My first few years in management consulting weren’t exactly glamorous, but they were exciting and exposed me to the exact scenarios I’d been dreaming of. Coming out of college, management consulting had been the most alluring and important job I could imagine. Truth be told, the constant pressure to deliver for clients and succeed professionally was a perfect fit for my personality. I was highly engaged in my work and dreamed of one day becoming a partner at the Fortune Global 500 company where I worked, the largest consulting firm in the world by revenues.
Fast forward five years, and everything had changed. I was coming off a string of meaty enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementations, involving weekly travel to the middle of nowhere, nightly 2am calls with tech support and a sliding social life. I was burning out, but didn’t yet know it. So I begged, borrowed and stole to finally land my first local gig.
Within days of starting the project, my right leg buckled under me while walking down Fifth Avenue, kicking off a six-month battle with crippling back pain. At the time I was so afraid of sacrificing my first local gig that I did the only thing I knew how to do: I kept working – even on the days when the pain was so intolerable that I couldn’t get out of bed. My company granted me flexible short-term disability so I could make it to all of the doctors’ appointments, physical therapy and other treatments required to help me heal.
Meanwhile, the work continued, and once again I was engaged in the harried efforts to meet the ever-increasing demands of our client. Because the project was of massive financial importance to my firm, the partners lived on edge; fire drills and working overnight were a weekly thing.
This also happened to be the year I was up for promotion to executive, which I wanted badly, and so I participated in the madness without challenging it too much.
When I successfully achieved the promotion, my manager told me, “No one even mentioned your back issue, Dana.” Her comments were the turning point, the undoing of everything I had bought into my whole career.
In hindsight, burning out happened slowly and in response to my increasing level of dissatisfaction with the sacrifices I was making in my life. It took my manager’s comments to wake me up and help me realize how backwards everything was, and in the process I learned three invaluable lessons that helped me to improve my career.
In consulting, success is measured in deliverables, productivity, client reviews and dollars. I learned that my definition of success didn’t contain any of these elements as must-haves. Rather, I believe that success is rooted in mindful and meaningful action that truly assists in improving a situation, a company or an individual. In short, I learned I can’t buy into mindless whims, the expected career path or action for the sake of action.
Or maybe the courage found me. The process of recovering from a serious injury demanded that I learn how to take really good care of myself. Through endless months of soul-searching and trial and error, I learned what was really important to me, and I gained the courage to do whatever it takes to protect it.
Once I started setting boundaries, I became fierce about optimizing where and how I spent my energy. I gained the confidence to start pushing back on meaningless work, and empowered to dive head into high-value efforts. This, more than anything else, has kept me engaged in my work and allowed me to thrive.
Looking back, I know that challenging year when I finally earned the big promotion was the turning point in my career, the instigator that ultimately led me to a find and pursue a new entrepreneurial career path that I absolutely love.
You don’t have to wait for burnout to strike to start changing your career for the better. You can start building a more rewarding career today by assessing your level of on-the-job satisfaction and implementing what I learned: It’s up to you to define success, set boundaries to achieve work/life balance and funnel your energy into fulfilling work.
Dana Campbell is a New York-based career strategy and burnout coach, yogi, stress resiliency expert and entrepreneur. She is a former talent and organizational performance manager at Accenture.
Headshot courtesy of the author