The Trap of Workaholism–And What to Do About It

Article Summary: 

Everything you need to know about workaholism (work addiction): its prevalence, signs, causes, and costs—and how to overcome it.

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Many people today struggle with workaholism—being addicted to work and struggling to switch it off or stop thinking about it

Psychologist Wayne Oates coined the term “workaholism” in 1971 in his book, Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts About Work Addiction. He defined it as “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” In 2014, researchers C.S. Andreassen, J. Hetland, and S. Pallesen defined work addiction as “being overly concerned about work, to be driven by strong and uncontrollable work motivation, and to spend so much energy and effort into work that it impairs private relationships, spare-time activities, and/or health.”

According to researchers, work addiction has both a behavioral component (working long hours consistently) and a psychological component (being obsessed with work). It’s a serious problem for many.

 

A Cautionary Tale About Workaholism

Gerald Chertavian grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts with a strong work ethic. After business school, he moved to London to be with his fiancée. Following a frustrating first job experience there, he was approached with an opportunity to buy into a technology company on the verge of bankruptcy. They had precious little to go on, but he decided to go for it.

The challenges were fierce, but Gerald was committed. For years, he pushed and pushed, until one day it was too much. As he told us in an interview for LIFE Entrepreneurs:

“I looked over the side of my desk in London. It was 2 a.m. and I couldn’t see the ground. It was just black. I couldn’t even see the rug below me. It was like looking into the abyss.”
-Gerald Chertavian

This talented and vigorous young man early in his career could have worked himself to death. It was a stark wake-up call.

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The Value of Hard Work

Concerns about workaholism shouldn’t be equated with a critique of hard work. There’s incredible value in hard work (especially in smart hard work), from opportunities for learning and growth to success and wealth creation.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s another problem: sloth. Many people fall into the trap of not working hard enough and later come to regret it.

Aristotle famously wrote about the “golden mean” of virtue between two vices. So, between sloth and overwork, the golden mean is hard work—ideally work with purpose, passion, and impact. But that’s a far cry from work addiction.

Workaholism shouldn’t be conflated with hard work, a strong work ethic, dedication, conscientiousness, loving what we do, or occasionally working extra hard to complete an important task. These are all good. By contrast, workaholism takes us into the territory of preoccupation, compulsion, and addiction, with the associated loss of self-control and continuation of excessive work despite negative consequences.

If we love our work, that doesn’t mean we’re addicted to it. But if we’re a workaholic, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we work so much because we love it or because we need to when we actually don’t.

Workaholism is also not the same as having an overly demanding boss who piles way too much work on our plates—or as the excessive work sometimes demanded by startups, turnarounds, or crises. Work addiction, in short, is not the same as work overload. (That’s a different problem.)

 

The Prevalence of Workaholism

The prevalence of workaholism is hard to pin down because it’s hard to define precisely and even harder to measure. And even when it gets measured, there are challenges with getting nationally representative data sets.

Nonetheless, psychologists estimate that about 10% of Americans struggle with work addiction. Research from a nationally representative random sample in Norway using the Bergen Work Addiction Scale found that 8.3% of the population there struggles with work addiction.

These may not be huge percentages, but they add up to massive numbers of people. According to Zippia Research, 55% of Americans (55%) didn’t use all of their paid time off in 2022.

Researcher Brene Brown jokes that when they start having support meetings for workaholics, they’ll have to rent out football stadiums.

 

Signs of Workaholism

How to know if we struggle with workaholism? It comes with a number of telltale signs, including:

  • feeling preoccupied with work even outside normal working hours (we can’t stop thinking about it)
  • being the first one in the office and the last to leave
  • not taking a lunch break and other breaks
  • working often on weekends*
  • working more than is needed or expected of them
  • having a hard time stopping work
  • feeling physical and emotional distress when we’re not working, much like the withdrawal symptoms from other addictions
  • lacking margin in our lives and suffer from “time poverty” (an acute feeling of having too much to do and not enough time)
  • sacrificing time with our spouse/partner, children, and friends because we’re so consumed with work
  • suffering negative consequences from working so much, whether physically, relationally, or otherwise.

