Four Lessons on Burnout from a Combat Pilot

A TEDx Talk from Jannell MacAulay, a combat veteran and mindfulness advocate, on why we need to practice self-care if we want to perform at our peak without burning out.

Jannell MacAulay was doing something that her father only dreamed for her when she was a child — working as a military leader and pilot, a job not open to women in the ’80s. In this TEDx Talk, she describes how powerful that experience was — becoming a military leader, commander, academic, and wife — but also how she struggled to stay at the peak of her game while experiencing intense pressure to attain perfection in every role. The drive to succeed and avoid failure at all costs caused her to burn out.

Here are four takeaways from her talk:

1) Drive alone does not equip you for sustained success. Sacrificing health and relationships to maintain or accelerate success is a recipe for burnout. “My drive took me to the point where I was giving to everything and everybody […] and that almost destroyed me,” says MacAulay.

MacAulay ended up arriving at mindfulness.

“It’s about being in the present moment, instead of wasting our time succumbing to the mind wandering and the distractions, and ultimately the unrealistic expectations we put on ourselves with our own inner dialogue,” she says. “And that’s extremely hard to do on our own, especially under stress.”

2) Put on your oxygen mask first. MacAulay attributes her professional success to using a tool that’s accessible to everyone: the breath.

“We can use the power of our breath to live more in the present moment, increasing our productivity and our efficiency, and actually giving ourselves time back,” MacAulay says. “Time we can use to harmonize our hard work and our labor with the joys in life.”

When life gets stressful, MacAulay says mindfulness reminds her to slow down—and to forgive herself on days when she isn’t able to do so.

When life gets stressful, MacAulay says mindfulness reminds her to slow down—and to forgive herself on days when she isn’t able to do so.

She describes practicing mindfulness as an exercise, like doing push-ups for the brain.

“And the more you practice it, the more it is available to us, under stress,” she says

3) Win back time by focusing on the good. Along with battling stress, MacAulay was finding it difficult to focus on the present moment. She realized there were times when she would miss special moments with her children, due to worrying about things at work.

“The interesting thing about mind wandering is when we do it, we think of unpleasant thoughts. We might have this fabulous vacation coming up, but instead of thinking about our toes in the sand, we mind-wander about all the things we have to do before we leave,” MacAulay says.

MacAulay refers to her colleague, Amishi Jha, who uses the example of the brain as an iPod: we spend a lot of time in fast forward worrying about the future, and in rewind ruminating on the past, but we rarely press play and live in the present.

“Mindfulness can actually strengthen our muscle of attention and help us make better decisions. It also decreases the amount of time we spend mind wandering or judging ourselves, and setting unrealistic expectations,” MacAulay explains.

4) Give connection before you give direction. MacAulay found ways to introduce mindfulness to her unit, including practicing yoga and doing a mindful minute before leadership meetings. She says mindfulness helped created a culture of trust and connection, which nurtured an environment of “failing forward” where people “used self-compassion to get back up and try again.”

“I’ve been asked many times how I got a military unit to buy in to mindfulness,” MacAulay says. “I started with trust by being a mindful leader myself, and creating opportunities for connection.”

MacAulay describes how starting with small initiatives, like no-email Friday, helped her build trust by being more available to make in-person connections with her team.

“Mindfulness created a culture of trust, care, love, and connection… where people weren’t afraid to fail,” MacAulay says. “Mindfulness created an environment where everyone can succeed.”