Lately I keep having the thought to myself, “loving your job is a really tragic flaw.” I mean Tragic in the proper sense, the flaw that unmakes you, the heartbreaking ironic thing that both animates your life and ruins it. Odysseus’s pride and my love of teaching and research and my mother’s love of theatre.
I don’t, like, blame my mother for overworking when I was a kid. I think fundamentally the ways in which her overwork affected my childhood were, at their core, problems of capitalism. My parents needed more support, both in the “more responsible adults around to just collectively raise these kids” ways and in the “money” ways. They did pretty well all things considered — I did have a number of responsible adults around, and I was secure in housing and food and medical care for my entire childhood. The money worries were more about the fact that we could not afford for either of my parents to not work — would my dad have been a good stay-at-home dad if my mom’s work paid more? My mom’s work should have paid more, except my mom works in theatre, and the arts never pay enough. The Arts are a gorgeous seducer, a glossy iridescent snake wrapped lovely around your shoulders, tickling your ear, saying, “you’re so lucky to get to do what you love for a living — you’re so lucky to get to do this.”
I do feel very lucky to get to do work I love. I love my work desperately. I love teaching, I love research, I love the topic of my research, I love going to conferences, I love writing papers. I am very lucky to be actually pretty well-paid for it, too — I have not given up a fairly comfortable middle-class lifestyle to do this, it is in fact the only reason I have this comfortable middle-class lifestyle. I’m able to afford a pretty nice big city apartment by myself, without roommates, in a nice building. I can buy furniture new and I can afford take-out almost whenever I want (but I don’t get it that much). I love giving to peoples’ crowdfunding, it makes me feel good to occasionally be able to drop a hundo on someone for whom that’s a really important chunk of change. And my work feels good on my brain.
But, like, the title of this post is about workahol. So I do have to talk about that.
I do feel like I’m allowed to make the analogy to alcoholism because I did that too. I think junior and senior year of undergrad where when I really established myself as a young hyperfunctional alcoholic. In junior year me and my friends threw a lot of big parties in a big shared house in the woods. I loved the feeling of hosting parties because it made me feel glamorous and popular and powerful, something I had never really felt before. I drank a lot of cheap champagne. We packed in a lot of interpersonal drama in and around these parties, in a way that in retrospect I feel would make a really great bildungsroman if I could write for shit. In senior year, tired of that flavor of drama, we pivoted to a different kind where we lived in an apartment in town and went out for pints with the grad students — we thought we were so cool for drinking with grad students, but in retrospect it was symptomatic of a very sick grad program at the time. My post-baccelaureate drinking was interesting and advanced because I did it in a different country. The details, to be totally honest, of how and what I drank are very interesting to probably no one other than myself, but it feels important to note that I was very much a binge drinker but also that I was, for some runs of that, bingeing three or four times a week. Sometimes more.
In the midst of my college indulgence, Lady Gaga and Beyonce’s song Telephone came out. Once, when I was on a night out, I explicitly articulated to my bestie that Telephone is about syntax.
What does that mean?
The other important thing about my senior year of undergrad was that I was taking 20–25 credits each quarter (a full load is 15); I wrote two senior theses (I double-majored, but theses were not required for either major); I had three jobs (research assistant, grader, and yarn shop); I gave two conference papers (unusual in both my majors for undergrads). And I was doing this while “going out” (euphemism but also not) three or four nights a week. If this sounds like exceptional overachievement, rest assured that I was not doing any of these things very well. This is not a backdoor brag, the point of this story is that I was doing all this stuff desperately, and pretty badly. I showed up to class drunk. I did homework drunk. Some of my papers from that year are readable but most are not.
The thing was this: I needed to be either working, or out. Going out was the only way I was able to stop working. Working was the only way I was able to recover in between going out. Telephone is about a clingy lover who calls you and wants to know where you are when you’re out trying to have a nice time at the club: syntax was following me around, haunting me, nagging, begging, all the time. Any time that I wasn’t fully engaged, work would call. Any time that I wasn’t working… well, something worse. Unless I kept myself fully engaged.
At the time if you had asked me, I would have said that I was really enjoying this. I would have told you that I liked to work hard, play hard. I don’t want to dismiss her perspective, but that person was 22 and hadn’t yet developed a vocabulary to express what exactly it is she was running from. But, like, it’s not nothing.
