How Much of Your (Stressed Out) Life Is Coincidental?

By: Joe Burton
man holding umbrella walking down street while raining

Last updated April 12, 2024

When I turned 40, life started catching up to me both physically and mentally. Stress took its toll. Global travel went from exciting to taxing. On multiple occasions, I herniated two disks in my back. I had insomnia. I started developing asthma. I was making more money than I ever thought possible. And I was miserable.

I also came to realize that most of my stressed out life had been coincidental.

We’re all born into families and surroundings that are the luck of the draw. Some are coincidentally born into the top 1%. The rest of us coincidentally into the other 99%. For me, it was a lower-middle-class family in Pittsburgh, PA.

I was coincidentally the youngest of six and a twin. Our father was coincidentally an unemployable alcoholic. He stopped working early on, going from welfare at age 40 to social security at 62. My mother was a stay-at-home mom and was stricken with a form of muscular dystrophy at 38.

We coincidentally lived in a poor area of town. Growing up, I got my brother’s hand-me-downs. This included his chores, and later his snow shoveling and paper routes. We attended schools that were close enough to walk to.

I got my first real job at Sears because it was across the street from our high school. My accounting class teacher referred me because I was pretty good at math, and she knew it would be good for me.

I dated the first woman to show interest in me. For eight years. Gulp. To be fair, I had zero rap. I didn’t know how to speak to women. I wasn’t clever or charming, and it didn’t occur to me that these were learnable skills.

I was the first person in my family to go to college. This was common for the small number of my high school classmates that made it to college. I didn’t know much, but I knew I had to be a commuter and I had to keep my job at Sears. Coincidentally, I needed the money. Seems funny to say that now, “I had to keep my minimum wage job at Sears.” $3.65/hr back in the day.

I studied business at Duquesne University (just below Ivy League) because they provided the best scholarship. I studied accounting because I was good at math. It wasn’t a passion. I took a job at Price Waterhouse in Pittsburgh because they offered $29k instead of the $27k offered by the other accounting firms… and I knew I had to work in Pittsburgh. Because that’s where I lived.

I was assigned to the Audit group and then to accounts I had no say in. I worked on steel, oil and coal companies; coincidentally the clients of the local PW office at the time.

My career unfolded on a similar path from there. Transferring where the company needed me. Tackling the big projects that needed the most help. Lucking into some amazing experiences. Tolerating some crap experiences. Step by step, it all kind of just happened. At no point did I afford myself the luxury of asking “Am I doing what I want to do with my life?”

Ultimately, it led to my first global COO role. 12 hour days. 70% travel. I ran where I was needed. And the market shifted. Coincidentally, I stopped working with CMOs and launching new capabilities and global offices. I began working with procurement professionals because “faster, cheaper” was the new focus.

It all happened without much of a plan. A tremendous amount of hard work led to increasingly big titles with increasing responsibility and increasing levels of unhappiness.

Right around the same time, I lost two of my sisters. One to a heart attack at 45 (a longtime drug user). And my twin to suicide at 38 (a longtime addict). Coincidentally, our family has longstanding issues with alcoholism and drug addiction.

By the time I got married, I had developed enough rap, game and charm to land the woman of my dreams. Because of Sarah, the conversation in my life changed. For the first time in 40 years, I started to realize that most of my life was coincidental. Sure, I’d (mostly) chosen wisely from the options that were in front of me. And I’ve always been grateful for the opportunities in my life. But it hadn’t even occurred to me that creating my own path was an option.

Looking back, I’d made coincidental choices with:

  • the people I dated
  • where I lived
  • the schools I attended
  • the area in which I focused my studies
  • every job that I’d ever had

The one exception was choosing my spouse (and having her choose me).

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my life. I’ve had opportunities I would never have imagined growing up. I’ve worked in over 50 countries. And I became so addicted to chasing money, stock and titles that I found it hard to ever enjoy the journey.

Realizing many of your life choices are coincidental can instill an undercurrent of regret, even resentment. I wasn’t able to label these emotions until I turned 40.

Six years ago, I stepped away from the world of advertising to focus on technology. Today, my company provides digital stress resiliency and mindfulness tools to help people live healthier, happier and more engaged lives. Changing the direction of my career was the first time I had a plan to set my own life path. It was terrifying. It’s been stressful. And it’s made all the difference in my life.

Three things provided a wake-up call to my coincidental life:

  1. increasing unhappiness
  2. failing health
  3. a spouse who cared more deeply about both 1 & 2 than I did myself

The next time you’re upset about where you are in life, you might ask yourself, “How much of my life is coincidental?”

Where are you going and what will you create?

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

About the Author

Headshot of Joe Burton

Retired Founder and CEO of Whil and former President of Headspace

Joe is an entrepreneur in the digital wellness space, retired Founder and CEO of Whil and former President of Headspace, and spent fifteen years as a global COO in public companies. He’s an alumnus of Harvard Business School and a regular contributor to Forbes, Business Insider and The Huffington Post. He’s worked in over 50 countries and travels the world speaking on topics including disruption, culture, resiliency and mindfulness.

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