Adventures In Workaholism

I was a lazy teenager, prone to throwing everything into the back of my closet on the days my mother insisted I clean my room, and to writing eight pages to the line if my English teacher assigned 8-10 pages. I did just exactly what was expected of me and nothing -- not one single thing -- more.My adolescent torpor followed me into adulthood like a puppy after a small child. I majored in journalism because it was easy, though facing life as a newspaper reporter was not. It required a kind of involvement and vigor that I simply couldn't muster. Graduate school looked simpler and, conveniently, my college roommate was planning to get her M.A. in communications, so it seemed a good choice for me, too. Afterward, I cleaned houses and mowed lawns rather than think about pulling myself up into the real world of working adults. I wrote a few magazine articles and a couple of children's books, but I didn't pursue writing with much verve either. In my spare time I jotted down figures recording the few bucks I was making pruning Peg McKoane's oleander and the few more I was earning shampooing Denise Dudley's carpets. Can I possibly afford to work less, I would think to myself, and still be able to pay my bills?In looking for a reason for this enervated condition, a therapist would, no doubt, point to inner fear and childhood shame and, believe me, many did. "Perhaps it's fear of success," one postulated. "Maybe you fear becoming more successful than your parents," another suggested. "Maybe you're just lazy," a friend countered. None of these theories worked, however.Nor did my father pretending to balance his checkbook while muttering to himself about his daughter using her master's degree to get house-cleaning jobs. Many of my clients were impressed with having an overeducated house cleaner, but even they would often ask me what my real plans were.It was one of those people, in fact, who eventually handed me an application for teaching part time at a Sacramento, CA college, and because I was getting just a little bored with trying to figure out whether Windex worked better than vinegar and water when cleaning windows, I filled it out and turned it in. Honestly, though, I never imagined it would come to anything. But when I was hired to teach public speaking about three weeks before school began, my laziness left me suddenly.Sixteen years and many classes and students later, it has not returned. In fact, people who know me today would have a hard time believing that I have ever been anything but a serious workaholic. Most, I'm sure, have vivid images of me keeping my childhood lemonade stand open a few extra hours in the evenings to service my neighbors who had to work late.On the contrary, my life today would be barely recognizable to anyone who knew me before I started teaching. Instead of living as minimally as possible, I occasionally find myself wishing for days with more hours so that I can grade one more set of papers or take on one more project. On Sunday, my "to do" list looks like it belongs to two people. And every night of the week is filled with a class to teach, a lecture to plan or papers to grade. Sometimes late at night I do watch an hour or so of "bad TV" and maybe even read a few pages of People magazine, but only as a reward for having accomplished 10 or 11 tasks that day. If there were a "Most Obsessive Worker" award, I would be a serious contender. I look in the mirror and can't even squint enough to see that once-inert teenager.Some days I attribute this change to finding the thing I really wanted to do. On others, I argue that making real money is a great motivator, and that maybe my mother should have tried that during those room-cleaning projects. But mostly I think my life has been like a pendulum, and I am suddenly so far the other way I can barely believe I spent my entire 18th summer in front of the television memorizing commercials and playing solitaire.When I began to realize that my compulsion for work is as stubborn as that lethargy ever was, I thought it might be a making-up-for-lost-time kind of thing. "Maybe it's your fear of never being more successful than your parents," my therapist suggests. "Maybe you're more seriously disturbed than I ever realized," offers the same friend who once suggested I was just plain lazy.Whatever the cause for this swing of the pendulum, I find myself, just recently, attempting to swing back, to simplify a little. And in so doing I realize how much harder it is than being lazy ever was. Work is tied to everything we do -- where we live, how we live, whom we hang out with, what we talk about. Beginning to say, "You know, I think I'll just stay at work a paltry eight hours today rather than my usual 10," is not easy. Doing my best, rather than the best ever done by a human being, feels a little like sloughing off. Spending a weekend without working feels downright wild, like any minute I'll be jumping into my car and heading for Vegas.And I know lots of people like me, people who waited a long time to dive into the world of earning, acquiring and promotions and, when they did, did it with a kind of compulsive energy. Many of these people are women who finally worked up the nerve to succeed in that cliched "man's world," and then didn't handle it much better than the guys did. We're discovering, just as many men have, that working 60-hour weeks and falling asleep in the middle of personal conversations doesn't make for much of an existence. We see our lives flying by and are seriously reluctant to have only our resumes to look at in our old age.So now I'm jotting down figures again, using my calculator these days, to see if I can possibly afford to work less. And I am thinking how funny it is that, in some ways, things don't change much at all.


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