“I’ll get plenty of sleep when I’m dead,” I boasted, over the din of clinking glasses and the general cacophony of a busy bar.
It was last call at my local Irish bar, The Four Courts. There was a heady vibe reverbing off the entrepreneurs and bon vivants who were the dot com stars of the day. It was one of the most fashionable places to come strut your stuff. Outside the DC Beltway the prêt-à-porter wasn’t Armani, or Gucci; this crowd was wearing their latest venture capital conquests as the fabric of their being – the bigger the funding round the brighter the sheen.
I knocked back my sixth pint (not realizing it at the time) but ritualistically numbing any fears I had and silencing voices I didn’t want to hear.
For the fourth night in a row I had ensconced myself at the Four Courts with my sales hat on, buying pints, entertaining prospects, story telling, and enticing clients to buy. I was beat. But I’d never let my deep fatigue show. This particular night, I was challenging my VP of Sales to a pre-work, pre-dawn trip to the gym. His slightly slurred question – “don’t you ever sleep?”
I did not sleep much but rationalized I was taking care of myself with my hard workouts each day; sweating out the booze most mornings, despite a diet of Guinness, high stress, and fast food. I never would have bet I’d be lying on my deathbed in a matter of days.
At the peak of the venture-capital fueled technology boom, I was building my third start-up, transfixed on a material destination. I thought money was the way to prove my value. I named my goal 40 by 40: to make $40 million by the time I was 40 years old.
Despite having an amazing wife, great friends, and a body and mind that were happiest outdoors and enjoying adventures I was locked on my 40 by 40 objective at the expense of all else. 70-80 hours a week at the office, another 30 or so in the pubs or at networking events, made up a typical week. Most of the people I was associated with were in the same boat. If it wasn’t net worth, then the size of their house, the right private school for their kids, what neighborhood they lived in, all drove their desire for success; no matter the goal, it was materially driven. Within my circle there were mind-blowing pockets of hedonism – private jets, big boats, partying with rock stars, and all that. However, I’m not sure any of us were actually enjoying the journey – we were only focused on the destination.
"Burnout comes when you’re doing something for the wrong reasons"
Not long after that night out, one of my guilt-fueled morning workouts left me feeling like I pulled a tendon. Something most of us have experienced at some point, but this one turned out to be my wake up call. It might happen to you this week during your workout. You feel a sharp pain in your arm or leg and think you’d sprained or strained something.
A trip to the doctor a few days later culminated with a tense call that same afternoon. A nurse told me I had to come back to the Doctor’s office. Right now. They wanted to review the blood tests and get some more testing done. Uh-oh.
After my local hospital told my wife that I might have Leukemia, because I had no white blood cells, and that nothing was working to increase them, they sent me to one of the USA’s best hospitals, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
I had no immune system. I had a staff infection that was not responding to antibiotics and if it continued to spread, I was facing an amputation or death. This was beyond mental burnout; this was my body finally telling me it had enough of my lifestyle.
Thank God the Hopkins doctors quickly identified the issues. I used a lot of my mental training from the Olympic days, and was sent a good few blessings that helped to save me with a new lease on life and a much different perspective. My greatest success now will be to inspire others to learn from my mistakes and not repeat them, to help millions of people live the life of their dreams and find their adventure within.
I spent five years evaluating my life, trying to figure out what was important and what I was passionate about. Eventually I found the intersection of my passion and my vocation – my Genius. I’ve been living in it ever since. I’ve been working on a book, a TV series, and giving talks based on everything I’ve learned. I’ve backed up a lot of the lessons with research from the world’s best neuroscientists.
Living in your genius makes every day seem like a vacation
If I could pick five things to cure burnout, find your passion, and live the greatest life you could possibly imagine they would be these:
- Scare yourself at least once a month, ideally once a week - this is about understanding what things are like outside your comfort zone, and learning to operate effectively in high stress situations. You learn to soon thrive in this environment, as you recognize physical symptoms that our society does its best to avoid. This also helps meet a basic human need for variety. With no variety everything looks the same. Variety creates a collage of memories and effectively slows time with people, places and things you love. The more out of your comfort zone it is the stronger the memory. Sure it’s scary. Tough shit! Do it anyway.
- Tell yourself the world is a very friendly place - I was always ready for a fight. 1st generation Irish immigrant, I believed nothing came easy and everyone wanted to take something from me. In truth the opposite is true, everyone is here to teach me something and to help me. Talking to myself and telling myself that the World is a friendly place has made all the difference in the world. Every day when I started to notice moments of joy, gratitude, and blessing, every moment became the source of fun, education and growth. The final destination was no longer the all-encompassing goal.
- Plan your month based on your obituary not your resume - what would you do this month that people will remember you by when you're dead? Not what will look good on your resume. I make more money giving one speech today than I used to make in a week. The big change in my compensation came when I started to focus on how I could serve the audience and do it better and more innovatively than anyone else. Doing good helps you do well.
- Never use an alarm clock - I used to tell people that I'd get all the sleep I need when I'm dead. I soon realized 4-5 hours a night was starting to kill me. So now I go to bed when I feel like it, usually before midnight, and wake when my body is ready; usually around 06:30 or 07.00. It is a natural way of knowing that you are getting the recovery you need. When travelling, I supplement this routine with the help of Melatonin. And no matter where I am I pack workout clothes and watch my diet - limiting my carbs to under 100grams per day when I'm not following my strict ketogenic diet.
- Visualize your perfect life - I had no experience in TV or Public speaking, yet just three years after leaving a technology career, I'm speaking 30-40 times a year and am working on a new TV show that has the potential to be a big hit. I keep telling myself everyday that I will have a hit TV show, and I see it happening when I wake up and go to bed, and it's happening. I don't know why it works to visualize your ultimate future but it does. Here's how I do visualization for athletics.
If you’ve overcome burnout and are living the life of your dreams now please leave your best piece of advice in the comments below; it would serve me and others well to know other effective paths. Live big!
Patrick Sweeney is one of the Top Keynote Speaker of 2017 as rated by Young President's Organization, and Google Talks in the EU. He only works with a handful of companies each year to make sure the events are engaging and customized, not a cookie-cutter speech for every event.