I have recently had to face the hard truth that I am a workaholic, and if you are too, you might want to read up here, because that life is not sustainable. You might think it is, but it’s not. Really. It’s not.
As those who have been following my social media know, I have been reading and doing the exercises in the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron since the beginning of the year. I just finished week ten, of twelve. Week ten is really heavy on recognizing workaholism not only as an addiction or compulsion, but as a fear based way of living. What makes us slide over the line in to workaholism? Why do we think we have to be “on” 24/7/365 to succeed?
If you’re a small business owner I can already hear you, with some justification, saying, “Well, that’s just what it takes.” To some extent, you’re right, especially if you are your small business, or at the very least, you are the one responsible for driving sales and growth. It’s hard to ever totally shut off when there’s no guaranteed external paycheck, when you either make the sales, bring in the new students and customers, finish the custom orders, meet the shipping deadlines, pay attention to your social media and marketing, or else you don’t pay the bills. If you have employees or contractors the pressure is even higher, because part of paying the bills is making payroll. I get that and I know it can be overwhelming. Kicking back for a day, or a week, or if you’re really burned out, a lot longer, can seem like professional suicide. But, I have discovered something else that’s professional suicide: overwork, overwhelm, and burnout.
So, I took the Chapter 10 workaholic quiz in The Artist’s Way and failed spectacularly, in that, I was guilty of every common marker for the problem. No, I haven’t been taking at least one day a week off. No, I don’t take vacations. Yes, I do put off my family and friends because I “have to work” or I “have a deadline.” Yes, I do cancel non-emergency preventative medical appointments because I’m “too busy.” Yes, sometimes I realize I have not left my studio in three or four days because I’m trying to get it all done. No, I don’t take myself on what the book calls “Artist’s Dates.” Yes, I do blow off yoga and hiking and time in the woods and on the water because I “just can’t find the time.” Yes, I “forget to eat.” I could go on, but you get the idea, and some of you – I know that some of you – are living this way too.
Let’s go back to why we do this to ourselves. We’ve already addressed that there is a baseline reality to some need for very hard work: we are under tremendous pressure to pay our bills, make our deadlines, and pay the people who may be working for us or providing materials to us. But do we really have to go this far down the workaholic rabbit hole to make that happen? I’m taking the leap to find out, but more on that later.
The “why”s go beyond the very real financial and logistical pressures. One “why” is overwhelmingly cultural. Here in the United States we are raised (or were – I think it’s improving with subsequent generations) to believe that our value is not in who we are, but in what we can do, what we can produce. We are an independent, bootstrapping, hyper productive, entrepreneurial culture of powerhouses….right? Our heroes embody rags to riches stories. We worship celebrities because of how they look and how large a venue they can fill, without ever knowing who they are. We elect politicians not for the content of their character but for the alleged quantity in their bank accounts, because that’s how we define success. Look, I have no objection to anyone becoming wealthy in America. In fact, I applaud it if it is done in an ethical way that contributes to that person’s family and community, and I wouldn’t mind making it happen for me and my family. What I object to is the metrics by which we value human beings in this culture and the way it drives us not only to work excessively and compulsively, but to work ineffectively and in ways untrue to who we are.
For some of us, another “why” is closer to our homes. Perhaps we were raised by people who cared little about who we were as human beings and more about who they could mold us to become, either in their own image or according to some ideal in their minds. (I regard that lack of acceptance and freedom as child abuse, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.) These parents might appear well meaning, but the message they ultimately send is this: you are not enough as you are, you can not be trusted to shape your own life and path, you are not what we expected and therefore are somehow disappointing. It is no surprise that people raised in environments like this lack confidence, have trouble making decisions right for themselves, become people pleasers to their own detriment, and yes, try to compensate by working themselves too hard in order to prove their value. It may not always be parents who cause this crisis of authentic identity and self worth. It may be a highly critical teacher or role model. It might be peers who are bullies. It might be an abusive partner. All of this is addressed magnificently in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, and without practicing psychotherapy without a license, I try to touch on this a bit when I teach my design class, Yes, You Are & Yes, You Can.
I have been living the workaholic life for at least the past fifteen years, but probably longer. I started my ten year career in real estate in 2003. Every good real estate broker knows the drill, or at least, what the drill might be if you’re a workaholic and insecure about making and being “enough”: take calls at all hours of the day and night, show property on weekends, nights, and holidays, travel to anywhere your client needs you to to execute documents (although this is better in the age of Docusign, unless your client isn’t computer literate), climb in every nook and cranny of every house, barn, attic, basement you show, stand over open septic tanks breathing it all in, walk land during hunting season hoping your blaze orange jacket is enough, on and on and on. My clients loved me. I was very well regarded in the field. And here’s the punch line in real estate brokerage. You’re an independent contractor, you have no benefits, and you don’t get paid unless the sale closes. Many of those failure-to-close factors you have zero – and I mean ZERO – control over. It’s stressful, sometimes lucrative, sometimes very not lucrative, and many people burn out. After ten years, I did. Spectacularly. So what did I do?
I started my own business and carried those same workaholic habits right in to it. Duh. And with those habits have come some serious mental and physical health issues I now have to attend to, the need to work on improving relationships and friendships I have neglected, and a real subversion of my own creativity, because no one can create when the proverbial well is dry.
No, I’m not done with Parris House Wool Works. On the contrary, I have big plans for Parris House Wool Works and for myself in a variety of arts. However, I am done working all the time. I am done not having a life outside of my business, and I am done thinking that who I am is so inextricably tied to what I can produce. What does this look like in practice?
Well, I’ve taken the past two weekends almost completely off. This weekend my husband, Bill, taught our soap class (which was delightful, by the way; we get the best students) and then we came down to our lake cottage, Sunset Haven, which is where I am writing this from today. (No, blogging is not work for me.) Unlike many times we are at Sunset Haven, we are not cleaning it for the next Airbnb visitors. There was a rare gap in the rental calendar and we can just spend time here for ourselves this weekend. We went to a cafe this morning and had breakfast, and then we did something unheard of for us: we mindlessly walked around the Maine Mall, got a lilac scented candle (our own lilacs won’t bloom until well in to May), got some coffee, and came back to the cottage. My husband is catching up on our personal finances and I’m blogging, lakefront. It’s a winter wonderland here, the lake is still mostly frozen, and in a little while I’m going to take Wyeth for a long walk on the camp roads. That doesn’t exactly sound like a Hawaiian luxury vacation, I realize, but this is a major departure for us. It’s a first step.
What will this look like going forward? I don’t know. That’s why this post is titled “Part 1,” because I plan to keep our readers informed on how this lifestyle change is going. I’m doing the journaling of this for me, I admit, but I’m also doing it for those of you following along who are also burning yourselves out in your own businesses or careers, or who are in danger of doing so.
What are you doing to take care of yourself this weekend? How will you give yourself the time and space to approach your work this coming week well rested and fresh? If you have been to the land of burnout, how did you recover? How are you doing now? Feel free to comment below.
Have a wonderful Sunday. – Beth