The Bergen Work Addiction Scale is a psychometrically validated assessment instrument developed by testing 12,000 Norwegian workers from 25 different industries. See the image below and consider doing a quick check.

Source: Clockify, https://clockify.me/workaholism-facts

According to the research, workaholics tend to be status-conscious, hyper-competitive, and achievement-oriented. They have high standards (e.g., must be the best) and tend to be self-critical. Often, they have a strong need for success and external validation.

Workaholics may also struggle with close relationships, vulnerability, and intimacy due to a fear of disclosing flaws. And they may neglect their inner life given their focus on external achievements.

Edward Hallowell writes in his book, Crazy Busy, that it can become a habit so entrenched that it makes you “a slave to a lifestyle you don’t like but you can’t escape.” According to Clockify, a company that helps organizations track how much time people spend working on tasks, the top ten traits of workaholics are the following:

Source: Clockify, https://clockify.me/workaholism-facts

Workaholism can show up in different ways. For some, it may be a standard compulsion that’s fairly consistent over time. For others, it gets progressively worse. And for others, it involves binge-working in fits and starts.

Some people are good at hiding their workaholism from others, knowing that it brings conflict or disappointment, so they sneak in work when others can’t see it.

According to researchers, workaholics often make things harder for themselves by placing more pressure on themselves, making their work more complicated than necessary, and hesitating to delegate work when possible or to seek social support when they’re struggling. They may also be attracted to high-pressure jobs with intense demands.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Causes: Where Workaholism Comes From

Where does workaholism come from? Researchers have discovered several sources. Here are the main ones:

Childhood causes. Many workaholics grew up with overly demanding or overly protective parents. This can set up long-term behavioral patterns that can be difficult to escape.

Our identity. Author Stephen R. Covey noted that some people have a work-centered identity. (See my article, “Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work?”)

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown notes that some people consider exhaustion a status symbol and view “productivity as self-worth.” Others have an achievement identity. Shirzad Chamine, best-selling author and chairman of the Coaches Training Institute, has identified what he calls a “hyper-achiever” as one of ten “saboteurs” that inhibit our effectiveness and enjoyment:

“The Hyper-Achiever makes you dependent on constant performance and achievement for self-respect and self-validation. It keeps you focused mainly on external success rather than on internal criteria for happiness. It often leads to unsustainable workaholic tendencies and causes you to fall out of touch with deeper emotional and relationship needs. Its lie is that your self-acceptance should be conditional on performance and external validation.”
-Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence

Emotional causes. If we feel guilty or anxious when we’re not working, it’s easy to numb those feelings by working incessantly. Some people suffer from “productivity guilt”—having a constant nagging feeling that we should be doing more.

Personality factors. Many workaholics struggle with perfectionism, neuroticism, or obsessive-compulsive tendencies. They may have a “Type A” personality characterized by ambition, aggressiveness, and intense achievement striving.

Running from pain. At a deeper level, workaholism is sometimes more about running away from something that running toward the glories of work. There may be great emotional pain, discomfort, shame, or trauma driving it.

“…workaholism is a surprisingly effective distraction from emotional and spiritual problems.”
-David Brooks, The Second Mountain

There’s an interesting question about the direction of causality here. It’s clear that workaholism can and often does lead to significant distress in our lives. But researchers have discovered that, for many people, workaholism is also a response to distress in their lives, such as emotional disturbance or anxiety. In other words, it’s caused by distress but also adds to distress, a double whammy.

“We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough,
the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”
-Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

 Fear. Sometimes the compulsion to work and work comes from a place of fear—fear of not being enough or of disappointing people. Seen in this light, work addiction becomes a matter of overdoing things to avoid the things we’re afraid of (but too often doing damage in the process).

Motivational factors. If we’re highly motivated by extrinsic factors like financial or status rewards, we can tell ourselves that working all the time will bring us the satisfaction and happiness we crave. (See “The Most Common Myths About Happiness.”)

Cultural influences. Some organizations and even nations have a culture that lionizes work and achievement over other values. People living in different countries can have widely varying outlooks on the importance of work.

