Being a Workaholic (but Masquerading as Ambitious)
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As I’ve alluded to in a previous post, and I’ve now accepted with certainty: I’m a workaholic. Through introspection and asking myself questions I’ve never asked myself before, I came up on this hard truth with a screeching halt.
I’ve always been an over-achiever and it has served me well throughout life. Despite having some hiccups in my personal life in my early 20’s, I generally do well with whatever I set my mind to. Having an “All-In” approach toward goals in my life has always been reinforced by seeming success.
This has made it difficult to even see that I have a problem. In a culture where a strong work-ethic and ambition are heavily rewarded and lauded, I’ll admit, this leaves me a little stunned. Shit. Now what?
How Did This Happen
When my husband and I decided to buy a house, my approach to this goal was no different than any other goal. I reverse-engineered putting down a hefty down payment by mentally working backward from our target buy date. Using that time-line, and the amount we determined we needed, I broke it down into monthly savings goals spread out over something like 15 months.
During this time, I was shifting into more Freelance work and with the established goal of buying a house, I simply ramped up the volume and hours I worked. Blessings abounded.
With each completed assignment, I was offered more work. I was recruited to work at 2 different locations as a part-time staff employee. My professional reputation blossomed. I had arrived.
We bought the house, but I continued to work with the same vigor. My next goal was to max out my retirement vehicles. Then, my next goal was to crush my husband’s student loan debt.
Enter: the invincibility complex. I am still young enough (32) that I forget I cannot conquer every obstacle single-handedly. Grappling with perfectionism has also allowed me to justify throwing myself at something full-force, even if it means I have to behave like a machine.
My privilege must be acknowledged, in that I really haven’t experienced many institutional setbacks. I also have seen some shit in my life (trauma, alcoholism), and I catch myself truly believing that nothing can hold me back. If I got through all this other crap, I can do anything.
While I appreciate the confidence overcoming adversity has allowed me, at the same time, it has left it’s mark in not so positive ways.
I want to overcompensate for past mistakes. There is a desire to distinguish myself. As if I need to reinforce to myself past bullshit didn’t affect me. An F-You, if you will, to anyone who has ever tried to make me feel small.
As if that is not enough, add to this a small rankling in the back of my head, that by working less, I might sacrifice some financial leverage in my relationship. My partner has never made me feel this way, but I’ve seen financial abuse and I’ve seen women not have anything to call their own within a marriage. Part of me bucks against allowing my household to become more dependent on my husband’s income, rather than both of our incomes.
Chasing Work-Life Balance
All of this maniacal working was for a purpose. I wanted to strategically position my family to be debt-free (sans mortgage), with healthy retirement accounts that had plenty of time to grow, and then eventually drastically reduce my workload. I even entertained leaving the workforce entirely.
Ironically, for me to feel financially comfortable to ever leave the workforce, I needed to work evermore. If I hustled harder now, I could reap the rewards later. Being able to throw extra dollars toward debt, savings, and retirement accounts now, would give me the financial luxury to not have to work so hard in the future.
So I worked more hours, picked up more challenging projects, and banked more money.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy my job. It can be a real pleasure. However, my profession is mentally, emotionally, and physically taxing. To provide my best work, the ideal would be to work something like 30 hours a week.
Combining the above professional ideal of working a reasonable number of hours, and the personal goal of crushing my personal finance to allow for more future-freedom has proved impossible. At least in the way I’ve been approaching it.
Merits of Ambition
In no way is this an attempt to denigrate ambition. Having purpose and goals in life are, at times, the life-blood of us even kicking around on this planet.
Having ambition allows for an excited feeling while throwing off the covers, jumping from bed, and entering each day with purpose. It allows for self-esteem to flourish, meaningful contributions to our societies and communities, and a sense of accomplishment and worthiness.
I wouldn’t be where I am now without my ambition. When I see it in others I am inspired and touched. Without ambition our desires might just be wishes.
Pursuing my career with a passion is the only way I would’ve wanted to do it. My job has never been just a job to me. I am certain every employer who has ever worked with me would agree, I am an all-in employee. I envision my employer wanting quality work, reliability, and team spirit from me, and in return I want a paycheck, growth opportunities, and a sense of gratification from the work I do. Most times this works out.
The Evolution of All-In Mentality
Throwing myself all-in to my job, and into my personal/financial goals, seemed to go hand-in-hand. With my eye on the prize, and my standard method of working toward goals (reverse-engineering to see what steps and actions need to be taken), I put one foot in front of the other. I focused on doing the next right thing.
The strangest thing happened. It’s as if I grew blinders on the sides of my face. I could only see what was right in front of me. The goal of eventually not needing to work so much faded and became more of an afterthought. The immediate action was to work my buns off. The means were more important than the end.
It took a long time for me to realize the way I was living my life, was the exact opposite of what I wanted for myself. It was exactly why I set my goals in the first place: because I didn’t want this.
Over time, I’ve realized, I don’t want to work the number of hours I am working. I’m hardly home. When I am home, I don’t know what to do with myself. I struggle to rest and be idle, as I am constantly thinking of the next productive thing to do. I began to feel like the character Oblomov, as Ivan Goncharov writes in Oblomov, who says, “But when am I to live?”
Gradually accepting that my work schedule wasn’t sustainable, I hoped to power through the burnout. Just until we hit a few more financial milestones. Folks, I’ve changed my mind.
My Next Steps
Beginning in June, I am cutting down to a 4-day work week. Because I create my own schedule, it simply rests with me to not accept any work on Monday’s. I am grateful this change doesn’t rest upon an employer’s approval. It was in making this decision when I had the revelation I am a workaholic. Even the thought of cutting down the number of days I work per week makes me uncomfortable. However, I’ve done uncomfortable things before, and I can do this.
I also will not take any work outside of the hours of 9am-6pm on the Tuesday-Friday’s that I work. The cushy pay differential for night/weekend work be damned.
If I like this schedule, I’ll keep it. If it’s not enough, in the Fall I have a plan to go down to a 3-day work week.
Another conscious action I plan to take is to fall in love with my free time. Enjoy my workouts more, rather than something to squeeze in between jobs. Dawdle. Putter. Play in my sewing room for a few hours. Be in my garden. Sit on my front porch and read. Or stare off into nothing. My inspiration is heavily drawn from “How to Be Idle” by Tom Hodgkinson.
Just like with any decision, but especially financial decisions, I will remind myself to be flexible. My own goals are just that: they’re mine. I can change them anytime.
I also must note, my husband loves his job (or at least likes it most days), and has no desire to retire early or leave the workforce anytime soon. Thankfully, we are a two income household, living as a one income household, so the pay cut that goes along with this change can be easily absorbed in our budget.
And as a shout-out to my ambition, I might not be in the luxurious position of reducing my work hours on a whim, if I hadn’t put in all the work I have in the last few years. So maybe, after all, I got what I was working for all along: the financial luxury to not have to work so hard.
Here’s to the next great experiment in this thing we call life! Cheers!