The Root Cause of Burnout: Letting Others Set Your Purpose

Do you sometimes feel stressed out, off track, spread too thin, or simply lost in a vast maze of urgent priorities? Do you ever wonder where you are headed, personally or professionally…and then find yourself wondering whether maybe, just maybe, you may be drifting toward a destination you never chose, a destination called “burnout”?

Guess what? Those feelings and wonderings are all symptoms.  So: What are they symptoms of?

You might be tempted to say that they are symptoms of inadequate or poorly implemented “stress management” techniques. But I have a different answer to suggest: Those feelings and wonderings are symptoms of a lack of clarity about something that truly accountable people are always crystal clear on: their own unique, deeply personal sense of Purpose.

I believe that each of us has our own big Why — our own unique Purpose. The challenge is that at any given moment, we may not have recognized that Purpose. We may not have or released ourselves to it. We may have lost sight of it momentarily…or we may even have bought into an excuse that prevents us from making decisions that align with that Purpose. Yet I believe that, as long as we are above ground and breathing, that unique Purpose is always there, waiting for us to internalize it and take action on it.

This Purpose can drive everything we do as we move through our day, and through our life. We can seek to live it and act in alignment with it. We cannot “burn ourselves out” when we are acting in alignment with our unique Purpose. Our priorities become clear. Our work becomes play. Our path becomes joyous, not “stressed,” because we know who we really are and what we really need to do right now.

Being present in the moment and identifying and acting on our unique Purpose is the antidote to so-called “burnout.”

And here is even better news: Each of us has the opportunity to articulate that Purpose in such a way that it inspires us constantly and moves us into a realm of joyous engagement, a realm where it is easy and natural to move beyond “stress.”

Beating burnout is really a matter of deciding “NO MORE EXCUSES,” releasing ourselves to our true Purpose, and then taking the actions and the decisions we were born to take.

It helps to have a single, powerful statement that instantly reminds us of who we really are and (by extension) what we need to be doing right now. Solely by way of example, my Purpose is:

To help people be better, discover their potential, and be the best they can possibly be.

This proclamation is like a compass. It always points in the same direction. It always tells me where I need to go.

Once we get clear on our unique Purpose, we have a compass, a self-correcting mechanism we can take advantage of in a heartbeat. Using it, we can move past excuses like “I am just too tired” or “I do not have the experience I need” or “I do not get the support I deserve.” Hanging on to those excuses creates so-called “stress” and “burnout.” Excuses take us Off Purpose.

Let me explain what I mean by that. At any given moment, we are either On Purpose or Off Purpose. When we are Off Purpose, we feel this thing called “stress,” and we experience our decisions as difficult. When we are On Purpose, though we have a clear sense of direction that makes “stress” vanish into insignificance, and “burnout” an irrelevance.

When we are On Purpose — even when what we are doing takes effort or involves making a sacrifice of some kind — we experience a special kind of joy, a sense of accomplishment, a flow that we can incorporate into our lives with astonishing ease. Good things seem to happen when we are in that flow. We may not even realize that we are “working” or “solving problems.” We are just releasing ourselves from our excuses and to our unique Purpose. We are fulfilling the possibility of our very best self, the person we were born to become.

Most of the people I work with who say they are suffering from “burnout” are actually suffering from something very different: a lack of clarity about their own unique Purpose! All too often, they have let someone else set their purpose for them.

Here is how you can tell when you have allowed another person, or society at large, to set your purpose for you: Your stated purpose is all about things, and not about people.

When I ask people suffering from “stress” and “burnout” to tell me their unique Purpose, their reason for being here on this earth, I sometimes hear answers like this:

  • To make a million dollars.
  • To drive a Ferrari.
  • To become a famous (whatever.)

Notice that these kinds of answers are focused on money, possessions, and status, respectively. That is an instant tipoff to me that the individual in question has let society set his or her individual purpose. That is a ticket to the destination called “burnout.”

Understand: There is nothing inherently wrong with possessions, money, and status. But if those things are what are motivating your actions and guiding your decisions, you have bought into an aspiration that does not support you. You are Off Purpose.

Things can be a goal … but things can never be a Purpose.

A truly accountable person has a unique sense of Purpose that is rooted in service to others. A truly accountable person makes commitments that align with that unique Purpose.

That unique Purpose is what motivates them, sets their priorities, and guides them through their day!

Notice: Society often puts things in front of us that we mistake for our purpose, things like popularity or sensory gratification or cash or recognition. These are things, not people.

If you are focusing on things, and not on people, you have not yet released yourself to your Purpose — and you are headed, sooner or later, for trouble!

We have to discover for ourselves, concretely, what our own unique Purpose is — and then we have to stay On Purpose. If we do not do that, we are subject to the manipulations of others, and of society at large, when it comes to identifying and acting on our true Purpose in life. Once we have identified our own unique Purpose, and we make decisions and take actions that align with that Purpose, burnout is literally an impossibility!


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