Burned Out? Try a Little Tenderness

otis redding

Thanks to Julian Izbiky for sharing “Does Taking Time For Compassion Make Doctors Better At Their Jobs?NPR (April 28, 2019). It’s about doctor burnout, but its lessons apply equally to lawyers[1] and anyone else who might benefit from the “helper therapy principle” — the idea that helping someone helps yourself — something research shows is especially useful as an antidote to career burnout.

The article profiles the research of Dr. Stephen Trzeciak and Dr. Anthony Mazzarelli, colleagues in a major medical system looking to improve patient care. They started with a question:  “Can treating patients with medicine and compassion make a measurable difference on the wellbeing of both patients and doctors?” 1,000 scientific abstracts and 250 research papers convinced them the answer was a resounding yes.

“When health care providers take the time to make human connections that help end suffering, patient outcomes improve and medical costs decrease. Among other benefits, compassion reduces pain, improves healing, lowers blood pressure and helps alleviate depression and anxiety.”

The two c-authored Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference to describe their findings and to prescribe how compassion can be learned. And once it’s learned, a little goes a long way:

“One study they cite shows that when patients received a message of empathy, kindness and support that lasted just 40 seconds their anxiety was measurably reduced.”

Plus, it was as blessed to give as to receive:

“But compassion doesn’t just benefit its recipients … Researchers at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania found that when people spent time doing good for others … it actually changed their perception of time to make them feel they had more of it.

“For doctors, this point is crucial. Fifty-six percent say they don’t have time to be empathetic.

“‘The evidence shows that when you invest time in other people, you actually feel that you have more time, or that you’re not so much in a hurry,’ Trzeciak says.”

Did you catch that? Taking a moment to connect human-to-human “actually changed their perception of time to make them feel they had more of it” — an astonishing concept for doctors and lawyers enslaved to a clock that measures time, money, and productivity in six-minute increments.[2]

That’s not the only paradigm-shifting implication of Trzeciak and Mazzarelli’s findings:

“‘We’ve always heard that burnout crushes compassion. It’s probably more likely that those people with low compassion, those are the ones that are predisposed to burnout,’ Trzeciak said. ‘That human connection — and specifically a compassionate connection — can actually build resilience and resistance to burnout.’

“Trzeciak and Mazzarelli hope their evidenced-based arguments will spur medical schools to make compassion part of the curriculum.”

How about we add it to the law school curriculum, too?

And thanks to “helper’s high,” the benefits of compassion and connection extend to non-professional work as well. Just think what that would do for “customer service.” (Those Discover commercials are the good, this is the bad and the ugly — and the funny.) And according to this Psychology Today article, you can feel the benefits:

“Helpers report a distinct physical sensation associated with helping; about half report that they experienced a “high” feeling, 43 percent felt stronger and more energetic, 28 percent felt warm, 22 percent felt calmer and less depressed, 21 percent experienced greater feelings of self-worth, and 13 percent experienced fewer aches and pains.”

Emily Esfahani Smith’s widely-cited book, The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters (2017), makes the same point:  relationships and helping create meaning and chase away burnout. That’s was also the message of a 1997 classic on the subject, The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It, which also observed that burnout is both endemic and epidemic in workplace culture:

“Burnout is reaching epidemic proportions among North American workers today. It’s not so much that something has gone wrong with us but rather that there have been fundamental changes in the workplace, and the nature of our jobs.

“The conventional wisdom is that burnout is primarily a problem of the individual. That is, people burn out because of flaws in their characters, behavior, or productivity. According to this perspective, people are the problem, and the solution is to change them or get rid of them.

“But our research argues most emphatically otherwise, As a result of extensive study, we believe that burnout is not a problem of the people themselves but of the social environment in which people work. The structure and functioning of the workplace shape how people interact with one another and how they carry out their jobs. When the workplace does not recognize the human side of work, then the risk of burnout grows, carrying a high price with it.”

Dr. Trzeciak used his research findings to turn around his own career burnout. Here’s his TEDxPenn talk. He also “prescribes the same for anyone, not just health care providers, suffering from mental or emotional exhaustion.”