“American culture valorizes overwork, which makes it easy to slip into a mindset that can breed success addiction.”
-Arthur Brooks, From Strength to Strength

 

The Problem with Workaholism

Workaholism, like all addictions, can come with a high—sometimes devastating—cost. Here are some of the problems it can cause in different areas of our lives:

Workaholism can contribute to physical health problems, including:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • higher systolic blood pressure
  • insomnia

These are all serious problems. Notably, some languages now have words for “death from overwork” (karoshi in Japanese and guolaosi in Chinese).

It can also contribute to mental health problems, including:

  • higher levels of mental distress and emotional exhaustion
  • chronic stress
  • anxiety
  • depression

Workaholism can lead to relationship problems, including::

  • less time with family and friends
  • more work-family conflicts

Workaholism can have negative effects on our work, including:

  • more job stress
  • greater chance of burnout
  • lower job satisfaction
“Findings suggest that workaholism is related to negative outcomes such as increased job stress, work–life conflict, burnout, decreased job and life satisfaction, and poor physical and emotional/mental health…. workaholism was not related to higher levels of performance or job satisfaction; rather, it was related to many negative outcomes such as burnout, job stress, lower job satisfaction, and poorer emotional/mental and physical well-being.”
-Malissa Clark et al., “All Work and No Play?”

Researchers note that work addiction doesn’t necessarily lead to better performance. That makes sense because we’re all human and have limits. At some point, there are diminishing marginal returns for the extra work put in.

Workaholics may get a short-lived rush from completing an important project, but they quickly turn their attention to the next item on their to-do list, placing them squarely on the hedonic treadmill.

Workaholism also leads to lower life satisfaction and more life regrets. In her work as a palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware noted the top regrets of people who were in the process of dying. The second most common regret among her patients was this:

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

Her point here isn’t that hard work is bad in and of itself.

The problem is when we let our work crowd out so many other important things such as our health and close relationships with family and friends. By working too much, we’re optimizing for one aspect of our lives (our work) while harming other important aspects.

Quality of Life Assessment

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The Secondary Effects of Workaholism

Unfortunately, the negative effects don’t stop there. There are also secondary effects of work addiction that spill over into other domains.

For starters, workaholism can lead to secondary addictions (e.g., to alcohol, drugs, pornography, etc.).

According to empirical research, work addiction is also related to poor family relationships, family dysfunction, and marital dissatisfaction. Writer John Eldredge likened it to having an affair with his work.

It can lead to neglecting children or missing family events and milestones (e.g., the birth of a child, sports tournaments, dance recitals, graduations). (See my article, “Five Words that Changed Me as a Parent.”)

Work addiction in parents can lead to problems with their children’s mental health. According to a 2022 study of 527 Lithuanian workers, “perceived work addiction of both mother and father was related to higher levels of work addiction of their adult child.”

And what are the opportunity costs of all these extra hours spent working instead of engaging in other worthy endeavors? For example, how can we take care of our aging parents and grandparents or struggling relatives if we’re so consumed with our work?

Also, our communities and nations suffer when many people are addicted to work. How can people find time to build community and participate actively as citizens when they’re working so much?

The physical exhaustion associated with work addiction can also lead to ethical lapses. According to former President Bill Clinton, “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.”

What’s more, workaholism may be contagious in some workplaces. According to researcher G. Spruell, “Workaholism practiced by even just one member of a work group can suck the spirit right out of the team” and can cause “destructive competitiveness among coworkers.” Overly demanding leaders can create a toxic culture of workaholism in their organization, leading to dissatisfaction, resentment, burnout, absenteeism, high turnover, lower performance, and great personal damage and regret among workers.

 

What to Do About Workaholism

Addressing the problem is difficult because many workaholics are in denial about their addiction (see “Self-Deception: Why We Do It and How to Stop It”)—and because many workplaces reward people for workaholic behavior.

“…work 16 hours a day, and you’ll probably get a promotion.”
-Arthur Brooks, “The Hidden Link between Workaholism and Mental Health”

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to address work addiction:

Track our time. Carefully log how we spend time for several days (or a week). Then go back and review which activities give us energy and a sense of meaning, versus which ones drain us or seem pointless. Consider whether the amount of time we’re spending working versus addressing other important priorities accurately reflects our core values.

