Monday, June 27, 2005

Work to Live

Technology is arguably one of the most defining industries of our society over the past two decades. Hard work has been deeply entrenched in its culture since its early beginnings. During the dot-com boom, the myriad of startup companies insisted on complete and unwavering dedication from all its employees. Anything less would be detrimental to all hopes for the fledgling company's success. From this, the Silicon Valley work ethic emerged, and now, it continues to thrive long after the infamous dot-com bubble burst.

This culture has taken its toll on those who must live with it on a daily basis. I cannot count how many people I meet at my company who are feeling the negative effects of constant pressure, an ever-increasing workload, and unrelenting stress on their minds and bodies. For them, work is their entire life.

This place we call Silicon Valley is a breeding ground for burnouts.

When I first joined this company, one of my coworkers was a man who simply chose to work 16-hour days, weekends and holidays, for no reason other than he had nothing better to do. He didn't have many friends or family around, he wasn't married, so he spent his entire life working.

He was our boss' favorite, too. She used to give me endless grief over the fact that I preferred to work regular business hours unless there was a looming critical deadline.

What kind of culture rewards those who dedicate their entire existence to their work, and punishes those who choose to spend some of their non-working time on their hobbies, interests and loved ones ? This, I will never understand.

It is a vicious circle. My former coworker spent all his days at the office because he had nothing else to do. Yet, he could not meet new friends or form relationships with others because he was always at work.

One must admit, however, that he chose this path.

There was a time, in my previous job, where I made the same choice. I was working 12-14 hour days, trying to keep up with the ever-increasing demands of a busy Network Operations center. I was constantly stressed out, stuck in the endless cycle of repeated caffeine intake, inability to sleep, and still more caffeine. Before long, my body broke down, unraveling itself in a scary anxiety attack one day while sitting in traffic. That was the wake-up call I so desperately needed.

No job is worth one's health, sanity, or mental well-being.

It was then that I learned that I must set boundaries for my work time, and take steps to consciously reduce my stress level. It was a difficult transition for me, being a dedicated, hard-working, high-energy person with a passion for helping the customer and the company. It was one of the toughest things I ever did, but ironically, it made me a better worker, and greatly improved my quality of life.

At my current job, I have attempted to keep a similar, more reasonable pattern. Of course, all bets are off when a critical deadline needs to be met. I have done the two weeks straight of 14-hour days numerous times. I have worked until all hours of the nights and weekends to help our team meet a commitment. However, during non-crisis times, I choose a more normal and sane schedule.

Even with a relatively typical workday length, I still suffer the ill effects of 120 miles of round-trip commuting. I spend 3+ hours on the road every single day. My department frowns upon ongoing telecommuting agreements, so that is not an option. Add this to my other activities, and I am constantly on the go, with no time left to relax and recharge the batteries.

When was the last movie I saw in the theater ? I don't remember. How many DVDs have I watched at home in the last year ? One. How many TV shows would I really like to watch but don't have time ? Plenty. Currently, my only TV exposure is listening to it while running around cooking, eating or doing housework.

This past weekend, I decided that something needs to change.

So yesterday morning, I started a new ritual. Instead of jumping out of bed, rushing off to the grocery store, and running around taking care of the myriad of weekend chores and errands, I did something radically different. I took quiet time to myself. I walked over to the Starbucks outdoor patio, and accompanied by a hot cup of coffee and a slice of low-fat blueberry cake, sat down and read a book.

Me, the always-moving, always-shaking go-getter, sitting down for an hour and reading a book. Imagine that.

I can't remember when the last time was that I did this. With this commute, my only reading time in the past few years has been on a plane or on the stationary bike. But yesterday, I took time out to sit down and read - and nothing else. It was just me, my breakfast, my book, and the soothing Northern California breeze.

I work to live. I do not live to work.

Yesterday, under the green Starbucks umbrella, I reaffirmed this commitment. Never again will I fall prey to the persistent cycle of overextension, sleep deprivation and declining health. Of course, I still put 100% of my heart and soul into my job. If they need me to step up to the plate, I will - with every bit of energy and dedication I can possibly muster. However, I will always strive to keep myself balanced and centered, never forgetting to take time out for life.

After all, when work is gone, life is what remains.

For me, love, laughter, activities, learning, friends, family, and reaching out to touch the lives of others are what persevere when work is stripped from the canvas of my existence.

I now ask you who read this: what remains on your canvas ?


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