“‘Look around you and see those in need of compassion and give your 40 seconds of compassion,’ he says. ‘See how it transforms your experience.’”

Julian Izbiky wrote this when he emailed me the article:  “I’ve always thought that the practice of law was about more than the documents and that the joy of the practice was connecting with the clients and the other participants in the deals.”

Got 40 seconds to give it a try?

And now, if you’re like me, Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” has been playing in the background. How about a listen? Here’s his version. And here’s the Three Dog Night cover.

[1] As I’ve said before, burnout is legion in the professions. I Googled “burnout doctors lawyers” and got tons of hits, including this one:  “I Fought The Law And The Law Won: My Burnout Story,” Forbes (May 17, 2018).

[2] Here’s a brief history of the billable hour in legal practice. The rationale for it might have seemed sound 60 years ago; my personal view is we could move on. Nobody kept timesheets at my firm.

To Achieve Or Not To Achieve

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We’ve been looking at how inspiration, motivation, and ambition contribute to career satisfaction — or not. High achievers have plenty of all three. They richly populate the professions, where career disillusionment also runs high. What’s that about?

“The paradox is that success can seem like failure,” writes MIT philosophy professor Kieran Setiya, author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. “Like any paradox, it calls for philosophical treatment.”[1] He goes on:

“In search of an answer, I turned to the 19th-century pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer is notorious for preaching the futility of desire. That getting what you want could fail to make you happy would not have surprised him at all. On the other hand, not having it is just as bad.

“For Schopenhauer, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you get what you want, your pursuit is over. You are aimless, flooded with a ‘fearful emptiness and boredom’, as he put it in The World as Will and Representation(1818). Life needs direction: desires, projects, goals that are so far unachieved. And yet this, too, is fatal. Because wanting what you do not have is suffering. In staving off the void by finding things to do, you have condemned yourself to misery. Life ‘swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents.

“Meanwhile, your engagement with projects subverts itself. In pursuing a goal, you either fail or, in succeeding, end its power to guide your life. No doubt you can formulate other plans. The problem is not that you will run out of projects (the aimless state of Schopenhauer’s boredom), it’s that your way of engaging with the ones that matter most to you is by trying to complete them and thus expel them from your life. When you pursue a goal, you exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye.

“When you are obsessed with projects, ceaselessly replacing old with new, satisfaction is always in the future. Or the past. It is mortgaged, then archived, but never possessed. In pursuing goals, you aim at outcomes that preclude the possibility of that pursuit, extinguishing the sparks of meaning in your life.

“Hence … the striving high-achiever, obsessed with getting things done, who is haunted by the hollowness of everyday life.”

Thus spake Schopenhauer — “but Schopenhauer was wrong,” says Professor Setiya. His solution? Give up on deriving meaning from completing projects and obtaining new milestones, and instead focus on goals that don’t have an end point, and therefore can’t be achieved.

“In order to see [Schopenhauer’s] mistake, we need to draw distinctions among the activities we value: between ones that aim at completion, and ones that don’t.

“Think of listening to music, parenting, or spending time with friends. They are things you can stop doing, but you cannot finish or complete them. Their temporality is not that of a project with an ultimate goal, but of a limitless process.

“If the crisis diagnosed by Schopenhauer turns on excessive investment in projects, then the solution is to invest more fully in the process, giving meaning to your life through activities that have no terminal point: since they cannot be completed, your engagement with them is not exhaustive. It will not subvert itself. Nor does it invite the sense of frustration that Schopenhauer scorns in unsatisfied desire – the sense of being at a distance from one’s goal, so that fulfillment is always in the future or the past.

 “We should not give up on our worthwhile goals. Their achievement matters. But we should meditate, too, on the value of the process.”

