Like most professionals I have a daily routine before I leave for the office. I wake up in the morning, oftentimes as early as 4 or 4:30 am, to get my workout in. After my workout I will take a shower and then I will go downstairs to feed and walk Tripp, my big slobbering and jowely english bulldog. At certain times of the year, in the spring, usually when the sun is just coming up, as we walk outside I will hear something that always makes me pause for a few minutes and just enjoy the experience. I live in the woods, and at these occasions my daily routine coincides with a seasonal cycle of nature. It’s at these times that the birds become very active with bird calls. Active is sort of an understatement. The only way to describe it is that the sound seems to reside between what can be described as a beautiful symphony and a blaring cacophony. There is all manner of cawing, whistling, and warbling, and of course nature’s version of tweeting. I know that there are people who record bird calls as a hobby and they could probably pick out all the different birds just by the unique nature the sounds that they are making. The only one that I can pick out are the wild turkeys because their call is so unique compared to everything else. The sounds rise and fall and has all measure of tempos that interweave into something both hypnotic and energizing.
What makes this experience so utterly unique for me is that it is a moment in the day, probably the only moment, that I’m not thinking about work or projects or the demands of family and life. I’m just enjoying the moment. the only thought even closely related to productivity that goes through my mind is that I swear to myself for the uncounted time is that I really need to go and finally allow myself to buy that high-end audio recorder I researched. I can justify the purchase for the ability to start doing podcast interviews, but the reality is that I want it so I can record these bird calls. There is one specific friend I want to send them too whom I think could benefit from them, but more on that later. I am always broken out of my meditations as I feel a tug on my hand as Tripp has finished his business and is indicating that it’s time to go back in and rest up from the exhaustive effort of walking around the house to find the perfect bathroom spot.
That’s it, the moment is over. I immediately fall back into the cycle of work, more work, and even more work. Heck, even as I write this I’m with the family at the beach and they are enjoying the Sand and Surf and I’m sitting on the balcony writing. Admittedly I truly enjoy this creative effort, but if I went downstairs and to the beach I would be very uncomfortable. The kids would be playing and I would be feeling a measure of anxiety. I would be thinking about this particular post. I’d be thinking about the fact that I hadn’t completed it and if I let that happen again and again, I may actually not continue with my regular blog submissions. A Blog that frankly not that many people read and one that I do not get paid for. In truth the only reason I’m writing is because I made a commitment to myself that I would do it. There is something inside me that pushes me to achieve this goal on top of my full and part-time jobs. It is also on top of my civic commitments and all the projects and honey do’s that I have around the house. The moments with the birds are counted among a very few moments that make me stop and reflect on the world around me. The next closest experience to the birds in the spring happen some mornings when the sunrise is so brilliant on my way to work that it pulls me from my thoughts and i’ll just watch it rise. I will sometimes snap a photo with my smartphone, but, being honest, the sunrise doesn’t count as a fully reflective moment because i’m still being productive. Yes, i’m enjoying the sunrise but at that moment i’m also traveling to work and listening to some business or work related podcast. In short i’m still working.
That’s me but I am not alone in this. The genesis for this article was actually a conversation that I had with the old friend I referenced earlier who puts in an unrelenting effort at her job to the tune of probably 60 or 70 hours a week, maybe even more than that. The never ending workload is actually one of the things that we have in common at this stage in our lives. While communicating with this friend she was telling me about her tremendously rare down time experience of going to a car show one weekend. One of her observations was of how many people were at the event. She reflected on the fact that it is sometimes difficult to comprehend a life where you can just go out and enjoy things every weekend vs. staying home and working on your ‘off’ hours. Her comment really got me thinking. My first thought was for my friend’s welfare. It was a classic emotional response of “why can’t she just work less and enjoy life more?“ I’m pretty sure if that was her goal she could pull it off as she’s a tremendously resourceful individual. It was only at that moment that I thought about myself, about how the same question applied. “Why don’t I just work less and enjoy life more?” My wife and a few of my other friends have encouraged me to appreciate the non productive and more experiential aspects of life. I realized I can’t bring myself to do that because I am workaholic. I’m simply not able to enjoy ‘life’. I don’t know when that happened, or why it happened. It simply is just is a fundamental part of my personality now. It was at that point that the thesis of this article came to me. It was a simple question: Why are people workaholics?
Why are people workaholics?