Be brutally honest with ourselves. Stop avoiding and pretending. Decide to push past self-denial and face the reality and implications of our choices.

Ask those who know us best. Sometimes, it’s hard for us to see or admit but all too clear to others.

Set boundaries on our work time. Set a weekly maximum number of hours and limit email to certain hours, except under extraordinary circumstances. According to a February 2023 Pew Research Center study, workers with higher incomes and postgraduate degrees were most likely to say they regularly respond to work emails and messages outside of work hours. Though many people are rightly concerned about the exploitation of lower-income workers, it seems that many upper-income workers and managers are exploiting themselves.

Focus on only a few key priorities each day. Avoid the trap of being overly ambitious with expected accomplishments each day. That can set us up for a cycle of stress and overwork. Being realistic about daily and weekly accomplishments can help a lot. (Consider using the Ivy Lee Method: give ourselves no more than six important tasks per day, listed from most important to least important. Then address them in order of priority, and without moving to the next task until the current one is complete.)

Schedule important, non-work priorities. This can help make sure that other important priorities don’t get crowded out of our busy schedules.

Be intentional about time away from work. When we’re used to working hard, it can be easy to become unintentional and passive when we have free time. There’s nothing wrong with chilling out, but if we let it turn into mindless numbing with too much binge-watching or doom-scrolling, it will only make us more anxious and tired. Meanwhile, we’ll have lost important opportunities to connect with family and friends and to do fun things.

“Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing.”
-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist and author

Think about who we’re giving so much of our lives away to—and whether they’re worth it. In her article, “The Wages of Overwork,” writer and journalist Ann Helen Petersen writes, “Leaders are more than happy to exploit workers’ most anxious or engrained inclinations towards overwork.”

Make sure we’re giving enough time to the important people in our lives. According to research, our close relationships are the most important contributors to our happiness and quality of life.

Address the underlying issues that cause us to seek refuge in overwork. Do the inner work of discovering what’s causing us to engage in overwork and what we’re running from. These insights can give us clarity about the problem(s) we must address.

Be clear about our purpose and values. This helps us focus on what’s most important in our lives.

Develop good habits of recovery, renewal, and self-care such as:

Shift our focus from ego and personal achievement to connection with and service to others. Work addiction is often a selfish and lonely way of life. When we stay focused on connection and service, we can avoid getting trapped by our ego.

Remember our mortality. We will all die, and we don’t know when. Remembering this can help us determine what’s important in our lives right now.

Work with a therapist or join a support group (e.g., Workaholics Anonymous).

Regularly review how we’re doing in all the important areas of our lives. (See my Quality of Life Assessment—which you can set up for regular reminders.) By reviewing each area (e.g., family, health, friends, education, work, service, activities, finance), we can see which ones are neglected and problematic—and then take appropriate action.

“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls… work, family, health, friends, and spirit. Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will never be the same.”
-Brian Dyson, former CEO, Coca-Cola Enterprises

Quality of Life Assessment

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Coda: The Cautionary Tale

Remember Gerald starting into the abyss at 2 a.m. in his London office after years of overwork? Here’s what happened next:

“Right there, I realized that I wasn’t doing what I needed to do with my life. Then I went home and gave myself grades as a father, husband, friend, community member, and businessperson, and I only got one A—and the A was as a businessperson. I said that’s the last time in my life I’m going to look in the mirror and give myself those grades, period.”
-Gerald Chertavian**

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you suffering from or at risk of work addiction?
  2. How is it affecting your health, relationships, and quality of life?
  3. What will you do about it?
  4. Which of the above practices will you start with?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles & Traps to Workaholism

 

