Depressed? Got tech blues?

Jim Warner was a hotshot tech millionaire who saw the flip side of the American dream. His new mission: help midlife technology execs avoid burnout. The problem is more widespread than you might assume.

10 min read
Jim Warner was the textbook example of the American dream. In just seven years, he had parlayed a few thousand dollars into a $20 million software developer called Precision Visuals.

By the late 1980s, Warner was considered one of the hottest names in computer graphics. But the chief technology officer aspired to become CEO. After taking a brief detour to study at the Harvard Business School, Warner threw himself into the marketing and sales sides of the business to round out his resume.

Warner transitioned into the CEO role in the early 1990s, but he never got to enjoy his leading role. By 1992, revenue had plunged 25 percent. The research and development division fell apart, and Precision Visuals had botched three successive product launches. Once-loyal employees defected, and the mainframe-oriented company completely missed the PC bandwagon.

In a conversation with Warner, a board member warned him: "If you didn't own more than half the stock, we'd fire you."

Instead of trying to salvage Precision Visuals, Warner sold the company and took a three-year sabbatical. Given time to reflect on the whirlwind of his life, Warner happened to notice that many fellow baby boomer professionals--some of whom were also rich and powerful--were paradoxically not very happy.

So, after finishing the sabbatical, he founded OnCourse International. The idea was to guide midlife executives toward more fulfilling lives and help them avoid burnout. Many clients are younger versions of Warner himself: technology executives who can't stomach the long hours and frantic timetable of the industry, yet cannot imagine a life that doesn't hinge on their career.

The 51-year-old Boulder, Colo., resident, whose income dropped precipitously when he made the career switch, recently finished "Aspirations of Greatness: Mapping the Midlife Leader's Reconnection to Self and Soul." He talked to CNET News.com about why technology workers are particularly burned out, how they can "let go" of materialism, and ultimately how to "understand your soul."

Q: What are the first symptoms of burnout among your clients?
A: The first is physical: You've gotten out of shape and are living on junk food. There's a sense of physicality that's missing from your life. Even more important are relationships: Are you and your spouse like two ships passing at night? Is sex a conjugal refueling that happens every once in a while without any romance, something that just fills a physical need? Next is chronic complaining and thoughts of "I don't like myself. I don't have many friends. Nobody knows my life or who I am. No one knows my anxieties or joys."

You say "midlife malaise" tends to grip people in their mid-30s or 40s. How does it usually happen, particularly for technology workers?
You may feel like the only one jumping off, but I tell you: There are so many people who keep up a huge mass of pretense that 'my life is going great.' They start out loving their job, and the company is their family. Everyone in it has a lot of camaraderie and they're driven to work 80-hour weeks--happily. There's a golden ring, a promise out there that as soon as we go public and options vest, we'll have saddlebags of money and it will be wonderful.

Then what often happens--and we've definitely seen it in this economic cycle--is we enter a recessionary period. Layoffs occur, and the VCs say, 'We're taking over the company and bringing in a turnaround guy who's going to tighten the screws." The family atmosphere is ruined. People think they're a commodity. They're working 80-hour weeks, but they don't like their job.

What should they do if they're in that situation?
I'd ask, "Do you really enjoy your job? Is this recession something you want to gut out?" Perhaps, if you think it's just a slump in the industry and that's what's causing your feelings of burnout, the solution is to swallow hard and be a mercenary for next six to twelve months. In that case, just stop whining about it and make a conscious choice to stay.

The next option is to approach your employer and tell him the truth: "I'm killing myself with the 80-hour weeks, and I'm not serving myself or you. I'd like to move into a 40-hour week, even if I have to take a salary cut, but I need to get my life back." Just say that, unless you want to be a mercenary forever.

What they don't know is that the whole idea of balance is a myth. You have to make choices about what to let go. You can't just balance it all. What if your boss won't let you cut back your hours?
If your employer comes back and says "Pack your bags," it comes down to serious gut check time. You can stick it out and become a mercenary or you can go into free-fall time. At this point, it might be best to take serious time away from your career to reflect on what's your life for. Ask two key questions: Who am I, and what is my life for?

If you go this route, how do you simply step off the treadmill--especially if you paying a mortgage on a $650,000 two-bedroom bungalow in Palo Alto, Calif.?
I believe people who are earnest seekers at that stage go from making $120,000 a year to $30,000 or $40,000 a year. That sounds huge, but I've seen many people do this. They move from Palo Alto to Golden (Colorado), where they pay $600 a month in rent to simplify their life. They strip away all of the trappings that have built up over the dot-com high-flying era. They finally ask: Do I really need that?

How do people muster the courage--or are they so miserable they don't perceive it that way?
No question: It takes a lot of guts to do this. There are all these little demons in your head and among your peers saying, "Don't do it. Stick with what you know and do well." The key here is to have spiritual support--friends who will love you whether you're living in Golden or Menlo Park (Calif.). You want to be around people who love you for what you are versus how much you make and your education and pedigree. I believe you only need, at a minimum, one or two friends whom you can tell the truth to.

The other thing to keep in mind is that you're not alone. You may feel like the only one jumping off, but I tell you: There are so many people who keep up a huge mass of pretense that 'my life is going great.' They say they're just going through a little belt-tightening at work, but they're scared to death and they're miserable.

