Feed the Flame

burnoutI used to think that having a career in the arts provided some level of immunity to burn out. When I would hit bottom (as I did regularly…), I dismissed it as a sign of weakness. After all, if I am fortunate enough to do what I love, and the work is itself a thing of great beauty and a source of renewal, how could it burn me out? There are legions of truly difficult jobs in the world, and this isn’t one of them. And being grateful for good and rewarding work is enough of a weapon against burn-out, right?

I will go to my grave a naïve woman.

Can you tell that we just finished an exhausting summer season? It was wildly successful from almost any point of view. Regrets were few, blessings were many. So the fact that it’s two weeks in the rear view mirror and my psyche is still a black hole is inexcusable. Right?

Here’s the thing I believe I’m finally learning. (I’m slow. It’s only taken over 30 years.) The argument that a satisfying job should be its own reward is based on the fact that art can refresh and replenish us. Indeed it can. But if we are engaging with the work at a level that allows the well to fill as quickly (or more quickly) than it’s being drawn upon, we are slacking. If we are doing due diligence, we are putting far more into this equation than it can repay us. And unchecked, the well runs dry. Because the water in the well is filled with music, it takes a little longer. But eventually, we will scrape bottom.

I’ve come to believe that this balance is one of the things that defines professionalism. If we consistently reap more than we sow, we are amateurs. Nothing wrong with being an amateur; by definition one who loves the art. But being a professional means plowing more into it than it gives back to you, tackling the thorny parts, not shying away from the tough decisions, embracing the minutiae. In the end, we professionals love the art, too. I don’t mean to understate that. It’s just that we are servants of it. And servants need a break.

So if you’re out there slinging the art around, and you need balance and respite, please don’t be afraid to take it. You know who you are. We love our work, but we’re useless to it if we flame out.

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