I was 8 years old when I first tried out my Jimmy Carter impersonation. Putting on my best Georgia drawl and talking about peanuts to the assembly of house plants and furniture in my grandmother's living room, I thought I had a pretty good bit going.
After honing my routine a few times, I decided I'd show my family just how much I could be like the President.
Standing there on the braided rug in the center of the living room, my family members arrayed around those pieces of furniture that were already familiar with my routine, and wearing a tie I'd borrowed from my grandfather's closet, I proudly stood and echoed my practiced speech.
I recall them smiling and applauding in the way one does to acknowledge a kid's cute effort at being something bigger. And I realized that there wasn't a future in that bit, so I stopped doing it.
That was the first time I'd quit being a President.
As life rolled along through adolescence and into adulthood, I continued to pick up impressions from the culture around me.
In my Little League baseball career I learned that I ought to be a bit tougher. (Crying as an 11-year old when you got hit by a pitch was a sure way to get teased.)
As I moved on to high school I discovered that there were certain ways to talk about and interact with girls that would determine which crowd I was in - the cool kids or the dweebs.
In college and the early years of my working career it became clear that there was a clear pecking order in the larger world, one that had much to do with money and status.
Along each of these stops I picked up newfound assumptions and expectations of how I should be in the world.
If I wanted to be seen by my culture as a successful man, I needed to be tough, decisive, wealthy, powerful, and commanding.
I knew that I was none of those things.
The problem was, I didn't realize I could say "no" to that identity. The pressure to conform to what the world seemed to want from me was too strong. I didn't dare put myself at risk of "losing my man card".
Luckily, I had an old trick up my sleeve. I knew how to pretend to be something I wasn't. (Thanks, Jimmy Carter!)
For years upon years I decked myself out in costumes and artificial voices that made me feel bigger and more important than I was.
My routine was just OK at first. But this time, I didn't drop the bit. The stakes were much higher, so I worked hard at honing my routine.
I learned how to hide my emotions in key moments.
When a sense of shakiness, borne out of a realization that a corporate decision might be harmful towards others, started bubbling up inside me, I pushed it down and held firm.
When I felt confused about what to do, I remembered that being decisive was the goal. Puffing up my chest, I mimicked the sort of confident reply that I had learned by watching others.
And I kept reaching for the next rung on the ladder, aiming for greatness, for wealth, and for power.
A Most Unusual Promotion
By the time I was in my early 40s I had perfected my act - and just in time.
I was a rising star in a fast-paced high-tech company, having been named Employee of the Year after only 18 months on the job.
I took on every challenge and opportunity. And I did it with the energy, (outward) confidence, and decisiveness that I knew would get me to the top.
There was no challenge that I wouldn't accept. At one point I was managing a team of 10 people while simultaneously serving as the senior technology advisor for 40 clients and playing an active role in the executive leadership of my company.
I was on fire!
Unfortunately, fires tend to end in burnt ashes, just as I did.
A year or so after getting that Employee of the Year award I walked into my boss's office, feeling hollowed out and fried. I told him I needed to take some time away from work - and I didn't know when I'd return.
Fortunately, my boss was more than willing to accommodate and I ended up taking leave immediately. It was a sweet relief to put down the routine.
Nearly a month later, feeling a semblance of my self returning, I received a message about an important meeting that was happening back at work. Our executive team was meeting to decide on a major reorganization of the business. Although I wasn't scheduled to return from my leave for another week, I attended the meeting. (Of course.)
I won't draw out the details of that meeting. Rather I'll simply state the unexpected: I walked out of that day-long meeting, while still in the midst of a leave of absence to deal with my mental health, as the President of the company.
In the most unexpected way possible, I had reached the top of the ladder.
I lasted on that perch for about 10 months.
As it turns out, when you've been wearing a costume and speaking in a practiced voice that is not your own for years upon years, you can quickly realize that the role doesn't fit when you're thrust into the spotlight.
Don't get me wrong. I tried really hard to succeed, and in many ways I think I did.
I know I garnered trust from the people in my care. I know that I helped make a difference at a time when the business I was in needed a new direction. I had fostered a deep sense of respect from my colleagues.
And ultimately, I had to admit that I was playing the wrong role.
I'll never forget the day that I realized it was time to step aside. It was almost exactly 5 years ago today.
Talking to a friend at a local cafe, I unspooled a series of concerns about what was going on in my work. I don't recall quite what she asked me that unlocked the door, but in a flash I had a moment in which I realized that it wasn't them it was me. I needed to walk out and leave behind the borrowed identity that wasn't fitting me or them.
My tenures as President were worthwhile, both as a child and as a grown-up.
They just weren't me.
Jim Young is a self-employed men's burnout coach. And yeah, sure, why not? He's the President of his own company.
Jim's mission is to help men of all types identify the stories that have kept them bound to roles that don't quite fit who they are. He believes that as men leave behind burnout - and the forces that led them there - they will find deeper meaning and peace in their lives. In fact, he knows that's the case, because he's lived that story.
Jim can be found talking to men about what matters most in their lives, bouncing around on a stage doing improv comedy, hiking trails in beautiful Southern New England, and at email@example.com. If you are, or know, a man dealing with burnout, he'd love to talk.