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I had nightmares and started drinking heavily because I was so burned out at work. Quitting was the only way out.

Jamie Killin   

I had nightmares and started drinking heavily because I was so burned out at work. Quitting was the only way out.
  • Shelley Paxton learned that success meant climbing the corporate ladder from a young age.
  • She developed an unhealthy relationship with work during her career as a marketer.

The following as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Shelley Paxton, an author, speaker, and coach, about her experience with professional burnout. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I grew up in a middle-class, straight-laced family but always felt restless. I was raised primarily in Minneapolis, which felt very homogenous. I always wondered what else was out there.

After I graduated from high school, I went to Boston College. I felt drawn to the East Coast because I wanted to be in a place with lots of diversity. Moving to Boston was one step toward broadening my worldview.

Success meant climbing the corporate ladder to the top

After college, I started working as an assistant account executive in 1992 in Chicago at a huge global advertising agency called DDB. I followed in my dad's footsteps as a marketer. He worked on many cool brands. I watched him work his way up in his career to become the CEO of Hagen Dazs eventually. He made the script of success clear: climb every rung of the corporate ladder, work for sexy brands, and get bigger and bigger titles.

I was rebellious growing up, but now I can see that his career path influenced me.

At 26, I was successful in my career and had an active social life. I'd even taken a four-month sabbatical, or "soulbbatical" as I call them now, to travel Europe. In my journals from 1996, I talked about following the winds of my soul and the tensions I felt in my career, but I didn't know who to talk to about my doubts.

My solution was to move to Istanbul for an international role at the agency I was working for.

Looking back, I took this role because I wanted to do something different, but I didn't know how to process that desire, so I stuffed it back down. I was trying to achieve a corporate career and travel — to reach success the Shelley Paxton way.

I returned to the United States in 2000 to take a senior role at AOL. I then continued to work in marketing roles with large clients like Visa.

I wanted to rebrand myself after a divorce

When Harley Davidson hired me as VP of Global Integrated Marketing and Planning in 2010, I was 40 and had just gone through a very traumatic divorce. I felt like my life was upside down.

Harley Davidson was my first opportunity to work on the client side of marketing, not the agency side. I saw myself as a biker babe marketer for one of the most iconic motorcycle brands on the planet. I thought, "Hell yes, I want to do that."

I thought the role would be my chance for reinvention, but ultimately, it was my final lesson and wake-up call.

If I wasn't working, who would want me?

I had struggled throughout my career with prioritizing work over my well-being.

This was an unfortunate pattern for me. Back in 2006, I agreed to go to Shanghai for a work assignment for Omnicom Media Group. At the time, my now ex-husband and I were trying to have children and wanted stability. Instead of honoring that, I said yes to the assignment because I feared the company would no longer see me as valuable if I said no.

I always believed that if I didn't put work first, Harley, or any company I worked for, wouldn't want me anymore. And who would I be, then?

I had allowed my entire sense of self and self-worth to be tied to my job, and it was a dangerous place to be. I always put work over my well-being and wasn't good with boundaries.

This pattern became more unhealthy at Harley Davidson. I was working late, canceling social plans to work more, and constantly checking my work emails or taking calls after hours.

I had the role of a lifetime, and I didn't feel happy

My dad had taught me to climb all the rungs. He was telling me, "You're going to be the president of Harley Davidson. You've got this. Keep going. Keep climbing." But I realized I didn't want that — even when I was promoted to CMO in 2014.

I was exhausted and burned out, and I felt guilty that I wasn't happy in my new role. It was a marketer's dream job, and I felt privileged even to ask, "Is this all there is?"

In September 2015, I started having vivid recurring nightmares about my dog, who had died. In my dream, I neglected my beloved companion, and my dog had become emaciated, and I'd been too busy to notice. Shortly after, I started drinking heavily to cope with the stress and help myself fall asleep.

I was able to function while drinking one or two bottles of wine before bed, but I started ignoring my own personal policies on drinking — like not drinking on planes and while traveling. Suddenly, I was drinking in airports, on planes, and at events.

I was trying to numb the painful truth of my own unhappiness while pretending to the outside world that I had it all together.

Seeking help made me confront my unhappiness

The decline in my physical well-being, which included weight gain, stomach issues, chronic coughing, and overall feelings of exhaustion, forced me to see a doctor in early 2016.

I wanted to see a doctor who specialized in Eastern and Western medicine so I could share that what I was experiencing was mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Sharing and accepting that I was unhappy was how I started on the path to leaving the corporate world.

I quit Harley Davidson in September 2016, and I stopped having nightmares. I worked with my financial advisor, and while I wasn't in a position to retire, I did have enough savings to give me some leeway while I decided on my next steps.

Initially, I didn't know what to do next, but I've since found my calling in helping others define their own version of success — one that doesn't burn them out or compromise their values.

When I first quit, I was inundated with messages from recruiters and tempting opportunities to rejoin the corporate world, but I didn't pursue them beyond a few meetings. I started traveling, enjoying time in France, and writing my book in New Zealand before going to Canada, Italy, and the United States.

Speaking about my journey has been my most important role

10 months into what I now call my "soulbbatical," my dad had a stroke. I made it my priority to support my family. Once he began to recover, I shared pieces of what evolved into my book at a writer's retreat.

I was encouraged to think bigger and share my message through speaking engagements and coaching programs for business leaders.

When I left Harley, I created the title Chief Soul Officer out of thin air because I was desperate to put something on my LinkedIn. I see it as the greatest title I've had because it reminds me of the importance of listening to my soul and letting it guide me.

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