When I was 5, I was finally old enough to understand the true meaning of Christmas: gifts from the Sears Wish Catalog. I was mature enough to know I couldn't ask for things like a new house or car, but I thought my list was reasonable. There were 3 things I really wanted: a board game, preferably one with lots of parts like shoots and ladders. I wanted makeup and maybe something cool to play with outside, like a new playhouse or a new swing set. As I sat on Santa's lap, I was confident my list was doable, especially when he nodded his head and told me to keep up the good behavior.
What does my kindergarten Christmas have to do with burnout? We all have a vision of what we want out of our careers. I don't think anyone who goes into medicine predicts they'll hit a wall of burnout after 10, 15, or 20 years. When burnout hits, it's easy to give up hope that you'll ever enjoy your career again. In fact, about half my new clients fall into this category. They have the mindset, "You get what you get, and that's it." They feel disempowered and often blame themselves or others for their burnout. The way they see it, Life has handed them their lot, and they have zero agency to make changes.
The other half of my clients have a different mindset, one involving choice. Sure, they're scared and exhausted with burnout, but they take ownership of the parts of their burnout they can change. The first group's goal is more about survival, grabbing anything to keep their heads above water. The second group has learned to float, so they're able to identify problems within their realm of control, come up with solutions, and start swimming toward the shore.
5-year-old Hope was like the first type of client, my mindset was: You get what you get, and you don't pitch a fit. By age 6, I'd shifted into a take-charge mindset, similar to the clients who realize they have a choice. Let's take a look at what happened back in Dec of 1982 to prompt the change.
On Christmas morning, my older sister and I ran into the living room. One chair held her gifts, and one held mine. My chair was easy to identify because it held a little pink makeup kit! My excitement turned to disappointment when I realized the eyeshadow and lipstick were plastic. I threw them aside and glanced over at my sister. She was opening a Barbie hair twister that actually worked on human hair. She was reaching for a big, flat box, which turned out to be Monopoly. I eyed her as she pulled out the little silver game pieces, tiny houses, and fake money. I, too, had a game on my chair. I could barely read, but I recognized the bearded men with robes and sandals on the front. Bible characters? What the heck? Santa had given me a matching game of Bible people. Ugh! I slid it across the hardwood floor until it was safely back under the tree. I heard my sister squeal. She was holding up a pair of yellow stilts. Stilts! I had no idea kids could own stilts. I'd only seen them on TV or at the circus. I got a big rubber ball, the kind we used in PE for kickball. A ball?! We lived out in the country with no neighbors, and I hated PE.
A dumb ball, a stupid Bible game, and a fake makeup kit. I was angry and confused. Why hadn't Santa listened? The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. I stomped my foot and ran to my room sobbing. Mean Santa. I didn't want these stupid gifts and now I had to wait an entire year to get new gifts. My December 17th birthday meant no birthday gifts were coming for another year, a double blow.
My dad wasn't the type of dad who coddles his daughters, especially ungrateful ones. He chucked my gifts in a big black garbage bag, tied it in a knot, threw it in the back of his pickup truck, and drove off. I watched his brown truck disappear down our long dirt driveway in a cloud of dust. I couldn't believe it. Now I had nothing. My Christmas was ruined.
I could've handled this "lesson" from my dad in two ways. One was, "Well, I have no choice and no voice. I have to accept what I'm given and make do." This didn't feel acceptable. Surely there was another way. I chose the 2nd path. I decided from that point on, I'd make darn sure I got what I wanted. If I had to save money and buy my own damn gifts, I would. I'd never heard of manifesting, but I knew I couldn't sit by and watch life happen. If I wanted my dreams to come true, I'd better get busy figuring out how. I still believed in Santa and God, but even as a little kid, I realized relying on outside sources wasn't enough. I had to do my part.
Burnout is similar. You signed up for this career, spending 6 years and 6 figures to get your degree. You had expectations about what it would look and feel like. And yet, here you are, burned out, exhausted, disappointed, and confused. Maybe you're even angry. But remember, you do have a choice. You're in charge of your life. If you're stuck, you don't have to stay stuck. If you're miserable, you might need to take a look at the parts of your situation you can change and design a new path.
As you read this, maybe you're thinking, "Duh, of course I have a choice. Of course I'm in charge of my life, but there are other factors at play, other people's needs to consider, financial obligations, etc." This is the number one reason my clients are stuck; they don't believe they have a choice when it comes to burnout. The other reasons I commonly see PAs not taking charge of their lives are:
They don't want to appear selfish, rude, or entitled
They don't think they deserve to go after what they want (they haven't given themselves permission)
They tell themselves they don't know what they want (they usually do know deep down, but they can't/won't admit it)
My dad did bring back my gifts a few hours later, and he assumed I'd learned the lesson of gratitude. He had no idea what he'd unleashed. Years later, I'd take a Clifton Strength Finders assessment which would show my top two strengths were Futuristic and Achiever. I have no way of knowing if these were the same for my 5-year-old self, but I'd like to think this situation helped develop those two strengths. I was determined to look into the future, decide what I wanted, and figure out how to achieve it.
