Disengagement is Fundamental to Engagement

Years as ago, I worked as a professor in the psychology department of a Canadian University. The morale was poor amongst the faculty. Except for the actual teaching, I didn’t feel connected to what I was doing. Whether I did a great job or a mediocre job didn’t seem to have any effect on job security or pay level. I needed something more to feel alive.

I resigned amidst a chorus of ‘Why would you leave a tenured position?’ I went back to school, not to study more psychology, but to study business. I needed to find out if I could live by my wits. After a few consulting contracts, I went into real estate, and within two years established my own successful real estate brokerage firm. I had demonstrated to myself that I could live by my wits.

After few years an opportunity came up to revisit my old colleagues at the University. (Several had already died in their 40s.) Three of the four I met said within the first two or three sentences of greeting, ‘I have only 19 (20, 18) more years to retirement.’ What they were talking about sounded more like a prison sentence than their life work. No one gets a Ph.D. without serious engagement in the task. Yet here was a group of PhD’s who came across as singularly disengaged from their work. Sad!

With the success of my real estate efforts, I took on another company. Unfortunately, the startup work became very demanding. I made some poor choices. I had taken on too much. When the economy shifted, I ended up losing both companies, plus our house and vehicles. I was burnt out.

Yet, I’m glad to be a person who goes for it. The lesson I had to learn was that the consequence of taking on too much can be emotional and physical burnout.

Business leaders, professionals, executives and politicians are all vulnerable. In the euphoria of success, it is easy to slip into the delusion that ‘I can take on anything.’ When it becomes too much, some will quit (disengage completely). Some will disengage from their families. Others will try to postpone that day through the pursuit of alcohol or other numbing addictions.

So the question becomes, how can you be fully engaged with life, but not burn out or develop an unhealthy addiction?

The first part of staying connected with life is to remain vigilant about your level of engagement in all areas of your life. Are you just going through the motions in some aspect or other? Is there a part of your life that used to inspire you, but now is a burden? Pay attention.

The second aspect of staying fully engaged with life is exercising your ability to disengage fully from some things contributing to overload. It could mean selling a business, leaving a job, dissolving an unfulfilling partnership or resigning from a board.

The recovery regimen following my accident and stroke last year made some heavy demands on my time, and still is. In spite of this, I resumed seeing clients, planning a new book, and writing my regular newspaper columns. It was too much, and the stress was taking a toll.

When I woke up to what was happening—and I admit that sometimes I’m a slow learner—I disengaged fully from writing my newspaper columns. I faced the fact that after almost 300 columns it was time.

By all means be fully engaged with life, but to maintain full engagement you need to also develop a talent for disengaging.


Dr. Neill Neill is a registered psychologist in Qualicum Beach. He helps capable people who feel stuck… trauma, relationships, addictions.