Burnout. Depression. Exhaustion.

These problems afflict people everywhere, but I've personally noticed them in the art and film industries. So, this article will attempt to address these issues using a concept I first read about in the book Great by Choice, an empirically researched business book by Jim Collins.

And because I often hear people talk about being burnt out, I decided it was time to do something about it. In fact, I’m beginning to believe that this is such a big problem, that it might be time for the community as a whole to address it in a serious way. If I sound dramatic, it’s intentional.

The Problem

The path to burnout begins innocently. No one sets out to get exhausted, unhappy or overworked. However, burnout remains a rampant problem across the entire industry. So, what’s going on?

There are a lot of ways for companies and individuals to overextend and exhaust themselves. Let’s say you’re working on something important that has the potential to be great and has a lot of meaning for you. You’re naturally going to want to do your best work, and usually you’ll work on it a lot. This thing could be big, after all. You hardly notice the late nights and weekends because you’re energized!

There are also basic desires that have a tendency to lead to being overworked. For instance, we want to be good at what we do. We want to earn the respect of our peers. We want to earn enough money to feel secure. And the same goes for companies, who have strong pressures to grow and be profitable. So, naturally, people figure that pushing to the limit is the way to achieve.


We’re not machines. And even if we were, extenuating circumstances have a way of popping up. Hard times can happen at any moment. Markets can crash, blizzards can destroy crops, and sickness can leave us feeling miserable and without energy. Bad circumstances happen all the time in our world of uncertainty.

The 20-Mile March

20-Mile Marching is a term used to describe a way of working and thinking. In simple terms, it's about achieving consistent performance with both and upper and lower bounds, even in a chaotic world. We need both the ambition to achieve and the self-control to hold back.

Holding back might sound ludicrous, but there are a number of real examples of this working in a big way. Knowing when to hold back can lead to a lot more success (or survival) than those who don't. There is the famous South Pole expedition example that compares two expedition leaders (Amundsen and Scott) and examines the similarities and differences in their trek across an unforgiving landscape. There are also a number of real-world business examples for us to learn from. Here I will describe a basic version for brevity's sake. However, I suggest that you read more on the other examples here or even here. They're illuminating to say the least.

In Great by Choice, there is a simplified example of two people on an expedition across the country. Person-A 20-mile marches, and Person-B does not. Person-A marches 20 miles every day, rain or shine. No less (so it's a hurdle to overcome), but no more (so she doesn't overexert herself). Some days it's easy to march 20 miles, and some days it's not, but every day always only 20 miles.

In contrast, Person-B begins marching on the first day and feeling excited and full of energy, she marches 40 miles. Exhausted on the second day, she wakes to find that it's extremely hot outside, so she waits inside the tent for a better day to go out. She continues this behavior of overexertion on good days to make up for lost time, followed by many weakened days where she doesn't march at all. And when a powerful storm hits (a metaphor for a trying time in business or life), it nearly kills her and she is forced to wait for better weather.

By the time Person-B stumbles past the half-way mark to her goal, Person-A (the 20-mile marcher) is nearing the end. Because this 20-mile marcher paced herself, she will cross the finish line by a huge margin. She had the ambition to achieve in bad times and self-control to hold back in good times. In other words, she had the strength to persevere the bad times because she hadn't spent all her resources and energy during the good times.

Key Points

  • 20-Mile Marching creates two forms of discomfort:
    • High performance in difficult conditions.
    • Holding back in good conditions.
  • Consistent performance requires two parts:
    • A lower bound: a hurdle that you jump over (ambition to achieve).
    • An upper bound: a ceiling that you will not rise above (self control to hold back).
  • Over extending yourself on good days can leave you exhausted and exposed when the bad days come.
  • 20-Mile Marching builds confidence in your ability to perform well.
  • 20-Mile Marching is a tangible point of focus in a confusing, uncertain and uncontrollable environment.
  • The 20-Mile March should be within your control to achieve, and shouldn't rely on luck.
  • This concept can be used by both companies and individuals.

The 7 Elements of a Good 20-Mile March

  1. Clear performance markers.
  2. Self-imposed constraints.
  3. Appropriate to the specific enterprise.
  4. Largely within the company, team, or individual's control to achieve.
  5. A proper timeframe -- long enough to manage, yet short enough to have teeth.
  6. Imposed by the company, team, or individual on itself, not by external forces.
  7. Achieved with high consistency.

For more in-depth reading, read Great by Choice, or check out this site for additional information.

The Lesson

The 20-Mile March is a tool to help us navigate and achieve in a world that is largely uncertain, unknown, and ultimately chaotic. It is also a way for us to define and measure what and how we achieve. It's about recognizing our limitations and being honest with ourselves about what will exhaust us and what won't. Remember the tale of the tortoise and the hare. That story is a simplification, but useful nonetheless. Just remember: we need to find our own personal "Goldilocks Zones" of exertion. Not too little, and not too much. Each day should take some effort to achieve, but not so much that we are left vulnerable.

I hope this article has been of some help. I also highly recommend reading Great by Choice. And if you want, spread the word. You can send a link to this website. Or tell people to go read this one. Or how about posting a poster about it in your place of work? Here, I made one for you to download. It’s 8.5"x11" (at 300 dpi), so anyone can print it. Or if you don't want to deal with printing it yourself, you can buy the 11"x17" version of the poster in our shop.

Work smart and rest well, my friends. :)

You can download the full resolution poster by clicking HERE.