I’m a workaholic. There I said it.
Here’s the thing, I’m only twenty three and all I see before me is the long years of stress and striving ahead of me. That’s a terrifying prospect and not the one I set out with when I got my first paycheck.
Type A was never a phrase I would have used to describe myself before I entered my first full-time career. But lately, it’s an adjective I’ve heard used to describe me on more than one occasion from some people who know me well. I’ve heard it from my mom when I mumble a terse, “I’m at work, what’s up?” at 8 PM when she calls me and from my boyfriend when I complain that I have to “just finish something up” on a Sunday afternoon. In college my class attendance record was never perfect, I finished my undergraduate senior thesis early not for the sense of accomplishment, but because I wanted to escape the New Jersey winter and go somewhere warm for spring break planned and didn’t want my thesis to get in the way of enjoying it. At some point in the past two years that has changed.
When I was a senior struggling through the last grueling pages of my thesis, I looked forward to the day my older peers described. “In the real world, when you’re done with work you leave and it stays there.” I fell for it and got a job. I looked forward to being able to breathe and enjoy my free hours to sleep and socialize without the specter of grades and job acquisition in the near, yet nebulous future.
Here’s the thing, for most of my life the term “workaholic” conjured images of a middle-aged man in a suit who’d lost their priorities in life and, who is a disappointment in every aspect of their personal life and has a questionable moral compass. I’m actually picturing Jim Carey’s character in Liar, Liar.
I’ve been in the full-time workforce for just shy of two years, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes, and I’m not deep in enough into my career that I can’t remember the difficulty it took to adjust to the transition from college into work. I’m lucky. I have a job that I like working with people I like, doing something I’m fairly good at and where I have stability (which is often hard to come by in the writing profession). That’s something I recognize that a lot of people my age don’t have. But as I near the end of my time as a freshman employee I thought I’d offer my experiences from the perspective I wish I’d heard. My conclusion is: It’s not my job that’s the problem with my overwork and frustration, it’s me.
When I first came up with the concept the idea was to offer sage advice. I had a scenario in which I’d made a mistake twice, the same mistake, and the incidents were almost exactly a year apart. This time a around, I handled it differently and more maturely and took responsibility while offering to move forward with a solution. The mistake was simple, I let a crucial e-mail slip through the cracks on the Monday before Christmas, when I was frantically working to get all of my work done before heading out for vacation. When a coworker e-mailed me pointing out my mistake I went through the main stages of panic, denial, denial, denial, denial and then acceptance.
Then I sent this e-mail:
I’ve just looked into this and it looks like this is totally my fault. I did not see your e-mail and therefore the asset did not run on the correct week. There’s no explanation for it other than that it was an oversight on my part. I know this will cause issues on your end, so please let me know what I can do to work with you to fix it.
My coworker’s response to this e-mail was basically a NBD, we’ll figure it out, thanks for offering to help. That’s it. It’s been two weeks, and there’s been no sign I’m getting the axe. Despite the fact that I was sweating bullets for an hour while this e-mail exchange went down, no one else around me seemed to notice.
Similar to other dependencies, it’s not even the amount of work that’s significant so much as my unhealthy relationship to it. It’s my inability to let it go long past when it’s required or necessary.
When you’re in your 20s there’s nothing in your way to stop you from working yourself into the ground, and there’s plenty of reasons to make excuses for it. Some jobs force you to work obscene hours (just ask any first year analyst in finance). I’ve chosen a career path and a company that has less pressure. I have no children to fret over or significant bills to pay or even a dog to walk. My only responsibility is to do my work and do it well. I’ve fallen head first into it and it’s no one’s fault but my own.
Maybe it’s the city I’ve chosen to live in, Manhattan is an island filled with young people in dark clothes rushing around at the walking equivalent of a sprint with our heads down. It’s possible that we don’t look up because the alternative to not always being at my wits end all the time is boredom. The worst part about tirelessly toiling away and putting everything you have into your work is the realization that ultimately you’re doing it to please yourself, and sometimes satisfy expectations that only you have. The problem is we don’t give ourselves enough time to even question why. I follow what seems apparent, work hard, people will recognize it and that will lead to success. I never question whether the degree of effort that drives me to sleeplessness and anxiety is necessary to get to achieve those things. What I’m realizing now is taking a more relaxed approach isn’t just a matter of clocking in at 9 and out at 5 whether or not the work is done. It requires taking assessment of long-term goals that are so daunting it’s easier to get wrapped up in the activity of achieving them.