Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

The Secret To Work Life Balance Starts With Identity

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 9

When I started my next job (after my two month “paid vacation” described in the last post), I worked hard to avoid identifying myself with the company.  I was a professional.  My work was high quality but transactional, and no longer a mission.  I didn’t mind that I was no longer working on the most cutting-edge, high profile project, because I could see the price people on that team were paying.  Also, I consciously put some of my energy into building community outside of the workplace.

So in 2009, when I found myself unhappy at work, I was able to walk away.  I didn’t like the company, some of the people, or the product I was managing.  I needed to do something different, and that was never going to happen as long as I was in that job.

My wife and I talked about it for two months before I pulled the trigger.  It was crazy at home, with two of us in high-powered careers.  And my two-month paid vacation a few years earlier showed us how much easier life could be. We looked at the budget, and figured out how long we could go on just her salary.  We’ve gone much longer, because we don’t spend as much on stuff.  I think I bought stuff as a palliative for stress.

And I got to see things I would never have seen. One afternoon, I walked past the door of the living room, and stopped to watch my six year old daughter play with a friend.  They were sitting on the floor cross-legged, talking quietly to each other.  I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were so intense and serious.  I had seen them play before, but it was always rambunctious and wild.  If I hadn’t been home, I would have missed this ordinary but irreplaceable moment.

My life was better.  Much better.

I rediscovered the great joys of life that I hadn’t even noticed were missing.  I now enjoyed my meals instead of pounding them down or eating mechanically while my mind whirled around the work day that hadn’t ended.  I was well rested, and found that sex is even better when I wasn’t stressed.  And because I wasn’t stressed, I could be there, in the moment, for my wife and kids.  They became less stressed too.

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Is It Selfish To Become Less Devoted To The Company?

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 8

Change is often painful, and this was no exception.  Doing my part to help other people, and to help the group, is important to me.  I wondered if I were being selfish by pulling back from the company.  Messages at work about being a team player, reinforced this notion.  Doing less for the company meant doing less for the people on my team. Somehow, it didn’t seem right, until I came across the following, written by Rabbi Hillel ~2,000 years ago[1. Pirkei Avot 1:14]. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?”

This was like a lightning bolt – of course I have a right to take care of myself. And my life got better.  When I cut back on my devotion to the company, it gave me space to allow many positive things to happen.

And, I was mentally prepared when I was laid off a year later.  If I had still been caught up in the company, I would have been devastated.  But I was exhilarated and my wife was thrilled.  I packed up my stuff, said a few goodbyes and drove up the Central Expressway to the Peninsula Creamery, where I had a burger medium rare and a milkshake with coffee ice cream and hot fudge.

The next two months were great, a paid vacation.  I went to the gym every morning, came home for lunch, took a nap, watched Star Trek and cooked dinner.  Not only was my blood pressure down, but life was much less stressful for my wife and kids too.

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Footnotes:

The Year I Transitioned From Working 90 To 60 Hours Per Week

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 7

During the year I transitioned from working 90 to 60 hours per week, I started learning more about the teachings of Judaism.  My wife and I elected not to send our kids to Sunday school for religious education.  I hated Sunday school as a kid.  It was boring, irrelevant, and seemed like an onerous, guilt-driven obligation.  Instead, we enrolled in a family based education program, which had sessions of family learning time, followed by separate adult and age-appropriate kid learning.  And snack – adult snack was a nice spread every week that included wine, humus, and chocolate cookies.  It helped us get to know the other families.

My fascination with idolatry grew.  As I learned more about it, I found more connections to my corporate life, and surprising solutions in ancient texts.  For example, according to the twelfth century Rabbi Maimonides’ ‘Laws of Idolatry,’ it is forbidden to wear the clothes of idolators.  Maimonides reasoned that wearing the clothes of idolators was a way of giving tacit approval to the idolator’s value system, and made it more likely that the wearer would start to follow this value system.  On a lark, I stopped wearing company t-shirts on weekends, and found it helped me keep my mind off of work. (For a previous post on the subject, click here.)

I wrote a short essay on Corporate Idolatry, and handed it out in a one-hour discussion section the following year on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.  The turnout was high for one of these groups, about twenty people, and the debate was fierce.  My thesis was simple: when we do what is “best for the company,” instead of “what is best” we are adopting the company’s value system and are practicing a form of idolatry.  One man in his late 50s, wearing a classic navy blue jacket, objected in a soft-spoken, kindly way.  “I’ve been in the corporate world a long time.  Sometimes things go astray, but as long as you do what is best for the customer, you will be fine.” I wasn’t sure what to say when a woman piped up from across the room.

“But what about the workers?  My husband was told that if he didn’t push his group to work every weekend in order to make the timeline, he would be out of a job.  The customers will be fine, but the employees are being driven to exhaustion.  We aren’t twenty-something kids anymore.  His company is hardly a start up, but that is the type of time and commitment they expect from everyone.  Treating people that way goes against his values, but he needs the job and feels like he is between a rock and a hard place.”

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Change Your Values To Change Your Priorities

 

Values Drive Priorities Which In Turn Influence The Underlying Values

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 6

My insight on Yom Kippur set off a chain of dominos.  Once I recognized my Corporate Idolatry, I saw the world in this new way and there was no going back.

In the past, I had unsuccessfully tried to make changes in my priorities.  It didn’t last.  Over time I went back to the same behaviors.

This time, I went a step further, and changed my values.  My family and my health had to come before the company, and low and behold the priorities in my life changed.  It didn’t happen overnight, but over time it added up to some pretty big things.  Even when I was working close to one hundred hours a week, I ate breakfast and dinner with my family every day.  It was a line in the sand, a boundary I never crossed, and its nature as an absolute rule served as a model for the additional changes to come.

I made a conscious choice to work fewer hours.  Instead of thinking in a negative way, beating myself up to work less, I focused on the positive.

My health is important.  I need to stop working by 9:30, so I have time to wind down and get to sleep.

Then it became I need to stop working by 9, so my wife and I can spend some time together. 

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, choosing an action that reinforces a value is a virtuous cycle, because the action itself reinforces the value, making it easier to take a similar action the next time. I will discuss this at greater length latter in the book.

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The Truth About Sacrifices For The Company

Chapter 1 My Corporate Idolatry Part 5

I had been a true believer in my company. I thought the company had a mission to change the world, and I needed to devote myself to help the company achieve these laudable goals.  I was getting paid a lot of money to change the world – what is not to like about that picture?  Nothing, if that is a true picture of what is going on.  In reality, the company’s first, second and third priorities were to make money.  Some very good things did come from the company, cutting edge tools for scientific research that led to thousands of papers in the top journals.  However, the price I paid in terms of my health and happiness was very high.  I was literally killing myself for the company.

At that time, the most important thing in my life was the company.  I am embarrassed and ashamed to admit it, but it was true.  I had always told myself that my wife and children were the top priority, but when I look at my actions, decisions and time spent, it was all about the company. I thought about work in the shower.  I talked on my cell phone as I drove in to work, and as I drove home at night.  I worked after dinner, and I had trouble falling asleep because I was going over the day in my head.  The next day I would get up at five AM, to work on email, and to call my colleagues in Europe.  I worked at least a little on most weekend days.  The more I sacrificed, the more important the company became to me, which in turn led to more sacrifices.

But it didn’t have to be that way, and in the next post I will start to outline what I did to change things.

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