Are you working too much? Are you going crazy? This is an oft requested post from about a year ago. I'm not saying you're "bad."


Working 24/7 and slowly going insane? Join the club? No Thanks!

I was rather shocked when I listened to a person from a company that makes all kinds of electronic products the other day.  She made the pitch to me that her company helped stressed out, over-worked moms by making products (like phones and tablets) that would allow a frenetic mom to "disconnect from her office" and be able to "take her work along with her" so that she could be present for her children's activities.  From what I could understand this person believed in the 1990's mantra of "multi-tasking" which has been so thoroughly discredited by psychologists and process experts over the last decade.

The idea was that, between tweets, urgent e-mails, progress reports and modifications to mission critical spreadsheets, the newly unfettered mom would be able to look up from the screen and instantly enter into her child's world just at the moment when Sally hit the game winning home run or when Poindexter cinched the national Spelling Bee with the correct spelling of "Delusional". 

The more grievous idea I came away with is that now it's no longer good enough to give a company a stress and anxiety filled 50 or 60 hours of your week.  No.  The new norm is total ownership.  The excuse is that now so many people in finance, tech and commodities work in a world market and they must be accessible to their counterparts in Malaysia, must not miss the opening bell in Berlin or Kerplakistan, must be electronically present for those important clients in Kathmandu....

I have a sneaky feeling that chronic unemployment is not caused by a lack of jobs but that many jobs are being handled by one person.  The manically compulsive super workers are stealing more than their fair share of jobs.  And they are training their companies to expect "work till you drop" dedication that trades health, family life, hobbies, community involvement and the basic richness of existence for quarter by quarter profitability.  And here's the kicker:  Those super employees aren't being compensated for doing the work of three, they're giving their employers undeserved charity.  

In the self employed world we read books on negotiation.  We learn that you never give up something without getting something in return.  That's the foundation of good negotiation.  And as self employed people we never work for free (unless we are donating our time, services, goods to a needy and beneficial cause.)  But that's exactly what the super workers of today are doing.  They are giving it away for free.  And, of course, their companies are encouraging them.

It's time we took a good long look at the American work ethic and got rational.  The unions got it right back in the coal mine strikes and the meat packers collective bargaining days:  Forty hours a week is the most you can work in a reliable and sustainable way.  And by that I mean being able to preserve your personal dignity, your physical health and the health of your family and relationships.  

If you are routinely working 60 or 70 hours a week and you don't OWN the company you work for (and, in my mind, even if you do) you might consider that you are your own "scab" and you are in some ways responsible for the downward spiral of the American dream.  That spreadsheet WILL wait until monday.  Your real life can't always be on hold.  If it needs to be done over the weekend your company needs to hire a weekend shift.

So, this is a photo oriented blog, why the hell am I talking about workplace issues?  Because from time to time I write columns that talk about some of the outrageous schedules I work.  But the difference is that my projects stop and start and there's lots of in between time for rest and rejuvenation.  Joy and pleasure.  Family dinners together and weekends puttering around helping Ben with homework and Belinda with some gardening.  Couch time with a novel.   If a freelancer in a struggling industry can do this and keep his head above water then so can the valuable employees of all sorts of companies.

The electronics that we seem addicted to are also a secret weapon that helps bosses (and clients)  suck more and more from their people by blurring the lines between what is and what isn't work.  The cellphone is not referred to as "An Electronic Leash" without good reason.  

It's all about setting limits.  Isn't that what we tell our children? 

The shot above is of Belinda in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  The way I negotiated a series of projects in the Islands was to work for a week, for my usual rate, and then go back later with Belinda for a second week of vacation and downtime.  No phones, no internet, no emergencies in Patagonia.  The vacation opportunity defrayed the travel time and longer working days of the actual project.

Shot with a Rollei medium format camera on Tri-X film at a place called "The Pork Pit."  Really good pulled pork.  A quiet week by the sea.

Added half an hour later:  I read this on Kim Critchfield's FB page and loved it.  I sent a copy to Ben and to a friend who needed to read it.  I'll post this on my wall, just to the side of my computer.

