This past spring, The Coca-Cola Company invited me to speak about burnout prevention and resilience to members of their workforce via the Coca-Cola Compassion Lab. I also had the opportunity to be interviewed by the wonderful Kathy Twells (SVP of Customer Excellence) on her Compassion Lab podcast.
You can listen to our entire conversation (or read the transcript) here, but I thought I’d personally share a multi-part series of some of the highlights* that might be useful to you.
(*excerpts have been edited/modified for purposes of clarity or brevity)
Sometimes We Get Lost
Kathy: I want to honor you for your vulnerability and sharing your story. When we see how others have gone through these challenges, it helps us all understand that we’re all walking this path. I love how you call it a passion journey because it did change everything for you…you were in a place that you said was not aligned with you. You were not well suited for that. It wasn’t a fit. Why do you think you felt you needed to be there, that striving, that achieving? What puts you in that place in the first place?
Susan: It was something that I was primed to do, and not intentionally, by well-meaning enthusiastic adults as I was a child. It started when I was quite young.
I joke that when the grownups hadn’t gotten to me yet, my life goals were to be either a novelist or a journalist by day…by night I was going to be a Solid Gold dancer. I practiced every night in the basement. My parents had no idea. I had my pile of Abba records and my all-time favorite, Sesame Street Fever, which I still have on vinyl.
That was who I was authentically. I love to write. I’m curious. I loved the arts, performing, and teaching people things, but I got identified as being gifted in the sciences around the fourth grade. That’s wonderful. I find it quite astounding that many years ago, people were excited about a young girl who was showing a lot of promise in the sciences, mathematics, and things like that. My parents were focused so much on my excellence and achievements in school, and so did my teachers. Eventually, as the years passed, I started to get awards and scholarships, all kinds of attention and rewards for my academic performance. Unfortunately, what happened is I got the message that that was where my value came from.
I developed this framework about how life worked. I looked to the older people around me and whatever seemed to make them the happiest, or whatever ideas they had. Those were the things that drove my choices.
I was originally studying Dietetics. I was passionate about nutrition and preventative medicine. I had a professor when I was about to finish that program; I was doing a summer research scholarship. He told me, “No. Your grades are way too high. You can’t follow that path. You need to either be a lawyer or a dentist or a doctor.”
That conversation changed the course of my life.
I said, “I’ll be a doctor, then.”
Literally, from that moment, I decided to apply to medical school. It hadn’t occurred to me prior. When we don’t have that sense of ourselves and we haven’t been stewarded to ask the right questions…the older people in our lives are there to provide wisdom and guidance, but I still got lost. Thankfully, my depression and burnout and trauma eventually redirected me, which I’m grateful for.
Climbing the Wrong Ladder
Kathy: The story you are sharing is true for many people. It is well intended, but people end up climbing the wrong ladder, doing the wrong things after all this time. It’s crazy. You might be reading this and you find that you have climbed the wrong ladder, or maybe a younger person who hasn’t done that yet. What would you say to people who might want to rethink where they are right now?
Susan: It is a process. I encourage things like journaling. Talk to wise people. Allow yourself to feel how you feel. Be honest with yourself about what you would ideally like to be doing. Who are the people that you admire? Who are the people you’re envious of? These are things that can point to a path that is better suited to you.
However, what I did at one point, and what I also see a lot of other people do…can happen when we get to a point where we feel strongly in a negative sense about where we’ve ended up. We can go through an extreme rebellion phase where we push too hard in the other direction. There was a time when I was convinced that I just wanted to be a flamenco dancer. I was a professional flamenco dancer as part of this journey (and salsa too).
I was taking it to an extreme where I was rebelling against all the structure and academics and achievement. I ran to Mexico and had a dance company there. That was not the correct path, either. I swung too far in the other direction.
When I talk to young people now, I talk a lot about practicality. Ideally, it is important to have some foundation or training to reliably earn a living. That’s important.
At the same time, give yourself lots of room to explore when you’re young – but also when you’re older. You can intentionally pivot. Get a coach. I coached people a lot over the years to help them make transitions. The one piece of advice is: don’t do the extreme things if you can avoid it. Try to be thoughtful and get wise counsel from people that you admire and trust.
When Difficult Things Work Out for Good
Kathy: That is good coaching. Look at you now. Here you are, you are writing and doing all the things that the seeds of that initial passion existed in you before you had this experience. For any of us, when we have trauma and challenge we’d prefer not to experience that…but if you didn’t have that, you might not have the same level of compassion for others in the work that you do now, would you agree?
Susan: Yes. I would not trade it. Obviously, there are levels of suffering that occur in this world that no one would ever wish on themselves or anybody. In my case (because of what I went through), my passion for mental health and learning about that started way before our culture became aware of it. It was an equipping that happened over the years that I feel now in this time in history. I feel that I was preparing for what I did not know what was coming in the world.
Also, you make a good point, which is an important one to help take pressure off people. Even though I ran to Mexico and started a dance company, and wanted to leave behind all the academics and all the structure and pressure there, I believe that there was something bigger going on that’s orchestrating things.
In the crash of 2008, I had to come back up to the city and reintegrate. I started speaking more intensely (i.e. speaking at conferences), and stepped into what I am doing now from a much stronger place. I feel I wasn’t allowed to stay down there, hiding in Mexico. Life brought me back.
People don’t need to be frightened that if they make a wrong step. Everything is not necessarily lost, I don’t think life works that way. We do still have to be careful about our choices, though (to the best of our ability).
Stay tuned for excerpts from Part II of our interview, which focuses on Identifying, Preventing and Dealing With Burnout (in the age of Covid).
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