I was anti-capitalist when I was 22 (and 19, and 16), as I am now. If you sit me down and ask me, “do you think a person should work all the time? Do you think work should hurt the people doing the work?” I would say of fucking course not, what the fuck. And then if you sat me down and asked me (at 22, and maybe now at 34), so why do you work all the time? I would say, well that’s different.
I think that’s true with my mom, too. So, you know.
I stopped drinking in my first year of grad school. Ostensibly I stopped because of a contraindication with the atypical antipsychotic I was prescribed when I was diagnosed with bipolar. In truth, I was relieved to have an excuse to have to stop — it was surprisingly freeing to just not be able to, to not have to make the decision each time not to drink. I just couldn’t anymore, rather than deciding not to.
In a way, stopping workahol was similar. I was definitely still actively in my workaholism for the first year of grad school, and frankly I don’t remember that much of that year, except the desperate crushing misery. My family was imploding out from under me. I broke up with my long-term girlfriend, badly. I was in a new city where I knew almost no one, and I struggled to make friends. My memory of that first year is one perpetually dark, miserable, wet autumn. (I wasn’t adjusted to Seattle’s latitude, either.) Stopping drinking halfway through that year hurt as much as it helped — I didn’t actually replace it with a better coping mechanism, but I couldn’t physically manage to work all the time, like all night and every weekend. Drinking had been my only way to really force myself to stop working. I spent a lot of time just feeling like I was sitting around rotting, instead.
It wasn’t until I was dating my next partner that I started actually trying to address my workaholism. They told me, and I am forever grateful to them for this — that they didn’t like the person I was when I worked evenings and weekends. It made me a worse partner. I didn’t do my share of household tasks, and I was bad at emotional regulation. I had been halfassedly trying not to work on nights and weekends, but — like with stopping drinking, it was such a relief to have the decision be something that I could claim was out of my hands. Instead of having to decide to quit bingeing, I could just say, look, there’s this external imposition on my will that means I can’t binge anymore. Isn’t that convenient!
The latter half of my grad school I was scrupulous about my sobriety, both from work and from drinking. No alcohol, no work after 5, no work on weekends. This is extremely hard to maintain, as a boundary, in any PhD program. Everyone around me indulged, and it absolutely did not help me make close and lasting friendships when I refused.
I don’t think my accounting so far really explains why I think of loving your work as a fatal flaw. And to be clear, my relationship to work is not the only way that loving one’s work can look. I don’t think my mom has the same relationship to workahol, the analogy to my alcoholism, that I have — in part because, to my knowledge, she’s never been an alcoholic. Her mom was, before I was born, and my mom went to like Al Anon or something in her twenties and is a very classic Child Of Alcoholic type of person who’s really healthy about substances. I think the fact that she loves her work is the thing that we have in common.
The thing with loving your work is not that you love theatre, or you love syntax. People definitely can love syntax without ruining their lives about it. And I don’t think I’ve ruined my life about it, honestly, I have a pretty good life! My major complaints are that I’m divorced still new in this city and make friends slowly and don’t feel like I’m really integrated to the social fabric of the world sometimes. And like ptsd or whatever. But all my other complaints are just “capitalism and racism exist and I don’t like it.”
But. Like. It is in fact about the capitalism.
It’s like… the fact that the thing I love more than anything else, the thing I’ve organized my whole life around, is a JOB and it’s embedded in CAPITALISM, means I basically cannot get myself to have normal work-life boundaries without immense, constant effort. It’s like if your lover became your feudal lord somehow? Or it’s like loving the concept of the country you live in. There’s the concept, and then there’s the actual power-structures and everyday workings of it.
If I stop working — not just at this job, just total — they stop paying me. If I don’t have any money, I can’t pay rent, and me and my two cats become unhoused, which is a kind of actual bodily violence. If I don’t have any money I can’t have therapy or meds or food or cat food. Like… that’s very directly a relationship predicated on a threat of violence.
So loving my work in a social system where work continues predicated on the threat of violence is obviously unhealthy. The fact that my body has metabolized this into something analogous to my substance use disorder is not that surprising, in this case — but nor is it surprising that there are a number of other ways that people format this relationship. It’s a fucked up relationship! “You love me?” says Work. “Good. You better keep loving me, because if you ever try to leave I’ll starve you to death.”
“What if I just stop loving you, but don’t try to leave?” we may ask, carefully prodding at Work’s pernicious and spiteful temper.
