Conversations: Daniel Lim's Burnout Story
Following up on our previous post about identifying burnout, and how you can adopt the scientifically-proven Healthy Mind Platter, we realise how many of us burn out without even knowing it is fast consuming us. The demands we face from our daily lives, in addition to the stress that our work gives us to become the catalyst for burnout. In spite of the burnout trend, people still do not talk about it enough.
We’re very lucky to have the chance to speak with Daniel Lim, a successful entrepreneur, about his own burnout experience halfway across the globe and how he had to be flown back home to Singapore to receive medical treatment and lost control over his bodily functions for months.
We hope that his story can help you get through your own stressed-out periods and prevent burnout.
Super Farmers (SF): Dan, please share with us what your lifestyle was like prior to the breakdown?
Dan (D): Version 1.0 Dan’s life could be best described as a constant never-ending Shinkansen (bullet train) ride! Since I was a kid, my mum (I call my mum an "Asian tiger mum on steroids!” Haha. It may sound mean but I love my mum and we’re cool) would pack so many activities for me – organ, ballet, speech, and tuition classes, and creative writing camps, you name it! I was also a student councillor in school, with up to 4 extracurricular activities who took part in every storytelling and drama competition and production there was. I have been wired as an overachiever, so I functioned the same way as I grew.
My plates were always full - founding and running multiple businesses, meetings, projects, parties, events; I am always spinning at full speed. Being extremely empathetic by nature also meant that I was always ready to drop things in a heartbeat to tend to my friends' and family’s needs. People come to me for help all the time, and so I was in constant “giving” mode.
On the outset it was impressive. I was this Energizer bunny who achieved a lot. I enjoyed my work, money was rolling in, I was surrounded by my loved ones; I was happy and fulfilled and LIFE WAS GOOD! At that time, I had felt that sleep was for losers and a total waste of time because I had so much that I wanted to do. We can sleep all we want when we kick the bucket, right? I would clock about three to four hours’ sleep each day, and every time I went to bed I felt impatient to wake up to start the day.
I did not see my meltdown coming at all.
SF: What was your breakdown like?
D: One word - EPIC. It occurred in New York about 6 years ago when I was on a holiday. I was there to catch Madonna’s concert but I ended up comatose-ing throughout the entire concert because I was in such a bad mental and physical state. I was already stricken with a bad case of the flu right before the trip, but I had gone ahead with the trip against my doctor’s advice.
I suffered from a series of panic attacks which got increasingly intense, followed by an episode in the hotel room where I caught myself wanting to jump out of the window for some “fresh air”. Finally, I went into a state of hysteria in Guggenheim Museum and I had to be sent back on an emergency flight home. How I survived that long trip back is still a complete blur to me till date.
The medical diagnosis for my condition was Mind Body Dissociation. Basically, my brain decided to shut everything out because I had not slowed down despite the signs and symptoms. Think of a computer in ‘Sleep' mode – the machine is technically functioning, but running on bare minimum resources and not able to do much.
In that period, I suffered from heartburn frequently. There was an occasion when I got into my car and my chest felt so tight that I could not move, and I thought I was having a heart attack. I also broke out in hives all the time, and my back would sometimes be covered in rashes. My immune system crashed and I would fall ill every two to three months.
SF: How did you return to a normal state of being, and how long did it take?
D: I was out of action for 6 months. Using the computer analogy again, I was in ‘Recovery' mode and we had to whip out the recovery discs and did a whole load of rewiring.
I had to see a psychiatrist and was on medication for half a year. I also had psychotherapy sessions thrice a week. In the therapy sessions, we did lots of work on self-development, excavation, deconstructing and then reconstructing the wires (invisible scripts in my head, behavioural patterns) that led to my meltdown.
Halfway through my recovery, I decided to ditch the drugs because they were making me feel like a zombie. They helped with my anxiety attacks but they muted everything else too. I hated that feeling as I lost my effervescence!
I took the healthier, more sustainable approach to ride out this storm by building mental resilience, reframing my mindsets and creating an arsenal of tools which I can dispense at will for the next phase of my life.
SF: Looking back, what should you have done to prevent this breakdown?
D: Oh no, I wouldn’t prevent this breakdown at all. I NEEDED a wakeup call and the universe decided to give me one. Something of this magnitude had to happen to disrupt the unhealthy patterns that are lodged in my bones. On hindsight, it was the best thing that had happened to me; I needed a breakdown in order to have a breakthrough.
That said, no one should have to go through a meltdown in order to live a more awakened life. There are many ways to prevent total burnout.
SF: What are your quick tips for our readers to realise they may need to slow down?
D: You can have all the money and time in the world but if you have no health or energy to enjoy them, they mean absolutely zilch. If you don't make time for your health now, you’ll make time for illness later. Human well-being is delicate and we are generally bad at caring for our own well-being because we’re so strongly conditioned to letting our social and natural impulses tell us what to do with ourselves. But we can learn.
The most important factor in creating a productive life is energy. Energy comes in three forms - physical, emotional and mental. Educate yourself on what gives you energy and what takes it away. This means bringing awareness to the people you hang out with, the kind of company you keep, and the activities you indulge in. Develop a keen nose for toxicity and eradicate them ruthlessly from your life. Curate, curate, curate. Weed out energy zappers. Clear the field so you can focus on the few things that really matter in life.
Mind The Gap!
This “Gap” is the space between where you are now and where you should and want to be. This gap kills people - it dishes out anxiety, discontentment and unhappiness. We want to develop a muscle that welcomes short celebrations and quick recoveries.
While we work on achieving our big goals, focus on things you’ve done and celebrate the small wins. When something bad happens, analyse, adapt and adjust quickly. That’s what we call a quick recovery. Respond with intelligence instead of reacting.
Enough Is Plenty
What comes after more, more, more? It’s morer, morer, morer.
How much do we want to accumulate? How much do we need? These days I practice the mantra of “Enough Is Plenty”. I think the quality of life that I can be happy with, and then realise that I don’t need that much to have enough. Can things be better? Sure you can have a gold sink! Need things be better? Nope, you don’t need a gold sink to wash your face in.
Once you have figured out how much your “enough” is, a lot of that mindless hustling could end.
Currency Exchange of Life
Not all dollars are equal. Realise that every dollar you make in life has a different exchange rate. Sometimes it takes two dollars in health to make that one dollar. Other times it takes ten dollars’ worth of your time with family to make a dollar. Be mindful of opportunity and real costs.
Practice Radical Self Care
Love yourself! Be gentle and compassionate with yourself. After a season of hard work, schedule time for decompression. Unpack an experience. Make sense of it. Recharge. Tune in to your body. When it is tired, listen to it and book yourself a massage or do some body work to relieve those tight knots.
I am also a strong advocate for “thinking retreats.” I take time out quarterly to go someplace outside of Singapore to think. This is the time when I would work on my life and unpack the experiences from the past 3 months, distil learnings, identify areas where I can improve, acknowledge my wins, and strategise for the fresh quarter ahead.
Our First Line of Defence
Dan is a cereal entrepreneur* who spends his time at the intersection of creativity, business and happiness. After 20+ years of running his successful enterprises, he's started a coaching and training practice to help good humans redefine success, understand the importance of self-care, build businesses and do work which is aligned with their values and purpose. His bunny heart swells with joy when he sees other people succeed and live their lives to the fullest potential.
Interview by Cynthea Lam
Edited by Ange Chua