“Hun, you just went straight through a red light.”
I remember it like it happened yesterday, even though it was years ago now. I’d been over in Michigan to be trained on our products for a week. It’s 22 hours worth of flying from Australia, with a change at LAX and Chicago. In addition to 8 hours a day of training while feeling jetlagged out of my mind, I also had a bunch of work to catch up on at the end of each day thanks to the time zone difference between Michigan and Sydney. I’d head back to my hotel each afternoon, work for a few hours and then collapse on the bed soon after dinner.
When I got back home, thanks to that week and yet another 22 hours of flying, I really was spent. My boss told me to take a couple of days off because I’d now lost 2 straight weekends to flying, so I did. Stupidly instead of resting, I went to the mall with my wife and daughter the next day. I got frustrated at how much time we were spending there and in my sleep deprived state, instead of just saying I wanted to leave I got frustrated and resentful.
Eventually we got back to the car and I drove us home. I should have given my wife the keys. It probably would have been safer if I’d been drinking, because at least then I would’ve had the presence of mind to be careful. Instead, exhausted and cranky, I saw a green arrow at the traffic light indicating you could turn left, but mistakenly took it as a green light.
I went straight through a red light in a four way intersection.
Thankfully it was mid-morning on a Monday. Had it been later in the afternoon or on a weekend, my wife and daughter would likely now be dead. It still haunts me when I think about it sometimes.
This happened because I didn’t have the presence of mind to realise how hard I’d been pushing myself at work. I was still fairly new and trying to prove myself, so it was just 100 miles an hour all the time. It wasn’t until this happened that I realised that I really needed an adjustment in perspective and priorities.
Many of my colleagues have had similar incidents. A couple have been involved in traffic accidents while rushing between jobs, others have almost burned themselves to a cinder trying to be the glue that holds a project together. They do this because they are so committed to the job and to being “that” person it’s inconceivable to take their foot off the pedal for even a minute.
That’s where we run into problems. If you ask people “is your job worth your life?” the answer is going to be “of course not, don’t be ridiculous.” Pretty much the only people who are going to answer yes will be active duty military or the secret service. It’s such an obvious answer to say no that we don’t even think about it. The reality, however, is that our actions don’t match our words, because if they did, we’d tell ourselves to slow down, to calm down, and we wouldn’t act as though the world was on our shoulders.
I don’t get approached to be a mentor or anything like that very often. I’m not one of those shining stars or the noveau riche of my workplace. But every so often I’ll get approached by a young, hungry employee doing the job I did when I started, asking for my advice. The first thing I tell them now is to take care of themselves. The world isn’t going to end because you get to a job half an hour late. You aren’t the President of the United States — the fate of the world doesn’t rest on you every minute of the day.
I feel like that’s much more important advice than telling them how to make their way up the corporate ladder. They can eventually figure that part out on their own easily enough if they have that particular drive. But the drive to look after yourself? That’s not part of our corporate culture. Maybe right now it is because of COVID, but what are the odds that will last?
What should you look out for?
Look, I’m no psychologist. I’m just someone who tries to learn from his mistakes and pass that on to people who can benefit from it. I’m not going to give you any kind of official, literature supported list of traits that cause or are associated with this kind of thing, but here is a list of some signs you may see in yourself which could indicate a propensity to make poor, life threatening decisions in regards to your career.
- You’re highly ambitious
- You take your job and career really seriously — maybe you’re even on a timetable of what promotions you want and when
- You’ll sacrifice just about anything in your personal life for work
- Your reputation is extremely important to you, making you do things for fear of people having the wrong view of you
- You never ask for help, because you think you’re the only one who can do the job right
- Your identity is wrapped up in your job title
- You value everyone around you on competence alone, not by who they are
- You constantly feel frantic about whether you’re doing enough to advance
- While you can appear happy on the outside, you seem to be in a constant state of annoyance at people and situations not going the way you want
Hustle culture amplifies our tendency to endanger ourselves
If you’re a fan of Gary Vaynerchuck or you follow one of those “next level entrepreneur” type Instagram pages, it’s very easy to get caught up in the hustle culture. I don’t even blame Gary V or think he’s a dick like a lot of other people do, because he is who he is and he’s unapologetic about that. The problem is that people get caught up in these movements and when that happens, there’s no sense checking going on. It becomes a game of “there’s always someone working harder than you.”
That’s incredibly dangerous, because it makes it seem as though mega financial success is the only game in town, and that you can never do enough because someone else is always working harder than you.
Go and see a therapist
I’d love to be able to give you some great advice that would completely pop the bubble you’re living in, but this is a really serious and complicated issue. There are so many familial, societal and cultural factors at play here that for many people, the thought of slowing down and trying to enjoy life, rather than literally getting themselves killed through over work, is inconceivable. As usual for humans, “that won’t happen to me” is the default thought that runs through our head.
That did almost happen to me. It’s happened to friends of mine in various degrees short of death thankfully. It only takes one situation where the variables aren’t on your side and you’ve thrown away an entire lifetime for career advancement.
Stop yourself before it’s too late.