I was on a call with my coach, talking about what I was going to commit to doing better or different for the next few months in my leadership. I found myself giving rote, dispassionate responses, and finally admitted that I was just exhausted. About everything.
“Honestly?” I said, “Sometimes I actually daydream about getting hit by a truck. Not so I die or even get seriously injured. But just so I can have some quite time in a nice hospital where I didn’t have to make any decisions for awhile, or be accountable to anyone, or anything.” Understandably, my coach was concerned. I assured her that I had no plans to jump in front of a loaded rig anytime soon, but man, I needed a break and I needed one right away.
Fast forward to this past Christmas holiday, 6 months later. I took 2 full weeks off to be with my family, and to just “relax”. I tried not to look at emails, didn’t read any professional journals, and desperately tried, in my regular 3 AM wake-up incidents, to not do my usual list-making of things I needed to do the next day. I thought I would feel refreshed. Guilt was what I felt instead. What kind of a CEO am I if I don’t want to think about the company and it’s people that I love so much? What is wrong with me?
My first week back after holiday, to be quite honest, I was not at my best. I put off doing some design work, rescheduled calls with staff, and was having a hard time concentrating during meetings. Again, I thought, what is wrong with me? The beginning of a new year calls for a passionate, strong, vibrant, inspiring leader, and I was far from that. I started to question my abilities. Was I doing a good job anymore? Was I washed up?
A week later, I was out snow shoeing in Sun Peaks, BC. Complete and utter beauty around me. Snow 3 feet deep, and nobody else in sight. I recorded a quick video about executive burnout, and how leaders don’t do a great job of taking care of themselves during down time. I was of course talking about myself. I knew it. But I couldn’t admit it.
The next evening, as I was driving with my family back from Sun Peaks, I was driving on the Coquihalla Highway which is known as one of the worst roads in the country during winter. The conditions were horrid–icy road, no visibility, and high winds. I had almost made it down the mountain when I saw what could only be described as a horror movie unfolding on the road ahead of me in slow motion. Two vehicles had spun out on the ice and were now facing me—just 50 yards ahead of me. Just in front of them, a semi truck had jackknifed and was blocking both of my lanes, with only a narrow opening next to the concrete median. I started pumping my breaks immediately, remembering my ice driving protocols. My husband tried to calmly coach me through it, but I knew if we hit any of these vehicles, we were not going to come out unharmed. Somehow I managed to weave my vehicle around not only the two spun out cars, but the semi truck– and came out safely on the other side of them. The three of us in my car breathed a huge sigh of relief. We had made it through! A split second later, I heard a truck horn blaring behind me, my daughter in my back seat screaming, glass shattering, metal twisting, air bags exploding and my ears ringing. A semi truck hit us with full impact from behind.
Over the next 10 minutes, the three of us quickly assessed our injuries and continued to hear screeching tires, screams, glass shattering and the unmistakable sound of multiple vehicles piling into each other behind us. If we got impacted again, we were goners—we had no protection in our vehicle left. In the end, there were a total of 15 cars and trucks in the accident, and the highway was closed down for hours, stranding hundreds of people. We were lucky, having only a minor concussion, a bruised nose and some mild whiplash as injuries among us.
The next day as word got out about our accident, offers of help started to pour in from friends and co-workers. I couldn’t respond or talk to anyone. I was emotionally wrecked. I couldn’t think of anything except what could have happened, and how stupid I was for not taking my time over the holidays to spend better quality time with my family, enjoying everything just a little more. It was almost taken away from me, all of it.
I took a day off of work to rest and chill, but it wasn’t enough. I realized that as I started to cry every time I heard a loud noise or started to slip even a little bit as I was driving. Then full-on panic attacks started, and I realized that maybe I should figure out how to create some space to heal—not just from the accident but from the past year of non-stop action.
So, I didn’t end up in a nice, quiet hospital like I had wished for earlier this year. But I am trying, really trying, to create a space of protection for myself. Resting my brain, taking care of what my body is telling me it needs right now. Maybe I could have done that sooner. Maybe some of us need to get hit by a truck, or have a heart attack, or get fired before we realize how burnt out we really are.
But what if we didn’t wait for that truck to hit us? What can we do now to recognize that we’re burning out, and give ourselves a rest? How hard would that be? Let’s figure this out. Are you with me?