Earth Day, when we remember the planet’s fragility and resilience, was when I finally understood that I had nothing left to give.
It was April 2017. After two decades of striving in my career, I had risen to a role of great impact: a director on Apple’s Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives team. My boss, former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, had entrusted me with orchestrating the company’s annual Earth Day celebration.
And, wow, had we stepped up our game that year.
We released a 58-page environmental responsibility report and a series of animated videos about Apple’s environmental achievements, posing curious questions such as "Do solar farms feed yaks?" We turned the leaf on our logo green at hundreds of Apple stores around the world. Even bolder, we announced ambitions to make Apple products out of entirely recycled or renewable materials.
I drank beer and hugged the brilliant people from so many Apple teams who had pulled all of this off. I smiled. But mostly, I wanted to fall into bed.
To inspire Apple employees, we created an hour-long presentation for Lisa to deliver in Town Hall, the campus theater where the first iPhone was announced. And we brought musician Jason Mraz to play an Earth Day concert on the green lawns of One Infinite Loop.
Whew. Surrounded by thousands of my colleagues as Mraz performed, I drank beer and hugged the brilliant people from so many Apple teams who had pulled all of this off. I smiled. But mostly, I wanted to fall into bed.
Insistent inner voice
That wasn’t new. The enormity of my job, leading strategy and engagement for Lisa’s team, usually left me exhausted — especially after Earth Day, when I felt like one of Santa’s elves just after Christmas.
What was different? This time, when I told myself I’d bounce back soon, I knew I was lying. Underneath my sheen of accomplishment and pride, a quiet and insistent inner voice told me I was depleted. Cooked. Burned out.
That voice was right. As May deepened, so did my sadness and fatigue. The physical and emotional crisis overwhelmed me. Nearly every day, I sat in my glass-walled office and tried to avoid eye contact with my colleagues so they wouldn’t see my tears.
I felt like I was failing at everything. I couldn’t gain any momentum on projects. My well of creative energy had run dry.
My body no longer allowed me to pretend that this hard-charging life was right for me. Previous injuries flared up, sending lightning bolts of pain along the nerves in my hands, feet and back.
As I tried to ignore the pain, my body kept turning up the volume: a 3 out of 10, then a 4, then a 7. My body seemed to be asking, "Can you hear me now?"
The pain reached a 10 that spring of 2017. And still I tried to soldier on.
Don’t be an idiot, I told myself. Your boss served President Barack Obama, and now she reports to Tim Cook. You have a wonderful team. You have a great title and lots of stock in the world’s most valuable company. Even better, you get to tell stories of the powerful work Apple is doing on climate action, resource conservation, natural-disaster relief and HIV prevention. You show others what’s possible. You become what Robert Kennedy (whose photo hangs on the wall of Tim’s office, alongside Martin Luther King Jr.’s) called a "ripple of hope," spreading inspiration through customers, investors, suppliers, policymakers and industry.
Listening to your spirit
So what if you feel down? Most people would kill for this job. Suck it up.
Here’s the thing: You can’t think your way through an existential crisis. You can't talk your way out of burnout. You need to listen, deeply, to your spirit. You need to honor what it’s telling you.
And my spirit was telling me something profound: For the previous few years, I’d devoted myself to corporate and planetary sustainability. But along the way, I’d completely lost my human sustainability.
Only when I hit the depths of my crisis did I understand that I needed to quit the job I’d worked so hard to get.
Only when I hit the depths of my crisis did I understand that I needed to quit the job I’d worked so hard to get. I’d let the burnout go for so long that stepping off the corporate treadmill was the only way I could truly recuperate from the punishment of two decades of high-stress work, long commutes, poor health habits and time away from my family.
So that’s what I did. I sat across from Lisa in her office, swallowed hard past the lump in my throat and told her I was leaving to recover my well-being.
It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I haven’t regretted it for a moment. In the three years since, I’ve come back to life. I’ve gotten well. I’ve crafted a career of purpose and meaning. I’m an executive coach who helps leaders — especially environmental sustainability leaders — nourish and inspire themselves so they can keep doing the work they love.
Why am I telling you this story? Because, my friends, I see myself in you.
I see you suffering under the weight of the environmental crisis.
I see you struggling with weariness, depression and burnout.
I see you decide you can’t take a day off when the planet is burning.
I see you sacrifice your own sustainability for planetary sustainability.
I get it. You keep going because you have a big heart. You’re called to do this work, maybe by your love of wildlife or natural places, or by a deep desire for racial and economic equality.
The problem is, if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t have the energy or creativity that you need to do great work.
And great work, maybe even transcendent work, is critical right now.
That’s why I’m starting this series with GreenBiz. I’ll be writing regularly about ways you can tend to your human sustainability. Purpose. Love. Natural beauty. Breath. Poetry. Stillness. Rest. I’ll use as examples things my clients and I get right, things I get wrong (so, so wrong) and things I still struggle with every day.
My hope is that you’ll reconnect with that wise voice inside you, and the spark that brings you most alive, so you can be at your absolute best. Because, to find solutions to our most pressing problems, the world needs you at your best.