Your life and your work.

Ben Clayton-Jolly, a great professional in the area of helping people and teams become more effective, sent me this article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic: Embrace Work-Life Imbalance. Ben was struck by the distortions in the article and the fact that they are “an example of the hypothesis put forward by psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist on the imbalance in our current society, which celebrates left hemisphere values and perspective over right hemisphere subjectivity.”

I agree. And I was moved to comment on each of the article’s arguments, because I think they are dangerous to society, in as much as they serve the purpose of manipulating people to remain addicted to work, rather than to find the proper balance in their lives between the ability to work and to love other people.

I have transcribed the article below, and I have added my comments in italic.

I think it is important to discuss the issues raised, so that we can help to build a better, more balanced world for ourselves and for generations to come.

Mr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s article has been published on the web by “HBR Blogs”. I do not know him, maybe he’s a great guy. The ideas in this article are leading in a direction which encourages workaholism and may drive people to illness. They must be challenged.

Maybe this is actually an “Onion” article… A piece meant to be sarcastic, and the author is just pulling our legs, as if making a practical joke, meant for “April Fools”. It would give me great relief to find out that there are not people out there who hold the beliefs expressed in the article…

But, maybe there are people who really defend these points of view which I would prefer to consider “a joke”. So, just in case… Here are my arguments against embracing “work-life imbalance”.

“Embrace Work-Life Imbalance”

Why is everybody so concerned about work-life balance?

Probably because they are hurting from too much meaningless work… Though the author seems to think that people are just complaining because they are wimps or have nothing better to do!

According to one urban legend, based on 1950s pop psychology, workaholics are greedy and selfish people who are bound to die from a heart attack.

Not really.

Indeed, not really. Workaholics, by definition, are people who are addicted to work. They are not necessarily greedy or selfish, but they are suffering from dependency on work, to an extent that it can lead to self destruction, like any addiction.

As the great David Ogilvy once said: “Men die of boredom, psychological conflict, and disease. They do not die of hard work.” This is especially true if your work is meaningful.

I’m not so sure that David Ogilvy was really so great, to begin with. Some people described him as a greedy and selfish bastard; maybe he was just a workaholic… In any case, the fact that he said that “people do not die of hard work” does not make that assertion true, just because he said it… It’s actually bullshit! People do die of hard work and there are millions of people who die every year from that, due to stress, cardiovascular disease, fatigue, immune system disorders, and all kinds of physical and mental illnesses.

Most of the studies on the harmful effects of excessive work rely on subjective evaluations of work “overload.”

Work “overload” is indeed something that may be called subjective, but this does not mean it is less harmful or even less deadly… It’s not as if whatever is “subjective” should be considered unworthy of attention and ignored! People live, and die, very objectively of “subjective” causes; so we should give these causes proper attention and see what can be done about it.

They fail to disentangle respondents’ beliefs and emotions about work. If something bores you, it will surely seem tedious. When you hate your job, you will register any amount of work as excessive — it’s like forcing someone to eat a big plate of food they dislike, then asking if they had enough of it.

Overworking is really only possible if you are not having fun at work. By the same token, any amount of work will be dull if you are not engaged, or if you find your work unfulfilling.

Yes, that is true, nothing to argue regarding these aspects. It’s not “the amount of work” that kills you, it’s the kind of work that gets you and how you feel about your work. So I guess the subjective beliefs and emotions that you have regarding your work are important, after all.

Maybe it’s time to redefine the work-life balance — or at least stop thinking about it.

Redefining it is a welcome attitude. “Stop thinking about it” is plain stupid. You don’t just recover from addiction by “not thinking about it”! That is precisely what is so dangerous about this article: it’s like addressing alcoholism by just “not thinking about it”. You are just reinforcing the addict’s attitude of denial and accelerating him/her to self-destruction. Not good.

Here are some considerations:

Hard work may be your most important career weapon.

The first thing you need to ask yourself is whether your “career” is more important than your health, your family, your friends, and your own survival. And what is the purpose of your having a “successful career”. Is it an end in itself or is it a means to a different end? Why do you do what you do? What options do you have?

Indeed, once you are smart-enough or qualified to do a job, only hard work will distinguish you from everyone else.

Again, simply not true. Work smart, not hard! Hard work does not distinguish you from others in terms of career success. Smarter people have more success. Millions of people work hard and their careers are failures. How can you work smarter, rather than harder? That’s what you should focus on.

Workaholics tend to have higher social status in every society, including laidback cultures like those found in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, or South America.

Not true, once again. Especially in laid-back cultures, success is linked to being smart, and not to working hard.