Why are so many of your clients technology executives?
One dilemma with tech workers is that they're smart and they apply scientific logic to spirituality: Their life is just another decision-tree problem to solve. They feel unhappy and think their lives are out of balance, so they think there's some magic equation where their lives become balanced. They're trying to formulate the equation and they think once they figure it out, it will be great. One dilemma with tech workers is that they're smart and they apply scientific logic to spirituality: Their life is just another decision-tree problem to solve.

What they don't know is that the whole idea of balance is a myth. You have to make choices about what to let go. You can't just balance it all. If you think you can just think your way through this, you can make it work for a time. But eventually, it will break down.

Does the touchy-feely nature of your consulting firm turn techies off?
A lot of technologists say, "What's all this touchy-feely stuff for?" They're skeptical, especially when they're in their 30s and they haven't had to deal with a divorce or bankruptcy or open-heart surgery.

But I tell you, it really hits home in your 40s if you don't have a grasp on relationships in your 30s. It all just fades away. Your ability to stay focused, to be happy and have a healthy relationship will completely deteriorate if you think this stuff doesn't matter...If you don't care about the airy-fairy stuff at some point, your life will become empty.

Most of the "midlife leaders" in your book have several million dollars in the bank when they begin contemplating a radical departure from their status quo. Is "navigating a personal transition" a luxury that only the wealthy can afford?
Not at all. I chose high-profile people like this because I work with them. But secondly, I chose them so that Joe Six Pack, who has his programmer job every day, could see that money isn't the cure-all and doesn't bring happiness. Most of these people are not happy--despite the fact that they have so much money.

In your book, you talk a lot about God. But a lot of techies I know believe in science or hard data much more than a conventional higher power. Are they receptive to God?
I think of God as the ability to have solitude and reflection time in nature. If you have God in your life, you have tranquility. By contrast, you don't have God in your life if all of your life is driving up the 101 (the main highway through California's Silicon Valley), paying rent and figuring out what restaurant you're going to on Friday night.

The people you profile are ostensibly paragons of Corporate America, and many are hyper-ambitious and self-centered. Yet they're all wracked with guilt and have no self-confidence or self-esteem. Why?
Somewhere it gets ingrained in their childhood that nothing is good enough because their parents or a coach told them they'd love them if they performed just a little better. So they've got to keep setting the bar higher and higher. Their whole sense of worth is their achievements, rather than "I love you who you are, regardless of whether you write a famous book or start a company." A lot of these people were the kids in high school who took the report card home and dad said, "Great report card, but can you get this B-plus in biology up to an A next time?"

I had one client where I literally had to say, "You're a wonderful man if you sell another product or don't," which seems silly--but it was true. But there was actually this voice inside of him that kept saying, "Who are you kidding, you loser. You're living in this crackerjack apartment, and you should have your own home. You're working for a loser, and you should get a promotion." The inner critic keeps beating us up.  Many highly educated people were taught to find a job that they love dearly and is central to their happiness and life, and that money will then follow. Is that wrong?

So your work basically comes down to telling people that they'll be loved no matter what?
Typically underneath all of the symptoms--the lost intimacy, the burnout--there's the question, "Who will love me unless I'm responsible?" Basically my work is to say, whether you're a principal analyst or the CTO or you're sweeping out the computer room, that people will love you no matter what.

Assuming their parents were positive, loving forces, how do people get off track in the first place?
Here's the sad thing: Many people in high school or college have no mentors. They're in their junior year and have to choose a major, and they pick accounting because their apartment roommate is in accounting. They get a job at a Big Five firm, start making money and it's 10 or 15 years later where they wake up and have no juice anymore. It was never their ultimate sense of destiny or purpose.

How do you get mentors in the first place?
Look outside of your current field. Don't limit your box to technology or whatever you're doing now. Look much more broadly. You'll find wisdom exists in the most surprising places. Maybe it's someone without much of an education. Or someone younger.

Develop a list of personality traits--maybe it's a sense of high self-worth, self-esteem and peace. Always have your tentacles out there--on an airplane, in a restaurant, in church. Find out who fits this sieve. Then take a deep breath and approach them. Say, "Can we spend a couple of hours and so I can share my life with you to see if we have a fit?"

So you get a mentor for guidance. How else do you avoid burnout?
You must anticipate it by doing an ongoing life audit. What I mean is the following: Do you have a practice where you go off, write down your goals and take a whole day to examine what is my life about? Do you ask yourself at least once a year, "Is this working for me?" Do a ruthlessly honest audit of your life, ideally with one or more people--people on your inner advisory board, coaches.

Is a midlife career crisis inevitable? Do you know people who are happy in the same career for 50 years?
It's very possible to be in the same career your whole life--especially if it's not your whole identity...A guy who worked in my old company counseled adolescent boys. That's where he found his real fulfillment. His working environment gave him some fulfillment and an income stream, but he'd rather work a 40-hour week and give back in other capacities.

Many highly educated people were taught to find a job that they love dearly and is central to their happiness and life, and that money will then follow. Is that wrong?
It's really the opposite of that. It's really sad for me to realize that many educational institutions, especially the business schools, are teaching people how to get rich. That's like champagne that always falls flat.

How many days a year can you ski, how many golf games can you play? We were called to have a higher purpose in our lives. It's not about wealth accumulation or recognition--those are addictions. You become addicted to how people view yourself, power, recognition or money. And there will never be enough.