My Addiction to Work

Work is my drug of choice.

I don’t do other drugs. I drink alcohol in moderation and abstain every Lent. I don’t seek high-risk and adrenaline-filled adventures.

But, work and achievement have my number. They own me. When they call, I want to drop everything else in my life.

If I am not careful, work will destroy my personal relationships, my perfectionism will crush my health, and my desire for achievement will consume me.

I can say all that because those things have happened. Over and over for many, many decades.

Some years ago, I contracted a stress-induced and very painful episode of shingles. I was so stressed that I didn’t know that I was. My body turned on itself.

As a young adult, I consciously chose work over friends, girlfriends and my personal sense of ethics. Whatever my job required of me, I gave it, no questions asked. Raises and promotions came and deepened my addiction. In retrospect, I was running largely to stand still.

In my first year in venture capital, I flew over 100,000 miles on United Airlines in nine months. I was emotionally present to my family only on weekends, and that was fitful, as I was usually pretty drained from all the work and travel.

How obsessed was I at my prior VC job? Over nine years, I had dinner at home with the family during the work week…twice. I was one of only two people of color among Boston GPs. I set a high bar for my work.

One night this past week, I slept only three hours as I powered through a complicated issue for one of our portfolio company CEOs. I didn’t have to do all that work, but I did. A part of me secretly really liked it.

I could go on.

Many years ago, as I complained about the stress of my job at Bain & Company to my sister, she said this: “Jo, you enjoy the stress–you actually seek it and love it.”

I denied all that then.

But, now, many decades later, I know she was spot on. It is why I don’t enjoy vacations unless they’re packed with strenuous cycling. It is why down time makes me feel anxious. It is why I feel empty when I’m not clearly achieving something significant.

And, it all started in middle school. Getting a B+ on a quiz or test made me feel like a total failure, that my world was falling apart.

This continued in college. But l, I needed bigger and bigger “hits” to fuel my addiction. But, the highs never satisfied me. Those laurels I sought didn’t matter in the end, as the goal posts in my head kept moving. My 3.94 college GPA was not enough nor my sense of high social status nor my multiple leadership positions on campus. The highs were great but very, very short-lived.

That is because, deep down, I still felt like the low-income immigrant kid who grew up in Brooklyn, the guy on the outside, in the cold, looking in at comfortable society dining at a fancy French restaurant.

A part of me is still the seven year-old: a mother who almost dies nine times, four moves (including to and from Jakarta) in eight months, an endless rotation of indifferent or incapable caretakers, my realization that there is no food in the apartment, and going to school hungry many mornings.

I am an ENTJ. We are one to four percent of the population but comprise a disproportionate percentage of CEOs and entrepreneurs. Some people think ENTJs are born that way. I’m convinced they are made. For me, my childhood made me who I am, the good and the bad.

Thank goodness that I was born, through no effort by me, with the ability to study and focus. Thank goodness that some teachers, like Jeff Coray, really believed in me. Thank goodness that I always knew that my parents loved me.

Today, I try to fight my addiction. Over time, I have developed some practices.

I invest in my spiritual life. I know it isn’t politically correct to say so, but, in the end, I choose not to care. Everyone needs a positive way to manage stress, and I challenge you to do the same. If not, as my friend Paula Ebben said at a high-school graduation (here), the call of alcohol and drugs will be extremely powerful.

I don’t work on Sundays. It is the one day when I don’t check email, and I reserve that day for Church and family. I’ve been doing this since my second job out of college, and I found that all of my bosses totally understood. I just had to ask.

I work out every morning except when trips interfere or when I go fly fishing. Exercise really clears my head.

I’ve invested heavily in some group friendships. I have a tight group of friends from my parish, as well as a cabal of fly-fishing buddies.

I’ve read books, such as Tony Jarvis’ With Love and Prayers, filled with the incredible talks he gave over decades to high school students. They actually are not talks but are profound meditations, and reading them has made me a better parent.

We give away money until it hurts (more here). We have earmarked a recent windfall for angel investing, proceeds of which will go 100% to charities (here). I find that hoarding my acorns makes feel drained and insecure. I have to starve that part of me that wants “more, more, more.”

I’ve given talks to students at Yale and Brown, telling them that getting into such elite colleges likely was the worst thing that has happened to them: They’re well under way towards being perfectionists and, if not careful, a work addict like me.

Go ahead, I told them. Get a B or B+. In fact, absolutely and publicly fail at something. You’ll see, I told them. The world goes on. You will go on but will become wiser.

But, honestly, it is a constant struggle. Even now as I write this at 5 am on a Sunday…I feel the need to check email and do some work.

I am writing this because Adam Grant just wrote a great Op-Ed piece about perfectionism (here). It is a wonderful reminder to us all that we are much, much more than numbers, such as our GPAs or bank account balances.

And, it was a great reminder to me as to what I have to manage each and every day.

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