Workaholism, journalism and the great big lie of success

Lou Carlozo September 11, 2020

I have pulled out so much hair on deadlines, I have to cover up my bald spot with this angsty, self-important workaholic pose.

Beyond saying that my co-worker was a Pulitzer Prize winner, I can’t reveal more as this story doesn’t exactly deal with prize-winning behavior—though in far too many newsrooms and organizations, it is prized in overt and covert ways.

Archie, let’s call him, hadn’t taken a vacation in years. Notebooks and notepads bearing his rigid, right-pointing scrawl covered his desk and family photos, if he had any. His dedication to his job went beyond question and beyond reason. So the day came when our grizzly-bear bureau chief told him, “Archie, it’s time to take a vacation. I don’t want to see you at this desk on Monday or for the entire week. Take a break. Get away.”

The big week came and sure enough, Archie wasn’t at his desk. Thank God, our bureau chief said. Then he got the call: It was Arch, standing in a train station, in tears.

Because this grown man and hotshot reporter, who could ramrod through reams of nonsensical government documents and turn them into investigative journalism par excellence, had no idea how to spend such a thing as “free time.”

“Please, please. I don’t know what to do. Let me come in to work.”

‘I’d like to thank my family for letting me be a workaholic’

That Archie called his editor, and not some family member first, was a telling detail. Workaholism is a killer and nowhere is it more prevalent than with journalists. Especially among the freelancers who hustle half a dozen clients to make a living, including those writers who use Qwoted to beat deadline, the imperative to floor it and keep all the taskmasters happy is relentless.

But a fine line exists between hard work and workaholism, much like light and blinding light. And once crossed, it wreaks havoc on us and those around us, including the editors who depend on our steady performance. The most gruesome example I know of involves a star Chicago Tribune reporter who went over the edge, George Bliss. His relentless work regimen is thought to have triggered underlying bipolar disorder. Sure, he had two Pulitzers to his name. But he also took two lives with a shotgun: His wife’s and his own.

In raising my voice against workaholism, I hope to provide some strength and hope to those who suffer in silence. Because here’s what otherwise intelligent, driven journalists forget: The 40-hour workweek means we spend more time, either at our desks or in the field, than with our spouses, sweethearts, friends or children. We will not get that time back, ever. And that’s a normal, healthy week.

But 60 hours? Eighty? Break out the cigars, boys! Because in journalism, workaholism is celebrated, uplifted and rewarded. If you were to call yourself a workaholic on the record, no fellow reporter would ever stop to say, “Huh, is that a bad thing?” Because these are the successes we look up to when they stand up at awards ceremonies, clutching a glorified Lucite paperweight, and humble-brag, “I’d like to thank my wife/husband/kids for their support while I worked night after night…”

Ah, but did they thank you? Definitely not for being absent. It’s more likely that they’re thinking, “Yeah, thanks. Thanks a lot. Where’s my trophy, asshole?”

Twenty questions, the workaholic version

Lest I sound like preachy Rev. Lou of the Fourth Estate Church, I have been there as a workaholic. This may sound familiar, but for all the faster and harder sawing I put in, I never stopped to notice how the blade was worn down to a nub. Stress? Anxiety? Insomnia? Hospital emergency room? Been there.

But on the ego side, it always felt self-important to say, “Wow, I wish I could go out, but I’m working on this biggggg storrrrrrry.” Or to be the savior when some editor called me with a last-minute request, moving me to stand up my family.

Fortunately, I managed to change course on my workaholic path. It involved an intense reality check. I’m not compelling you to do the same, but encourage you to read this list. See if any of these 20 statements sound familiar.

  • I get so wrapped up in work I put off bathroom breaks.
  • If I’m not working, I get bored.
  • There is always something to do.
  • Whatever I accomplish, it isn’t enough.
  • I struggle to please my boss.
  • If I don’t do it, no one else will.
  • …after I complete this one more thing.
  • There are too many bills for me to stop.
  • All friends are work friends.
  • I take calls/emails from work whenever they come in.
  • If I’m not at work, I’m thinking about work.
  • I seldom juggle less then three things at once.
  • I can’t stand interruptions.
  • I always take assignments with me on vacation.
  • I’m the smartest person in the room/a total imposter.
  • I work 60 hours a week or more.
  • I always feel stressed.
  • I’ve stopped exercising in the past 12 months.
  • I consume more sugar/caffeine than I should.
  • I’m a perfectionist.

You know the next line: If you answer yes to more than a few of these, then … well, you tell me. Is this who you want to be? Do you think it makes you a badass? Or have you given up on change?

A change of heart means a change in creed

Before anything can change for a workaholic, you to give up on the number one individualist pseudo-creed:

“I can do this by myself.”

When the truth is:

No one makes it alone.

Look around you. Look at who’s around you. If one good thing came out of COVID-19, it’s that many of us have been forced to work at home with our families under the same roof. Sure, that can be a pain right now during back-to-school time. But it’s also given us a chance to see more of our loved ones, even if our attention spans get a little divided.

Here I take a lesson from my daughter Genevieve. As I plugged away at a deadline last week, she trudged downstairs from her virtual school day. Her first AP English assignment had her tied in knots. She had to go through Trevor Noah’s excellent autobiography “Born A Crime” and find two sections that seemed to contradict each other. Not easy, in part because Noah is a smart, smart guy and focused writer.

I did not want to delay turning in my assignment. But I don’t get a second chance in moments like this … and over the years I’ve missed too many. I folded shut my laptop, walked over and helped her find two passages on the theme of “regret.”  As an illustration for her paper, I then told her a story about a teenage crush that went way far south after I let my friends know. (Teen daughters hate when you share stuff like that because God forbid you were a teenager once.)

Starting this year of virtual high school has been stressful for Gen and many of her classmates are not handling it well. She didn’t just need assistance with her homework. She needed Dad.

It took some time for us to plow through. But once she hit the send button, I got a hug, about 20 thank you’s and this: “I love you, Dad.”

Wow, what a great day’s work.

Lou Carlozo is the Editor In Chief of Qwoted. All opinions expressed deserve fawning praise and flowers. lou@qwoted.com 

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