Full disclosure: I used to be someone who was super gung-ho about announcing my next projects in line — whether they are still in the plan or already ongoing, and perhaps will never make it to completion at all — without any care in the world. I guess it is some way of me assigning accountability to myself — that when I speak them into existence — I have the responsibility to the people who have heard the ‘announcements’ to do something about these projects.
However, I realised the last two years I had sort of withdrew into a shell. I am feeling reluctant to talk about why, not because I had no idea, but it’s the opposite. I know exactly why.
I am not sure how safe this space is to talk about that why, but something related: I read this article this week on physicians and burning out, asking us to consider reframing ‘burnout’ as ‘moral injury’, which refers to “an injury to an individual’s moral conscience resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression which produces profound emotional shame”:
Physicians, like combat soldiers, often face a profound and unrecognised threat to their well-being: moral injury. Moral injury is frequently mischaracterised. In combat veterans it is diagnosed as post-traumatic stress; among physicians it’s portrayed as burnout. But without understanding the critical difference between burnout and moral injury, the wounds will never heal and physicians and patients alike will continue to suffer the consequences.
In order to ensure that compassionate, engaged, highly skilled physicians are leading patient care, executives in the health care system must recognise and then acknowledge that this is not physician burnout. Physicians are the canaries in the health care coalmine, and they are killing themselves at alarming rates (twice that of active duty military members) signaling something is desperately wrong with the system. What we need is leadership willing to acknowledge the human costs and moral injury of multiple competing allegiances.
The way to heal moral injury, is of course, through moral renewal of understanding that your purpose is grander than the life you have lead before, and has hurt you (which includes the people, or maybe your own self, complicit in it) :
Many of the people I admire lead lives that have a two-mountain shape. They got out of school, began their career, started a family and identified the mountain they thought they were meant to climb — I’m going to be an entrepreneur, a doctor, a cop. They did the things society encourages us to do, like make a mark, become successful, buy a home, raise a family, pursue happiness.
People on the first mountain spend a lot of time on reputation management. They ask: What do people think of me? Where do I rank? They’re trying to win the victories the ego enjoys.
These hustling years are also powerfully shaped by our individualistic and meritocratic culture. People operate under this assumption: I can make myself happy. If I achieve excellence, lose more weight, follow this self-improvement technique, fulfillment will follow.
But in the lives of the people I’m talking about — the ones I really admire — something happened that interrupted the linear existence they had imagined for themselves. Something happened that exposed the problem with living according to individualistic, meritocratic values.
Over the past few decades the individual, the self, has been at the center. The second-mountain people are leading us toward a culture that puts relationships at the center. They ask us to measure our lives by the quality of our attachments, to see that life is a qualitative endeavor, not a quantitative one. They ask us to see others at their full depths, and not just as a stereotype, and to have the courage to lead with vulnerability. These second-mountain people are leading us into a new culture. Culture change happens when a small group of people find a better way to live and the rest of us copy them. These second-mountain people have found it.
When I used to think of how much I might have missed out because I had to take a break, I am reminded of this article:
But perhaps you’ve had to compromise something good so that you could do something great. Perhaps you didn’t get your book idea written last year because your free time was spent focusing on your family or your health. You probably had several great things you wanted to do, but had to pick just a few of them. If so, then consider thinking of it from a place of celebration. Instead of feeling regret over what you didn’t do, celebrate what you did do.
It felt so long, but I think I am ready to speak again all of these — these projects, these programs I want to be involved in, this thesis I am going to submit this year, this trip to visit my close friend in Beirut I had been thinking about — into existence.
(P/s: Just as I finished writing this, I received an email about an Editor position I recently inquired about. Time to scale the second mountain.)