One evening a Cherokee elder told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, "My son, the battle is between the two 'wolves' that live inside us all.
One is Unhappiness or Evil - It is anger, jealousy, fear, regret, greed, arrogance, sorrow, self-pity, resentment, inferiority, false pride, superiority, weakness and ego.

The other is Happiness or Good - It is joy, love, hope, serenity, benevolence, peace, empathy, kindness, generosity, truth, humility, faith, strength and compassion."

The grandson thought about it for a while and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf wins?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed." - Cherokee Elder


Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more.

Mark Coons said...

This covers the phrase "Do more with Less" perfectly. You are absolutely correct.

Mike Padua said...

Thoughtful and insightful. I'm going to set a reminder on my calendar to read this post once a month. LOVE the addition at the end.

Carlo Santin said...

Indirectly related I suppose, but we really crossed the line as a culture when Sunday was no longer a day of rest. I say this not as an overly religious person, but simply point out that once we gave up that day of rest, that one day of the week when nothing was open and we were expected to have some down time, well there was no going back. Everything is open all the time now...why? Why do I need to able to buy a can of sardines at 3 a.m.?

As a teacher I could spend all of my spare time grading papers and planning lessons and assignments. I'm not complaining at all, but it is a career that can really consume you if you let it. I've learned when to stop, leave it for another time, and take care of me and the others around me. I am very aware of how much energy I can expend on any given day and I know when I've reached my limit.

Cerebus said...

"I have a sneaky feeling that chronic unemployment is not caused by a lack of jobs but that many jobs are being handled by one person."

The code phrase for this is "rising productivity." Productivity has quadrupled since WWII, but wages have been stagnant for half that time.

-- T

hbernstein said...

Amen, Kirk, amen.

There really isn't an answer to the situation in the U.S. until the whole system crashes and burns, which it may be beginning to do.

Americans seem to act, on some level, as though anything other than work should be considered a guilty pleasure.

As Edward Abbey believed, growth (re: the economic principles upon which our current society is based) is the ideology of the cancer cell.

Libby said...

I get chastised all the time by some because I refuse to be tethered to a device. On leisure shooting days the phone finds its way to the dark recesses of the camera bag and somehow even manages to turn itself off.

A lot with the electronic umbilical is about the innate "need to be needed." Trust me, in the grand scheme of things, you're not that important ;-)

John said...

I guess it really depends on what you want in life, and what you're willing to do to get it.

Is it that the people who are willing to give all their time to work are taking away from those who don't, or is it those who don't want to give all to work expecting to get the same returns as those who do?

Employers may be expecting more for less. But I see employees asking the same thing. We live a tremendous lifestyle compared to a majority of the world. I think our expectations are exceeding our productivity. If we want to do less than we should expect to have less.

Blaming those who are willing to give more to get what they want for the lack of jobs is kind of small minded in my opinion. It's like tweeting on your iPhone that you're poor because your neighbor makes more money than you do. You're using a phone that costs more than the annual income of a third world farmer and complaining because your poor. I could be wrong.

Personally, I work enough to live a life I'm content with. I don't disparage my friends who are gone three weeks out of four when they buy more house than they need and a new sports car. It's how they want to live. I sometimes work more than the 40 hour union week not counting photography as a side business. It allows me to keep a small house and a couple old cars on a lot of land. It's how I want to live.

I don't think I would want to live in a place where others can tell you that you can only be so ambitious, and only achieve so much, before you have to stop because others don't have the same goals you do.

The Reluctant Rebel said...

Kirk, if I may, here's a different view: Sometimes companies pay you three times as much as "normal" simply because they expect you to work three times as long. I work in a corporation and sincerely don't think that I my job requires any special skills and could not be performed by, say, someone working 8 hours a day as a receptionist. However I get paid probably three times as much as the receptionist not becuase my time is three times as valuable but simply becuase I am expected to be available 24 hours a day (thats three times as long as the receptionist). The recptionist would get paid the same if she did enough overtime. So I don't think that any of my time is offered for free. But I appreciate that this may just be peculiar to me.

Anonymous said...

