On aspiration and exasperation


Career aspirations are often an exercise in exasperation. How can we ever choose between career achievements and living a full life? The trade off between career goals, passion, life, family and leisure time; it's not really a balancing act. It's a daily compromise. The things we want and love are always competing against each other for our attention. Worse still, the leadership mandates we are given at work are often unsupported and under-resourced. We must reach deep into our wells for resilience, perseverance and energy. We use our personal reserves. And this is where the perpetual balancing act comes in.

Over the last year in my own career, I found myself wondering if the sacrifices I was making to have an impact at work were worth the outcomes we hoped to achieve. I imagined a future ten years from now, when we could look back and see the exact point in time where our work changed the course of history in the way Canadians design social policy. I thought about humanity and how people have done great things by overcoming adversity. I thought, I shouldn't give up. There is a higher purpose here.

This mindset is one that I associate with the concept of 100% accountability. The idea that if something needs to be done, we will just do it. There is no mountain too high. But this can be a dangerous mindset for leaders who are willing to make significant personal comprises to get the job done. This is a path to burnout.

The graphic below shows signs of burnout.


Burnout is defined as "exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration."

The risk of burnout increases when there is a lack of clarity at work in combination with seemingly impossible requirements and big consequences for failure. Due to these demands, you are "on" all the time and there is no opportunity to gather your thoughts or rest. These effects are exacerbated in organizations with cultural and leadership dysfunctions.

Burnout is a real thing, so we need to take heed of our limits!

burnout woman

Your leadership is only one ingredient in the leadership recipe. You must be surrounded by effective leadership to be successful. You need to discern whether your mandate is real and if you have genuine support, active engagement and the full willpower of the leaders around you.

If you are ready for success and your organization is not, this is a real conundrum. Leadership may not have the capacity or competency to back you up. They may be making classic mistakes like rewarding the wrong behaviour, reinforcing negative feedback loops through decision-making processes, allocating resources ineffectively, neglecting political and stakeholder relationships and gate-keeping information.

If you are not in a position to influence change, to alter the design and function of the organization, you could be scaling a mountain of futility. There may be no summit.

The only person responsible for your safety on this mountain is you. You get to decide how much of yourself you invest in the climb. You may not have the luxury of deciding where you work, what you do or how hard you work. But, you do have the opportunity to decide how much of your personal reserves will go toward your mission.

If you do have the luxury of choosing, then find an organization that gives you purpose and the freedom and protection to pursue it.


This is where you will find the capacity to each your ultimate potential and feel like a super hero while you do it.

No matter what, remember you are a human too. You deserve to laugh, relax, have fun, sleep and be with the ones you love. So take care out there.

If this moves you, I invite you to join in on the conversation by posting a comment or sharing on social media.