Worked to Death

I know a man – let’s call him Henry – who was a fresh b-school graduate in the mid 1990s. Henry was young, smart and he wanted to make a lot of money. So he committed his life to a career in finance.

    To succeed at a singular pursuit one must be smarter and harder working than the competition. So Henry chose a well worn path that included evenings and weekends at the office. Nobody faulted him for doing so. In fact, his dedication earned him respect from friends, family and colleagues. This is a cultural phenomenon.

    His dedication earned him respect from friends, family and colleagues.

    What do courtroom, cop, political and hospital TV dramas all have in common? The glamorization of work!

    The competence of characters in these shows is frequently hoisted to heights unattainable to the average human. Normal people must split mental and physical capacity between kids, in-laws, leaky roofs and work. Clearly these characters have nothing else happening in their lives to distract from marathon research and preparatory sessions. Unrealistic, but this model is presented as an example to live by.

    For the average person, characters in these dramas might be admirable, but not feasibly aspirational. If you’re like me, you show up to work Monday morning and spend 20 minutes trying to remember what it is you do all day. In between meetings and endless impromptu distractions I’m lucky if I can focus for more than 30 minutes in a row. Because of this, if I truly wanted to get ahead in the corporate world I’d need to work outside of regular business hours, when distractions are reduced.

    Luckily, I’m over the corporate world. I paid my dues long ago. I don’t aspire to rise in the ranks any further so I get my shit done and leave. This is not to say I don’t create value. I create immense value by working hard and fast within standard business hours.

    I worked evenings and weekends in the early years of my career. I studied, got several degrees and accreditations and worked my ass off to grow my career. I was young and new so I had to prove myself. Of course, at that time I had no kids to come home to.

    My wake up call.

    After my first child was born I was still working crazy hours. One night my wife reminded me that my child was only going to be young once and that I’d regret missing her milestones. That really shook me up. I suddenly realized that I had to purposefully make time for the other parts if my life if I wanted to truly flourish as a human being.

    A rich life is made up of several parts that aren’t necessarily always operating at peak levels. I still work hard – I dedicate extra time to – but work is no longer my priority. Balance is my priority.

    Balance is my priority.

    If I wanted to keep growing my career like my buddy Henry, I’d have to dedicate another 10 or 20 hours a week to my corporate overlords. This would require sacrifice. Henry learned this the hard way.

    Throughout his life, Henry’s days and weeks consisted of breakfast meetings, working lunches, golfing, business travel and long days at the office. Even when he made it home to his wife and two children, he was preoccupied and distracted, slipping into his study to get ahead for the next day. Weekends and vacations were spent on the phone or laptop. Over a couple decades his status grew immensely and he earned a lot of money.

    Henry was like a character out of a TV drama. The clothes, the cars, the vacations. His family had everything HE thought they could possibly want.

    However, over the course of almost 30 years, Henry repeatedly missed birthday parties, recitals, anniversaries. More importantly, he missed the small things that don’t get Hallmark cards – homework, doctors appointments, family dinners.

    While he told himself he was working 80 hour weeks for his family, this wasn’t actually true.

    I once read that time is the most valuable gift you can give your children. Not iPads, not extravagant vacations, not Nike Air Force One shoes. Kids might not be able to articulate it, but the time you invest in them will build a lasting and caring relationship. As kids they will say they want the Nikes, but as adults they will remember the time spent together.

    Henry’s career eventually hit a brick wall, and like many executives he was packaged out of his company. He was financially fine. Emotionally, however, he was broken. His career had steadily progressed for almost 30 years and suddenly fell off a cliff. His entire identity evaporated and Henry desperately searched for meaning.

    He met with former work colleagues a couple times, but the distance between them widened as threads of connection frayed. He quickly discovered most work ‘friendships’ are built on nothing more than convenience and quid pro quo.

    So he leaned on his adult children instead. However, his kids barely knew the man and dismissed him like he once did to them.

    Unfortunately it gets worse.

    Neglected for many years – many of which included suspected affairs – Henry’s wife finally ended the marriage. The marriage wasn’t terrible, so she waited until the kids were grown. They had always lived separate lives and didn’t really know each other the way a married couple should. She couldn’t envision Henry as part of her life because he never was.

    Photo by Sven Mieke on Unsplash

    The divorce hit Henry hard.

    He felt betrayed, as he was still convinced everything he had sacrificed was for his and their children.

    In the end, Henry lost half the assets he had worked so hard for. All those late nights dedicated to a job, only for half of what he earned to be ripped away. Worse, Henry finally realized that his true loss was not financial. It was the friendship with his children, the experiences of family life and the companionship of someone who truly has your back. Hours at the office were no substitute. And most work colleagues were not true friends.

    Coworkers aren’t family and they barely qualify as friends. Who will be at Henry’s death bed? Who will still miss him 20 years after he’s dead? Definitely not Brian from accounting.

    A life worth living is diverse in experience and filled with connections to people who care about your well being. Work is important. But it can’t be everything.

    It’s a tough lesson for someone who made his career his entire identity and reason for living. The truth is, corporate entities don’t care. They can’t care. Public companies exist for a single immutable purpose: the shareholder. They’ll trick you into believing they care about you, but the second you’re not part of the plan you become persona non grata and you might as well have never existed.

    If it weren’t for labour laws and the bad publicity, many employers would work their employees to death. Indeed, many already do in a perfectly legal way: stress. Stress has huge consequences on a person’s physical and mental health.

    A life worth living is diverse in experience and filled with connections to people who care about your well being. Work is important. But it can’t be everything.

    Henry is now unrecognizable, his former self destroyed by his career. He is now working to build a relationship with his children and has developed new healthy relationships. He can’t make up for what was lost, but he is making the most of what remains.

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