Avoid Burnout by Living Deliberately

Traveling at the Speed of Life

Take care not to smoke too quickly; for the best possible burn, taste, and aroma, smoke as slowly as the cigar will allow.

– Hayward “Lou” Tenney

Gray lighting a cigar near the San Francisco Bay
From Waking Dreams by Michele Serchuk

Cigars require attention, lest you suffer the dreaded “burnout”, when it simply stops smoldering and starts smelling. But the rate at which you puff makes a difference – more than I ever knew. “Lou” Tenney’s particular gem of advice came from a cigar lover’s newsletter, one of many tips I enjoy because they are freely given. It’s like congenial advice from a favorite uncle.

The science behind the “smoke as slowly as the cigar will allow” is fascinating. Apparently tobaccos contain sugars, and if you allow the leaves in your cigar to smolder it will caramelize themEven knowing as little about cooking as I do, the word “caramelize” definitely brings to mind “yum.” Indeed, this is what gives the draw a “appealingly sweet flavor.”

On the other hand, if you just puff away like a steam engine, you end up carbonizing the sugars, which (aside from bringing to mind Han Solo frozen on Jabba’s wall) gives the cigar a burnt, tarry flavor. Now, those of you who don’t like cigars, I know…you’re wondering “what’s the point?” Bear with me, this has more to do with life than with some filthy nasty wonderful relaxing indulgence.

There’s one more thing that the slow-burn does: it helps your cigar burn more evenly. And that is where the lesson really hit home for me.

“Time is What Prevents Everything From Happening at Once…”

“…and space is what prevents everything from happening to me!” is one of the wisest things remembered from physicist John Wheeler. He has a good point (pun intended): things need to have both time and space to happen properly. However, we tend to look at our lives as either too crowded or too empty. The other night when I attended my niece’s play I ran into a former coworker who was there to watch his daughter. I asked him if she was enjoying being in a show, and his response was “Yeah, but I’m surprised she has time. Study group, softball, dance practice, homework…” In trying to be a good parent, he was filling up his daughter’s life…but I would bet that at least once a day he would look at his own schedule to try and find a place to relax. This see-saw of Gotta find something to do! Gotta find time to relax! is enough to make anybody nuts. 

And yet we have a whole culture built around it. Myself included: take a blog post, put just about any phrase in front of “…in order to be more productive” and I’m likely to click on it. Listen to Mozart to Get Smarter. Top 5 Apps for Getting Stuff Done Faster.  Eat Sushi to Be More Productive. Avoid Burnout with Feng Shui for Facial Hair. How to Find Seven More Hours in Your Day by Stealing Your Boss’ Watch.

Reality, though, is more nuanced. Just like cigars. You’ll notice the advice from “Lou” didn’t say “The optimum cigar rate is four puffs every minute to avoid letting it burnout” or any such thing. Cigars come in a variety of sizes, colors, some dense, some loose, some wound tight and some barely holding it together – just like people.

But every one will have a burn rate that produces the sweetest flavor out of life. The trick is to find it.

Burn Bright, Burn Long, but Avoid Burnout

There’s probably a lot of places this metaphor could go – the idea that if you live fast you die young and things like that. I’m actually more interested in the practical question of how you find your own optimum burn rate. How fast does your life have to be in order to stay lit – that is, feel alive – without burning out?

Often the way people go is by adding on everything possible, planning on cutting back later. Try visiting, for example, and see how quickly you could fill your calendar with just a few clicks of common interests. I don’t know how I managed before Google Calendar is a common phrase these days, but rarely do we stop and remember that we did. The fact that now we’re not sure we could live without it may not be due to Google saving the day – it may be due to Google enabling us to imagine we can pack more into our lives than we really can.

At least, comfortably.

I would suggest that it’s easier to find it by starting slow. Maybe by selecting the one thing you most want to cultivate in your life and focusing on that. I’ve got five cigars in my humidor right now – if I tried to smoke them all at once, not only would I get sick, I also would lose the appreciation of the experience of all of them.

When I teach about cigar appreciation, I make the point that cigars don’t represent wealth, they represent something even more valuable: time. Lighting a cigar represents a commitment to enjoy that stogie for the length of its burn. It’s a deliberate choice to focus. What if we took the same approach to the things in our lives? Experience it with a narrow depth rather than a broad surface, saturating ourselves with rich experience rather than dabbling and flitting from stimulus to stimulus.

Take the time to find your own life’s “sweet burn.” Your time passes regardless – smolder you get, the happier you’ll be.



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