Rethinking “Workaholism”

Recently, Lauren wrote a really great piece on “The Balance Matrix” – a struggle many of us share, and something I’ve been working hard on my whole professional life. Reading it made me start to re-examine some of my childhood experience.

My parents were (are now really, despite being at least nominally semi-retired) workaholics – they worked, really, all the time. They got up early, went to work, came home, ate food, went back to work. I went to bed and still they’d work. They worked on weekends. They travelled for work. They worked when they travelled. Both my parents are phenomenally successful, and leaders in their respective fields – but boy did they ever work hard to get there.

At the back of our house was a sort of solarium, the sun room we called it. My dad, mostly, worked there. We had a glass-topped table and he would sit at, idly nibbling at the eraser of a yellow HB pencil or a gently pinching his lower lip between his thumb & fingers. He’d be hunched – either forwards, leaning over the table, or back, his right leg cross over his left. In either case, most of the time there’d be several piles of printed documents – journals, study results, his own data – spread over the table. To one side would be his dictaphone. But his focus was always on a lined yellow pad of paper. He’d furiously write away on that, turn a page. He never seemed to go back – he’d just write. I suspect he was constantly writing in his head prior. When he was satisfied, he’d dictate what he wanted to say and someone in the dictation pool at the hospital would later type it up. In more recent times, of course, much of  this would be replaced by his laptop. But not the yellow-lined pad of paper, nor the alternately leaning hunch.

My mother, by contrast, always hid herself away to work. Once my sister moved out, she took over her room and that became her office where she would while away the night, busy writing, researching, thinking, quietly muttering to herself. As a teenager, many a night would I carefully sneak home in the dead of night only to discover that my mum was still up working. Some of that may have been parental worry about her wayward young son, but she’d be up that late nights I was home too.

What’s curious is that although my father worked in a public spot, his work was much more mysterious to me than Mum’s – she would think out loud, talk about her work with us all – I suspect as much to help formulate her own thoughts as to share – while Dad was simply quietly efficient, back there in the sun room.

I swore, as I got older, that I would never be like them. I hated that they always worked, and I thought it a terrible life that I wanted nothing to do with. I loved the idea of indolent evenings spent with my family playing, sharing, living.

But a fun thing happened on the way to the coliseum….

I discovered that I have incredible work ethic – like my parents. I discovered that I too prefer to work in long, straight, deeply-focussed bouts – like my parents. I discovered that I too have immense ambition and drive to succeed – like my parents. I discovered that I too love what I do, and it’s not really work when you love it that much – like my parents.

But I still, even when I want to – try really hard to not bring work home, to not work evenings, to stop and truly experience my own children’s youth. And so I don’t work at home in the evenings. Liam, now in grade 3, is starting to have regular homework – somewhere between 30 & 60 minutes worth 3 days a week. And you know what? it’s a struggle to get him to do it. My sister, who shares many work traits with myself and my parents, doesn’t work at home either. And you know what? it’s a struggle for her to get her kids to do their homework. But, despite all my slacker tendencies at school (sat at the back, never took notes, etc), I always did my homework. It’s just what we did at home – we did our work.

And so, now, I look back at my parents long work hours and don’t just see workaholics chained to their desks. I see amazing parents who not only wanted to succeed, but wanted their children to succeed and modelled how to manage time, how to prioritize work – and most importantly, how to work. I see parents who showed their children how to have a career you love and children you love and work hard at both.

I don’t want to struggle to convince Liam to do his homework and whether he needs to do it – homework’s one of those stupid things that you have to do. But how fair is it, in his eyes, that he has to come home from a long, hard day at school and then do more work when both his parents are sitting on the couch, relaxing? He has no model to indicate that working at home is a normal part of life. And while yeah, I wish schools didn’t give homework and I doubt the utility of it, it happens. And so now, as we embark on this 8+year journey of nightly homework, I think back to how well my parents modelled getting stuff done at home and begin to think they weren’t, perhaps, just insane workaholics.

Perhaps, just maybe, they were teaching me something. And I could teach my children that too. And so, when my kids have homework, maybe I should have homework too. I’m a small business owner. There’s no shortage of things to do. I don’t want to spend my evening doing them, but then, Liam doesn’t want to spend his evening doing homework either. So maybe we should treat this as something of a team sport. We’re all in this together.