I forgot how great it feels to be so enthusiastic about work that it absorbs every viable hour of your weekend. I used to feel this way about work all the time, but as I’ve struggled to adapt to working with a chronic illness some of the joy got stripped away. It became all about juggling self care, rest and moderation. And I hadn’t found my balance yet.
It isn’t so much that work didn’t hold my attention, on the contrary, rather I became afraid of letting myself get too absorbed. If I overdid it and missed a medication or a meal or even a sign that I needed a break I’d find myself in pain. I’d crash if I wasn’t careful to watch my time and energy.
I would get into awful start stop cycles that gave me the worst of both worlds. I struggled to sustain a flow state because I was constantly vigilant for needing to take care of myself. And I’d beat myself up when I needed the rest which made it even more challenging to sustain the health I felt guilty for not having.
But something has shifted for me recently. The fear and doubt that has hung over my attention is lifting. I am beginning to trust that I can work and break without hurting myself. I can accept breaks more readily than I used to. I don’t feel as if I need to be as vigilant to watch for signs of hurting my body.
Today I was able to enjoy multiple flow states. I worked with a founder on their fundraise. I worked on some writing for my fund Chaotic. I briefly felt overwhelmed, and while I did panic for a moment I stopped and rested. I asked for some help. The problem got solved. And now I feel satisfaction at a good work say. No pain. No crash. No exhaustion. No guilt for taking breaks. Just the quiet joy of having achieved my goals for the day.
I’ve got a bad relationship with work. Since I was a teenager I’ve been compulsive about the idea of hard work. I don’t know how I got to have a problem with the Protestant Work Ethic but it seems likely I developed it long before I read Max Weber and found it’s comforting rationalizations about work’s inherent morality.
I’m fascinated by things like commodity aesthetics, the history of consumption, and theories of leisure & status. Partially because I got a kick out of supposing I was a better person than those wretched lazy types. I wasn’t so sophisticated to sneer “rentier” class as kid but I was well on my way to veneration of hard work and productive capital. An economics degree finished the job.
This was compounded by growing up in a family that worshipped the culture of Silicon Valley. The innovation of computers and the people that worked all hours to bring their creativity to the world were the most important people on the planet. They hadn’t quite crossed the cultural rubicon of power that the tech industry has now, but the power of making the future was hard work and heady stuff even before it captured the mainstream. I wanted to change the world like the people my father admired
There was a time when computing and automation raised questions of a new era of leisure. If we could move all of the work we’d previously done manually to automated systems perhaps humans could ascend to The Culture of Ian M Bank’s novels. In a distant future of abundance, sentient AIs run industry and production, so humanity can do, well, whatever it likes.
But we haven’t achieved a post scarcity world. If anything accumulating resources and showing you’ve done it by the rules of the meritocracy makes hard work even more crucial. You’ve got to play and win two games. You’ve got to make the money and show you’ve demonstrated the proper status while doing it. It seems like leisure is losing the battle quite soundly.
I’ve been pushing all year to get back to hard work. I’ve worked hard at my health. I’ve committed myself to biohacking. But really what if the obsession with working myself to the bone is killing me? I’ve been completely relaxed as I prepared for a medical procedure this week. I’ve never felt better. Which forced me to ask myself if maybe I better come to live leisure like the way I have loved work. It might be a much better life for me. The future sentient AIs might approve as well.
I’m becoming quite bored of feeling like shit as I go on maybe day 8 or 9 of a poor reaction to an anti-viral. It’s not fun when the cure is worse than the disease. I noticed something fascinating as more and more “days off” piled up. I’ve still got a lot of emotional shit when it comes to being sick.
My anxiety over being seen as weak, lazy or lacking in willpower started to compound the more days I’ve needed to recover. What will people think of me that just as I’m making a comeback to full time work that I let myself get waylaid by a virus? Every project and meeting that needed canceling felt like I should accompany it with an apology tour. I felt like I owed everyone my time and energy. I felt ashamed.
