Rubber bands are amazing things. The can power flight in the form of balsa wood planes. They can hold things together. They may just be strips of stretchy rubber, but they can be useful for a variety of purposes. The limitations of rubber bands is that, when you stretch them too much, you break them, and their seemingly magical properties are gone.
Burnout is like a rubber band. When the tension between what we believe we should get accomplished and what we believe we have accomplished is pulled too far apart, it snaps. The good news is that, unlike a rubber band, we can recover from burnout if we can return the tension to a normal level.
When Herbert Freudenberger first spoke of burn out, he spoke of its presence in high achievers. It wasn’t work that triggered the characteristic exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. It was something that the patients cared about – which was often, but not always, work.
The people that Freudenberger spoke about could be explained as having high expectations.
Some people naturally expect more of themselves than others. Whether it’s genetics, upbringing, or both (as is suggested in the research), there’s something that drives them to expect that they should make a difference. Sometimes the difference shows up as being President of the United States. Sometimes it is earning an impressive salary. Sometimes it’s changing the world through a cause.
However, expectations didn’t always used to be so high.
Grandfather’s Gas Station
My grandfather worked for and eventually owned a gas station in a small town of 9,000 people. He was well respected as a member of the church and a community leader. He enjoyed fishing and hunting. He was a solid provider for his family and his children. The important part is that this is all he ever expected to be.
It didn’t cross his mind to be president. He didn’t aspire to change the world. He was grateful for a modest house, a way to make money, and some time to enjoy some hobbies, which, coincidentally, helped to put food on the table.
Never once in my memory did my grandfather seem burned out. The term had been coined by the time he had to close down his gas station and retire. Even when he reached the end of his productive years, he faced them with resolve and not much in the way of emotion – he wasn’t an emotional man.
Looking back on grandfather’s gas station, I began to realize that the thing that helped him avoid burnout is that his goals were modest. He felt like his results matched his expectations. He’d always tell me to pay myself first and save for retirement early. By the standards of his generation, he was well off but not as rich as his farm friends.
Today, people owning a gas station might look to expand. Perhaps they want to franchise, or revolutionize the way that gas is sold.
We’ve trained society that just okay isn’t okay. We’ve trained people that they’re unique and special and different, and that we expect great things from them. If these are your expectations, you’re bound to be disappointed.
The desire to strive to make things better is a noble cause. The desire to do great things is powerful in the way that it can move people and a society forward. However, just like the rubber band, we can hold the tension between our results of today and our desires for tomorrow too far apart for too long, and find that we’ve snapped the rubber band that drives our proverbial plane forward.
By setting the right amount of expectations for ourselves and allowing grace for when we don’t meet our expectations, we can take flight – instead of being grounded with a broken rubber band.