I spent the majority of my 20s dealing with corporate burnout- specifically, consulting burnout? And it is something so normalised in the industry, even after WHO recognised burnout as a non-made up concept, that we learned to live with the idea rhetorically ask, “Is it even possible to not burn out in management consulting?”
Before you judge me or think I was one of the weak links in the team, let me tell you that I in fact was one of the very few people on most of my teams who didn’t take a mental health break. And I have worked in multiple consulting firms, and with multiple teams. So no, I wasn’t weak. And no, I don’t hate consulting even though it landed me in depression land for what felt like forever. In fact, I believe that consulting is perhaps one of the most rewarding careers out there. Alongside my burnout, I also got to work with the best colleagues, the best managers, had the best experiences and now have a network of high achieving friends on speed dial for life.
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But first, let me tell you the story about my consulting burnout and how I found my way back to sanity. I was working crazy hours, there was a point when I was working from 7 am in the morning to past midnight, and it wasn't sustainable anymore. I was getting recognition, I was getting the badges of honours, I was making a difference in my clients' lives.
I was never one of those consultants who said that I don't make a difference in my client's life. Because I was cognizant that I was even then I burned myself out. Well, I had my fair share of good managers. But I also had my fair share of questionable managers. And there were days when I was working absolutely crazy hours. And when I say days, I mean- days after days, after days- sometimes months at a stretch. I was just going on making what appeared to me meaningless slides and excel spreadsheets after spreadsheets after spreadsheets. These no doubt made my Excel skills and PowerPoint skills stellar and I was the hot stuff in the job market, but I was lacking meaning and purpose.
Of course, I didn't have any time to find meaning and purpose because I was working crazy hours. And that was the end of it. There were times while I was on holiday. Sometimes I would have a weird Director chip in his toxicity about how amazing it makes him feel when junior people are stressed out. Apparently, some senior consulting folks are really weird... They are so used to the adrenaline that they don’t even understand that being that dressed out at work is neither normal nor healthy. In short, it was terrible.
I didn’t want to travel Monday to Thursday anymore. I didn’t consider getting promoted in Consulting as a token of how good I was. And I stopped buying the BS around “I think. Therefore I am.” Because frankly, I was tired of thinking, processing and problem solving 24*7. There were days I would sleep off on the couch working on an excel spreadsheet, only to dream (read have nightmares) about it all night. Only to wake up on a Saturday morning, to get some Chai and work on more excel! Urrrghh.. The chemistry of my body changes even thinking about this!
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What to do if you are burned out
By now you probably already realised that I was a tough nut to crack. While my friends and colleagues were going through mental health sabbaticals, I refused to give up. “I am lazy”, I thought.
But there was an invisible hand guiding me through all of this. And that invisible hand ultimately led me to launch The Abundance Psyche. But for then I was a frequent visitor to the therapists’ clinics, all of whom assured me that I wasn’t broken. So the hand led me to a phenomenal meditation teacher in London. I wasn’t a woo woo person back, but I went to an open mind, not skepticism that most ultra logical folks carry with them. I remember coming out of the first session, completely buzzing with energy. “I need more of this!” I thought to myself, and it’s been 5 years since and my top advice to anyone going through a burnout would be, learn to stop and still your mind. Clarity comes from stillness, not doing.
The moment of enlightenment
And this clarity made me realise that consulting is what you will make of it. Pretty much like life is what you make of it. And consulting is one of those amazing career paths where if you are a self aware person, and if you want to make a difference in this world, it's one of the best careers that you could get into. Very few brands have the brand power and influence that the bigger consulting brands have. And when you have a brand like the consulting brands behind you, doing good work actually becomes so much easier.
But then the question is, what is good work?
And how do you get to good work? Good work is- basically going back a couple of blogs earlier, something that you are clear on. You want to be intentionally focusing on one thing you want to be doing and your have massive clarity about. And if that's your focus, that's your purpose, I can guarantee you almost all the consulting firms, the bigger ones, anyway, have a system in place for you to help you to serve that purpose.
While I was in PwC, I did one of the most amazing pieces of work, which I'm personally and professionally proud of. It was around AI governance standards and ethics. And I was consulting the ISO and the BSI. I can talk about this openly, it's not a trade secret because they were looking for experts from every field and I happened to be one of the experts in AI and I happened to be on that committee. And that is one of the most impactful pieces of professional work that I have ever done. If you’ve watched Coded Bias on Netflix, you’ll know what I mean. And I did this piece of work in 2017- pre-Cambridge Analytica, much before anyone was even talking about it. And I could only do that because I had the PwC brand behind me, celebrating Tech for Good. Here’s one of the blogs that we published on the topic.
