Fabian Brüggemann, fast-track Management Consultant, Practitioner in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Improv Enthusiast and Coach. Being 2m tall he physically overshadows almost anyone. But once you start talking to him you will likely find him to be one of the most humble, open and wise people you will have met in a long time. Today he shares his story on how from the consulting industry depression and diabetes pushed him to pursue his own path.
The Arc: Fabian, you have been through quite a rollercoaster in your life. What is your story?
Fabian: I got diabetes type I at the age of 11. Back then, it meant following a strict schedule for my diet, insulin injections and monitoring my bloodsugar. Treatments improved over time, but taking care of my bloodsugar level is still a 24/7 job. However, I wanted to prove to myself, that I am capable of achieving the same results as people without a chronical disease.
"I wanted to prove to myself, that I am capable of achieving the same results as people without a chronical disease."
After uni I went straight into Management Consulting. Normally one is promoted after 2.5 to 3 years, however, I was promoted after 11 months. I had projects all over Europe, working in more than 10 capital cities, staying in nice hotels. A bit more than 2.5 years later I was up for promotion to manager, I would have been one of the youngest in the company. But I felt empty, all the shiny life, the exciting jobs, the overperforming lost its meaning.
"A bit more than 2.5 years later I was up for promotion to manager, I would have been one of the youngest in the company. But I felt empty, all the shiny life, the exciting jobs, the overperforming lost its meaning."
I fell into a severe depression and stayed at a clinic for 5 months, hitting rock bottom. How to go on like that? You feel like a failure, and you don´t feel like going on or challenging yourself any longer.
So, I started slowly. I quit my job and I moved cities to live with my best friend and her dog, and also got a dog myself. I started a one year course to become a systemic coach and I started playing improv theatre. I found a job one year later within a challenging, yet not overly-competitive work environment. This job also gave me the freedom to build up my own small training company, which grew year by year next to my daily job. The focus of this training company was to enhance participants’ soft skills through methods of improv theatre.
"Looking back, this depression was such an important phase of my life. It made me realize what is important and it taught me a lot about myself."
Looking back, this depression was such an important phase of my life. It made me realize what is important and it taught me a lot about myself. I like to see myself as a blend between two worlds – the mindful, maybe even spiritual human world, and the efficient, high performing business world. It does not need to be either-or. In fact, one of the nicest pieces of feedback I have received from a participant was that he appreciated the combination of these two worlds in my trainings.
"I like to see myself as a blend between two worlds – the mindful, maybe even spiritual human world, and the efficient, high performing business world."
The Arc: 20-30% of people in leadership positions suffer or have suffered from some form of depression. There is a tendency to attach one’s sense of identity to the results we get in the work place, for example: If my company fails, I fail. It is so easy to indulge in overworking and to lose oneself in one’s own work. What can you say to young professionals that wanna aim high?
Fabian: I actually have two pieces of advice; and they may seem a bit contradictory to doing work in a good way, nonetheless, from my experience they seem to work perfectly well.
The first: Do not take yourself too seriously! We are not irreplaceable, and it´s actually a good feeling to know that not everything depends on you – even though we want to feel important.
The second: Be playful! Make things into a game, and make them fun. Things are then so much lighter – even though this at times feels wrong, especially in Germany, when people might think that you “don´t take things seriously enough”. Trust me though, this works!
And maybe one more piece of advice – question the concept of “failing”. What does it actually mean, if I fail or the company fails? Maybe short-term-failing is a sustainable route to long-term-success.
The Arc: I remember recently speaking with colleagues about you, mentioning “There are people who take really wise action because they master the skill of listening to what’s inside them. And then there is Fabian who – if he listened to what his mind is telling him in a depressive phase or when his blood sugar levels are low – would be listening to voices way too harsh. Instead, he has needed to define his identity by listening beyond his intuition, beyond what his mind and his body were telling him.” You have a lot of reasons to really lose yourself in anger. How come you haven’t?
Fabian: In the end, it´s all about acceptance. The thing with feelings and thoughts is that we can often take them too seriously. Don´t get me wrong, I am not saying that they are not important and that we should not listen to our feelings, but it´s absolutely fine to question them.
Why? Because these values are things learned by our parents, or by society. We sometimes do things because they make us feel good at that moment in time, or even worse, do things to not feel bad – which, in the long run, is not aligned with our values.
I try to take the freedom of not acting according to my feelings, when I know that they are not helpful in a given situation. It´s not that I am not angry at situations, but I consciously choose that it´s not helpful to act according to those feelings. Rather, I accept that I´m angry, realize it, and label it as a thought/feeling – and that´s it.
"I try to take the freedom of not acting according to my feelings, when I know that they are not helpful in a given situation."
I have also realized that there is no concept of fairness in nature – this is purely man-made. Things just happen, but not for a reason. You can make your own reasoning out of it, and actually that is amazing – though that is tiring and can feel like hard work.
I, for example, have had diabetes for 25 years, and so long as I find this unfair, I will be unhappy – and nobody or thing will make up for it. So when my mind tells me that I am not worthy of something (and my mind can be very strong and powerful in a depressive phase), I try to make myself realize that this is “only” a thought, a concept that is constructed, but not the true reality, even though it feels otherwise. Writing down these things, to be able to remember them, helps a lot too.
"I have also realized that there is no concept of fairness in nature – this is purely man-made."
The Arc: You have been inspired by Improv. I remember that when I heard it first I didn’t immediately see the connection to how on earth this could help companies at being more effective. How do you use improv to achieve that?
Fabian: Improv is such a powerful tool, actually, by now, it´s an attitude towards life for me!
When you are on stage, playing a scene with other actors, not having had any second to arrange any of the story beforehand, you need to be aware what is happening around you. Because the story is constructed in real time. You need to work together. You need to be able to see things from another perspective – just imagine you go on stage with the idea, that you are the boss, entering the room, but then the person on stage tells you “Excuse me, could I order 2 pineapple juices?”
You have to dump your idea of who you are and react in a very flexible, spontaneous way. You have to say “yes” to situations, and even more important, build up on that, meaning you not only say “yes”, but even better “yes, and…”. You connect the ideas that come up on stage, and you are constantly dealing with uncertainty and giving away control.
Learning all of this – working together, feeling comfortable in an uncertain situation with only very limited control over what´s next, and even enjoying this, are the skills we need in nowadays’ fast changing and uncertain world. This is why improv is such a powerful for companies to be more effective. I talked about being playful before, and improv for sure also supports this attitude.
"Working together, feeling comfortable in an uncertain situation with only very limited control over what´s next, and even enjoying this, are the skills we need in nowadays’ fast changing and uncertain world. This is why improv is such a powerful for companies to be more effective."
The Arc: Ok, last but not least (this is our standard question) – 30 seconds! Who do YOU dare to be and which IMPACT do you wanna stand for?
Fabian: I dare to be the one who inspires others to stand up to their values and be open and vulnerable, no matter how big the pressure of society or peers may be, and who makes them feel as though they´re able to do things which fulfill themselves. I like to change the world, little by little, by spreading the improv attitude. Humanity rules, even in a very competitive environment! :)
Fabian Brüggemann (German) is a trainer at The Arc.