“Life is a journey, not a destination” — we’ve heard that before, right alongside “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Advice like that has always struck me as sour grapes. Can’t get what you want? No problem, just trick yourself into believing that’s really okay. But now, as I write this, I realize that these days my whole life is all about the process. I work out, write, read, research, study, learn. I do artwork. I cook and clean and stick to a budget. I’m there for my wife and kids. None of that has a goal. I’ll never achieve any of it.[2] But it’s rich in satisfaction.

It helps that I don’t have a job anymore.

Or maybe I’m just good at making lemonade.

Photo by Julia Zolotova on Unsplash

[1] “How Schopenhauer’s Thought Can Illuminate A Midlife Crisis,” Aeon Magazine (Jan. 26, 2018).

[2] My workouts are full of metrics I try to meet, but that’s not the same thing. Maybe more on that another time.

Ambition [2]:  Keep Your Day Job?

Into the Woods

“Dreams come true but not free.”

Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

The experts quoted in last week’s post were focused on Millennials, but their advice also applies to people making mid-career/midlife changes. No matter your age, it’s the same dilemma:  you’re inspired and ambitious, but the economic realities are unimpressed. What’s a dreamer to do?

This article[1] suggests a middle ground:

The popular mantra [of positive thinking] comes from the actor Will Smith, who said: ‘Being realistic is the most commonly traveled road to mediocrity.’

But ‘mediocrity’ is a loaded term. Who, after all, wants to be ‘mediocre’ or ordinary? And yet, save for a few, aren’t we all? By implying that the only options are superstardom or mediocrity, we ignore where most of us ultimately land – that huge middle ground between anything and nothing much at all.

Mediocre?! Who you calling mediocre?! Well, um… you. Just like the rest of us.

Mediocrity is a hard truth for high achievers to swallow. Will Smith didn’t have mediocre in mind when he said that, neither did Steve Martin when he advised “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” Georgetown professor Cal Newport debunks them both on in So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

“Cal Newport [says] that we have got the passion/purpose equation backwards. ‘It misrepresents how people actually end up passionate about their work,’ he says. ‘It assumes that people must have a pre-existing passion, and the only challenge is identifying it and raising the courage to pursue it. But this is nonsense.’

“Passion doesn’t lead to purpose but rather, the other way around. People who get really good at something that’s useful and that the world values become passionate about what they’re doing. Finding a great career is a matter of picking something that feels useful and interesting. Not only will you find great meaning in the honing of the craft itself, but having a hard-won skill puts you in a position to dictate how your professional life unfolds.[2]

Seems reasonable, but not everyone is convinced:

“Newport’s recommendation begs examination of another aspect of the ‘you-can-be-anything’ framework: should we expect to pursue a passion within our career or is it wiser to try to satisfy it outside of one? Sure, it’s convenient (and nice!) to be paid for something we’d love to do anyway. But is it realistic?

“Marty Nemko, a career counsellor in the San Francisco Bay Area and the public radio host of “Work with Marty Nemko,” offers up a resounding ‘no’. He’s all for people pursuing their dreams, as a hobby. ‘Do what you love,’ he says, ‘but don’t expect to get paid for it.’” [3]

I.e., separate your dreams from the economics and there won’t be a problem. How? Keep your day job. Click below for a six-minute look at someone who followed this advice.

Working stiff

“Didn’t Einstein have to have a job in the post office or something?”

“As any artist knows, for every Banksy or Beyoncé, there are thousands of dreamers whose artistic impulse has to be sustained by paid gigs, which tend to be unglamorous. Such is the life of Robert Friedrich, a New York City-based comic artist who splits his time between creative work and a dull cubicle job he’s held down for more than 20 years. Starting with a love of superheroes, he eventually began mining the minutiae of his daily life to create Failing Fast, a ‘visual diary’ of the modern workforce. Finding a refreshing twist on the often fawning sub-genre of artist profiles, the director Sarah Hanssen makes Working Stiff a broadly relatable take on the creative life, in which passion doesn’t pay the bills and every small success is savoured, if fleeting.”

I confess, I tried, but was never good at keeping my day job.  I was too much in tune with the point of view of another cartoonist (click the image below for the full text):

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“So, what’s it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but beyond that, I don’t recommend it.