The social striving and status chasing that have gripped the aspirational class seems to have its claws firmly in my psyche. At least when it comes to work, I’m convinced I must always be working to be “better.” Where the fuck did this self limiting belief come from?
Who cares if I needed a week off to cope with health care needs when I’ve been on medical leave for nearly two years? What is another week. Why am I so anxious to show that I’m capable of going back to work? Who the fuck cares! It’s not as if I’m dependent on a salary to survive. I’m not chasing a resume or CV polish on LinkedIn. I can just not work.
Technically I’ve already made it out of the status social climbing games. I’ve got money. I’ve got traditional credentials. I have a well compensated skill set that is easily hired out for income without sacrificing much of my time. I should not be experiencing any class anxiety at all. I should happily go into the leisure class and not concern myself that my workaholism isn’t possible for health reasons. And yet I’m absolutely panicked that I’ll be see as lazy and unreliable every time I have a minor setback.
The aspirationals’ endless pursuit of better can produce psychic restlessness and doubts beneath the façade of confidence and accomplishment.
I’ve always thought of my habits as being high status. I read science fiction, make a hobby of macroeconomics, and pursue healthy biohacking experiments. Of course, that I think of these things as having status is precisely what makes me signaling it low status. The perception of me caring so fucking much is proof that I don’t think my status in life is secure. I’m no better than the middle class strivers in Downtown Abbey who miss manner cues. How embarrassing!
But if I can admit that I’m anxious about my place in the world maybe it’s a sign I’m not so beholden to class systems after all. I’ve just now admitted that I’m afraid of how I will be perceived if my climb back to health isn’t perfectly stage managed. I hope that is the first step in letting it go. Fixating on fear and anxiety isn’t great for physical health. So I’m putting it out there that I’m afraid of how I’ll be seen by others. And I’m letting it go.
Being a productive worker has been a part of my identity for my entire work life. To experience two years of not contributing financially to anything nearly broke me. What value did I have? How could I ever recover?
But I’m not broken. I’ve got more limits on my time as I just focus on health and wellness to avoid a repeat of my medical leave. But I doubt most people would know or care. I’ve been doing some of the best work of my life recently. So why does this feeling of brokenness persist?
Some of it is tied to me making some mistakes as I transition back to workout full time. I feel I owe people my time and work as I let them down. I feel I have a debt to pay off (not a literal one but more emotional for having stuck with me when I wasn’t useful). So I’ve been tolerating some people and work that I should probably let go. It takes as much energy to work on small potatoes and worry oneself about as it, as it does to aim for the big projects and goals.
I’ve been stewing on something for the whole day so I’ve not felt I had the mental focus to write. Plus it’s 4th of July and I was busy eating BBQ and watching Roland Emmerich movies. I’ve watched Independence Day every single year since it came out and that’s as traditional as Die Hard on Christmas.
The reason I was stewing this morning is I feel like I’ve been wasting my energy on something. It didn’t start as a waste but it’s dawning on me that I’m not the best at protecting and preserving my limited reserves. I say yes to say too much.
I’ve got to stop fucking around with small problems. If I’ve got the capacity to manifest shit into reality 20% of the time why am I using that up on small potatoes when it’s just as much work to do it at scale?
Why put my energy into solving smaller problems when I can swing for the fences? Why do I think small potato problems are worth an iota of my energy. I am the type of woman who refuses to cook because it’s an inefficient use of time when industrial society has packaged foods. So why the fuck do I keep saying yes to people and problems that I don’t think are worth my time when I won’t even boil water? What the actual fuck is wrong with me.
I just feel too much social pressure to say yes to asks. If someone gets me excited to help I’m terrible at stepping back. I got convinced I was a mean bad person when I said “no” as a younger woman. I was told I wasn’t being accommodating. I was told I wouldn’t be well liked if I wasn’t nicer. Now I’m beginning to realize this was potentially poor advice. Might even be a function of gender (got to be a good girl). Either way I’ve got to stop saying yes to shit.
