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Workaholics—Maladjusted or Happy?

Vivia Chen

March 5, 2013

Angry_Typer © DragonImages - Fotolia.comAre workaholics getting a bum rap? You bet, says a professor of business psychology at University College London. Not only is working like a maniac not hazardous to your physical or emotional health, but it benefits society, says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an authority in personality profiling and psychometric testing.

Here's how he frames the issue in the Harvard Business Review blog :

According to one urban legend, based on 1950s pop psychology, workaholics are greedy and selfish people who are bound to die from a heart attack.

Not really. As the great David Ogilvy once said: "Men die of boredom, psychological conflict, and disease. They do not die of hard work."

I don't know if Chamorro-Premuzic is just being a contrarian, but he takes aim at the presumed virtue of work/life balance, while advocating the benefits of overworking. Among his arguments:

 1. Workaholics have better careers. It's the best way to break out of the pack, he says. "Workaholics tend to have higher social status in every society, including laid-back cultures like those found in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, or South America."

2. Workaholics contribute more to society. "Every significant achievement in civilization (from arts to science to sports) is the result of people who worked a lot harder than everyone else, and also happened to be utterly unconcerned about maintaining work/life balance."

3. Work/life balance whiners are self-indulgent. "The belief that our ultimate aim in life is to feel good makes no evolutionary sense." The "narcissistic" tendency of the "industrialized Western world" to complain about poor work/life balance is why Asia is overtaking the West, says Chamorro-Premuzic: "You will not see many people in Japan, China, or Singapore complain about their poor work/life [balance], even though they often work a lot harder."

All you crazy, maniacal lawyers who are billing over 3,000 hours a year are probably patting yourselves on the back now. Yeah, down with those wimps who complain about that measly 2,000 hours billing requirement! They don't deserve a bonus, a piece of the equity pie. Cart them off to the slaughterhouse!

But before you high billers get too self-righteous, I think Chamorro-Premuzic is actually making a much more important point: Workaholism, if it involves a job you truly love, is not a bad thing. In fact, it would be a remarkable stroke of luck. He writes:

If you are lucky enough to have a career—as opposed to a job—then you should embrace the work/life imbalance. A career provides a higher sense of purpose; a job provides an income. A job pays for what you do; a career pays for what you love. . . . If you are having fun working, you will almost certainly keep working. Your career success depends on eliminating the division between work and play. Who cares about work/life balance when you can have work/life fusion?

I think there's a lot of truth to what Chamorro-Premuzic is saying here. Many of us feel that we are missing out on life, that work impinges on our personal lives, because we really don't derive much satisfaction from what we do at the office. We raise our fist at the system, we bemoan the lack of balance in the profession, but at the end of the day, many of us have to admit we just don't like our jobs. I think that's particularly true for big-firm lawyers.

Which brings me back to some of those crazy 3,000-hours-a-year billers. For reasons that's beyond my personal comprehension, some of those nuts really do like being a lawyer. 

Lucky stiffs.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. 

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I think the distinction made at the end about doing work that you love is quite apt.

I used to work a simple, 40 hour a week job that I didn't care about or enjoy. Time dragged, and I couldn't wait for the day to be over. Now that I'm in a profession that I love I find myself working more than 40 hours a week and consistently wishing I had more time to get things done!

Totally agree with efm. I work crazy hours, but I also know how to reward myself with time away from all social media and work, when I need it.

The imbalance is something I've come to accept, love and cherish. That's what passion in work can do to a person!

Thanks for a wonderful article that gives another perspective to us "imbalanced" folks :).

I totally agree. I love my work. I love helping people through my chosen profession. I work many hours, but I feel like I don't get burnt out because I love learning new areas of law, and assisting people through the legal system. If you just do it for the money, it's much easier to get burnt out and feel unfulfilled.

I could not agree more, being passionate and fulfilled about what you do is the key. And that tends to make one a happier and better person as well, irrespective of the hours spent working and of the professional field.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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