Over the last four months, since becoming a full-blown entrepreneur, I can probably count on two hands the number of times I’ve had more than seven hours of sleep in a night. As an early-bird, most mornings are 4:45 am wake-ups, with sleep taking place starting around 11:00 pm, at the earliest. Without question, endeavours such as the company I started, Gen Y Inc., my work with TEDxEdmonton, and being a full-time University student have been successful by many stretches of the imagination, however, the sleep deprivation I’ve experienced and subsequent tendency to live in “autopilot,” have become problematic. Having caught up on sleep this Easter weekend and reflected on this “culture of busyness” I have subscribed to, I would like to address several concerns with life as a “happy workaholic.”
For ambitious young people in entrepreneurship, consulting, engineering, accounting and other demanding fields, there’s a propensity to “work hard and play hard,” where individuals work 60-70+ hours per week, usually with little sleep in the process, and then consume excessive alcohol on weekends to let loose. This “culture of busyness,” both in one’s professional and personal life, leads to perpetual exhaustion, though individuals tend to justify this to themselves by saying they are successful because of their ability to push through and hammer out work late into the night. I am certainly not foreign to this concept; starting in 2010, I took pride in working two 40-hour research jobs per week, pulling 80+ hour weeks during my summer as a nineteen year old, not including a community league presidential role and service on multiple university boards. I did this for four months and, predictably, ended up burning out. As a Students’ Union executive, 70+ hour weeks were the norm, and with entrepreneurial responsibilities and school, sleeping in today for me is considered waking up at 6:00 am. Nowadays, when I hear that others work 70+ hour weeks, my response is usually along the lines of “So what? That’s not very much!” Where is the problem here?
With the fast pace of business with my startup company, I have fallen prey to the desire to constantly do more: to send just one more email, make just one more business call, or write just one more article. After all, two more emails could put the company in touch with a potential client and in turn net us tens of thousands in booked revenues. The same is probably true of young professionals, where they feel that each additional hour will lead to a promotion and potentially, later down the road, becoming a partner. We consider this additional effort to be just a part of the “daily grind,” a compelling phrase indeed.
This point of view is troubling, as I believe that it is ultimately narrow-minded and deleterious to our health. Looking at professional services industries, it is not uncommon to find “high-function alcoholics,” who succeed in client-facing roles despite spending their evenings in bars. In recent months, I have heard stories of Members of Parliament who have seen their marriages and relationships fall apart as they spend more time on the road than with the people truly important in their lives. Even in recent months, we have seen several of Canada’s excellent public leaders pass away much earlier than they should, and I can’t help but wonder whether the stresses of long hours and inattention to personal health contributed to this.
It is extremely difficult to break away from this “culture of busyness.” A Gen Y Inc. client calls this fear FOMO: fear of missing out. As an ambitious twenty-two year-old, this fear has been true of my university years, and has unfortunately spurred much of my desire to do more; to maintain a 4.0, run marathons, to build companies, to win prestigious awards and to travel internationally. It is the fear that leads me to think that without an Oxford/Cambridge degree, constant speaking gigs at the World Economic Forum and United Nations and a spot in Entrepreneurs Organization by 24, I have somehow failed. On one hand, this fear can lead one to take advantage of each day, whether it’s a Monday morning or Saturday evening. It is what drives one to send hundreds of emails per day, often late into the night. However, the drawbacks with health and relationships can be just as profound.
Over time, I have become disgusted by the “work hard, play hard” attitude. As previously stated, it is no secret that many professional services industries are replete with “successful” people hiding significant personal issues. Even in universities, fraternities, business student associations and other groups take pride in the “blackout” nights. But as Arianna Huffington so eloquently states in this TED Talk, there is nothing attractive about individuals constantly with bags under their eyes. It took Huffington a morning waking up in a pool of her own blood, after collapsing out of exhaustion, to realize that the “work hard, play hard” just doesn’t cut it.
Yes, these long hours may lead to high earnings and social prestige; however, how does one justify this when the things that truly matter in life fall off the table (and they do, inevitably, fall off the table). For young adults like myself, it’s important that we step back and ask “why?” What is the purpose of these long hours, of the “daily grind?” And just as importantly, how does one set personal limits that ensure that the hard work and personal health may be sustained? Tough questions, but ones well worth considering.
Photo Courtesy of Svein Halvor Halvorsen on Flickr CC