Need some perspective on "hard work."
April 7, 2010 2:31 PM   Subscribe

I'm dealing with feelings that I'm not ambitious enough and not enough of a hard worker, and I'd like some perspective on how hard is 'hard enough.'

(note: actual questions at the bottom)

Background: I come from a workaholic family (my mother's words, not mine). My father routinely works 14 hour days and many weekends; one of my siblings is finishing his surgical residency. I'm three years out of school and have a lot of hard-working friends from school: people who landed consultant positions and management-track rotations.

I work hard too - in my office job, which pays pretty well, I consistently put in 50-55 hours per week, which feels about right. But somewhere between 50 and 55 hours my mental energy tends to run dry and I become dissatisfied, my work suffers, and I start to ignore tasks and miss deadlines.

What's tough is I'm in a work environment where 50-55 hours is nothing special, so I'm starting to feel mediocre, and feeling mediocre at work just ads to to the comparison with my friends and family.

If pay and advancement didn't matter much to me, that would be no problem. But I've realized they do matter to me; I'm happy when I earn more cash and I like taking on new responsibilities.

So really, I'm looking for thoughts along two lines:

1. I want to make good money and be someone with responsibility, but I’ve realized that I have to do it on 55-ish hours per week or I’ll run out of mental energy and get depressed. My next milestone is to break the $100k barrier and get involved in some form of management in the next 5 years. What I need is perspective on how much work is 'hard enough' to get paid well and be given direction over others in today's economy. Compared to other decently-paid white-collar workers, can I do this by developing a specialty and working hard 50 hours per week? Or do I need a reality check if I think any company is going to pay me well for that level of effort?

2. I’d like thoughts on dealing with my feelings of being a bit of an underachiever. I value hard work and getting paid well; I don’t think those values are going to change. But I’m surrounded by people who put in more hours than me, and I feel guilty for hitting this mental barrier. No one is telling me that I’m an underachiever, but I see how much the people around me work and I feel like I should be doing more.
posted by Tehhund to Work & Money (11 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
The thing that I do to combat this feeling is that I write down the things I've accomplished each day at the end of the day. I don't write down how long it took to do them, and I tend to list almost everything -- even things like "I listened to both sides of my favorite album" or "I read an article in Wired Magazine". I don't write down routine things like "I took the bus" but I write down everything I consider to be an accomplishment. Some of the things that I have learned to accept as accomplishments are basic care-taking things for myself that are easy for me personally to forget or ignore (like eating a good meal that I cooked myself, or exercising, or reading a magazine).

I am a workaholic and writing down the stuff I did helps me keep this in check a bit. It helps me realize that "hey, I did do a lot today" instead of whining to myself "I did nothing today; I am such a loser" which is what I tend to do normally.

It takes five to ten minutes at the end of the day; I give myself one small journal page to do it in, and that's it. It has really given me a lot of perspective.
posted by k8lin at 2:54 PM on April 7, 2010 [12 favorites]

Note: Obviously the bulk of my accomplishments in my daily lists are work-related, but I wanted to stress that I also write down my non-work related accomplishments. Sometimes they can be more important, as they keep me sane and focused and able to do better work when I am actually working.
posted by k8lin at 2:56 PM on April 7, 2010

humble opinion: people who put in more hours than you are people who do not sufficiently value their own time. It's not bad to be a workaholic if that's where you find utter and complete fulfillment... but regardless of what you do or what you accomplish in your day job, you are more than your career. Most people are more than their career. Think of the value in living a varied and considered life, rather than a race to... well, a race to what? Time is all you have to give. Guard it selfishly, and spend it doing things you enjoy, regardless of their remunerative value.
posted by Chris4d at 3:27 PM on April 7, 2010 [16 favorites]

>What's tough is I'm in a work environment where 50-55 hours is nothing special, so I'm starting to feel mediocre,

Well, you're the smart one who's making more per hour than they are...

On the other hand, if you're aiming a management position where you're constantly avoiding that much work while at the same time keeping your juniors happy and making $100K/yr., I would re-evaluate your priorities. Do you really need to make $100K to be happy? Why that number in particular? If it's just a goal, still, why that number?

It sort of sounds to me like you enjoy being challenged but are highly concerned about what other people think of you. $100K makes me wonder if "people will think I'm pretty well set" didn't figure into that equation (could be wrong, but ask yourself that).

In management, it's not a good trait to be constantly concerned about what other people think of you. People can tell because you naturally bias your decisions on a focus toward self rather than focusing on other people.

I would suggest looking into entrepreneurship if you haven't already. You seem like the type who could easily make any monetary goal you set your mind to. You won't have to worry about what other people think if you decide that your policy is "40 hours a week, no more."