“You’re lucky you love me. Imagine how miserable this would be if you didn’t, being trapped in here,” Work may tell us. Or, “Very well, then don’t love me. But don’t you dare leave anyways.”
What if I try and go get a different job, if this one decides to hurt me? “They will all hurt you. You’re just lucky to have such a nice one, but deep down they’re all the same, and all of them are worse than me, and will hurt you much worse. And you won’t even get the joy of loving me.”
This sucks to type out. I don’t want it to be like this. I don’t love WORK, I love SYNTAX. Syntax in a society where we could just like… decide to stop witholding food and shelter and medicine from any member of society would make syntax a lot less harmful to love.
I have had some form of this thought in my mind for a while now, but it felt Urgent, finally, to sit down and type it out, because keep having meetings with my mentees that amount to “that’s too much work, go put some back” about their plans for fall semester. I have had dozens of versions of this conversation, and I anticipate that I will continue having it for as long as I work as any kind of teacher. The students who gravitate towards me in particular are also ones who love their work. They love it. And maybe they have a little bit of workaholism, or maybe some other shape of painful relationship towards the work that they love.
And mentoring students is, we (professors, teachers) all agree, a kind of intellectual reproduction. I will likely not have kids, and certainly not personally reproduce, so this is my contribution to future generations, is trying desperately to help more kids survive to thirty. And, yes, I do hope some of them will do some syntax, for the same reason that you hope at least some of your grandkids will have your nose. But not at the expense of a good life for them. In some ways I feel just as conflicted about teaching college as I would feel about having kids — do I want to put more people into the world that we’re on track to have for the next fifty years? I guess I don’t worry about it enough to refuse to do so, but also there is no way to refuse any level of participation in reproduction of the species without completely cutting oneself off from society, and I don’t want to do that, either. I just want better for our kids. OUR kids. All kids are our shared kids, utterly, the same instinct that I will have to of course hand any kid who asks me some lunch money if I have cash on me, the same instinct I have to just keep half an eye out when there’s kids riding the bus alone.
Anyways. College students are actually young adults, the same way I was a young adult with my own fully-formed personality and relationship to workahol at that age. And none of my professors ever sat me down and asked me to tally up all the classes and all the projects and all the jobs I was doing, and then react in horror and ask if I had a therapist and tell me to put more time into my hobbies, or like, take a nap or something. If they had, I might have responded that I loved all the work, that I was really enjoying all of that stuff, that I didn’t like not doing something. And, I don’t know, maybe I would have thought about that advice or maybe I would have ignored it. But if I could beam advice to my past self about the workahol, it would have been: do slightly less stuff, slower, and take longer to really linger and enjoy it, since you love it. There is infinite work, it’s not going anywhere, there is enough for a hundred lifetimes, and this is not a speedrun. And then I maybe would have some pointed thoughts about maybe think about WHY you can’t be alone with your thoughts for five minutes, why you have to be working or partying literally every second.
If the time-traveling advice I’m giving is coming from Professor Me, then this would be inappropriate, but, like. It definitely would have behooved me to, if not solve the problems I was running from, or even if not become completely aware of them, just go slower and incur less burnout so early in my life. And, like, I don’t really expect that me saying this to my students now is necessarily going to prevent them from an inevitable life of heartbreak and ruination that they would otherwise lead. But I feel like they should hear it from someone, and I don’t think any of my other colleagues are telling them to please work less, but they need to hear it. Every single time I’ve had this conversation with a student they’ve been doing way more than a hundred percent, and it freaks me out that no one else seems to think (or says aloud) that that’s not good for them.
Anyways. The thing with Tragic Flaws is that you can’t just tell Achilles to cut out the hubris or whatever. Would a self-aware Achilles not do the whole shit anyways? Would Knowing Better make it Hurt Less? Are tragedies meant to be didactic? I dunno, genuinely, I didn’t pursue any of that stuff after my undergrad lit major, hopefully y’all will tell me in the comments that this analogy sucks and that this essay has weird disfluencies. This is also way more of a livejournal ass blogpost than I normally write on here — this isn’t professional advice or adhd lifehacks or lingcomm or anything, so like, please be nice. I know that my audience is a lot of academics and y’all (we’all) have a strong tendency towards the Loving Our Work problem, so please do not take this as a critique of you or your life or priorities, this is me just processing aloud, okay?