In the third post in the Burnout Blog Series, guest author Charles Fulcher examines his own job loss during the pandemic and how the process of reflection on his values and priorities helped him transform a sense of helplessness into clarified purpose.
Charles worked for 14 years at the National Cathedral, managing a department of over 160 staff and volunteers until the Visitor Programs department was reduced due to COVID constraints. He has served as the Director of Programs at the National Law Enforcement Museum since January 2021. You can connect with Charles on LinkedIn here.
Museum education professionals, on the whole, enter this profession to make a difference. We may even want to roll up our sleeves and change the world in our most inspired and empowered moments. But where is our sense of agency when we’re faced with overwhelming challenges and the reality of burnout? At its best, burnout can be paralytic; at its worst, it’s one of many factors that can flame out of our control, sometimes resulting in job loss.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left many in the museum field feeling helpless, unable to control external factors indifferent to our aspirations. These challenges really hit home for me during the pandemic. First, the reality of remote work while juggling career with family needs left both my wife and I uncertain about how to handle the most basic daily functions. Secondly, my unexpected job loss due to pandemic-driven budget cuts created an existential crisis that touched all corners of our lives.
While I am certainly not alone in having faced these challenges, the pressures of the moment can feel isolating and even debilitating. We may feel a loss of control and an inability to affect our situation. In those solitary moments, seeking a path that had suddenly disappeared, I focused on three guiding principles that helped me find my next steps and gave me some sense of agency. I had to reflect, resolve, and refine (although I must thank my 4- and 6-year-old sons, who heralded Try Everything by Shakira as my anthem during those difficult days). As it turns out, these were principles I had tried to employ throughout my career, but their value became even clearer when faced with burnout and uncertainty.
What is reflection? Jennifer Porter, writing for the Harvard Business Review, calls it the process of “meaning making” that helps us sift through chaos. Personal reflection can take many forms, several of which are proposed in Porter’s article, but for me it was largely a matter of looking directly at my sense of loss and asking myself why I felt that way.
One day I came across photos of one of my most rewarding work projects—one that was left unfinished at the time of my job loss—and found I could not even look at them. This visceral reaction so surprised me, I felt no other course than to stop and think about my reaction, to understand what was really happening (I wrote more about this experience on LinkedIn). For me, reflecting on this started with remembering the what of this project (the tangible), but ultimately took me to consider the why (the motivation, the inspiration).
Once I better understood the intangibles, I could grieve what I lost in not being able to shepherd this project to completion, but I could also identify the energy and spirit that made the project possible. Ultimately, I found agency in knowing that my values were not limited to something in the past, but could guide me to my next position and to the work I would accomplish there.
Resolution, for me, is about committing to maintain what matters. Once I better understood the principles that really mattered to me and helped drive my work, I could commit to carrying them forward to my next project.
The question of resolve really needs that time of reflection to foster a better sense of self: how to describe who you are and what you want. This process is not only helpful when executing your work, but also when searching for your next job. With my example of the unfinished project, I still had things I cared about, whether or not that project was completed or I was forced out on someone else’s terms … I still had approaches, strategies, and vision that I wanted to fulfill.
One way I strengthened my resolve was through a self-assessment tool I created using a Google form based on various leadership principles. I provided response fields under each principle and asked colleagues for honest, anonymous feedback. Their responses helped me consider what I had done, what I enjoyed, where I shined, where I could grow. You can see this as a form of reflection, but this also strengthened my sense of self, and empowered me to talk about myself in job applications, in interviews, and to prepare for my next work setting.
Once you understand what matters to you, look for ways to engage those principles. You can find small ways, even in positions that aren’t fulfilling, or during periods of uncertainty. When it’s easy to focus on what you don’t like—or don’t know—about a situation, commit to what you do know. If the work is monotonous or tedious, look for ways to engage your passion in whatever facets of your work you can. There may be situations we can’t change, but we can control how we respond.
After reflection, we can better know ourselves and view situations differently. We can then resolve to commit to those principles as anchors in a storm. Then what? Do things suddenly change? I’ve found that I sometimes foolishly hope for wholesale change in an instant. I don’t like a situation and want it to be different. What I’ve learned, however, is that such a desire can be debilitating in its own way. When change doesn’t come, burnout may actually worsen. If it’s a job loss or a challenging situation, only looking for the big sweeping change may prevent us from incremental changes we can affect now. In other words, we can look for ways to improve what we have, and over time, scale those changes for success.
A mantra of my graduate program is “process, not product.” It’s easy to focus on an idealized finished product—the brass ring for which we all reach, hoping for a moment of perfection. But as burnout shows us—or as job loss makes shockingly real—the pursuit of a perfect product often falls well out of reach and out of our control.
So, what can we do? If we only focus on the end goal, we’ll miss the need for constant refinement along the way. Counterintuitively, we may actually end up resting on what we used to do, and ultimately we may become a stale voice of status quo. In a period of burnout, only looking for the perfect ending is a recipe for going nowhere.
Instead, make the most of the journey, find moments of success in the process, celebrate little wins and know that each step forward, no matter how tiny, is a sign of progress. Look for joy, look to improve and learn, every step of the way. If we remember there are some things we just can’t change about our situations, we can also free ourselves to look for what we can change. Initiate this wherever possible and you’ll start to see changes around the edges.
As I reflected on my experiences, resolved to stick to my identity, and continually refined where I could, I started to find agency. I identified what I could control, instead of focusing on what I couldn’t. I applied for many jobs that I didn’t get, but I kept looking. Along the way, I realized I was better able to communicate who I was and what mattered to me, which then strengthened my cover letters, my interviewing skills, and my general outlook. While the challenges of burnout and job loss hit me squarely in the face during the pandemic, they exist to varying degrees all the time in the course of our work in the museum field. It took an unexpected shake-up for them to solidify for me in this way, but they’re always there.
Fortunately, I find that the circular and interconnected nature of reflection, resolution, and refinement can strengthen my professional work going forward. They frame a system of piloting and testing as I experiment with new programs and new initiatives in my museum, considering what worked and what didn’t work. Instead of focusing on limited resources, I look for new ideas to identify solid, measured steps, harnessing what resources we have. This then helps me establish a track record as I look to build on early successes.
The pain and hurt of burnout are so very real, and the job market is fantastically difficult. But I hope these ideas will help you identify some things you can control as you seek to strengthen your footing to take your next steps. Just don’t forget to listen to my two sons (and Shakira) and try everything … just be sure to start with a little reflection.
Cover photo by Charles Fulcher