Saturday, November 1, 2008

Workaholics Anonymous

My grandparents worked 12 hour days six days a week in Lancashire's cotton mills. My 64 year old father who is a company director flies out to Japan 8 times a year and runs around like a thirtysomething. So its little wonder that I have a strong in-built value around hard work.

For most of mankind's history, my proclivity for slogging would have placed me in a highly esteemed position. I am the kind of person who would have dug moats, gathered crops or hunted boar until someone told me to stop. In more recent corporate times, I would have been viewed with awe, a Duracell Man, a prized company asset.

However, these are not my times. Modern thinking about work and life renders me a saddo. A workaholic. Someone `out of balance' with possibly something worrying going on in my head, something I am escaping through work. All said, I am not `normal' and my example is not something to be passed on to others.

As a result, I have kept my problem secret. I store my night-time emails so they go out in the day. I implore my colleagues to `look after themselves' and get home on time every night, then secretly indulge in my private life of work.

So why did I do this? Well, its partly because I believe that it is hard work, more than anything else, that makes things happen. Talent is fine. So too are ideas or great skills. But alone these are worth little. Only when mixed with frightening levels of graft do mountains move.

Look at the evidence. Think of anyone who has made a big impact on the world, or even our sector. What marks almost all of them out is prodigious work rate. These people have the same time as the rest of us. Of course, they use that time well but they all work extremely hard.

Now, I have made a much smaller impact than most of the people I admire. I have established a successful organisation, Speaking Up, that has made a mark. And when people ask me `how I did it', the answer, more than any other, is that I worked and worked and worked some more. For a long time, it was my life from the moment my eyes opened till they closed again 18 hours later. That is what it took. It isn't like that now but for many years, this is how I lived.

The current obsession with work-life balance is, on one hand, a mark of a more civilised, gentler society. But I also think it is linked, in a way, to the wanting-it-all culture: `I can have my big job, salary and also have this amazing life outside work'. The truth is, I think, that it isn't really possible to deliver incredible results in your work and have a wonderful life outside work too. You can't have your cake and eat it.

My life today is a case in point. A lot of what I said right at the beginning is now a little bit historic (well, if six months ago is `historic'). Now that my two kids are on the scene, I am about half as productive as I was before. The time I had spare to work is now gone. I can't work at night any more because my kids wake us up. My `life' is coming ahead of work, probably for the first time in twenty years.

This means, for me, accepting that I can't move any mountains for at least the next couple of years. The stuff I would like to achieve, the new projects I need to throw every cell of myself at to make happen won't happen till at least my kids get beyond their second birthdays.

In the meantime, I am going along, doing OK, doing what 98% of us do all the time, rarely getting out of fourth gear. Its fine, its my choice, my kids need me but I don't pretend that I am really getting much achieved. Not really when compared to earlier times. It isn't what I would call a work-life balance, its putting life ahead of work.

6 comments:

Joe said...

What would you rather be remembered for most when you die? How much of your kids lives, (until they really don't need you to be around any more) are you prepared to miss for the sake of work? Who would you say needs you the most, the world or your children? How do you want your kids to remember you when it comes to your work/home time balance?

These are questions I know I would struggle with in your position, and that I do anyway.

Joe
(workaholic wannabe changing the world wannabe)

Ian H said...

I like the expression 'the harder I work, the luckier I get'.

It expresses the same truth as your article.

Working hard and getting no reward - that's the wrong kind of work/life balance.

It does happen. Not just to the Dad in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" who 'never earned a penny more, no matter how many extra toothpaste caps he screwed on toothpaste tubes.'

Or in companies which expect a long hours culture and forget to reward the employees.

The harsh reality is as you say: you may not get your work rewarded, but you sure won't get anywhere without work.

You have to bet your life if you want serious success. The trick is to know when success in life means more than success in work.

Maybe that translates to: if you don't work hard at all aspects if your life, you won't reap the rewards there either. Slacken off at home, prepare to pay the price!

ps the verification word I type to post this comment is 'facked ne'. It sounds like Joe Kinnear explaining Michael Owen's latest injury.

Emma said...

Apologies for the long response – an interesting post which raises lots of issues!

You say “Look at the evidence. Think of anyone who has made a big impact on the world, or even our sector. What marks almost all of them out is prodigious work rate.”

If you’re referring to the people who are constantly paraded in front of us (the ‘heroic entrepreneurs’) well yes, you may be right. But for every one of these people working 80 hours a week as our shiny happy leaders, there are usually a whole set of unsung heroes, working hard in their own, much less celebrated way to get things done, mop up the mistakes and calamities prompted by their fabulous leaders and keep things moving forward.

