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How I Pulled Myself Out of Burnout and Turned My Ambitions Into Reality The all-too-common narrative of burnout in American workplaces has reached a tipping point — including for myself. Here's how I used a Japanese framework called ikigai to pull myself out of that spiral and build my dream job instead.

By Andi Cross Edited by Kara McIntyre

Key Takeaways

  • Over half of American workers are facing burnout, leading some to seek fulfillment by merging their careers with their passions.
  • Embracing the Japanese concept of ikigai can help align one's professional life with what they love, are good at and can be paid for, while addressing global needs.
  • Continuous learning, embracing setbacks and celebrating small wins are crucial steps on the journey from corporate life to purpose-driven entrepreneurship.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

More than half of American workers say they're currently experiencing burnout. To meet the status quo of the modern corporate world, many put their passions on hold and compromise their life for their work. The concept of a work-life balance goes out the door.

Once in this position, I decided to uproot my life in an effort to blend my passion and profession and defy the corporate America status quo. After more than a decade working in New York, I moved to Australia, started a consultancy, became a certified divemaster and ultimately focused my efforts on supporting mission-driven, impact businesses conserving and restoring the planet. Today, my team and I are on a two-year expedition called Edges of Earth, which is the culmination of five years of life upheaval and shifted career priorities.

This pursuit of bringing together passion and profession is called ikigai. It's a Japanese framework that helps us think about our life's purpose in four ways: what you love, what the world needs most, what you're good at and what you can be paid for. Here's how I used this framework to get me out of a colossal state of burnout.

Related: 4 Basics for Making the Move From Corporate Job to Entrepreneur

Uncover your ambition

Discovering your ambition doesn't happen overnight. It requires trial and error in figuring out what you want to dedicate your time and effort to. While we all have passions and strengths, it's invaluable to explore various avenues to figure out what is the right fit. Over 11 years at digital and marketing agencies, I filled lots of different roles to understand where I could contribute best.

These experiences offered insight into how businesses work and where I wanted to slate in, while highlighting certain voids in my life. Although sometimes frustrating, the years of training and exploring are extremely vital in figuring out what ambition means to you.

Ground your ambitions

Assessing your aspiration's viability and understanding the real-world challenges you're up against enables you to make smart decisions from the start. An initial vision might require tweaking, but revising towards a fitting approach is always better than forcing things that don't work.

For example, my consultancy saw numerous iterations, transitioning from exclusively serving ocean nonprofits (an extremely small pool of clients) to offering services to a wider range of mission-driven entities and leaders. That trial and error period doesn't stop once the ambition is uncovered — it's only just beginning.

Set achievable goals

Realizing your ambition is a marathon, not a sprint. By segmenting the journey into attainable goals, the path becomes more navigable. My team and I are constantly envisioning the future and working backward to maintain a balance between initiating action and gaining momentum.

Rigorous project management is indispensable, helping to provide laser focus on the right now and not getting lost in the bigger picture. It's easy to get distracted by the end goal. But with the right management levers in place, that can be mitigated.

Related: Living With Purpose: Here's How Entrepreneurs Can Win The Battle Against Burnout

Choose the right people

Pinpointing those who resonate with your vision and goals is perhaps the most arduous task of them all. A mismatch can cause setbacks in the time it takes you to realize you're working with the wrong collaborators.

Upon finding the right fit, invest in them. Encourage their autonomy, foster their best work and support their growth — as building trust within a team demands this. It's our responsibility to uphold our commitments. Choose people that want to partner with you as much as you want to partner with them.

Be okay with saying no

Building a corporate career, I was under the impression that saying "yes" when everyone else was saying "no" would elevate me. And for a while, that was true. However, with this comes the burden of not knowing when to push back.

If there are red flags — occurrences that go against your vision and values — then there needs to be a way to recalibrate. And sometimes a hard "no" is what's needed most. Sometimes, a "no" is what gets you farther ahead in the long run, even if it feels like a few steps back in real time.

Embrace the setbacks

Failures shouldn't overshadow our identity or cripple momentum. Instead, they should enlighten us and offer wisdom. Each setback has made my team more resilient, allowing us to absorb a lesson learned and come out the other side more determined than before.

Throughout our expedition, we've encountered changed plans, dissolved partnerships, faced abrupt shifts and pushed through tough conversations. It's impossible to be perfectly aligned with everyone we encounter. Sometimes change hurts, but let that hurt be fuel to the fire.

Related: How Your 'Box of Possibility' Can Help Drive Your Entrepreneurial Passion

Celebrate every win

Every victory must be celebrated, regardless of size. These moments reaffirm that the diligent groundwork, even when it seemed so minuscule compared to our larger ambition, was invaluable.

In the shadow of celebrated successes highlighted in the media, we often overlook the myriad of small, essential victories that constitute someone's entrepreneurial journey. Achieving these milestones demands immense effort without shortcuts, making every win deserving of wholehearted celebration.

Stay curious and always learn

Continuous learning is the ultimate key. Recognizing we don't have all the answers and that the journey is about the ongoing pursuit of knowledge keeps us humble and interested. For example, every location we visit on our expedition offers insight that helps refine our strategies and collaborations — keeping us on our toes and far from burnout in the process.

Simply put: If you have an ambition that you want to make a reality, go for it. Left unattended, it becomes the persistent "what if" echoing in the background. But it's equally important to pursue it with preparation, ensuring you have the requisite skills, insights and validation to some degree that your efforts will resonate. Not just for you, but for the wider world and those you hope to serve.

Andi Cross

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Growth Strategist, Expedition Lead, Writer & Divemaster

Andi Cross is a seasoned growth strategist and the lead for Edges of Earth; a 2-year, 50-destination dive expedition to some of the most remote locations on the planet aimed at driving visibility to conservation efforts around the globe.

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