We are all experiencing unprecedented levels of stress and burnout. Exhaustion is at an all-time high. Leaders are depleted, employees are burning out at an alarming rate, and parents met their breaking point long ago. We are struggling and in desperate need of a new path forward.
In The Awesome Human Project, Nataly Kogan, entrepreneur, emotional fitness and leadership expert and author of Happier Now, shows us the way. She makes the compelling case that while challenge in life is constant, struggle is optional. Here, she shares an accessible, super-practical, and un-boring guide for reducing daily struggle and burnout–so you can live, work, and lead with more energy, joy, and meaning, even during difficult times. Nataly wrote The Awesome Human Project in response to her own journey. A refugee who achieved tremendous success, she had come to see struggle as a way of life. But her burnout taught her a powerful lesson: you can’t give what you don’t have. She writes, “Strengthening your emotional fitness is an essential investment in your success and leadership, and an act of love to everyone you care about.”
In this interview, I spoke to Nataly Kogan about burnout, stress, and balance. We discuss how to strengthen our emotional fitness, create a more supportive relationship with ourselves, reduce self-doubt and become the boss of our brains! As Nataly says, “There is an Awesome Human within every single one of us.”
Q: What have been the consequences to society of losing the separation between ‘work’ and ‘life’?
[Nataly Kogan]: I’ve given over 300 keynotes from the same place I’m talking to you now in my home-office. When I walk out of this room, there’s my daughter, my husband, my home – but work is always here too. This hybrid world is asking us to take charge of our life when it comes to boundaries. Before, we were forced to leave the office, get in the car, or on the train and that was good because the brain responds well to changes in physical environment. The commute, even if stressful, was helpful in terms of getting our brains to refocus on home. We don’t have that anymore and so we go wherever our thoughts take us, and we have no boundaries. That lack of boundaries means the brain will just keep thinking about work when you’re at home, or home, when you’re at work, right? This is precisely why we have to take charge of our emotional fitness and be far more intentional about how we expend our time and energy.
I like to think of our brain like a small child. Children respond to clear messages, ‘we’re in the kitchen, so now we’re going to eat…’ or ‘we’re in the living room, so now we’re going to watch tv…’ We must make it clear to our brain when the workday is over, so we have to create a ritual around that.
I hate the idea of work-life-balance. It puts work and life in opposition, and that’s not the case. Work is a part of life, and life is a part of work, right? I love to work, it gives me satisfaction and meaning. What we need is dynamic life balance – a more active way of managing our energy and attention.
The brain is a little child, and we embody the wise grandparent.
Q: What is emotional fitness?
[Nataly Kogan]: I define emotional fitness as having a more supportive relationship with yourself, your thoughts, emotions and thus with other people. We all know what we need to do in order to be more physically fit, right? We eat better, work out, get outside more. That trains your muscles and cardiovascular system – and emotional fitness is just like that, but for your thoughts and emotions. That is the core of feeling less stressed and overwhelmed.
Challenge in life is constant, but struggle is our inner experience of those challenging or stressful events. The practice of emotional fitness allows us to embrace different kinds of emotions and take charge of our brain versus just following it wherever it takes us.
Q: What should we be doing for our personal growth?
[Nataly Kogan]: Let’s start with rest. It’s a four-letter word for most of us… who has time to rest and do ‘nothing’ when we need to keep growing, improving, and achieving. No high-performance athletes train all the time – they know they need to alternate intensity with rest. We have to do the same for ourselves. Rest is not doing nothing. It’s the opposite. When you take a break from ‘work’ your frontal cortex rests, and the rest of the network in your brain starts to organise and process information. That process of processing is where we come up with creative ideas and unexpected solutions to problems. When you look at the most successful and creative people, they don’t work all the time – they intuitively realise the value of going for a walk, a swim, spending time with friends or having a hobby. Art is my hobby, but I had to burn out to give myself permission to do something I enjoy – before, I thought everything I did had to grow me, or move me forward. We have to stop thinking of rest and doing nothing as opposites – we have to stop dividing our lives into either being productive or resting. By resting, you are being productive, you are dramatically enhancing your intellectual and analytical growth capacity. You are allowing all that brilliant creativity to come within you and are helping yourself to solve problems.
We also have to get away from this notion that to be alive is to be productive. Getting stuff done is important – but we’ve become productivity machines. Instead of asking ourselves what we did today to be productive, we need to ask ourselves what we were grateful for today, what we enjoyed, what we did that was kind…. We’re more than our productivity.