I've done a couple of more pieces of work in Deloitte that I actually can't really go too much into detail about because of NDA clauses, but they were really sharp and very impactful and changed banking scenarios in some economies.
What I would say is consulting very much like everything else, is what you will make of it. And yes, will there be burnout probably when you are starting out if you go into it unaware. There is undoubtedly this culture of let's get associates to do the grunt work.
The only way to do good work is to improve your awareness
But if you are self-aware, and if you know where it is that you want to go, you may have to put in the extra few hours but you’ll find purpose in that. Of course, if you are self-aware!
I wasn't! I just wasn't... This comes from 10 years of doing this folks, this is not just shallow career research on the internet. This comes from lived experience. And here’s the truth- I had no clue I wasn't self-aware.
I basically went around moaning to friends. And because misery likes company, we basically formed a gang of young consultants who like to collect together and moan about how bad our life is, how terrible our bosses were.
And then something really interesting happened. This was right after I started my meditation practice seriously- I started realising shifts in me. And I no longer wanted to hang out with people who were bringing my energy levels down. And I stopped hanging out with these “friends” of mine, who were actually, in hindsight, probably friends, because we were in the same miserable place. And if this sounds familiar, my friend, I see you. You're stuck, and you need clarity, not a bunch of moaners bringing you down. It’s not an ego judgement on who’s better than whom. It’s just that at an energetic level, you become a different person when you start serious meditation.
How to improve self-awareness
In one word, it’s clarity. And clarity comes from stillness, not from analysis paralysis.
So, in the following weeks and months, instead of hanging out with these friends, I went within, dug deep, and started asking very specific questions like- what is it that I wanted out of my career? What is it that I wanted out of the next couple of years, 10 years, and lifetime?
And as those answers appeared, I went in that direction, focused, clear, strategic. And within a month or so I landed multiple job offers with crazy hikes. And I have been fulfilled at work, and I've done my best work since then. And I have found time to put in for something other than work as well and The Abundance Psyche and the Not-so-Corporate podcast are a testament to that.
But what if you still are feeling guilty about being lesser than or lazy?
I get it. I remember one of my senior colleagues, before going onto a long sabbatical, say, “In my head, if I give up consulting, I’m a loser.”
OMG! That belief kept her stuck in a career she hated and a career that was draining her, for years! In the prime of her life! She was messing with excel sheets at 2 am in the morning while her non-consulting peers were probably done halfway through sleep or Netflix!
That belief was just that- a belief. There is absolutely no truth to it. There are a number of successful professionals, CEOs even who left consulting and by no means are losers. You can only be a loser if you let non-truths, i.e. beliefs, control your life.
As for me, yes, I did get burned out. But I eventually found my way back into clarity into compassion for myself and for my colleagues. Because remember, if you are burned out, that doesn't help your colleagues either. That doesn't help your manager either. That doesn't help your firm either. That doesn't help your client either.
When you're burnt out, you're not doing your best work. And if you're not doing your best work, you personally lose (your sense of life satisfaction nose dives!). Your team loses, your manager loses, your firm loses, your client loses.
What to do next?
And if you are going through this now, you might find the Dream Job Finder LIVE really interesting.
Finally, if you are feeling burnt out, I know misery loves company and you are probably moaning and complaining in places that are of little help- like a group of friends in the same situation or a partner who can’t really empathise because they’re not in the same spot, or on Fishbowl or Reddit! But there are far safer options than believing that dream jobs don’t exist.
Just because you or no one in your circle has seen it, doesn’t mean it’s not true. For that matter, you haven’t even seen that the earth is round, but it’s true, isn’t it?
If you are going to Consulting burnout, it's a really dark place to be in, especially if you are travelling or have had kids. If you are in that place, please reach out to me- I will almost definitely respond to you.
And if you are just starting out your consulting career, whether you are 20 or 40, make sure that you are aware of where you want to go with your career. Because if you don't know where you're going, it is similar to not putting a destination into your Google Maps- you don't know where you're going. You're lost! And then of course you have driven for three hours without knowing where you're going. Won't you be burnt out? Of course, you will be!
The trick is in being crystal clear about your destination.