I’ve got limited energy and time. We all do. But it’s especially true for me as I deal with a disability in my ankylosing spondylitis. A chronic disability means saying yes like an abled person is terrible strategy. I’ve got to play the game smarter, budget my energy and time like the limited resource that it is and get over any past perceptions I cling to about “being nice.”
You know what isn’t nice? Saying yes to something you don’t want to do because you don’t want to hurt someone. Then you hurt two people. And one of them is yourself.
Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.
Generally speaking this is a straight forward positive principle that individuals and organizations benefit from. It’s easy to become paralyzed by overthinking. The average person overweight risk and organizations are even more prone to this. Action is good when faced with external friction. And startups in particular can be killed by friction. I think a bias towards action is default good. I regularly use this methodology to make decisions for my life. In the face of uncertainty acting is often better than not.
But I’m learning that my tendency to “just do it” has some downsides. If I’m always trying to fit in more action, more decisions, more outcomes, then I can easily burn myself out. I can waste precious energy by always saying “yes” let’s do it. My enthusiasm can and does get the best of me. In other words, I’ve got a bias towards action that needs to be balanced out.
It’s hard for me to emotionally recognize that I need more of a bias against action. But I’m not saddled with the traditional issues that make a bias towards action necessary. I don’t struggle with willpower. I don’t struggle with meeting my commitments (short of being physically unable to work say 80 hour work weeks). Hell, I just decided on January first I would write something every day no matter what, and here I am almost halfway through my first year. When I commit to taking an action I generally mean it. Sometimes to my detriment given my workaholism.
So I’m reassessing when I personally need a bias towards action. Maybe I need to have a bias towards inaction so I do not let my enthusiasm for getting shit done set me back. I need to have a bias towards rest. I need to have a bias towards naps. I’d encourage you to ask yourself which side of the issue you come down on. Maybe it’s a bias towards action. That’s great! Do more and faster. But it’s also possible you are like me. Less can be more.
I’ve been working through unconscious mindset issues and self limiting belief systems as an active exercise the past few months.
I’ve been really hung up on the value of pain and discomfort. Somewhere along the line I became convinced that working hard is morally good. And over time that developed into an addiction to work. I got off on being seen as someone who never quits.
This workaholism eventually had the consequences of forcing me into quitting everything in order to survive my addiction. I didn’t have a choice at a certain point as it was stop being a workaholic or quite literally die. My health failed me so I could have a second chance. I’m still grateful that I chose life but not a day goes by where I don’t wonder if it was the wrong choice. What is living if I’m not killing myself?
Realizing that rock bottom was a choice was a bit of a shock to me. I always thought it was an external forcing mechanism that finally freed you from your addiction. I had a very Augustinian “make me good but oh not just yet” understanding of my addiction.
And because my addiction is considered virtuous I’ve had a lot harder time seeing the value of letting it go. We look down on drinking, drugs and other sins. Work isn’t on the list of seven deadly sins. Sure I get pleasure from working but I can’t separate it entirely from the external validation I got from being “good” especially from people I perceived as my betters. And because I had a challenging relationship with my father as a child (he is also a workaholic) this put me in a precarious position when dealing with older white men. In other words, anyone who will ever finance me or mentor me, as technology and finance has an extreme demographic skew. I was constantly in a place where I wanted validation from these elders to soothe my inner child. I would do anything to show them I was good and worthy. I’m sure there is a Biblical or Greek tragedy angle to a child so deeply committed to being sacrificed for their father.
All this was compounded by the feeling I got when people who were my peers put me on a pedestal. They wanted me to be a martyr as much as I wanted it. And some of them will likely never forgive me for not being their own personal Jesus.
