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Burnout: A Great Teacher

You might not see it, but I am completely exhausted in this photo. This was in September, 2017. My "summer break" had just finished. I'd spent that summer hustling.

What do I mean by hustling?

Hustling is when I am constantly fighting to get from one place to the next. I fight to get ready for a gig. I fight to hurry home and relax. I fight to get to bed for much needed sleep.

I am a musician. More specifically, I am a freelance musician. I have multiple jobs, multiple paychecks, and yes, tax season is very complicated. I was trained to believe that I must say "yes" to every offer to perform and/or teach. Failure to say yes is met with the consequence of becoming irrelevant and never being offered work in the future. As anyone might imagine, it could eventually become impossible to say "yes" to everything. One could end up working ALL the time!

And that's basically where I was in this picture. I had spent my summer working as much as I possibly could. And now I was facing the return of my 3 college teaching jobs where the shiny new Fall semester had begun.

When people would ask me "what do you do?" they were given a longer answer than they may have wanted. I would list:

  • I am the Flute Instructor at 3 small private colleges and a Community Music School

  • I am a therapeutic musician at a hospital where I provide live prescribed music at the bedside of the ill and dying

  • And I am a freelance performer playing regularly with an orchestra and am asked to perform with various other ensembles in my area from time to time.

Inevitably, I would get a look from the asker that said they were a little sorry for asking. Their response would be something like "wow, you sure are busy."

In truth, I believed I wasn't busy enough. I wasn't making the money I wanted to be making. And I didn't feel I had the job security that many of my peers in the music field seemed to have. Money and security were and often times still are the benchmarks of success for me as a freelance musician. When asked, "how much money would you need to feel secure," I would fail to come up with a solid answer. Also, people would often point out to me that nobody had job security. While this fact was meant to ease my appetite, in reality it only made me hungrier.

Back to the photo. I was at my sister's house. It was a weekend. I am smiling...on the outside, anyway. Although you might not see this, I know that in my head I was going through the list of all the things I needed to get done before the new week started. I am also ruminating on the students who won't listen to me about practicing or the mistakes I made in a recent performance.

In other words, I am not fully present. And I am not enjoying my weekend or being with family members that are there on the other side of that camera.

Over the course of this semester in 2017, I remember several moments curled up in my car between teaching gigs feeling completely sick and exhausted. It s l o w l y dawned on me that I'd hit burnout. But it was the beginning of the semester. This was a feeling reserved for the END of the semester when I had a summer break to look forward to. Why was I already feeling this way?!

After establishing that I'd reached a monumental burnout level, I knew without a doubt that something needed to change. But what? How? I couldn't possibly say "no" to anything. Nor could I quit any of my jobs. That would be seen as irresponsible in my field and to my family. An internal tug-of-war ensued, and in the end my health determined my course of action. I would have to let go of some of my jobs and start saying no.

What burnout taught me is that any "rule" I make can be broken. And sometimes we have to break our own rules if we want to save ourselves. I broke that ingrained rule that I had to say yes to everything in order to save myself FROM myself.

I also learned the importance of clarifying what I want. Did I want to be doing a "tour of Michigan" each week as I drove to all of my jobs? Did I enjoy the constant push to get to the next "thing?" Heck no. I was constantly overriding my dislike of constantly being on the go. I had stopped listening to my own needs and wants. No wonder I had such a hard time when asked by my spouse "what movie do you want to watch?" How could I know what I wanted when I'd shut that process down within myself?

In time, I allowed myself the space and time to remember what I DID want. And the answer surprised me. I had ALL the things that I wanted. But I didn't know where it was all going.

What do I mean by that?

As a teacher, I love engaging with my students and helping them figure out what they want their next steps in life to look like. As a freelance musician, I love performing with friends and creating concerts that engage audiences to listen more deeply to the music we present. And as a therapeutic musician, I love using music to create a relaxed environment that supports the body's natural healing process.

Okay. I know what I love about what I do. Why do I still feel so energetically drained?!

The eternal question for me, I realized, has been "where is this all going?!" In other words, what am I ultimately creating through this fragmented career of mine? Is it just about earning enough money to participate in this capitalistic system we call "life?" Or was there something trying to come through me that needed expressing to the world in order to help make the world a better place?

At some point during my career, I had started operating out of the idea that in order to be successful I have to prove it through the amount of money I bring in and the number of jobs I acquire. If I can't have job security, I can have job quantity! What I really wanted instead was MEANING.

In the 5 years since then, I have been on a journey to try and manifest a career that has meaning and expresses what only I can express. I am now a Certified Professional Coach and have written a book to help other people who might be feeling STUCK in some way. For a while, I really thought the coaching was the answer to ALL of my lingering career track questions. Unfortunately, there was a wee pandemic (remember the pandemic?!) that presented some twists and turns in the story that I will eventually reveal as I work to slowly transform my career path.

The biggest and most important takeaway for me, I realized just recently, is that this change process I am in might be lifelong. At first, I was disappointed by this realization. Why can't I just arrive NOW?! And then I remembered the focus word I chose for myself for 2022: Surrender. When I surrender my expectations, I stop spinning my wheels. When I stop fighting what is, I stop focusing on what I lack and can see what I have now.

So, for today, I want to express gratitude for anyone who has been on this journey with me. And I want to invite you to share any of your experiences with not knowing where you're going in the comments. What are you learning in your process of self-discovery? What challenges you the most in figuring out your path, whether it's related to career, relationship, or any major event in your life? What do you want most for yourself now?

Take care, friends. Continue to be gentle with yourselves. You're the only YOU that you have. And please let me know how I can support you.

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I know this. I hustled for 40 years with nose to the grind stone in a career that I felt ill suited to but persevered at it anyway. It turned out that I was good at it and there were many moments that were fulfilling but more were not because of work environment issues. The pragmatic side of me kept at it always feeling off. Now retired I’m doing what I wanted to in the first place (pursuing flute), but have come to realize that that dream would have been a disaster in that I don’t have the talent needed to have been a real pro at that either. So, the only thing I could come up with as …

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