Every significant achievement in civilization (from art to science to sport) is the result of people who worked a lot harder than everyone else, and also happened to be utterly unconcerned about maintaining work-life balance.

Significant achievements are usually the result of a special talent AND hard work. Talent alone will not get you so far, true; but by the same token, hard work alone will not get you very far either. The myth that “hard work is all you need” serves to keep millions of people dedicated to doing meaningless work, mindlessly. It serves the purpose of exploiting people.

Exceptional achievers live longer, and they pretty much work until their death.

Not exactly. Yes, exceptional achievers work until their death, but that is often a premature death, due to excessive dedication to what they do, and only to what they do. Exceptional achievement is a combination of talent and dedication, inspiration AND perspiration. The notion that achievement “is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration” is a myth created to keep people focused on their own sweat, rather than on what they find “sweet”.

Unsurprisingly, the 10 most workaholic nations in the world account for most of the world’s GDP.

That’s fine if you want to measure success by GDP… But that is also a distortion. It means that “whoever makes more stuff, wins” and life is not that simple. There is a value judgment behind this: is the purpose of your life “to work” or is it something else? Freud said that the secret to mental health was simply to be able to “love and work”. That’s a more balanced approach, rather than having to choose one over the other.

Engagement is the difference between the bright and the dark side of workaholism.

If only… Workaholism is an addiction, and there is no bright side to that. It’s like saying that there is a bright side to being an alcoholic, because you get to meet a lot of interesting people on your way to an early grave…

Put simply, a little bit of meaningless work is a lot worse for you than a great deal of meaningful work. Work is just like a relationship: Spending one week on a job you hate is as dreadful as spending a week with a person you don’t like. But when you find the right job, or the right person, no amount of time is enough. Do what you love and you will love what you do, which will also make you love working harder and longer. And if you don’t love what you are doing right now, you should try something else — it is never too late for a career change.

Once again, not exactly. Work can be compared yet one more time to drinking alcohol. Both should be enjoyed responsibly. You can kill yourself drinking Chateau Lafitte Rothschild (if you can afford it) just as you can do that by drinking cheap Bourbon. Moderation is the key. Don’t become dependent. You need to understand what is your own personal limit, regarding alcohol and regarding work. There is an optimal level of stress at work: when you are at that optimum level, you feel engaged; when you are over that level, it damages your physical and mental health. When someone is describe as “a workaholic”, we are not talking about optimal stress levels here, we are talking about addiction and dependency. Each person needs to understand his/her own threshold about this. It’s not that easy to make that distinction. Just as an alcoholic will deny his dependency and rationalize his addiction, driving him deeper into self-destruction, the same happens with a workaholic.

Technology has not ruined your work-life balance, it has simply exposed how boring your work and your life used to be. Did you ever try to figure out why it is so hard to stop checking your smartphone, even when you are having dinner with a friend you haven’t seen in ages, celebrating your anniversary, watching a movie, or out on a first date? It’s really quite simple: None of those things are as interesting as the constant hum of your e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter account.

Ridiculous… That’s like the humorist who said he drank to make people more interesting! It’s a nice joke, but if it’s rationalizing your addiction, it’s less funny… If you find “the hum of your e-mail” more interesting than your friends and family, or going out on a first date, then you need to “get a life”! You are sick, my friend, so stop kidding yourself and get professional help.

Reality is over-rated, especially compared to cyberspace.

Wow! Now we are really talking mental illness here! Maybe this guy needs professional help; and he is dangerous if he is stimulating other people into becoming addicted and dependent.

Technology has not only eliminated the boundaries between work and life, but also improved both areas.

I guess the author is talking about workaholics who are unable to “switch off” from their work, and who remain involved with their e-mails and phone conversations about work, wherever they are. This is like saying that thanks to technology you can feed your addiction wherever you are, whenever you feel the urge. It’s like having an endless supply of cocaine in your pocket, always. The issue is not the technology, it is the addictive behavior that needs to be treated like the illness it is.

People who have jobs, rather than careers, worry about work-life balance because they are unable to have fun at work. If you are lucky enough to have a career — as opposed to a job — then you should embrace the work-life imbalance. A career provides a higher sense of purpose; a job provides an income. A job pays for what you do; a career pays for what you love. If you are always counting the number of hours you work (e.g., in a day, week, or month) you probably have a job rather than a career. Conversely, the more elusive the boundaries between your work and life, the more successful you probably are in both. A true career isn’t a 9-5 endeavor. If you are having fun working, you will almost certainly keep working. Your career success depends on eliminating the division between work and play. Who cares about work-life balance when you can have work-life fusion?