“Having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

“You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

Watterson gave that advice in 1990. Economic realities have changed a lot since then, but dreamers still dream. I’d say go ahead — inspiration will make you happy — but then also take Stephen Sondheim’s advice to heart. I sure do these days.

[1] You Can Do It, Baby! Our Culture Is Rich With Esteem-Boosting Platitudes For Young Dreamers, But The Assurances Are Dishonest And Dangerous,Aeon Magazine (July 17, 2015:

[2] Op. cit.

[3] Op. cit.

The Anti-Motivation Strategy

anti-motivaton

“I need to get motivated.”

You might want to rethink that.

Search “motivation at work” and you get the usual ManagementSpeak telling managers how to motivate workers — lots about engagement (again!) and carrots and sticks. Google “how to motivate yourself” and you get inspirational quotes and helpful lists. Okay as far as it goes, but it’s not the whole story.

We saw last time that we need inspiration to get going, and that our brains provide it with a shot of the hormone dopamine. But what the motivators don’t tell you is that dopamine can be too much of a good thing. The following is from Larry Howes — “lifestyle entrepreneur” and former arena football player and member of the USA men’s national handball team.[1]

“One of the most dangerous drugs an entrepreneur can become addicted to is motivation.

“I’ve heard far too many entrepreneurs say,  “I just need to get more motivated” in order to start a project or achieve a goal.  This usually means they’ll spend a few hours reading or listening to other people’s success instead of creating their own.

“This is how the motivation addiction begins.

“Don’t get me wrong – motivation is great.  It’s nature’s reward for achievement, but it can easily become your “drug” of choice if it’s misused.

“This may sound a little funny, but one of the best drug dealers in the world is your brain. Your brain is wired to release a shot of dopamine each time you … achieve goals, take risks, try something new. They’re all natural highs and designed to keep us coming back for more.

“It’s great to be goal driven and to have feelings of fulfillment following our achievements, but the moment we began wanting those feelings before doing the work we’re in HUGE trouble.”

The issue is dependence:  that motivated feeling isn’t easily summoned; reliance on it is dicey. Plus, dopamine acts like any addictive substance:  each successive time you reach for a shot, you need more than last time:

“Once again, there’s nothing wrong with motivation or learning from the success of others, but that moment we need the ‘reward feeling’ of motivation in order to get started, we’re in serious trouble.

“Not only does it take away from precious time you should spend working, it also means that you’ll need a higher dosage of motivation as time progresses.”

And don’t fall for the line that you can be anything you want, adds “journalist, author, and broadcaster” Leslie Garrett:  your brain will hurt you if you do, this time because of the “stress hormone” cortisol.[2]

“As long ago as the fourth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle celebrated the value of a meaningful goal when he coined the term eudaimonia (‘human flourishing’). The concept re‑emerged in the 16th-century Protestant concept of a ‘calling’. More recently, in the 1960s, a whole generation of young people brought up at the height of an economic boom began asking whether work could amount to more than just paying the bills. Couldn’t it have something to do with meaning and life, talents and passions?

“It was then that the episcopal clergyman Richard Bolles in California noticed people grappling with how to choose that special, meaningful career, and responded by publishing What Color is Your Parachute? (1970), which has sold more than 10 million copies, encouraging job‑hunters and career-changers to inventory their skills and talents. Bolles bristles at the suggestion that he’s telling people to be ‘anything’ they want to be. ‘I hate the phrase,’ he says. ‘We need to say to people: Go for your dreams. Figure out what it is you most like to do, and then let’s talk about how realistically you can find some of that, or most of that, but maybe not all of that.’

“The situation even endangers health. In 2007, psychologists from the US and Canada followed 81 university undergraduates for a semester and concluded that those persisting in unattainable goals had higher concentrations of cortisol, an inflammatory hormone associated with adverse medical outcomes….”

Ms. Garrett goes on to say that misguided career intentions throw you into the “ambition gap,” which is a nice segue into next week’s topic.

