The real reason we wrongly worship workaholics

I hate it when the press worships workaholism.

The latest example is this Business Insider piece titled, “16 People Who Worked Incredibly Hard To Succeed.”:

The article is filled with glowing praise for people who seem to spend
all their waking hours working. Here are just a few of the headlines:

“Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz continues to work from home even after putting in 13 hour days.”

“GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt spent 24 years putting in hundred hour weeks.”

“Apple CEO Tim Cook routinely begins emailing employees at 4:30 in the
morning…He used to hold staff meetings on Sunday night in order to
prepare for Monday.”

The message seems to be that the rich and successful got that way by working insanely long hours.

In a nutshell, this is insane. I used to believe this. In fact, I even wrote a blog post about this in 2006:

I’d had dinner with Ray Lane of KPCB, who acknowledged that he’d been a
bad husband and father…and said he do it all over, because it helped
him succeed.

Yet all the science now suggests that these insane levels of overwork are counterproductive.

Effort alone doesn’t produce greatness; deliberate practice does, and it can only be practiced for about 4 hours per day:

Meanwhile, studies have shown for decades that sleeping less than 8
hours per night produces sleep deprivation, which is the equivalent of being legally drunk:

Meanwhile, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s work on full engagement
suggests that alternating brief bursts of intense work and recovery time better manages your energy levels and drives better results:

So why do we still worship workaholics? I think it boils down to our ambiguous relationship with success.

Attributing success to a punishing work schedule supports several beliefs:

1) It helps justify the disproportionate wealth that accrues to the
successful–after all, they worked hard for that money, right? (Never
mind that we never see pieces about immigrants working 2 jobs to support
a family)

2) It gives us a built-in excuse to explain our own
lack of success. We could be successful–if we were willing to work
like a maniac. But it’s just not worth it.

I appreciate hard
work; I wrote the first draft of this post at 11:15 on a Friday night! But we’d be better off
if the press focused on people who are successful at their career and in
their broader life.

4 thoughts on “The real reason we wrongly worship workaholics

  1. ranndino

    This is maybe your best post ever. The world has become an insane asylum where crazy people who have absolutely no life outside of work and even lost the ability to enjoy it (the types who get bored on vacations and start answering work email) push everyone around them to the same levels of insanity. I guess they'd like everyone to be miserable like they truly are.

    What's so great about success (money & status) when you have absolutely no time to enjoy it and have completely alienated the people closest to you? Not to mention all the negative effects on your own health, both mental and physical.

    I used to work with a CEO who kept sleeping just 4 hours per night and insisting that he didn't need any more. It got to a point where he started passing out in meetings and generally not being able to comprehend simple concepts, not to mention looking like the crypt keeper. And guess what? The company didn't succeed so he did it all for nothing.

    These days if you try to keep some semblance of a personal life you're looked upon as a lazy bum. It's completely ridiculous. I also have my suspicions about how these people are able to consistently pull such long hours and concentrate on work. It's just not humanly possible. They like to attribute it to their incredible work ethic when in reality psych pills keep them going.

    So yeah, some success to strive for. Work like an ant. Have no life outside of work. Become a one dimensional drone with no other interests (good luck on dates). Don't sleep. Have no friends or family. Kill your health. Become an angry, irritable, unlikable a-hole. And maybe, just maybe one day you'll have a fat bank account with lots of digits. Totally worth it.

  2. Thanks ranndino!

    Not to mention the fact that having money doesn't actually make people happy. Research shows that the moderately well off are actually the happiest–happier than the poor or rich!

    Not that I'd turn down the money. I'd relish the opportunity to prove the statistics wrong.

  3. ranndino

    Having money in itself doesn't make people happy. It gives one freedom to enjoy a great life. The problem with the way of making it that is now idolized is that becoming successful requires you to sacrifice everything that does actually make people happy. If you achieve financial success, but in the process, drive away everyone that was close to you and kill your health what good is it?

    The worst part is that people like this become completely incapable of enjoying life in the moment. I often hear that people don't know what to do with themselves once they retire. It makes me sad. There are so many amazing things one can do when they have the luxury of time and money. Since when has life become all about answering emails and going to meetings?

  4. A great read, especially from an investor. As an entrepreneur its difficult to know what speed to go because their isn't the boss looking over your shoulder, so working longer hours becomes a substitute for doing the right work.

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