I’ve had roles in the past that have required the kind of heroic efforts you describe and I recognise the drug-like qualities you articulate. But have I done my best work during those times? No – quality has suffered as quantity has increased. Have I left sustainable enterprises behind me? Maybe – but it’s hard to follow in the footsteps of the ‘heroic entrepreneur’ and in the titanic struggle to move mountains, it’s all too common to forget to leave the necessary provisions at base camp for the next group coming through. Am I more effective when I have other things in my life beyond social enterprise? Absolutely. Am I worth less when I work less? Only in the eyes of those who fawn over the ‘superhuman’ social entrepreneur celebrities.

Celebrating heroic entrepreneurs is a bit like celebrating stick-thin celebrities for their amazing figures. Yes, they have amazing figures. But they live on celery soup - what’s so great about that?! Aren’t people with healthy figures (substitute organisations), who maintain them by having a balanced approach to diet and exercise (substitute work-life) more admirable, and more worth learning from?

You say “The current obsession with work-life balance is, on one hand, a mark of a more civilised, gentler society. But I also think it is linked, in a way, to the wanting-it-all culture: `I can have my big job, salary and also have this amazing life outside work'.”

It may be partly about that, but you’re missing the point that one of the advantages of having an “obsession” with work-life balance is that it creates an opportunity for those people who can’t or don’t want to work 50hrs+ each week to be valued for the contribution they do make .

The administrator who gives up the occasional few hours of his or her spare time because they believe in what they do; the person with health conditions that can only work a few hours a week but works hard when they do; the working parent who spends their life juggling childcare, work, and travel. These are all people who contribute huge amounts to our organisations and one of the best things about our sector is that, more than others, we have a history of recognising that and finding new ways to fully value it.

Contrast this to a public sector organisation I know where permanent staff above a certain grade are simply not allowed to work part-time (no good reason given) Or to a financial services company where someone who asked to work 4 days a week on return from maternity leave was told this would undermine the ‘hard work’ culture of the rest of her team. Cue a demoralised and uncommitted staff member, instead of a happy, balanced, motivated, hardworking one. This kind of outdated, macho thinking about what constitutes ‘hard work’ is shocking and sad to see in the so-called post-feminist world.

Job-sharing, working from home, part-time working and other family friendly policies are all things that should be seen as normal, standard practices which support people to work hard, unless there is a good reason not to (obviously certain industries are less suitable than others). But frankly, when it comes to third sector development, management and leadership, those reasons are hard to see and are, in my experience, often wrapped up in delusions of grandeur more than anything else.

You say, “This means, for me, accepting that I can't move any mountains for at least the next couple of years. The stuff I would like to achieve, the new projects I need to throw every cell of myself at to make happen won't happen till at least my kids get beyond their second birthdays.”

But why aren’t you getting other people to work up all those ideas and projects that you say you’ve had to put on the back-burner? Why aren’t you creating opportunities for your young talent to develop them, make them happen? Have you tried and tested having part-time management positions at senior level – 3 days of someone motivated and positive is often worth more than 5 days of someone mediocre and dulled by the slog. Why aren’t you putting creative strategies in place to draw on the talent around you, rather than assuming that because you can’t drive them forward, ideas have to be left to fizzle out? Can you really not imagine other people being able to achieve these things and move the mountains with (or without) you?

Joe said...

I like Emma's comments. When I can't do something, its an opportunity for someone else to take it on, develop it and grow their own ability.

Craig Dearden-Phillips said...

Commenting on my own comments here. Four is a record on my blog so thanks to Emma, Ian and Joe for troubling to read it.

All raise valuable and thought-provoking points.
Joe, yes, the thought of returning to mega-slogging in a year's time is not appealing at the moment. which links to,,,

Emma and your point that yes I do need to find other ways to move mountains than doing so myself. I am currently trying this but finding it much harder to work through others. A different art, one I will need to learn. One of my mini-entrepreneurs fits v closely your description of the PT, multi-focussed person you described. She is good (in fact very good!) but I am having to accept that things can't happen as quickly as I like. My problem more than her though!

Ian, yes I am very mindful of what slacking off at home could me. My father was an absent figure for much of my childhood. Quite normal for his time (I didn't feel particularly different) but not really right now. And, of course, he missed out on so much.

Steve Allman said...

Interesting blog and comments. One little word of advice from a fellow midnight-emailer - new Outlook has a "do not send until" function. Great for sending emails at 2am but looking as if you did it at 8am! cu soon.