5. Honesty vs. Burnout

Why is telling the truth so important? Because honesty is a preventative of, and antidote to, burnout. Here’s a definition of burnout:

Burnout is the act of involuntarily leaving activism, or reducing one’s level of activism.

Note the word “involuntarily.” Someone who makes a conscious decision to do less activism, either because her life priorities have changed or because she’s tired and needs to take a break, is not burning out: she is making a wise choice.

But, let’s face it: most people seem to leave activism involuntarily, and that’s a problem on many levels. When an activist burns out, she typically derails her career and damages her self-esteem and relationships. She also deprives her organization and movement of her valuable experience and wisdom. The worst problem, however, may be that when an activist burns out she deprives younger activists of a mentor, thus making them more likely to burn out. And so it’s a vicious circle, with burnout leading to more burnout.

No one knows exactly how many activists burn out each year but the number must be very high. (One indicator is the high employee and volunteer turnover rates in most activist organizations.) To picture how great a loss this represents, imagine how different, and how much better, the world would be if there were just twice as many activists out there as there are now. That’s twice as many campaigners for peace and justice, the environment, sustainable agriculture, labor, corporate accountability, gender equality, racial equality and other progressive movements. And then, imagine if all of those activists were happy and effective and enjoying long careers. It would make a huge difference.

Now, imagine if we were able to really lick this burnout thing and there were ten times as many happy, productive activists as there are now. That means, basically, that everyone who does activism in their teens and early twenties continues to do it, in some form, throughout their lives. (“Ten” is a guess, but a conservative one, I think. The ratio of younger to older activists could be up around twenty-to-one or thirty-to-one or even higher.)

Life would improve dramatically for perhaps every living thing on the planet.

That is why it is imperative that all activists work to self-actualize: so that we can prevent burnout in ourselves, and help prevent it in others.

As an activist, you probably see burnout all around you: activists leaving activist work, or staying in it but doing a crappy, half-hearted job. (I call the latter “passive burnout.”) Burnout is so common that it sometimes seems like an inevitable consequence of activist work. It isn’t, however: it is an entirely avoidable phenomenon. Burnout can have many causes, but perhaps the most common is this:

Burnout is caused by living a life in conflict with your values and needs.

When I say “living a life in conflict with your values,” I am not accusing you of being a bad activist. For all I know, you’re a terrific activist, and whether you are or not, I know you’re doing your best, as are we all. What I’m talking about is a failure to create a life for yourself that reflects who you are as an activist and a complex, multidimensional human being. People make this mistake for all kinds of reasons, including:

• They don’t know they are supposed to consciously build a life around their values and needs.

• They do know, but don’t know how.

• They let others control their time and priorities.

• They have emotional or other barriers to success.

• They are overly focused on one area of their lives, such as activism or a relationship, to the exclusion of other important areas.

Some of these reasons may seem better, or nobler, than others. The problem, however, is that living a life in conflict with your values, and where your needs aren’t being met, no matter how noble your reason for doing so, is an energy-draining, soul-sucking experience that almost always leads to burnout.

The Cure for Burnout

The only cure for this kind of burnout is to be truthful about who you are, what your values are and what your needs are, and to start reorganizing your life around that truth. You may have a romantic fantasy of sacrificing your all to save the world the way Gloria Steinem did, but if you’re not the kind of person who can remain effective while enduring decades of deprivation—and few of us are—you’ll probably fail at that unrealistic goal and simply burn out.

Once you come up with your Personal Mission Statement, your next step is to live that Statement, which brings us to another common cause of burnout:

Burnout can also be caused by the perception that you have been working too hard, or sacrificing too much, for too small a result.

The word “perception” is significant, as it is our perceptions, as much as or more than the actual facts, that often determine our level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a particular situation or outcome. Your Personal Mission Statement will help you identify what level of sacrifice you are prepared to make for your activist career, what level of success you hope to achieve, and whether those expectations are realistic.