Postscript: Quotations on Workaholism

  • “If you think your busyness is some kind of prestige symbol, think again.” -Chris Brogan
  • “Busyness is not a marker of intelligence, importance, or success. Taken to an extreme, it is much more likely a marker of conformity or powerlessness or fear.” -Christine Carter
  • “You cannot be really first rate at your work if your work is all you are.” -Anna Quindlen
  • “Overwork sucks us into a negative spiral, causing our brains to slow down and compromising our emotional intelligence.” -Annie McKee, author and advisor to top leaders
  • “No matter how much value we produce today—whether it’s measured in dollars or sales or goods or widgets—it’s never enough. We run faster, stretch out our arms further, and stay at work longer and later. We’re so busy trying to keep up that we stop noticing we’re in a Sisyphean race we can never win.” -Tony Schwartz, journalist, author, founder, The Energy Project
  • “My worry was that I would become addicted to success. It’s a delicate and dangerous zone—the interface between success and significance—to get as much success as you can without getting captured by it, becoming its prisoner.” -Bob Buford, Half Time
  • “Every addiction arises from an unconscious refusal to face and move through your own pain. Every addiction starts with pain and ends with pain. That is why… there is so much unhappiness, so much pain… They bring out the pain and unhappiness that is already in you.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “Human beings have always employed an enormous amount of clever devices for running away from themselves, and the modern world is particularly rich in such stratagems. We can keep ourselves busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people, and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within. More often than not we don’t want to know ourselves, don’t want to depend on ourselves, don’t want to live with ourselves. By middle life, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” -John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal

 

Sources:

  • Andreassen, C. S., Hetland, J., & Pallesen, S. (2014). Psychometric assessment of workaholism measures. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 29(1), 7–24.
  • Morkeviciute M., Endriulaitiene A. Understanding Work Addiction in Adult Children: The Effect of Addicted Parents and Work Motivation. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Sep 8;19(18):11279.
  • Spruell, G. 1987. Work fever. Training and Development Journal, 41: 41-45.

* We should note that in today’s economy, many people choose to work nontraditional hours, as opposed to the standard Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Of course, choosing to do so isn’t in and of itself a sign of work addiction.

** Gerald Chertavian and his team built that company, Conduit Communications, into one of Britain’s fastest growing companies, eventually having more than 130 workers in several countries and earning more than $18 million in annual revenues. Six years later they sold it for a significant return and made millionaires out of many of their colleagues in the process. He later founded YearUp, a national 501(c)3 workforce development organization committed to ensuring equitable access to economic opportunity, education, and justice for all young adults—no matter their background, income, or ZIP code.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work?

Work is a big part of our lives. It’s essential to our income and security, and it can be a source of meaning and satisfaction. But there are dangers with having our identity too wrapped up in our work.

What happens if we’re laid off? Or in-between jobs? No longer able to do that kind of work? Retired? We’re vulnerable to an identity crisis and a downward spiral when the work that animates our identity disappears or changes.

“Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.”
-Colin Powell, U.S. Army officer, statesman, and diplomat

For sure, there are many different types of workers out there: nine to fivers working for the weekend, side hustlers, part-timers, hybrid professionals, unemployed, underemployed, and more. Some like or love what they do. Others despise or endure it.

Some toil away in a workaholic organizational culture. Others are trying to live up to parental expectations. Some are trapped in golden handcuffs. Others can’t stop ruminating about work situations and scenarios.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

The Traps of Overidentification with Work

There’s nothing wrong with working hard. Or with loving or liking what we do. Or with identifying with our work.

The problem comes when we identify too much with our work, losing other important aspects of ourselves and our lives in the process.

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive.
You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your f**king khakis.”

-Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Problems come when we bury ourselves in busyness and overwork—when we glorify being busy and can’t slow down and shut if off (or can’t feel good when we’re not working). According to a meta-analysis of 89 studies, workaholism is related to lower physical and mental health and lower job, family, and life satisfaction. Sometimes we use overwork to avoid dealing with difficulties, disconnections, rejections, or wounds.

We get into trouble when work is all about trying to please or impress others. When we reject who we really are—abandoning our true nature and avoiding our calling.

Problems pop up when we bury ourselves in someone else’s priorities so much so that we never get to our own.

It’s nice when we get recognition, praise, or even prestige from our work, but it’s dangerous when we become dependent on those, addicted to our next hit.

It’s a problem if we feel terrible when work is going poorly, clouding everything in disappointment.

It becomes a trap when our relationship with work becomes an obsession in which we’re constantly striving and can’t switch it off—when we’re never satisfied with things as they are.