For more motivation bashing, you might enjoy a couple of my LinkedIn Pulse long posts:  The Anti-Motivation Strategy: Why All This Motivation Is Killing You and The Anti-Motivation Strategy: The One Thing You Need For High Performance (And It’s Not Motivation).

[1] “Why Motivation is Hurting your Productivity (And How to Fix It)” Forbes (Aug. 20, 2012). I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Larry Howes Forbes Why Motivation is Hurting your Productivity,” and the article will come up.

[2]You Can Do It, Baby! Our Culture Is Rich With Esteem-Boosting Platitudes For Young Dreamers, But The Assurances Are Dishonest And Dangerous,” Aeon Magazine (July 17, 2015)

The Anti-Motivation Strategy (Part 3): The Dark Side of Motivation

All those motivational articles and advice want you to keep pouring on the motivation: more speeches, more posters, more rah-rah, more carrot and stick. And that means putting the human brain and body under chronic stress, pouring on the cortisol, keeping the fight or flight response on red alert.

Employee-Motivation resized

We’ve been trying to find a sustainable approach to getting motivated and staying motivated. No luck thus far. To go further in our search, it’s time to face…

The Dark Side Of Motivation

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Let’s sample some more scientific research:

Motivation, Stress, Anxiety, And Cortisol Responses In Elite Paragliders The title pretty much tells you what you need to know:  it uses motivation, stress, and anxiety together. Hold that thought.

Salivary Cortisol Changes In Humans After Winning Or Losing A Dominance Contest Depend On Implicit Power Motivation I think that means rah-rah works for some people, but shuts others down.

What do these articles have in common besides their long scholarly titles? They both talk about cortisol, known as “the stress hormone.” Back to WikiUniversity for a primer:

“Stress is a physiological and psychological stimulus and response that presents itself in many different ways throughout the body. Stress or a stressor can be thought of as any stimulus that upsets the bodies [sic] natural balance or hoemeostasis [sic].

“Stress is defined as any situation that upsets homeostasis within the body and threatens ones [sic] emotional or physical wellbeing.

“The dominant modern perspective is that emotions recruit biological and psychological supporters to enable adaptive behaviours i.e. fighting, running or empathetic situations. The two hormones of Adrenaline (Epinepherine) and cortisol support the ‘fight-or-flight’ stress reactive system.”

Obviously this Wiki contributor was having a bad spellcheck and grammar day, but we get the point:  stress knocks us out of whack, from the inside out. We’re not just skipping down the happy motivation road anymore, we’re on the way to….

Cortisol, adrenaline, hormones, anxiety, fight or flight… oh my!

Lions and tigers and bears

Here’s the problem:  you need motivation to stay motivated.

That’s the bottom line of the Feed The Beast motivation strategy we looked at last time. All those motivational articles and advice want you to keep pouring on the motivation:  more speeches, more posters, more rah-rah, more carrot and stick. And that means putting the human brain and body under chronic stress, pouring on the cortisol, keeping the fight or flight response on red alert.

Not only is that lousy leadership and management, it’s lousy self-care, too. We’re not meant to live that way, and it certainly won’t empower us to perform at our best. The fight or flight response is supposed to be a quick fix — over and out when the threat has past. Chronic stress keeps the threat ever-present, which messes with mind and body, puts health at risk. Which is why…

All This Motivation Is Killing You

We’ll let the Mayo Clinic weigh in on this issue:

“Your body is hard-wired to react to stress in ways meant to protect you against threats from predators and other aggressors. Such threats are rare today, but that doesn’t mean that life is free of stress.

“On the contrary, you undoubtedly face multiple demands each day, such as shouldering a huge workload, making ends meet and taking care of your family. Your body treats these so-called minor hassles as threats. As a result you may feel as if you’re constantly under assault. But you can fight back. You don’t have to let stress control your life.

“When you encounter a perceived threat — a large dog barks at you during your morning walk, for instance — your hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.

“Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.

“Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.

“The body’s stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.

“But when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on.

“The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment.”

Comparable medical research abounds. If you want more, here’s a short article on how chronic stress hurts us. And here’s another.

More next time