burning up before burning out

This page is dedicated as the notes to the training: Burning Up Before Burning Out also presented as Surviving and Thriving Now—each rule of the game I learned in order to survive, at work, home and in the world.
Here’s to finding the beautiful thread as we walk each other home.


There was a day, a little over eight years into my career as an Executive Director of a non-profit, where after abiding with and overcoming a myriad of challenges including a four-year-long threat of defunding, lodged complaints, supervision issues, and personnel and fiscal threats, that I opened an email and read the results of a self-reported safety incident. Non-compliance. The narrative spoke of how I, as the Executive Director, had agreed what happened was inappropriate, so there was a finding issued. A definitive decision that began a corrective action period that would either end with a higher penalty, or a resolution of the charge, depending on our response.

That day, a new regional grantee specialist emailed to set up a time to talk about the decision I had just read. The next morning, over a video chat between miles of geography and the newness of our working relationship, she asked me how I was.

‘How honest do you want me to be?’ I asked, my heavy head propped up by my fist, held together by a strange gravity that pulled me down and together at the same time.

‘Honest’, she replied.

‘There is no win for me,’ I said, tears both shed and hidden fighting for space in my words, ‘there is no win. I’ve followed every rule—I’ve tried everything.’ And I had. I had tried to be stronger, smarter, wiser, kinder, harder, tougher, quicker, slower. I tried to get ahead of it, behind, and beside it to climb the steepest hill to being better. Whatever the ‘it’ was that was driving me ended in my name being used as the reason this was happening. So all I had tried didn’t prevent this one. I had caused it.

I was weak from trying not to know what I had done. I was frozen and weary and the last thing I tried that morning was the tell the truth.

What I realized that day was I had tried to live by the rules as I understood them to be, so what if I tried something different, and lived by the rules borne out of all that I had lived, and all that I had lost.

Over the next few months the rules became clearer, and as the rules showed up, so did the real truth. This was a game, and I knew how to play it.

That I could do.

Rule 1

Know it’s a game.

Know its a game and that games are fun. Games also have risk and randomness and never guarantee a win. Name a game that is all great moves forward, solid strategy and a win at the end? If you can name that game do you ever play it? Why play a game that always wins, that has no inherent risk or chance?

Rule 2

The game goes slowly when you argue the rules.

And not just for you, for everyone playing. Think about when you argue the rules- when you are losing, or when someone else is winning. To play the game you have to keep playing.

Don’t take the next turn when it’s time, take it when it’s time for you. You know it’s time when you stop asking other players what your move should be: Should I leave him? have another child? change jobs? When you are asking other people, it’s not time for you to take the next move. When it’s time you don’t ask other people, you tell them: I left, I’m pregnant, I quit.

When you play Monopoly, the best way to get out of jail is to keep playing. The best way to land on Park Place to buy it is to keep passing it each round.

The only thing worse than getting the ‘go directly to jail’ card is when you don’t roll the dice to get a chance to get out.

Rule 3

Your opponents are not who you think they are.

I was always playing the game against myself and casting others in the role of the worst parts of me. I was battling with the voices in my head and doing war with the people around me who most fit them. What does that voice in your head say when you aren’t winning? When someone else is? I tried everything to try to stop those voices, until I heard the quote, ‘instead of listening to the voices in your head, talk to them.’ When I turned to listen, I could better see what they were trying to do. They were only as loud as I was deaf to them. Turning toward them helped me turn toward the people who were most like them.

When I started to talk to them the first thing I said was thank you. The second was I’m sorry.

Rule 4

Allow other people to play their hand, if you play their hand, all they have left to play is you.

Step out of the way if they turn and ask you what they should do, ask them more about their hand, instead of telling them about yours.

You can’t give advice for the hand they were dealt, because you’re giving advice on the hand you were dealt.

Listen longer than you think you should. The first part of what they say may be what they think you need to hear. The last part may be what they need to speak.

Rule 5

It isn’t about your turn, it’s about the next turn.

It isn’t about your next turn, it’s about the next turn of the game, the whole game. The search to feeling whole for me didn’t end up being about wholeness, it was about the ‘whole of us’. And whole didn’t mean good. And it didn’t mean worthy. It was always about everyone around the table, those who showed up and those who left. Those who filled my heart, and those who broke it. Those who howled with laughter and those who howled with pain.

The trick wasn’t to keep certain people away from the game, or to leave the table in a million tiny ways.

The trick was to know that I wasn’t worthy of winning. I was worthy.

Rule 6

Once in a while, look up from the game.

There is an achingly beautiful thread, invisible so much of the time, that runs above it all. Once in a while you can reach up and hold on. And you think that’s what winning is, keeping hold of it. And you think its made up of your most winningest moments. But when you look a little closer, a little intertwined is a thread of grief, and a twisting one of sadness, and a small hidden one of fear. And there’s one of trust, and one of compassion. These are the threads that connect us; the most beautiful things include the most poignantly painful.

You cannot hold someone else’s beautiful string. Unless you created it, unless it belongs to you, you’ll blame the creator when it doesn’t feel good for you. The strings built in adversity are strong and held without experience may be strangling.

The point of life isn’t to control the threads in your string, it is to stand still in the breeze of what is moving them. The avoiding of them takes so much energy away from the living of them.

Ram Dass said ‘we are all just walking each other home.’

Look up once in a while and see who is walking with you not who’s playing against you.

Rule 7

The game is unwinnable. What if you played it anyway?

Your rules are waiting to be written.


So the non compliance. Months of work ended in a video conference with stakeholders, staff, management, a federal reviewer and that new grantee specialist.

After the meeting she sent me an email with one sentence, ‘you must be so proud’.

I was proud, and nervous, and grateful, and so very present to the beautiful thread that was being woven. Built of fear and longing and care and love.

On that day we were whole.