfect thing for us to do, and trying to find what’s right for right now.
    And we’re definitely embracing our “engineering” sides as we try to make it in a “creative” industry.
    It’s a whole lot of soul searching and brutal honesty with yourself, but it’s been worth it to learn the lessons in this post. Thanks for putting it all together!
    Heather Sinclair recently posted…Authentic Luxury Travel: it’s about your attitude (NOT your bank account)My Profile

    • Ellen August 30, 2015, 10:15 am

      Thanks so much for your comment Heather, and so glad this resonated with you. It sounds like you have also gone through some profound change, which isn’t easy. We definitely have a few things in common! Congrats on the self-exploration and good luck on your journey (internal and external!)

  • Rose September 2, 2015, 2:15 pm

    This led me to remembering and recognizing one of our great struggles in being okay with uncertainty or not always knowing where the path will lead you. I also think it reminds me of the quote around life happens between the things you have planned. I think we truly live and learn when life takes us somewhere we didn’t expect or put in the plan…and while we may line things up…there are many twists and turns that help us to grow and shine on for others and our own SELF.

    • Ellen September 4, 2015, 11:45 am

      Thanks for reading Rose, and I agree, being ok with ambiguity or uncertainly is a huge challenge. It’s been something I’ve faced every day in the last few years, and I definitely think it’s a muscle that can be trained, but I still have a lot of work to do.

      But I have also learned the beauty of not-knowing: you never know what wonder is around the corner. Shine on :-)

  • Jessica Sweet October 22, 2015, 1:24 am

    Ellen,

    What an amazing adventure! It’s true, there’s nothing quite like getting out of your own life and into a different perspective to help you reset and see if the way you’re viewing things is how you want to be viewing them. Once you step out you can see that you don’t have to be doing things the way you’ve been doing them and that there are other possibilities. And once you see that you can begin to explore what those might be. I think that being stuck in that one mode of doing things and not seeing other possibilities is the first real sticking point. Even though you don’t have to move to Thailand, you do have to be willing do see that there’s another way. . .
    Jessica Sweet recently posted…Is It Really Possible To Love Your Work?My Profile

    • Ellen October 22, 2015, 10:14 am

      It’s so true Jessica. But sometimes we’re like the lobster in the pot, we don’t even realise that there is another point of view or perspective out there. So we need to make an active effort to look at things from a different POV. Not easy, but so worthwhile! Thanks for sharing :-)

  • sherill November 4, 2015, 1:18 am

    Hi, Thanks for sharing your journey with us. No.1 is definitely true, the best way to go forward is to stop for a while, take deep breaths and focus on what really matters, that way, we open our minds to making better and wiser decisions in life. Great Read.
    sherill recently posted…The 1 Thing You Should NEVER Do When Setting GoalsMy Profile

    • Ellen November 5, 2015, 9:30 am

      Thanks so much for reading Sherill.

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