It’s trouble when our attachment to work disconnects us from meaningful relationships—from the people we love and who need us.

“…the work I’ve put between us, you know it doesn’t keep me warm.”
-Don Henley in “The Heart of the Matter”

It’s limiting when our current work keeps us from moving forward and trying new things, because we feel safer in the current iteration of our work and wary of venturing forth. So we avoid the uncertainty and awkwardness of the in-between periods of our lives—the ones that tend to lead to the biggest breakthroughs in growth and fulfillment after we ride out the storms of fear and doubt and stare down the unknown.

The problem is when our identity is wrapped up too much in our work, with too much emotional investment (and time). It leads to stress, anxiety, burnout, or depression—and a sense of emptiness, disappointment, or regret.

Who are we? Are we only our title? Only the person who gains income or accolades? Yes, we are those, and we’re wise if we’re intentional as possible about infusing those activities with as much heart and soul and fun as we can. It’s great if we can integrate our life and work into a cohesive whole that suits us. It’s powerful if we can integrate our values, passions, and authenticity across all the domains of our lives, bridging them with an overarching sense of purpose.

“A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature.”
-Seneca, Roman Stoic philosopher

But aren’t we also husbands or wives, fathers or mothers, sons or daughters, friends and neighbors, lovers and dreamers, community members, citizens, and humans bound together on spaceship Earth?

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

What to Do If Your Identity Is Wrapped Up in Work

What to do when we’re identifying too much with our work and not honoring other important areas of our lives?

Return to what’s important: who and what do we love? What do we long for? What are we missing in our life?

Do we have enough vitality, connection, and contribution in our lives, as Jonathan Fields recommends? Do we have a strong sense of our “core identity,” and are we living with “authentic integrity” (integration of all aspects of our lives in a way that coheres with our true nature)?

We all get off-kilter sometimes. We need to cut ourselves some slack. But we also need to stop lying to ourselves. We must take our lives back when we’ve given them away. We must honor the fullness of our nature and the marvelous range and depth of our lives, both in and out of the work we do. If we do, we can learn to be well regardless of the events and circumstances of the day, grounded in a deeper presence and appreciation for all that we’ve been given.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Is your identity wrapped up in work?
  2. What important areas of your life are you neglecting?
  3. What will you do start doing to make yourself whole again?

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Life, Work, and Identity

  • “Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.” -Epictetus
  • “‘Can I be comfortable in my own skin regardless of what’s going on around me?’ And that to me is the definition of true success.” -Peter Crone
  • “People who can tolerate the painful discrepancies of the between-identities period, which reflect underlying ambivalence about letting go of the old or embracing the new, end up in a better position to make informed choices. With the benefit of time between selves, we are more likely to make the deep change necessary to discover satisfying lives and work and to eventually restore a sense of community to our lives.” -Herminia Ibarra

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Problem of Going It Alone

One of the silver linings of the covid-19 pandemic was what it reminded us about our longing for relationship, for connection, for human touch. What was suddenly stolen was dearly missed and now cherished. We see the problem of going it alone.

Close connection with family and friends and a sense of belonging are the most important building blocks of a life well lived. Yet today we have forces driving us apart.

One is a culture of excessive individualism and egocentric living, a sense that life is all about us. It’s the trap of being self-absorbed and caught up in our own stuff, without focusing on something larger than ourselves. If we’re fortunate enough to live a comfortable life with our needs met, one danger is that we can “cocoon” into our big homes with big yards with more stuff than we need and wall ourselves off into social isolation.

Here we encounter the emptiness of egocentric living. By contrast, we can pursue the meaningfulness of relational commitment, of being there for others and letting them be there for us.

 

Burnout and Overwork

Another problem is our culture of burnout,  overwork, and work addiction. In his wonderful book, How Will Your Measure Your Life?, written with his colleagues James Allworth and Karen Dillon before he passed away, Clayton Christensen wrote:

“…there is much more to life than your career…. In my experience, high-achievers focus a great deal on becoming the person they want to be at work–and far too little on the person they want to be at home. Investing our time and energy in raising wonderful children or deepening our love with our spouse often doesn’t return clear evidence of success for many years. What this leads to is over-investing in our careers, and under-investing in our families–starving one of the most important parts of our life.”

