May 18, 2001

UCLA Anderson Author Examines Career Burnout and How to Rekindle the Flame of Passion at Work

Editor's note: For a press copy of "Reclaiming the Fire: How Successful People Overcome Burnout," please contact Suzanne Wickham-Beaird at Random House, (310) 582-8800 x212.

LOS ANGELES — Why does a successful, talented actor like Robert Downey Jr. risk a soaring career through drug use leading to a conviction and repeated arrests?

Downey, whose latest arrest in connection with drugs on April 25 followed on the heels of winning an Emmy for his role on "Ally McBeal," seems to be a classic example of the scores of professionals who, at the peak of their career, sabotage their own success, said Steven Berglas, a lecturer at UCLA Anderson and a clinical psychologist and adjunct faculty member at Harvard Medical School.

Berglas' new book, "Reclaiming the Fire: How Successful People Overcome Burnout" (Random House, 2001), examines the painful paradoxes that haunt many people who have achieved their dreams. Instead of enjoying the spectacular view from the top, many professionals Berglas has counseled have climbed as high as they can only to find themselves depressed and wondering "What next?" or "Is that all there is?"

Through case studies, Berglas' book examines the lives of corporate executives, business managers, lawyers, athletes and even one "maudlin model" as they struggle to find new meaning and satisfaction in the jobs they have mastered. In an interview, Berglas said that many successful people, like Downey, turn to drugs and alcohol to avoid the burdensome expectations of success or because they are in desperate need of stimulation. Others, such as investment bankers with no need for money, often turn to white-collar crimes to recapture the thrills they knew when they began their career.

Berglas describes many examples of what he calls "supernova burnout," a psychological disorder that occurs when a person is professionally successful, yet becomes depressed due to the belief that he or she is trapped in a job or career path from which there is no escape and which is no longer gratifying.

Berglas, who teaches a course on the psychology of the entrepreneurial spirit at UCLA Anderson, has coached dozens of attorneys, for instance, who are classic examples of "supernova burnout." After nearly two decades of education and an arduous climb up the pyramid to success, practicing attorneys often find themselves in a specialization, such as tax law, that severely restricts their professional challenges.
"That's the paradox of success," Berglas said. "The more successful you are, the
fewer novel challenges in your life. You're getting large amounts of money for being talented and successful but you must do only one thing day after day. Golden handcuffs are just as real as steel handcuffs."

In "Reclaiming the Fire," Berglas cites the case of Michael Jordan, who quit basketball at the peak of his career in the fall of 1993. While conventional wisdom held that Jordan retired because he was faced with suspension due to gambling problems, Berglas maintains that Jordan "still loved the game of basketball but quit professional basketball because he was suffering from 'supernova burnout.'" Berglas said a history of success such as Jordan's, who was credited with leading the Bulls to three consecutive championships, greatly heightens performance pressure with the expectation of meeting or surpassing previous achievements.

Jordan found a cure for his burnout by switching sports and playing one season of baseball for the Chicago White Sox, then returning to the Chicago Bulls out of shape and clearly not the dominant player he once was. "I believe Jordan was able to re-energize himself and, ultimately perform in the manner that he and the world had come to expect," Berglas writes. "He became energized by the challenge of becoming a champion once again."

According to Berglas' research, baby boomers are particularly vulnerable to "supernova burnout." Countless baby boomers are reacting to midlife and large amounts of disposable income with a shocked "Is that all there is?" And "Me Generation" teens who became wealth-obsessed yuppies in the 1980s are feeling emotionally bankrupt after having invested all of their energy in pursuit of material success.

While there is no single cure for this type of career malaise, Berglas has developed one overarching recommendation: "Every professional can use his or her training or experience to redress a wrong and fight for a cause that inspires passion," he said.

Berglas, who is giving a series of private and public seminars on "Overcoming Career Burnout" this summer, provides suggestions for how professionals can seek innovation and challenge in their careers without threat to their self-esteem or livelihood. One strategy involves coaching careerists to "chronically reformulate themselves" without abandoning their core competence. One person who has exploited this strategy to the fullest is Jesse Ventura. Ventura took physical prowess and a charismatic personality from a career as a Navy Seal to the world of professional wrestling, then politics and sportscasting.

The bottom line, according to Berglas, is to find ways to keep your career from sliding into a debilitating seven-year itch. "Variety is the spice of life," he said. "The fact that people forget this truth when they go to work is among the most devastating problems facing careerists today."

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