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Avoid Crashing & Burning in Silicon Valley

When a Google recruiter randomly contacted me out of the blue in 2014 about an opportunity at Google in the Bay Area, I was flattered but also reluctant to uproot my life. Frankly, I was quite comfortable and content with my living situation in Seattle. I enjoyed my job at Microsoft and loved my manager and my team. My apartment was in a prime location and didn’t come with a prime price tag. As a nature enthusiast, I loved being surrounded by lush green landscape, pronounced mountain ranges, and never ending bodies of water. I had a ten minute commute to work, maybe fifteen minutes on a “heavy traffic day.” Life was easy yet I knew it was time to move out of my comfort zone. Working at Google had always been a dream of mine and I didn’t want to pass the opportunity up.

So after months of dragging my feet, I finally decided to interview at Google. (A big thanks to my wonderful Google recruiter who was both patient with me and quite persistent with me as well.) I was grateful to receive an offer from Google and embarked on a new adventure in the Bay Area.

Moving to sunny California was energizing for me. Right away I sensed this contagious energy of passion + drive + change the world mentality that was really inspiring. I really loved being around others who shared an entrepreneurial mindset like myself. These people didn’t see limitations in life but instead saw possibilities. There was this constant buzz of activity, intellectual stimulation, and sense that things were happening in Silicon Valley!

What I also noticed however is that there was this culture of living to work in Silicon Valley. I met one person after another who was completely burned out or on the verge of burn out. A woman I met worked at one of the top tech companies (not Google I might add) and worked 12-14 hour days Monday-Friday and then worked 8 hour days on Saturdays and Sundays. Her body was so exhausted she had to take a medical leave of absence and eventually she quit her job. It took this woman 6 months of complete bed rest to regain her health. Another guy who also worked in tech, went on a month long silent meditation retreat and realized his job was sucking the life out of him and he was miserable. He had to let go of his identity of being a high level executive at a top tech company because he simply could not keep up with a grueling travel and work schedule. I also met people who were still employed but felt this constant looming cloud of pressure to be the best, to constantly keep up with the rat race, and keep pushing themselves despite being flat out tired.

Over the past 2 years of living in Silicon Valley I’ve had to ask myself, “Is it worth it to crash and burn in Silicon Valley?” For some individuals, it may very well be and it’s perfectly okay. We all have priorities in life and we need to ask ourselves, “What will bring me the most happiness?” If working 24/7 in a job you absolutely love makes you happy, then keep doing what you are doing! There is a small subset of individuals who live and breathe work and can thrive on 4 hours of sleep per night while chugging Red Bull like it’s water. (This post will not resonate with these individuals I might add).

If you are not one of these superhuman freaks of nature and feel “crispy” due to overwork, it may be time to assess what changes you need to make in order to thrive in Silicon Valley versus merely survive in Silicon Valley. Here are some questions and thoughts to reflect on:

1. Does work control me or do I control work? It’s often surprising to hear how many people are “on” 24/7 and feel the need to read every email and even respond to every email at every hour of the day. Phones infringe upon our sacred sleep time and end up distracting us while sitting next to our pillows at night. We worry about missing an email or ping during morning showers and bring our phones into the bathroom with us. We can’t engage in a fully present conversation because the temptations of our devices are pulling at us like eye candy.

Constantly being in high alert mode can be totally exhausting. Instead of conserving our energy inward, our energy is constantly being pulled outward by our mobile devices. Our minds become like ping pong balls, flying all over the place.

In order to take control of work, it’s important to set boundaries and determine set hours to complete work. When we set specific periods of time to complete work, we will no longer feel totally randomized and scattered. We will approach work with fresh eyes and a clear and calm brain, ready to focus and produce high quality work.

2. Are you a marathon runner or a sprinter? As a former marathon runner, I have such a love for the mental gymnastics required to run 26.2 miles. You must keep going despite legs that suddenly feel like a block of bricks running through quicksand. You hit the proverbial “wall” around 20 miles and really question why in the world you signed up to run a full marathon. Thoughts such as, “can’t this never ending race from hell just end at 20 miles? Somehow however you cross the finish line and realize you weren’t going to die after all. In the marathon it is all about pacing yourself and really tuning into how your body feels during each stage of the race.

In the work place, some individuals perform best in a slow and steady state for a long duration of time. They are able to focus for long periods of time, get into the flow, and hours quickly pass by. These are marathon workers with amazing endurance! For other individuals however, they perform best working in short bursts. They can maintain a laser-like focus for a specific period of time but then need a short break to recharge, whether it’s taking a brief walk, doing some deep breathing exercises, or grabbing a snack to fix a mid afternoon blood sugar dip.