Even before we ask why people are Workaholics we have to ask ourselves what is a workaholic because there are different definitions to the term. For my own part I am going to define a workaholic as someone who puts in a tremendous amount of hours with the primary focus being productivity of efforts. This doesn’t have to be just your day job. It could be a side business or it could be civic contribution such as volunteering at the local food pantry. The point of this is that leisure is not the primary goal of the effort. Someone who works in an office and spends every waking minute outside of their job fishing is not a workaholic even though they are being productive. Someone who puts in 50 hours at the office, and then 20 hours on the side business, and an additional 8 to 16 hours per week volunteering would be considered a workaholic. At that point you’re doing something productive for pretty much every waking moment. This is different than the clinical definition, which to overly simplify, says that workaholic’s work to the point of illness. This conversation is more aligned to the popular definition of a workaholic as being a person who is always working.
To look at why people are workaholics I think the best place to start is myself. I think I’m the most interesting case study because I do remember a period of my life where the current “Mike” would consider younger Mike lazy. Younger Mike used to like to go shopping, go to movies, watch TV, go to the flea market to check out the puppies, and hang out and do nothing. The current iteration of my person would find that all beyond wasteful. Today if I want to see a movie I would prefer to download it so I can watch it on my tablet while I’m on the treadmill getting my workout in. Not only that, I would prefer to have it in a separate window so while I’m watching the movie I can also review my schedule for the week and catch up on any reading that I need to do. I would like to reiterate that I am a Gen X’er. Therefore I am not a younger millennial with their generations hyper attention deficit disorder and an addiction to devices (although my wife would argue that last point). My goal is to get as much done as possible as quickly as possible. My devices aren’t a gateway to my social connections, they are a gateway to increased productivity.
Some people just can’t stop working. Going back to myself as an example, yes, I was lazy when I was in my youth but I also was obsessed with things. Sometimes it was collecting comic books, sometimes it was car stereos, and later in college it was the fraternity and all of the associated organizational tasks. None of the activities associated with these pastimes are what I would define as productive but their was a compulsion to be engaged to the best that my resources would allow. At this stage I was a proto-workaholic if you will. I recall going to used book stores (well before the internet was a thing) and reading every old car audio magazine I could get my hand on. Was it productive? Only in increasing my knowledge of whether I would get better sound from two-way or three-way separates in the front of my car and if 8 ohm or 4 ohm subs were better for my Phoenix Gold Amps. I went with 3-way MB Quarts and 4 ohm Precision Power flat piston subs in case you were wondering. The point was that the seed for intense activity was there, but I had to be engaged in the activity. Once that engagement spark was lit then I was in 120%. That seemed to carry over into my adult productivity. For the reasons I’ll go into in a bit, a spark was finally lit for my professional work ethic as I matured into my career.
This was in stark contrast to my peers at the time. For the most part they wanted to hang out at bars, interact with members of the opposite sex, and ‘watch the game’, what ever game was on at the time. I have a semi-adult daughter and I see many similarities to her personality and my own at that time. The parent in me hopes she gets the spark to be productive in a way that builds her own security and independence in life. The intellectual in me wonders if there is value to her focus on life experiences over activities.
It’s fair to ask the question then, is being a workaholic an innate part of the human experience related to age? Well for anyone who is even remotely aware of the personalities that inhabit our world, the answer is an easy “NO”. In my experience the vast majority of professionals do maintain some sort of work and life balance. They have full time jobs and part time jobs or a side business, but do they work 24/7? Do they work so much they can’t imagine or remember what regular down time is like? Nope. Fore sure there are periods of our life that are much more driving by productivity than others, my wife is a perfect example of this. Earlier in our marriage she would berate me for not being able to sit down and just relax on a morning we didn’t have to go to work. The only measure of productivity she would undertake on the weekends had to do with cleaning the house (she really enjoys a clean house). Then came the kids. Now she’s at it 24/7. Work, school, tutoring, practice, events, you name it. That being said, in her off times, like the trip to the beach I talked about earlier, she’ll slip back into ‘down time’ mode. She’ll want to do all those vacation things like go for a walk, sit and get sun or just relax and talk. She finds my never ending requests for ‘the plan for the day’ both frustrating and humorous. She would find the idea of wanting to work while on vacation as borderline offensive. Bottom line, she’s much more ‘normal’ than me. When I talk to others about work ethic, both in my professional and social circles, I find many more Michele Peluso’s than Mike Peluso’s. Most people just like to leave it at the office at 5pm. Yes, my wife works long hours when she’s not on vacation, but it’s a necessity at this point in her life, not the desire. I expect that a focus on just enjoying life will return as a greater part of her daily routine as the kids get older and more self reliant. I will be very happy for her when that day comes.
