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by Hannah Im | March 10, 2009

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The daily life of a consultant is both exciting and dynamic. Still, consulting is a fairly high stress job: the traveling, the long hours, elongated separation from loved ones, cramped spaces, reams of paper, the ever-present computer screen, sleeplessness, etc. Soon enough, the glamour and glitz feel like just a dream.

From Ground Zero and Up
I remember when I got my first job out of college - consulting with a Big Five firm. My peers were jealous. Consulting sounded so glamorous to them. At the time, I was a liberal arts double major. I knew nothing about business and even less about consulting. I only knew, based on the education I got from my peers, that I was embarking on an exciting, dynamic career path.

For the first few years, I learned so much. My "exciting and dynamic" expectations were fueled each day with new challenges, interesting new acquaintances, stimulating discussions, etc. Consulting gave me an intellectual titillation my English and Asian studies never offered. My analysis up to that point had been strictly academic. I blossomed. I networked my way around the firm and found great mentors, teammates, and role models. My motivation came from [many] forces and factors. Every day I awoke, I commuted or flew with the excitement of a child anticipating Christmas.

Deflation
At the same time, I struggled a great deal. Most of my colleagues studied pertinent majors, or boasted impressive internships, or hung MBA degrees on their cubicle walls. On the contrary, I was just stepping into the corporate world. When I decided to look for a job in the last months of senior year, I only knew I wanted to work. So I networked for jobs where I had contacts, not where I thought I would succeed as a consultant.

Since the partners hired me on the spot, I naively believed my qualifications were adequate. But on my first day of work, I knew I stood at a disadvantage. I needed to learn not just about consulting, but also about every industry our clients represented. I also had to learn basic business and technology concepts. "Operating system" and "DOS" were foreign words to me, as were "stockholder," "cost benefit analysis," and "business process reengineering." It was obvious to me the partners made a mistake in hiring me. I clearly did not belong here.

Additionally, I graduated from a women's college, and for the first time in four years, I had to interact with male peers again. It took me some time to figure out how most of them had matured since high school. It also took me some time to understand the politics between men and women, the different positions, the different lines of business, and client-consultant relationships. I hardly slept because I was so busy trying to learn, keep up, and prove I was just as good.

On top of that, my enthusiasm and apparent inability to decline requests kept my inbox mountainous. Of course, I did not mind taking on more projects than any other first year consultant. Each project represented another opportunity to learn and to demonstrate my competence and to meet more people. As a result, I worked harder than everyone else - not just in volume, but also in an effort to learn fast enough and to do a good job. It was easy enough to maintain for a while; after all, I was young and bright. I was earning high praise and assigned to the firm's biggest clients and most stimulating projects. Yet, I was constantly nervous that the mistake of my hiring would become self-evident.

I was caught up in a cycle I knew not how to break. I spent two to four days a week at the office until sunrise, only to go home for a quick shower before my next meeting. Eventually, my adrenaline shriveled up and dread overtook me. I stopped walking into my office with a smile. I was burned out.

Finding Peace and Surrendering
In order to recover, I took six months off from consulting and went into banking. In banking, I found routine. I found safety. I found sanity. But during that time, I also found dryness and micro-management and resulting frustration. I needed the diversity and stimulation of consulting again. I wrestled with my conscience. Leaving a company after less than a year seemed somehow wrong to me. Yet, I felt strongly six months was all I needed to restore myself. So I took charge of my career again and networked my way back into consulting. Within a week of my deciding to transition back, I found my way back into consulting. I felt like I was breathing fresh air again.

Understanding Myself
Throughout my consulting career, my most valuable lesson came from burn out. I never want to go through it again. It was the darkest period of my life. From that point forward, I learned how to monitor myself and my environment - the stress, the travel, the assignments, the politics, etc. This time, rather than blossoming, I matured and found confidence in my work. I forced myself to feel comfortable being firm with my time constraints and managed my time and my relationships better. I managed my projects better too.

Understanding Yourself
Burning out can be detrimental to your career. In the process, you forget what your priorities mean to you, because work becomes your ultimate priority. In the process, you forget how important it is to care for yourself, because work becomes you. And potentially, you lose yourself, and also, the quality of your work declines and your reputation for quality evaporates as well. My personal consulting motto is, "the only promotion in consulting is self-promotion." Your image and reputation are pivotal in our profession. They are also very delicate and often difficult to repair, once diminished.

I hope none of you ever go through a burn out experience. If you do, I hope you come out stronger for it and find yourself a better person for it too. In the meantime, I recommend taking classes in time management, project management, stress management and negotiation. If you are uncomfortable in taking classes, devise a system that works for you.

I also recommend you find ways to moderate your stress and intolerance for the little peccadilloes that are sure to vex you. For some of you, that means exercise or creative releases. For others, it means finding expressions of your spirituality or spending time with those you love most. However you choose to temper your work with your personal needs is up to you, obviously. Just be sure to be healthy and take care of yourself holistically.

I hope I am not sounding overly trite. Burn out is serious and affects your mental and physical health too. If necessary, use your medical insurance to seek psychiatric help, or use your company's Employee Assistance Program (if offered as a benefit). Consider volunteering in your community or meditation. Do whatever it is that gives you the most serenity. Do whatever it is you need not to burn out. And if you still burn out, just know there are ways to recover.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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