It's tough to be an artist. You actually have to take risks. But it's tough to work in a traditional job. You can't control you're own time and as you get older you feel the time tick away quicker and quicker. What a sad state. On the one hand, no security or structure. On the other no control or whimsy.

It may be tough being an artist but I think tougher to go the other path.

Ken Tanaka said...

Your cautionary note was good, Kirk. But here's another perspective, one from my own play/history book. Spend 20 years working very hard, but also very smart, in businesses where money flows like water. Fill my barrel with "enough" (for me) and step away with a second half of life filled with freedom to devote my time wherever I choose. Viewed during those early years I'm sure I seemed positively manic. Viewed today I live a very different life.

As I write this I'm sure there are Facebook employees who worked long, sacrificial but are now facing exactly such a potential future.

kirk tuck said...

Ken, I think you are a lucky exception to the rule. But you don't have work in an industry where money flows like water to pursue a similar path. I have a friend would worked a mid-level job as an art director for about 18 years. She worked very, very little overtime, was a careful saver and smart investor. She put 50% of her earnings into investments. One of her favorites was always Apple Computer. While she was comfortable retiring at 39, back in 1995, imagine how much more comfortable she is today with thousands and thousands of share of Apple, IBM and various other stocks.

She took a different path. One of saving smart investment instead of sacrificing most during the absolute prime of her life.

Which path is best? It remains to be seen. She is quite content. You seem content.

But pity the poor guy who works around the clock to amass that "financial freedom" only to suffer a heart attack just when the fruit seems the ripest. We can never know and that's why I suggest savoring NOW.

Anonymous said...

Stress = dis-ease = bad quality of life. I'd rather make less and enjoy what I do than chase riches and make myself miserable. Even if it is temporary. History shows us that those compulsive enough to do what Ken has suggested rarely know how to turn it off.

You learn habits and you transfer them.

Rob Lowry said...

Insightful post ... but possibly not 'angry enough'.

The examples of our stupidity surround us, yet we continue this downward spiral claiming we could do no other.

I say 'stupidity' because we've fallen victim to a lie. We're fed the BS that somebody else will do the job cheaper, faster and with less complaint so we should be happy we even have a job. Like all lies, there is enough truth to make us pause, and doubt ourselves.

Sure, companies like the one I work for are outsourcing work to India and China as fast as they possibly can. They claim it's to remain competitive. Terrified, those of us who have jobs work unreasonable hrs, give away work for free and fret over the next Limited Restructuring that sends even more jobs off shores.

If we look a bit closer, we see these same companies who claim they are trying to remain competitive aren't lowering their prices or passing on this savings to the American public ... they absorb it all in executive bonuses and ridiculous pay packaged. Lay Off 16,000 call it a victory and give yourself a 20% bonus. Wall Street applauds the bold move, the stock moves up a couple pennies and the execs cash in another couple million in stock options.

Now the problem ... and again using the company I work for as an example ... we're investing billions in India, yet our annual sales in that same country are merely hundreds of millions. We go gaga at the opportunity to hire employees in China that by any other standard would be considered slave labor / indentured servitude.

So if we continue to put Americans out of jobs, and all the companies continue in their belt tightening, who will be buying the products?

Most of us are working to fulfill the greedy ambitions of somebody else. Exec pay triples and we all smile our weak little smiles, hoping the master will give us a second helping of gruel.

We line up at Walmart for the lowest cost crap we can get our hands on, while the Walton family continues to amass a wealth that is almost beyond comprehension. Pay their employees crap wages, bemoan the cost of "Made in America", all the while adding another billion to their personal wealth.

So what can we do ... ??? ... ???

Stop buying into the BS. Is having a 52" flat screen TV worth it? Is having the latest and greatest so important you're willing to chuck it all ... screw tomorrow, get what I can today!

Stop buying products from companies that are screwing over the country. Stop buying stock from these modern day robber barons. Will you be a little less cool without that latest iGadget ... yup. Will it be a tiny bit less fun not going to the latest movie ... sure. But are these things really that important? Stop supporting the people that have one hand on your back and the other in your pocket.

We all have a choice in this ... there is plenty of 'other' we can do. We just have to stop drinking the Kool-Aid.