You have to give some things up to get there, like you have to be good at saving money, have a supportive SO and/or consultant (or somebody helping you keep your goals clear). But no one in your family will ever, ever question whether you are a hard worker when you are in charge of your own business. Period.

Just some thoughts (I am an entrepreneur myself, so forgive my obvioius bias). :-)
posted by circular at 3:58 PM on April 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

I make > $100k/yr and I have been in management for > 22 yrs. I can tell you that it is possible to do that by working a 50-55hr week. In my experience, you are mostly paid for results plus putting in enough "face time" at the office. I would recommend you look at what you accomplish versus your peers. Also, take a hard look at whatever performance feedback you've been given. Ask for feedback if you haven't been given any (but don't tell them that you're worried about not putting in enough hours :) -- most managers will be happy to load you up with more work :)).
posted by elmay at 3:59 PM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Being concerned about your mental well-being instead of following everyone else off a cliff isn't what makes one an underachiever. I have no idea if 55 hours a week is enough to make it (the thought of doing that week in and week out terrifies me and I don't want to know the answer). All I know is that nobody is going to look out for your well-being except for you. If you don't do it, no one else is going to, and then you will find yourself without any well-being and you won't be well. You have to make yourself a priority somewhere in there.

Basically I just came in here to say that you really don't sound like an underachiever to me and I know because I am one.
posted by amethysts at 4:04 PM on April 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Have you tried other types of work to rejuvenate your energy and work beyond the 50 hour mark? Volunteering on a board of directors or getting involved in a visible project in a secondary skill set may help make you a viable candidate for management.
posted by elationfoundation at 4:28 PM on April 7, 2010

Best answer: Life is very generous at providing opportunities to feel like you're not quite measuring up. No matter what you do. You're underachieving - you're overworking and letting life pass you by - etc., etc., etc

Any insecurities you've got will find some way to express themselves using the raw material of your life as it is right now. The thing is, it doesn't actually matter what you do. There are a lot of different things that people value in life, and values can be in conflict. So no matter what you choose, somebody somewhere can find something wrong with it. At some point you just have to decide what balance you want to hit between work & life and that is a totally personal decision.

On a less woo-woo level, I know lots of people with successful careers who work 50-55 hrs/wk. So I think the idea that you can be promoted at that level of effort is totally reasonable. I live in a pretty workaholic place, too - fairfax county in the DC metro area.
posted by selfmedicating at 4:56 PM on April 7, 2010 [12 favorites]

I think recognition for working 50 hours a week will really vary with corporate culture and industry culture. I'm certain it would vary by generation too.

Personally, where I work, accomplishments and contributions to the organization as a whole are valued more than working hours. So agreed with k8lin: focus on your daily accomplishments rather than time spent on your desk.

This might be off topic but I wonder since you have the desire to work longer but find it draining, what about a complete change in tasks part way through the day? It could be directly work related, but also related to your career/industry, community, a hobby, family, or community. Almost like a second job (you mention you like variety), but so much the better if it gives networking opportunities (and recognition from that) and it's something you enjoy... For example, you could work with your employer to run a series of presentations on a topic you're an expert in, in the evenings you could volunteer for a career-related association, organize events for a community group of interest, be a board member or President of something, teach at a community college. I hope this helps!
posted by SarahbytheSea at 5:08 PM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone - I didn't think such a long-winded post would generate such solid responses.

K8lin, appreciating what I have accomplished has helped in the past, and I bet doing it more consistently and explicitly will help even more.

circular: "It sort of sounds to me like you enjoy being challenged but are highly concerned about what other people think of you." - very insightful. The real reason for the $100K goal is it's a concrete number to target, and I need to increase my salary to hit my personal goals for saving for a house, saving for [future :)] kids' educations, etc. But you're very right that my concern about others' opinions is playing a big role, and I'll meditate on how it's affecting me.

selfmedicating, your post is pure gold - and bonus points for addressing both questions :).

SarahbytheSea, I like the "do something different" idea. I'm hesitant to say that organizing events or doing something public would be the outlet I need (that sounds a lot like my job:) ), but maybe getting involved would be good. After this round of frustration came up I had to put my hobby on hold to have energy for work and to update my resume, but maybe that means it's time to look for an opportunity like what you described.
posted by Tehhund at 6:08 PM on April 7, 2010

You're only underachieving if you spend the rest of your free time sitting on your ass. As far as I am concerned, it is what you do outside of work that makes you a star. And by the way, there are plenty of jobs that pay 100k plus and only require 40-50 hours a week. You just need to know where to look.
posted by jasondigitized at 6:48 PM on April 8, 2010

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