When I decided to go back to school to get my Master’s Degree I didn’t think I would do very well. I had played around with the idea of a masters when I first graduated with my BA. My half hearted attempt was simply taking the GRE, the test needed to apply to master’s programs. I’m sure this effort on my part was more so out of fear and deflection from entering the ‘real world’ than an actual intellectual curiosity. To say my test results were poor was an understatement. So at that time rather than stay in school I went into the workforce. Twenty years later, remembering that experience, I was worried that I would flunk out of the highly rated and very challenging Information Technology program I was contemplating entering. I took the first class and it was tough. I worked my tail off and I got an A. The same thing happened with my second class. By the time I had reached my fourth A I realized that a 4.0 GPA was an actual possibility. A 4.0 is something that an underachiever that I was in my youth could never contemplate. I became obsessive and worked towards my new found goal every evening end every weekend a for over three years, I would ask for feedback from the professors for every draft of every assignment before I formally submitted it. I did eventually graduate with a perfect GPA and at graduation I walked with honor cords hanging around my neck. I found out after graduation that I became so obsessive in reaching for my goal that my instructors started referring to me as “Mr. Perfect” behind my back. I took that as a major compliment!
In the professional world, it’s not advanced degrees that generally are the motivating factor. One of the subjects that is a continuing theme in my writing has to do with the narrowing of the organizational pyramid and the associated shrinking of opportunities for career advancement. You just don’t get promotions because you are being groomed or it’s ‘your turn’. There simply aren’t enough positions anymore for this to happen. In the professional world, being selected for promotions require a dedication to the organization that in past generations would seem completely unreasonable. We live in an age where working ‘crunch time’ of 70 hour work weeks and ‘sleeping bags kept in offices’ are celebrated and identified as positive traits showing dedication and the reason for success for top managers. If you have even the most minimal of career aspirations, very quickly this work ethic becomes a learned ‘normal behavior’ or your chances of promotions tends to go down. This is especially true where the corporate culture celebrates 24/7 dedication, something that is more the norm than the outlier each passing day.
Ultimately goal attainment could be for big promotions or big projects. It could be big income, which generally, but not always, comes with the big promotions. It could be for the highly sought after credential or some other form of status. The goal is always there, it’s ever present in our mind and efforts. It keeps us getting up and taking on the next big thing that may get us a step closer. Some people will always keep reaching for the goal.
Sometimes you fall into a ‘zone’ of being workaholic. You have to be a workaholic at some point in your life, so even when the initial motivations for the work end, the work ethic continues. The quintessential example is the retiree who joins every public board who will have them, or they start working relentlessly on big household projects. Maybe they start a business and work, literally until age or health forces their hand.
Maybe it’s the person who’s in the grueling credentialing process. Law school, Med school, PhD education, there are several others not so formal, but no-less challenging. You have to be a workaholic to get into and then through programs that require this intense level of 24/7 commitment. Then when you get out and to the job, it’s part of an entire industry is made up of individuals whose workaholic mentality got them through the gatekeepers. Now it’s an industry made up of workaholics, the culture is innate, and the chance at rest and enjoying the fruits of your labors gets pushed off until much much later in life.
The personal example has to do with my schooling. I Started PhD, but realized the program wasn’t a good fit for my goals. So I ‘pressed pause’ on that effort but didn’t ‘press pause’ on my thirst for knowledge or my desire to improve myself. In fact I found it quite impossible to do that. It was that restlessness that was one of the major incentives to start the Peluso Presents.com Blog and all the other projects associated with that.
My course of research and writing has gone from technologies to the collision points between work and life but the general work process is the same. Spend time during the week planning what work I can can get done on the weekend. Set my goals and figure out how I can achieve, and then potentially surpass them. I couldn’t stop this line of thinking about what I want to do next without considerable effort. I used to work every weekend for school, now I work every weekend for work, both what I refer to as “Work Work” meaning my regular job, and “Work” as in writing and blogging. In the end I still read everything that I can get my hand on within my chosen topics and write as much, if not more, than if I were in a PhD program.
So what do I mean by accomplishment retainment? We live in a hyper competitive society and as I have written about several times. Sometimes the goal in the modern professional Workforce is just keeping what you have. We live in an age where layoffs are celebrated and share price goes up when a company announces it’s going to eliminate thousands of jobs. The most easily understood example of systematic challenges to maintaining income is professional sales positions. With sales it is very common to restructure the commission plan every year so that the rep has to work harder to maintain their existing income let alone increase it. Even if you are not in sales you are not immune to strategic cost cutting as an accepted business practice. I personally have witnessed seasoned and well-paid professionals being terminated because the company in question could get somebody for a lot less money fresh out of school. This had nothing to do with a company that was in trouble or not profitable, it’s just standard operating procedure for business reviews. We can save a longer argument that this is short-sighted behavior on the part of the company for another time. Obviously if you do this enough times the organizational brain drain will affect the caliber of the company’s efforts. The point i’m trying to make is that being exposed to this highly competitive environment over time enhances the work ethic of the professional. Mid-career professionals have a huge amount of responsibilities including mortgages that are targeted to their wages and other financial and social commitment that require money. If you go through a few cycles of ‘right sizing’ and have occasionally heard the words ‘foreclosure’ or ‘repossession’ in your social or professional circles, then you may be thinking “I don’t want to loose my (insert important financial obligation here)” That alone is motivation to put in the extra hours. Let’s not forget that most businesses today have become highly proficient at conveying the very real fact that everyone is expendable and helping you with your own financial security is not in any way their responsibility if your security can impact the business operations.