In order to achieve optimal performance without crashing and burning, it’s important to honor your own unique energy rhythms. Figure out when you are most productive, whether it’s at sunrise, sunset or midday and leave mentally intensive work for these times. Listen to your body when it needs a break instead of continuing to plow ahead solely due to sheer brute force effort. Set up a work schedule that is conducive to your marathon running or sprinting self.

Pay attention when continuing to work becomes counterproductive. For example, reading emails no longer makes sense or your written emails are riddled with typos. Or maybe simply calculations are becoming overly complex and work is taking twice as long as it normally does. Stop. Drop. Take a Break.

3. Investigate emotional exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion is often the result of negative self-talk sucking the life out of us. Some examples may be dealing with imposter syndrome and not feeling like you belong, placing undue pressure to be someone at work that isn’t a fit for who you truly are, or trying to control everything when so little is in our control. You may be wondering, “Well, how do I address this emotional exhaustion? It’s not like I can just shut my brain down.”

While you can’t exactly quit thinking (unless you achieve a zen-like state of utopian bliss often reserved for monks who meditate all day long), you can change the tunes running through your head. Figure out what is playing in the Top 40 of your mind and whether these are positive uplifting supportive songs or energy-zapping self-esteem destroying songs.

When we are able to show up to work comfortable in our own skin and confident in who we are, energy flows and productivity typically increases. If we are constantly holding ourselves our back (literally holding our breath), afraid of screwing up, and consumed by fear of not being perfect, we will be miserable at work.

4. Ensure your professional life is congruent with your true nature. When we aren’t honest with ourselves about who we really are and what lights our fire, we can often fall into job mismatches. We may be lured by a certain title, feel like, well, “it’s just time to move up the Corporate Ladder”, or fall into a role by circumstance. As a result we may end up exhausted because we are trying to fit ourselves into a box that simply isn’t the right fit. It may be too small, too big, or simply not the right size for our unique body shape.

As an example, I worked with a woman a few years ago who was an introvert. She ended up in a heavy client-facing role where she constantly felt the need to be “on.” She had to regularly deal with fires, attend meetings and present to large groups, and she had little time to restore her energy, something that is vital to the well-being of introverts. When this woman was honest with herself, she realized her passion lied more in behind-the-scenes type work such as research, analyzing data, and developing processes. This type of work entailed her being able to work solo and at her own pace, versus constantly leaping out of her comfort zone to deal with client issues. This woman made a major job change and moved into a completely different role that aligned with her natural introverted self. She no longer felt completely burned out at the end of each day and didn’t feel uneasy in trying to be someone she was not, in this case an extreme extrovert.

Other examples include visionary CEOs who love to create, build, and come up with the next big thing but shut-down and lose their creative sparks when they have to move into manager maintenance mode and deal with administrative details.

Just as in the case of honoring our natural energy rhythms, we need to honor who we truly are and be perfectly okay with who we are at work and in life. There is no need to prove anything to ourselves or society by ending up in a role that wears us out and zaps our zest for life.

5. Devise your own WAW (Wellness At Work) Plan. In order to achieve peak performance and come to work with a smile on your face and a skip in your step, you need to create a personalized WAW Plan. You may be thinking, “Well, how do I even get started figuring out what makes me thrive at work?” A good place to start is to determine what factors negatively impact your performance at work. It may be obtaining less than 6 hours of sleep per night or working yourself into the ground 7 days per week. It could be consuming junk food that causes you to FLC (feel like crap!) and want to nap. It could be allowing self-defeating thoughts such as “I’m not good enough, smart enough, whatever enough,” cloud your mental thought process and drain your energy.

On the flip side, you then want to determine what factors contribute to your overall happiness and well being. For myself, I need 8 solid hours of blissful zzzs, time in nature, daily trips to the gym, laughter, meditation, and lots of fruits and veggies to make me feel like superwoman! If any of these pieces of my well-being equation are out of sync, I don’t feel my best and it takes a toll on my performance at work.

This piece is near and dear to my heart because like many of you reading it, I’ve experienced burn out first-hand and it’s made me re-evaluate my life and how I want to continue living it. When your physical and mental health suffers, life can seem pretty bleak. Your body can only take so much abuse before it starts to rebel and give you a wake-up call, in whatever form it shows up for you. When we make our health and happiness top priorities, our whole life opens up and we feel like, “This is what it truly means to feel alive!”

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