Whether you have a “job” or a “career”, the issue is how you feel about it and what will it lead to in the future. It can be fun to get drunk every weekend, some people do it. When it leads to liver disease, that’s when they realize they might have a problem. Feeling a sense of purpose in your career may be fine, but what happens when you retire, or when you get physically ill? Your sense of purpose in life should not depend only on your work, but it should be also linked to your family, friends, and community. Remember the “love” bit, not just the “work” bit. Do both. That’s the real “fusion”. Perhaps indeed the problem here is thinking that life and work are two different things, which they are not. It’s all part of your life. Individualistic cultures tend to look at work and life as separate entities, and dedicate separate slots of time to them. When you work, you’re not having fun; When you’re having fun, you are not working. Collectivistic cultures tend to mix the two more frequently; they tend to make more jokes at work, and will work more often after hours or on a week-end, if necessary. In individualistic cultures, people will defend their leisure time from “invasion” by work issues. Collectivistic cultures are more permeable. I’m not talking about the total amount of work here, neither am I talking about whether the work is particularly engaging or boring. I am merely pointing out that in some cultures there is a clear distinction between work and leisure, while in other cultures there is a thinner border between the two.

Complaining about your poor work-life balance is a self-indulgent act.

Complaining and doing nothing about it is perhaps self-indulgent. Denying that you have an addiction is worse… If you feel bad about your work, it’s OK to express how you feel and to consider what you could do about it. Repressing your feelings, or denying the issue, will only increase tension and increase the damage to your health.

The belief that our ultimate aim in life is to feel good makes no evolutionary sense.

Actually, it makes all the sense in the world… Why do you work? Because it makes you feel good. Of course, it’s more complicated than that… But the author seems to imply that “feeling good” is actually bad for human evolution, and it’s not. THAT is the distortion, and a big one at that. All work and no play is bad. All play and no work is also bad. The good thing is the “fusion”, remember?

It stems from a distorted interpretation of positive psychology, which, in fact, foments self-improvement and growth rather than narcissistic self-indulgence. This misinterpretation explains why so many people in the industrialized Western world seek attention by complaining about their poor work-life balance. It may also explain the recent rise of the East vis-à-vis the West — you will not see many people in Japan, China, or Singapore complain about their poor work-life, even though they often work a lot harder.

Indeed, there are a lot of misinterpretations involved here… China has grown economically, thanks to the culture’s focus on hard work, that is correct. That does not mean that you would like to see your children working on a sweat shop 16b hours a day, because that will create more wealth for your grandchildren. Japan has actually been stagnant for the past 20 years, so it’s not a good example. Singapore has had its ups and downs, and has been largely criticized for being too authoritarian. There are gives and takes involved here. The core issue that the author seems to be struggling with is what Hofstede identified as “Masculinity”, which I prefer to label as “Performance Orientation”. This cultural value dimension is high in China, in Japan, in Singapore, and also in the American and British cultures. It is much lower in Scandinavian cultures. So who is right and who is wrong? We could debate this endlessly, but there is no “absolute” right or wrong in terms of culture, there is just “different”. Personally, I think that a more balanced view is preferable, but that’s just me. I tend to agree with Freud on this one: “love and work”. High performance-oriented cultures like the US, UK and Japan, tend to reinforce work addiction, since they value performance at work much more than they value quality of life or caring for others.

Unemployment and stagnation are in part the result of prioritizing leisure and pleasure over work.

In part yes, and in part, no. Japan’s economy is not stagnant due to lack of dedication to work; they are the most performance-oriented culture in the world, as shown by research. It’s more complex than that. Unemployment and stagnation cannot be explained by a single factor, though we would love to have a very simple explanation… There are other culture dimensions at work here, and there are economic and political circumstances which are different among these countries.

In short, the problem is not your inability to switch off, but to switch on. This is rooted in the fact that too few people work in careers they enjoy. The only way to be truly successful is to follow your passions, find your mission, and learn how to embrace the work-life imbalance.

Almost there, but just off the mark here… Yes, you should follow your passions, but if your passion is drinking yourself to death, maybe you should reflect a bit before pursuing it. Also think twice before following that urge to buy a machine gun and shoot everyone you see at a nearby school. People are complex. There is no “quick fix” that will give you sustainable happiness and success. Addiction (to work, to alcohol, to love, to anything) is a serious personality disorder, which needs to be properly treated with more than just checking into some “rehab” center which will keep you off drugs for eight weeks. The danger in this article is that most of its arguments can serve the purpose of justifying addiction and steering people away from finding a balanced, sustainable solution for their lives (including their work).

Also see my book “Take Off Your Glasses” on