This all leaves me with very mixed feelings as I know I hit my rock bottom and it’s time to leave behind my addiction. And it’s very much time to rid myself of enablers who pleasured and profited off my disease. But it’s so much a work in progress. I feel the desire to jump back in to work and say yes to everyone who wants my work. I love it and they want it. But I need to find a way to only ever commit to those who want me to be well and thriving.
Too many people profit off of the deep desire workaholics have to always be producing. Capital and eager teammates can easily see a workaholic as a better bet for making money. I’m sure most don’t realize it is predatory because they assume we can stop. The sad truth is I’m not sure I would have stopped. I just got lucky I became too sick to carry on. So this is me committing to only working with those who want me on their team if I’m healthy and “sober” because I’m not going back on the “bottle” ever again. I just hope it means my work will be better for it. I think it will but it’s one day at a time.
I’m feeling scrambled today as I’m not quite in a place where I can push myself without consequences but I’m also not so sick that I can’t work at all. It’s an awful liminal state where I’m working what is probably the actual productive output of an average person but still need to buffer in time for medical shit.
I honestly contemplate just lying about being sick some days. I could hide the disability of chronic illness and no one would be any wiser. Well minus the public posts about being sick but you get my meaning. I’d probably have to get a little bit better at scheduling work during consistent productive hours, push through when I feel like shit, and then crash when I wasn’t on the clock. I’d be seen as a little unreliable but definitely enough that I could manage as a director at some company.
I’m not sure if this says something bad about me or about the expectations of the American workplace. Probably a little of both. I’m clearly a bit of an outlier and we don’t actually expect that much output from the average worker. When I’m operating at my full capacity I blow away workloads. I sometimes doubt if I’ve ever been at full capacity and I’ve been faking it my entire life. I’ve never been completely hale and hearty. I’ve always had a tendency to put on a show when I’m in public and then retreat into recovery when in private. I’ve been a very boom and bust person.
I don’t really want to live this way though. I’d rather run a marathon than be a sprinter that is collapsing after each race. I recognize that in some way this pattern of intense work and recovery isn’t sustainable. It’s also clearly an addictive pattern. But I’m too scared to admit that I don’t really know what a consistent healthy working life looks like. I’ve been an addictive compulsive worker my whole life because I never trust that I can rely on my good hours to be consistent. I gulp at each hour of feeling well like I’ll never get them again. The fear that this is my last shot at feeling well is palpable.
One of the most formative pieces of art in my narrative self is the movie Gattaca. In a dystopian future, children have their genes edited before they are born. The protagonist of the film “Vincent” played Ethan Hawke is an “old fashioned” human conceived without any edits. He has a heart condition and other frailties. His brother Anton was given edits. Despite being an “in-valid” Ethan Hawke is able to find his way in to a space program using contraband genetics. His brother is furious and cannot figure out how his disabled brother is able to beat him. This fraternal tension plays out in two swimming competitions. The invalid brother Vincent bests his genetically superior brother Anton. Twice. How did he do any of this!?!
“You wanna know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton; I never saved anything for the swim back!”
I really internalized this logic as a teenager. There is no gene for the human soul. Winning is not about being superior it’s about giving it your all. I bought this. So I never saved anything for the swim back. Except that maybe this is a shitty strategy for anything but races. That if you need more than to win a swimming match you can’t go all out every single day. That this is actually a strategy that will kill you.
Of course, I am petrified that this isn’t true and I should be swimming like Vincent every day. That he was right that greatness is forged in extreme effort. That I should give my all till I collapse. But then what?
I’m stuck in a behavioral pattern of self limiting fear that I must always be striving or I will literally be dead. It’s live at the edge till I win. But win what? Sometimes you fail. That’s how you learn. Failure is a crucial part of success. But if I am always swimming to failure I’ll never recover enough to learn from my failures. I’ll literally be dead in the water. So I’m stuck in this place of fear where I know I can’t always give my all but I don’t really yet believe that there is any other way to succeed.