Book Review: “Reclaiming The Fire: How Successful People Overcome Burnout”

Dr. Steven Berglas’ “Reclaiming the Fire: How Successful People Overcome Burnout” is the type of book that is so useful, I wish I had read it years before I actually did. Dr. Berglas is a clinical psychologist who currently teaches at UCLA and is an adjunct faculty member at Harvard Medical School. He is a psychoanalyst who has treated extremely successful people who reached great heights in their careers and then felt miserable. Dr. Berglas wrote this book to describe success-induced burnout and to prescribe strategies that can be used to prevent and recover from it.

In America, people erroneously believe that once they have “made it” in a profession, their lives will be perfect. In reality, it is often psychologically destructive to attain the highest level of achievement in sports, business, science, entertainment, or the arts, and then realize that you are expected to perform at that same high level, forever. The excitement of pursuit is over but the pressure remains. Dr. Berglas colorfully describes this situation as “Supernova Burnout” where successful people begin to experience the daily requirements of their work as “Sisyphean monotony.”

Dr. Berglas blames Supernova Burnout for stress-induced cardiovascular disease and clinical depression. He also ponders whether the psychological purgatory of “the good life” is the precipitating factor in the frequency of such thrill-seeking as unwise business risks, insider trading, drug and/or alcohol addiction, illicit sexual affairs, violence, and extremely dangerous sports. Dr. Berglas first observed burnout when working as a bartender serving highly successful people. Later, as a prominent business psychologist treating the same type of people, Dr. Berglas declared, “Success can control, overwhelm, or destroy a person’s professional life.” Likely a personal life as well.

Dr. Berglas notes that Americans expect success to bring happiness, but few are prepared for “success depression,” the crippling sense of disappointment that follows the experience of huge accomplishment. For example, Olympic gold medal swimmer Mark Lenzi describes his post-Olympic experience as “lying in his bed…sobbing.” Once Mr. Lenzi achieved the goal that he had worked so hard to attain, depression “hit him like a brick wall.” Dr. Berglas says that “encore anxiety” causes people to feel crippled by the demands of constantly needing to answer calls of “encore, encore” when what they want to scream back is “Ciao!”

Turning to the animal kingdom, one finds explanations for “success depression.” Dr. Berglas describes the experience of New York zookeepers who were desperate to determine why a prized polar bear was starving to death from refusing to eat. Animal psychologists discovered that the polar bear was literally bored to death. He didn’t feel like eating because the food was being given to him when his natural instinct is to hunt. Once zookeepers began to hide his food, the bear was re-energized and eating became fun again. Humans are not so different from bears in that the “thrill of the chase” is gratifying. By contrast, life at the top can feel like a sensory deprivation chamber.

So what can a person do to prevent success-induced misery? Here are some of Dr. Berglas’ recommendations:

  1. Assess your risk. Do you describe yourself as single-minded, persevering, self-reliant, assiduous, unremitting, monomaniacal, zealous, or indefatigable? If so and you are over forty years old, Dr. Berglas says you are high risk.
  2. Are you a U.S. Baby Boomer (born between 1946 and 1964)? Dr. Berglas says Baby Boomers are prone to “raging individualism,” another risk factor for success-induced burnout.
  3. Are you considered by others to be at the top of your field? If so, Dr. Berglas says you are more likely to wrestle with the emotional pain of continuing to use talents that have ceased to be psychologically rewarding.

Dr. Berglas recommends several strategies to prevent and recover from job burnout:

  1. Nurture satisfying connection with others.
  2. Mentor people who are the next generation of achievers.
  3. Learn something new.
  4. Find a cause in which you believe and dedicate yourself to it. If the cause sparks a bit of righteous anger for you, that’s actually a good thing to help you feel motivation again and recover from burnout.

Dr. Berglas does a masterful job of countering the typical arguments most people raise against why they can’t escape their prison-like careers. My favorite quote:

“Resenting a career you feel trapped in virtually guarantees that in time you will extricate yourself from it in some maladaptive manner, making you less employable than you would have been if you’d opted earlier for a psychologically rewarding pursuit.”

That’s terrific advice. I highly recommend this book for both successful people and anyone who cares about them.

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