Q: What are the signs of burnout?
[Nataly Kogan]: Firstly, there’s a big difference between burnout and being tired. We all get tired, I’m kinda’ tired today. I’ve had an intense week, and that’s fine. Burnout is different. One common sign is the sense of feeling you’re on empty all the time – not just tired at a point but running on empty. Connected to that is a sense of dread – things that maybe used to bring you joy, even in work, can start to cause you dread. When I burned out, I definitely felt this, and it led to becoming resentful of work. We’re human – sometimes things are annoying, that’s fine – but that’s different from building a near constant sense of resentment to everything you’re doing.
Social withdrawal is another common symptom of burnout. When you’re burning out, you are depleting your emotional, mental, and physical energy – and your brain goes into fight or flight mode. It pulls resource away from anything unnecessary and tries to preserve energy as it thinks you’re in danger. It’s natural therefore that in this mode, your brain would withdraw from social interactions – including those you would normally enjoy.
Before burning out, I spent most of my life from the neck-up. I grew-up in a very cerebral household, we didn’t talk about feelings or energy, that was all woo-woo. I wish I had then, a practice I have now, which is awareness. I check in with myself and just ask how I’m doing – we ask our friends and colleagues that, but rarely ourselves.
Q: How can we encourage ourselves, in high-performance careers, to engage in better self-care practices?
[Nataly Kogan]: I am a high achiever and a high performer. I still have crazy, audacious, goals and I’m not getting any less ambitious since burning out, but I look after myself very differently.
I’ve been there, so I know the scepticism and resistance you feel when trying to engage in self-care. About three years before I totally burned out, I woke up one morning and my blanket felt like it weighed 100lbs, I literally could barely move it, and could barely turn the handle on my door. It was like my body was giving out, it was super-weird. At this point, I was probably sleeping four hours a night, maximum. I was always on the go. A friend of mine made my go to a functional medicine doctor. He (confirmed by a number of tests) diagnosed me with adrenal fatigue. Adrenaline is our body’s ignition system – we need it for our immunity, our digestion, and so much more. When we produce a lot of the stress hormone, cortisol, it can ‘kill’ our adrenal gland. At the point of burning out I was showing just 1% of the adrenaline for someone my age. This doctor told me how many people he saw like me – who were very high achievers, kept going, and then, when they hit their 40s, their bodies started to pack-in with all kinds of autoimmune disorders and other symptoms. Even after this, it took me a lot of internal wrestling to really make meaningful change.
We don’t need to burn out to make change, but we do need to interrupt our inertia. Your emotional fitness and your emotional and mental health are not separate from your ability to perform at your best. You can’t give what you don’t have. If you are on empty, if your mental, emotional, and physical energy is drained every day because you are refusing to fuel it, you simply are not performing at the top of your potential. You aren’t. We have to get honest with ourselves – we’re not machines. If you truly want to have peak performance, you actually need to be investing in your emotional fitness. It is not a separate thing. It is part of everything.
Q: What can we all do to become more awesome humans?
[Nataly Kogan]: We’re all awesome humans. We all have awesome capacity to be forces for good in the world. Every single one of us has something to contribute, to create. But… we’re also human, and that means we need to practice our emotional fitness, so we have the energy to do the work we’re here for.
We have to recognise our humanity and stop treating ourselves as productivity machines. Every single day, we need to make a commitment to ourselves to honour our humanity in some way. This could be through the act of checking-in with yourself – maybe you’re exhausted? So rest. Maybe you’re bored? So do something interesting! Just honour your humanity.
As humans, we connect with purpose when we consider how things we do impact others. I would encourage everyone to do a bit of a makeover of their to-do list! Pick a couple of items – the more annoying the better and ask yourself who that task helps. Does it help your team? Your colleagues? Your community? Your family? When you answer that question, you will connect to a sense of purpose that gives you fuel, energy and motivation to get the task done. It can also help to reframe stress from being chronic (purposeless) to being purposeful. Yes it may be incredibly challenging getting that project done, but wow, when it launches, it will help a lot of people…
So – Honour your humanness. Begin by checking in with yourself and asking yourself how you’re feeling and then actually paying attention to that. So, when you say you’re exhausted, the answer is not ‘Don’t be such a wuss, do more.’ And make sure you look at everything through that lens of connecting to meaning.