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Happiness Is Social

There’s a mountain of research demonstrating the importance of relationships, belonging, and social connectedness to our happiness. Take the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a massive longitudinal study of hundreds of people for about 80 years now. Writing about the study in The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk reported, “The project is one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history,” including interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

The subjects continue to be studied to this day. They’re evaluated at least every two years by questionnaires, information from their doctors, and interviews. Researchers gathered information about their mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and marital quality.

When asked what he’s learned from the study, psychiatrist and professor George Vaillant (a psychiatrist who led the study for decades) wrote: “Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’… (We now have) “70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people… matter more than anything else in the world…. Happiness is love. Full stop.”

“All you need is love.”
-The Beatles

 

Sources of Happiness

In another study, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. What did they find? Wealth? Beauty? Fame? Fitness? No, the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest 10 percent: the strength of their social relationships.

In their book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener write: “…like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive.”

According to summary findings on happiness from Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky and other researchers she’s studied (from her book, The How of Happiness), the happiest people:

  • Devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships
  • Are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have
  • Are often the first to offer helping hands to co-workers and others
  • Practice optimism when imagining their futures
  • Savor life and live in the present moment
  • Exercise regularly
  • Are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g., teaching children their values)
  • Show poise and strength when coping with challenges

(Note how many of those activities involve relationships.)

According to researchers who evaluated data from the World Values Survey, which surveyed people in more than 150 countries about their life satisfaction, the top factors that account for about three-fourths of reported well-being are:

  • social support
  • generosity
  • trust
  • freedom
  • income per capita
  • healthy life expectancy

(Note how many of these factors are social. The link between life satisfaction and social connection has held up very well across time and place, according to the World Happiness Report 2015.)

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life. And that is true at any age…. We are each other’s safety nets.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

 

Isolation and Going It Alone

Alas, the flip side is also true. Isolation can become a downward spiral, fostering discontent and shame, leading to further isolation. It turns out that going it alone through hard times and transitions, though an instinct for many, is a recipe for more hardship.

“Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.”
-Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined

Truth be told, staying connected to others can be hard at times. It doesn’t help that we have so much political division and distrust, with so many people dismissing or dehumanizing others who have different views. Our age of political contempt, partisan warfare, and take-no-prisoners tribalism is surely not helping.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Vulnerability and Connection

Many of us also struggle with vulnerability, with asking for help. We fear feeling uncomfortable and a potential loss of social status if we admit that our lives are not Instagram-perfect. So we resort to superficial conversations that feel safer, neglecting the deeper territory of openness and self-disclosure through meaningful dialogue.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.”
-Brene Brown, researcher, speaker, and author

What’s needed, though, is more of what design thinkers call “radical collaboration,” which can be thought of as collaborating much more than you normally would—proactively seeking mentors, coaches, friends, peer groups, and people to learn from and ask questions.

The problem of going it alone in times of trouble or transition is that it doesn’t work very well. A better approach: reach out and connect. Share. Listen. Help, and accept help. You and your family, friends, and colleagues will be glad you did.

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Quotes on Relationships and Not Going It Alone

  • “In everyone’s life, at some time, an inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” -Stephen R. Covey, author, executive, and speaker
  • “Belonging begins with safety…. this is a place and a relationship where you feel safe enough to be the real you.” -Jonathan Fields, How to Live a Good Life
  • “Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.” -Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve 
  • “Being in a state of in between means being in some state of loneliness. Being neither here nor there often feels like being nowhere. Which is why connecting with others is so central to getting through one of these times. Human beings like to share.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
  • “I came to understand that while many of us might default to measuring our lives by summary statistics, such as number of people presided over, number of awards, or dollars accumulated in a bank, and so on, the only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people.” -Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?
  • “Well, what are you? What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself: your kidneys, your liver, your blood vessels? No. However far you go in your memory it is always some external manifestation of yourself where you came across your identity: in the work of your hands, your family, in other people. And now, listen carefully. You in others—this is what you are, this is what your consciousness has breathed, and lived on, and enjoyed throughout your life, your soul, your immortality—your life in others.” -Boris Pasternak, Russian poet and novelist (Doctor Zhivago)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Five Words that Changed Me as a Parent

There I was, a new father, my wife and I blessed with a beautiful young daughter, before our second daughter came along.

