Why do we work so hard?

Karl Marx was known to believe that being occupied by good work was living well. He was under the impression that engagement in productive, purposeful work was the means by which people could realise their full potential.

While I don’t usually agree with a lot of Marx’s ideologies, I will credit him for having gotten just that right about the modern world.

It’s safe to say that most people I know who do work long and hard hours do so – not because a socialist revolutionary inspires it, but because they are genuinely engaged in interesting purposeful work.

This however, raises questions of Stockholm syndrome pretty early on, with individuals soliciting apprehensive expressions every time I tell them how long and often I ‘work’. Even voice messages from my dear mother, always end with the same standard sign off, ‘Don’t work too hard’.

Most people see work as something you do to earn the money to pay for the important things in life. To them, life is what happens outside of work. They are the forerunners who push that success is measured less by money and titles, and more by what is sweepingly referred to as “work-life balance”. Work, in this context, means active billable hours.

But for me ‘work’ rarely stops. It follows me home, and signing off equates to turning off valuable cognitive space. When you’re constantly thinking about the next big project or reading up on ways you can improve yourself and your workflow, it smudges the partition of what is work and what is life. It tugs at you in the middle of the night in the form of incessant text messages, nonstop journaling, or sudden moments of inspiration that colonise your downtime.

At the risk of sounding like a less admirable workaholic, with a fatuous obsession with entitlement, I think the reason I love ‘working’ so much is because I am doing work I care about and am interested in, and so doing more of it isn’t such a burden. Sometimes, I derive more meaning from them than I should, even if I may not be compensated for it at a level that makes it worth my while.

By and large, the narrative put forth by popular media propagates the notion that most people who work hard and often do so to distract themselves from deeper, less manageable realities – which isn’t entirely false. More often than not, I am fleeing from other areas in my life I’d rather not spend so much time thinking about – like sleeplessness, loneliness, vulnerability and the anxiety that creeps in with the chaos of uncertainty.

This dangerous half-fiction is where I think living the way I do blurs the lines of work and life, of friends and colleagues. We are after all, part of society that reinforces our beliefs in what we do and we build our identity and community with the people we work with.

Recently I was deeply inspired by a conversation I had with a tech founder who explained very articulately the virtuous cycle of always looking to tackle world scale problems and using that as a motivation to work hard every single day – ‘because if you only have moderate ambition – you achieve it and then you get bored’. To him working hard and smart is part of living a meaningful life and the sacrifices it entails are indisputable to any business leader.

Perhaps less altruistically, this egocentric enslavement can also be seen as a result of self-importance. The need to be busy and always hustling, while anticipating a time in the future where they will swim in their hard earned fortune.

But I’d like to think that most workaholics I know (myself and said tech founder included) are more than covered in the identity department, and so the motivation to drown ourselves in work has to be derived from something else entirely – maybe it’s the foolish fact I’ve made myself believe, that I am working on something that is bigger than myself.

Or maybe more realistically, working long hours is often expected when I’m persistently playing catch-up, and although I may still be denying I have this soul-destroying addiction, having a network of type-A psychos around me helps reduce the gloom as I sit here battling writer’s block on a public holiday.

So the next time I’m having trouble communicating precisely why working constantly appeals to me, I’ll just sit here and tell you life happens regardless, I just like mine to be synonymous with the work I do.


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