Saturday, February 03, 2007


Nonprofit Burnout
by pam ashlund


Cross posted from a differnt perspective in my El Loro blog in the post Don't Want to Work for the Man

Don’t it always seem to go/You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone — Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell

Somethings comin’ something good…who knows? — Westside Story

I've written about Burnout (see series at end of article) before. Certainly, burnout is not unique to the nonprofit sector, but it has indirectly been on the radar recently re: the changing of the guard, the baby boomer effect of nonprofits, the "are we mentoring a group to replace our current leaders as they retire?

Who wants to talk about that? Normally not I because I still find the prospect of my own retirement (and mortality in general) depressing.

The truth is, that even now (possibly 20 years before retirement), I feel worn out. Words to the effect of “my soul is dying” come to mind. Of course I mainly have these feelings in the context of work, the daily grind, etc. “Don’t want to work for the man!” my soul cries. In answer I just offer it platitudes. “Who ever said you get to be happy”? I tell myself. Or variations: “Nobody’s really happy anyway” ”You should try life in the 15th Century before you complain”. Blah Blah Blah.

I could stay stuck in that place for quite a while. But sometimes, something comes along and SNAPS me out of it. That something was an NPR story

What follows is summarized (by which I mean "cribbed”) from the NPR story “ “Does Age Quash Our Spirit of Adventure?” by Robert Krulwich.”

Note: Must have been a great story since I found a half a dozen other bloggers doing the same summary (wish I found one of them before I cranked out mine).

The author interviewed Robert Sapolsky (now my favorite neuroscientist).


Robert seemed to be going thru the same thing I was, but unlike me (sticking to bitching and moaning), he decided to conduct a study. At what age do we pass from the “adventure/novelty” stage to the "routine/comfort state"?

Here are the results

  • Music – Known in the industry as “Breakthru minus 20”, this is where the 14-21 yrs are Most Open, but by age 35 “window for musical adventure is closed”
  • Food – 95% likelihood that after 39 your adventure window for new food is closed.
  • Body Piercing – 16-23 yr olds will try it; but after 23 your piercing window? Slammed shut.
Is it just that we’re loosing brain cells? Robert replied: “That is pure, pure urban myth”

Avoiding a “Horrible Debilitating State”

But instead of settling for these depressing facts, Robert turned the question on its head (and this is why I love him!). He noticed that some people do retain their sense of adventure, and some don’t. The group that do not have share two common qualities: 1) they spend a long at the same job and 2) they are good at it, they succeed (they become eminent).

The conclusion? If you want to stay open to novelty, don’t stay in the same job too long and don’t become eminent” Because IF you do, “You wind up suffering from this horrible debilitating state”. So “find the “whatever” to pick up and walk away from it”.

Good causes all.

SIDEBAR: The Work of Robert Sabolsky

His bio says his lab “focuses on three issues: a) how a ‘Neuron’ dies during aging; b) how such neuron death can be accelerated by stress; and c) the design of gene therapy strategies to protect endangered neurons from neurological disease.


Last January, in my Braintangents blog post These Are the Good Old Days, I was ruminating about how we think the music we listened to in high school was the best. In the NPR story, the writer cites a quote I wish I’d thought of first: “Music achieved perfection in 1974” Homer Simpson

This article is Part IV in a series on Burnout

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