Are you currently in a job situation where you feel overworked or underpaid? Or maybe the environment is less than ideal? Perhaps you've been thinking, "I have to do something about this. I can't let this go on. I'm wasting my life in a job I don't love" or "I'm spending years working for peanuts."
Should you a) throw out a vague 'I hope things get better in 2024' b) randomly apply to lots of jobs without thinking them through or c) figure out exactly what you want and map out the steps to get there.
The correct answer is "C." Imagine if you put in a vague order at a restaurant or on Amazon. You're in the kitchen with your Alexa device and you announce to her you'd like to buy a dress for an event. If you don't give specific instructions or search terms, you'll get disappointing results. Would the dress fit? Would you waste time with dresses you hate or ones that fit you poorly? Might you end up having to "make do?"
That's what it's like if you throw out nonspecific requests to Life (or Indeed).
A PA recently posted on social media that she was sick and tired of other PAs implying the cure for burnout was to simply cut back to part-time or find a new job. She went on to say that these were privileges she didn't have. I could've been the one writing the post 11 years ago, sure that I was at the mercy of student loans, daycare expenses, a fat mortgage payment, and a toxic job. In fact, I remember thinking, "It must be nice to work only 3 days a week. Too bad I don't have that option."
In response to the PA's comment on social media, there were plenty who agreed with her. They, too, remarked how much their jobs, pay, or bosses sucked and how unfortunate it was that they were stuck in jobs they didn't like. However, about 1/3 of the responders had a completely different answer. They were making a conscious effort to discern what they wanted, then making strategic choices to go after it.
My burnout disabled all sense of empowerment until something deep inside me (the angry five-year old) reminded me that I DID have a say-so in my life's direction. It didn't happen overnight, but that was a turning point in my life. My husband and I made a plan, eventually paying off loans, bills, and even our mortgage. Even though it took effort to live below our means, it felt great to be charting our financial path so we could determine what our careers looked like going forward.
What can YOU do to ensure you get what you want:
Spend time figuring out exactly what you DO want in your job and career. Get as specific as possible. Not just "I want to be paid more," instead, "By December of this year I want to be making 20k more working the same number of hours." or, I'd like to see 4 fewer patients a day 3 months from now. I spent hours poring over the Sears Wish Catalog. I made sure to get very specific about size and color of whatever I wanted.
Repeat/Revisit your specific wants frequently. Remember the little boy in The Christmas Story who wanted a Red Rider BB gun? He didn't keep his desire to himself, he repeated it over and over, wrote it down, told Santa, his parents, his teacher, etc. Don't just write down that you'd like to work part-time once in a notebook and expect it to happen. Write it every day in your journal, say it out loud, and get used to the idea. This will plant seeds in your subconscious mind. Your brain wants you to be right, so it will look for opportunities to make your dreams become a reality.
Don't listen to naysayers. Keep your eye on the prize. Sara Blakely, inventor of Spanx, says she didn't tell her closest friends and family about her undergarment business for the entire first year. She didn't want to waste time and energy explaining herself. Sara went into "stealth mode." and you may need to do the same with coworkers and family. In the Christmas story, Ralphie had lots of naysayers in his life who thought a BB gun was too dangerous. Be like Ralphie with his dogged determination no matter what others think.
When you feel your determination waning, remind yourself those wants are there for a reason. We're all different, and we each have goals and dreams inside us for a reason. There are 420 billion different DNA combinations, so even if someone else wants what you want, it won't look the same. Those desires aren't a mistake, so give yourself permission to want what you want.
Reverse engineer. Start with the end goal in mind. One year I decided I wanted a real, live, pet monkey. I wasn't going to rely on Santa. Nope, I researched the topic and tried to figure out the steps I'd need to take to bring home my new pet. I found an ad in the back of the National Enquirer advertising teacup monkeys! My mom told me monkeys weren't allowed in the US as pets, but I wasn't taking her word for it. I wrote a letter to the President, asking if this was accurate. Take your wishes and dreams one tiny step at a time.
Remember, you and you alone are the person who's ultimately responsible for making your dreams come true. It's not your workplace's job to make your job amazing; it's not up to your husband to make you feel adored; it's not up to your kids to make you feel like an awesome mom. You are the "dream maker," and if you're perpetually disappointed in the results you see, you're going to have to get creative.