The year was 2003. I was very busy.
Like burnout busy.
For starters, I was community manager and sole tech support provider for an online discussion community with 5,000+ members. I was chair of a local political party, with a focus on coalition-building and reaching out to new people. I made semi-regular appearances on local radio and TV. I had a quixotic long-term campaign for president, primarily online. I ran multiple activist websites, with connections to other websites all around the world. At my peak, I think I had 7 or 8 active websites going, each where I was the sole proprietor/manager, and each with their own pile of contacts, emails, and to-do items.
I’m probably forgetting some stuff, which is something I used to do back then. (For example, I never seemed to know how many websites I was actually running at any time.)
In the spring of 2003—on top of all those things I just mentioned—I decided to bring together leaders and official representatives of 6 different law enforcement agencies in the area, in a forum that was moderated by the editor of the local newspaper, broadcast on local radio, and covered in full by the community TV station.
That whole event went from conception to completion in 5 weeks, which is a great example of how I used to roll back then: come up with a grand idea, and go headlong toward it by sheer force of will, regardless of whatever else might need attention (and regardless of realistic boundaries, healthy choices, and anything else really).
I basically just lived to do things that connected with people—the more things, and the more people they would impact, and the more complicated and difficult they were, the better. Sleep was something I did when I had absolutely no choice. Then I would wake up and just dig right back in. Nutrition, social activities, sanity, the time of day—these things were of little importance to me. After all, I was DOING so much! And CONNECTING with so many people!
It was an ongoing rush…and if I ever felt it wavering, I had no problem finding a new way to expand my universe of responsibilities. For example: Later in 2003, while in the midst of planning another major public event, I felt compelled to launch a month-long online protest of the unjust suspension of a high school student—in Wisconsin, 2000 miles away. And so I did—adding a new daily task, and a new top priority to my mountain of “top priorities”, for more than a month, simply because I saw a national news story that rang a bell with me.
Keep in mind, no one asked me to take that task on—just like no one asked me to put together that law enforcement forum—and the decision-making process behind doing so spanned a total of a few hours over the course of a day or so. I was ready to aim and fire at a moment’s notice.
Truly, there was no limit to my ability to find creative ways to further overwhelm myself. But that’s not quite the same thing as having no limits. I was eventually forced to accept that fact.
It might have been the thousands of backlogged emails, and the understanding that I could never even come close to dealing with them all. It might have been a growing dissatisfaction with being completely detached from the calendar—often having only a vague sense of the day or date, and with months and years whipping by with unsettling speed.
It was definitely in part due to the increasing—what’s the word—hovel-ness of my home, and a parallel decline in my physical and emotional state. My neck and shoulders were wound up like steel bands most of the time, and the percentage of phone calls that ended with me shouting and hanging up was trending steadily upwards. Really, almost every negative indicator was trending upwards—especially the “unmet obligations” one.
I had so many irons in the fire that the fire itself was smoldering out, just making a bunch of smoke that would eventually suffocate me.
And so I shut it all down.
And I do mean all of it.
I stopped all my local politics and activism—basically disappearing from the local community—and all my web politics too. I eventually discontinued my presidential campaign, putting it off to an undetermined later time. I stopped working on all my websites, and stopped acting on my urges to create new ones. I let go of the belief that my company (the web discussion community) would be a cash-generating enterprise, and just committed to keeping it alive for the members. (Eventually I closed it entirely.)
I just stopped doing all the activities that I had been doing—except walking, of course—slowly but surely. Basically I dedicated myself to two things: 1) un-burning out and “finding myself”, and 2) starting a new career. Several years later, I’ve found some success in both of those ventures.
The process of shutting down took years, probably beginning in early 2003, when I did a mass purging of my possessions. I gave away about 2/3 of my furniture and half-decent things, and threw away a 30-foot-long dumpster full of stuff that had been gathering at my place for years before I moved in there. (Plus, let’s face it, a lot of my own trash.) And it took until about 2006 to really complete the transition, to where I felt like I was living in a way that was fundamentally different than the way I had been before. (Not coincidentally, I met and began to work with Shawn Tuttle from Project Simplify in late 2005.)
Somewhat surprisingly, the hardest part of the transition wasn’t stopping myself from doing things. It turns out that not doing stuff is actually pretty easy (as I illustrated when I solved the cigarette addiction problem for mankind). And once I’ve truly accepted that I have to make a change—and if that change has easy-to-follow rules—I tend to stick with the new plan with some serious resolve. (Being bullheaded is one of my greatest strengths…when it’s a strength.)
No, the thing that made shutting it all down a multi-year process was letting go. While technically that just meant letting go of various activities, what it really meant was letting go of various parts of my identity. Both my business and my crazy presidential campaign had been going on for a major chunk of my adult life. My various websites were networked out to thousands of people who had come to know me as a renegade web activist. Locally, the picture was the same—almost everyone I knew had come to know me as this local activist guy, and I thought of myself the same way. And at the discussion community site, I had been the defacto host to thousands of people over the years, greeting many of them personally upon arrival.
So shutting it all down really meant heading into the world as a totally new person, both in terms of my daily actions, which changed radically, and in terms of my very role in society, and among my peers. I was no longer a business owner. No longer a presidential candidate. No longer an online community manager, or a local activist, or a radio or TV guest. No longer chair of the local party, or CEO of the company. No longer a coalition builder. No longer a website launcher.
Just me. Whoever the hell that is. ;-)
It’s hard to explain how liberating letting go of all that was. It provided an atmosphere of tremendous relief, and tremendous freedom, and gave me the room I needed to become a whole new person, with a wide open agenda, and a transformed personality.
Of course I wasn’t able to completely erase my old self—nor would I have wanted to. I love my brain way too much to want a full lobotomy. But I did have a chance, for the first time since who knows when, to think in a truly unfettered way about what I wanted to be doing with my time, and to draw up a new version of me and my life, on a relatively blank slate.
The new version of me has his own set of problems and flaws, no doubt. He’s not perfect either. But he has had a chance to appreciate and understand some things that the previous version of me was too busy to focus on. Also, he’s way closer to eventually sending out Christmas cards every year. And he’s healthier. And happier. And more stable. (Much, much, much more stable.)
I’ve gradually been increasing my activity and connection level in recent years. Though, honestly, I still haven’t really figured out the “gradual” thing—a.k.a., growing my pursuits at a measured and reasonable level. My solution so far still primarily involves keeping my responsibilities and engagements to a minimum, because I know in my heart that the more I re-engage, the more I will want to re-engage, and so on, potentially into oblivion. I stop myself from launching a new website once every two weeks on average. And I’ve stayed almost completely out of politics, because even dipping my toes in that water makes me want to go swimming, if you catch my meaning.
Like I said, I didn’t entirely wipe out the old Lance. I wasn’t aiming to. But I did manage to reset myself enough to come to an understanding of how I got where I had been, and how to avoid ever ending up there again.
I’m not saying that I’ll never again be as active as I was back in the day. I haven’t been working to squeeze my record-setting to-do list and my 8,000 voice recordings into a life-saving mind map for nothing. As planned, the adventures of future Lance are going to make the so-called “activities” of past Lance look like a slow motion film of old people winter-swimming in molasses.
But future me knows something that past me didn’t know: his limits. Hopefully that will be enough to make the difference.