I had been awed at her birth, feeling the world move. Growing up, I had always hoped to have a family and be a father. I knew it would be a tremendous responsibility to be in charge of someone’s care.

I knew it conceptually and thought I understood it but really had no idea whatsoever—no clue—until I became a father and experienced how magical, and sometimes how trying, it could be.

I recall one day home alone with her, around age two, and we were both out of sorts. I was trying to get things done and felt so much pressure about all she needed and all I needed to get done. I was trying to juggle, but she was not having it. I was overwhelmed. I felt an unbearable pressure. How is it possible to do all this? How do others do it? What’s wrong with me?

I was at my wit’s end, and it just kept getting worse. She resisted everything with her signature strength. I reached a breaking point. Out of ideas, I sensed that my only option was to give myself over to her. Completely. There would be nothing else: 

I am here for you, only you, all for you, totally you.

Not long after that, she saw that something in me had shifted, and so she stopped resisting. Just like that. A total reversal. Everything was okay, and perhaps would be, as long as we remembered that silent, secret pact.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Five Words that Changed Me

Some time later, I was talking to a friend about being a father and raising children and he, further along the parenting journey with older children, shared something that stopped me in my tracks:

They are only young once.

With five words, he engraved something on my heart. I suppose it hit me because it was something deep down that I worried about, as someone deeply committed to being a good and present father and also deeply committed to working hard and doing good work in the world and, like so many of us, sometimes feeling caught in between.

Those five words often come back to visit me. I have shared them with many friends who are parents.

“Once” is of course a slippery concept. “Once” is the mystical sequence of days that, for us, God willing, can last a couple decades in raising our daughters as they discover way in the world. And “once” is also the blink of an eye. An eternity, and a millisecond, just the same.

“Young” is also a slippery notion. There is the miracle of youth and all its hope, promise, energy, enthusiasms, heartbreaks, insecurities, and triumphs. And also a state of mind, and of being, that can last long after those early years.

In the end, I know he is right: they are only young once. We will only have what we have now for a time. We will, I trust and pray, stay deeply connected in the years beyond, but it will be different, as it must be. Looking back, I want to stand behind these times we had together, as a family, together, connected and committed to a bond like none other in all the world.

So I try to live up to that charge. Some days are better than others, some a complete disaster. But the words keep calling to me and reminding me of this amazing gift before me. Today, like all days, is a good day to treasure it. 

They are only young once.

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Quotations on Family and Parenting

  • “The fingerprints on the wall get higher and higher and then they disappear.” -unknown
    “If your children look up to you, you’ve made a success of life’s biggest job.” -unknown
    “The question isn’t so much, Are you parenting the right way? as it is: Are you the adult you want your child to grow up to be?” -Brené Brown
    “Parenthood is the most important leadership responsibility in life and will provide the greatest levels of happiness and joy. And when true leadership–i.e., vision, discipline, passion, and conscience—is not manifested in parenthood, it will provide the greatest source of sorrow and disappointment.” -Stephen R. Covey
    “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.” -Dorothy Day
    “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls… work, family, health, friends, and spirit. Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will never be the same.” -Brian Dyson, former CEO, Coca-Cola Enterprises
    “Every home is a university and the parents are the teachers.” -Mahatma Gandhi
    “I’ve had a wonderful and successful career. But next to my family, it really hasn’t mattered at all.” -Lee Iacocca
    “The home is the ultimate career. All other careers exist to support the ultimate career.” -C.S. Lewis
    “Family is a way of holding hands with forever.” -Noah benShea, author, poet, philosopher
    “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. Wherever our children go and whatever they go through, our hearts are with them, rising and falling with each victory or defeat.” -Elizabeth Stone
    “Being a role model is the most powerful form of educating… too often fathers neglect it because they get so caught up in making a living they forget to make a life.” -John Wooden

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!