My name is Gil Schwartz. And I am a workaholic. It’s an addiction like any other. Except that if you have it, they pay you more. Actually, a lot more.
I’m recovering, though. I have to. The Japanese have a word for the problem: karoshi. It means “death from overwork.” I’m not talking only about men who keel over face-first in their sushi. I’m talking about death of the soul: a dependency on stress, aggravation, power, and control; an inability to think about anything but deals, meetings, and upcoming challenges; a draining away of the joy we should feel about food, drink, love, sex, children, and little birdies.
It’s a tough addiction to conquer, because you have to do it while continuing to work. That’s like being asked to quit drinking while being required to have a martini every evening.
And yet it can be done; this program can help. It’s only nine steps because, frankly, who has time for 12? It’s working for me. A few days ago, I took a walk with my wife and did not take my BlackBerry! That’s progress. Of course, I reached into my empty pockets six or seven times, so clearly I have a long way to go.
But I’ll cure myself, one symptom at a time. Feel free to join me. You have nothing to lose but your identity as a faceless, soulless company man.
Step 1: Admit that you’re powerless in the grip of your addiction to work.
This is not easy. Companies throw too many rewards at you in recompense for your addiction. You also have to fight the common perception that to work until you drop is an admirable quality, particularly in middle managers who have a shot at becoming upper-tier supervisors if they labor until their hearts explode.
What it takes is a realization that you’re not really happy… that sleep is difficult… that you’re having sex not enough, or too often, or with the wrong people. Or you’re playing too much golf, which often goes hand in hand with addiction to work. Both take way too much time, detach you from reality, and come with cool gear.
Step 2: Acknowledge there are things in life more important than work.
A few years ago, I realized I’d missed most of my son’s birthday parties because our annual sales meeting takes place the last weekend of his birth month. That’s not good.
If you find yourself missing things… wondering why the hell you’re doing what you’re doing…sitting in front of a laptop while everyone else is playing Whiffle ball… you may be ready to accept that you’re leaving much of your life behind. And that no matter how much money you make, you won’t be issued a second life.
This doesn’t mean, by the way, that you should drop all the balls you’re juggling. You should keep working, driving for whatever goal you have your eye on, while at the same time avoiding a tip over into a workaholic relapse. How?
By becoming a manager, Sparky. The purpose of management is to make other people do the things that need doing, so you can think about strategy and leave early. If you’re serious about overcoming your addiction, use other people to get the job done.
Step 3: Accept that you cannot control every little thing in the universe.
Workaholics are pursuing a perfect solution to the problem of existence. That’s why they try to control everything within their scope. Identify a challenge. Put your shoulder into it. Make it go away. Just as it disappears, whoops, here comes another one. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole. Trust me, you’ll never run out of quarters.
Step 4: Recognize that work is a temporary fix for spiritual issues you have yet to fully comprehend.
I once went to a Quaker meeting. You sit for an hour without speaking. Nobody else speaks either, unless he or she has something important and brief to offer. Then everybody lapses into silence again. It was the longest hour of my life. I couldn’t stand it. I thought I would go completely around the bend.
That experience really taught me something. That deep down inside, I am broken, and that I’m using work to plaster over some yawning gap within myself.
Step 5: Appeal to the higher power of your choice for assistance with your transformation.
Some people pray. Others jog. Still others purchase $3,000 bikes, coat themselves with Spandex, and pump 6 hours up the nearest mountain. It doesn’t matter. The goal is to draw on reservoirs of strength that defy rational thought, so you can wrench your poor, obsessed spirit away from work and orient it toward stuff that matters.
This is hard for career workaholics. We tell ourselves we’re “doing it all for them,” whoever “they” may be, but really, men like us are lonely, isolated, self-involved, and bundled into an armor of our own devising. We have to move outside of ourselves if we’re going to break the cycle of addiction.
A few higher powers to consider: family, kids, love, enlightenment, peace of mind, helping others. Careful with that last one, though: I’ve seen more than one workaholic transition from obsessive businessman to maniacal philanthropist.
Step 6: Make amends to the people harmed by your affliction…
If you have kids, start there. If you have a list of former lovers who couldn’t put up with your hours anymore, consider them for a while. How about dear old Mom, who you haven’t seen since her silver hair was merely streaked with gray? How about Ed, your best friend from college, who has been trying to get back in touch with you for… could it possibly be 15 years?
Step 7: …but don’t injure them in the process.
This is not an exercise in self-actualization at other people’s expense. That’s what you’ve been doing up until now. This is about acknowledging your faults to the people you’ve hurt without hurting them more. When in doubt, keep your trap shut and just sit at home feeling bad about yourself for a while.
Step 8: Replace work with other things that give you satisfaction.
This may be the most difficult step of all. I’m so far away at this point that I can’t even tell you how to approach it. Perhaps, for people like you and me, there’s a sunrise out there that will be as wonderful to behold as the closing documents on a smart acquisition. I hope so. Truly I do.
Step 9: Carry this message to fellow workaholics, and make yourself available in their times of need.
That’s pretty much what I’m doing here today–asking you, right now, to sit down, take a deep breath, and stop. Try to see a future beyond that Brownian motion of your daily affairs. And in the silence that surrounds you, ask yourself: Is there something I should not be doing? Imagine yourself there. Take that first step.
But check your e-mail first, okay? You’re paid too much to sit around reading magazines all day, you know.