Interestingly, currently the mid-career professional is most likely from Generation X. Ask a hardworking gen-xer what they think about the Millennials demands for work and life balance and you’ll hear more often than not that that generation is just lazy. Generally speaking those who are critical of the up-and-coming generation are not cognizant of the fact that the millennials 1) don’t have as much to lose so there is less incentive to work, and 2) Are reacting to the no-win situation that they see their elders trapped in. This is a hugely broad brush that i’m painting with as there are always going to be a big chunk of millennials who work their tails off. They are in fact the largest part of the workforce. I’m discussing macro trends across generations and if you look at nearly any generational study comparing work ethics, you will see the results that Gen X’rs are typically more concerned with a work focus, and the millennials are more concerned with work / life balance.
Another contributing factor is life commitments. I do occasionally see this with the workers of all ages who have gotten in over their head with financial commitments. The car payment has to be made if you are responsible and don’t wish to lose your car. The daycare has to be paid if you want to go to work to make the money to pay for the car. The rent has to be paid so you have a roof over your head for yourself and for the child who you bring to daycare in the morning. Yes, you can get a less expensive car, but ultimately a professional needs reliable, and consequently that means somewhat pricy, transportation to make it all work. No $1,000 beaters will work where you always have to be at work on time.
Let’s not forget that we live in the era of the sandwich generation. With the extension of Youth as well as advanced Medical techniques allowing an older population to live significantly longer than prior generations, a big chunk of the mid-career working class is finding that they have to care for both their aging parents as well as their children. They are literally sandwiched between deeply rooted familial responsibilities. It is an intense pressure that most people who have not experienced it will find highly difficult to understand.
To escape other aspects of life
One area, a dark one to be sure, is the idea that people work to escape other areas of their life. Maybe homelife isn’t so great? “I’ve got to get to work” and “I’ve got to work late tonight” are really good excuses for avoiding a complex situation that may not have an easily resolvable solution. This type of strategic escape doesn’t have to be a relationship issue or even an interpersonal issue. There could be an ascendent community or nationwide socio-political environment that is counter to your thought process. At the time of this writing, if your a leftist, the last thing you want to do is check out the news from Washington. That is always changing and the day will inevitably come when the right minded individuals will not be happy with the news and want to escape it rather than have their political sensibilities assaulted by the 24/7 news cycle.
It could even be a physical issue that needs to be addressed, minor or major. One of the challenges of healthcare from a purely practical standpoint is that it can be tremendously time consuming and frustrating. Chiropractors and physical therapists want to see you for an hour three times a week, and you have to add in travel time. Defensive medicine can turn a checkup for a minor ailment into appointment after appointment “just to be safe”. Specialists can be physically or temporally distant. Then following up with insurance and logistics of it all can be a stressful experience. It’s easier to just go to work and deal with ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is by over the counter methods. Most workaholics tell themselves they will get it checked out after they get through this overly busy period of time, the key is that by the nature of the workaholic, the high levels of activities don’t really have an end. Always having to do tasks like plan for big presentations, team meetings and charting or policy rewrites from 4am until 7pm assures a limited exposure to the challenging aspects of life.
In the second part of this series we are going to look at the pro’s and con’s of being a workaholic. The more seasoned someone gets with life experiences the more they realize that most things in life includes both positive and negative traits, and a tremendous work ethic is no different. In truth, the more we can not only comprehend the opposing side of our viewpoint, but emotionally connect with it, the stronger we are. This is one of the major themes woven into Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card’s seminal sci-fi novel about children being used to fight wars. (Obvious tip: Read the book first, watch the movie afterwards).
In the third article, we will discover the options of escaping the cycle of being a workaholic earlier than the point where the onset of old age forces it. I’ll give you a quick preview, stopping or slowing down for the workaholic is much harder than you would expect but you’ll have to read the article or listen to the podcast to find out why.
There is good stuff ahead, I hope you will enjoy it.