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AZRIELA JAFFE

6.16.99  
The Confessions of a Workaholic
One entrepreneur grapples with the lack of balance in his life

Workaholic men aren't as fashionable as they used to be. It used to be that a man who provided well for his family was revered, even if he was never around because he was working so much. Men are still expected to provide, yet in a more "balanced" way. That creates a new kind of bind for entrepreneurs, who feel immense pressure to push ahead constantly, as if their companies will grind to a halt the minute they stop for a breath.

I recently got into an extended E-mail dialogue on this subject with Ron Scheer, a new correspondent in Los Angeles, after a column I wrote on workaholic parents struck a chord with him. After almost 15 years with a marketing communications firm, he left his job to work as an independent consultant, helping companies improve their presentation and communication online. I asked him to share publicly his private struggles with obsessive work, and he generously agreed to do so. Here's an edited version of his observations:

"The workaholism issue is a real one for me. I am never more than a couple steps -- mentally -- from the computer. What keeps me tethered is the fear that if I stop, my whole world will come crashing in on me. It's hard to get out of that mindset for even a few minutes."

"I learned to work addictively as a boy growing up on a small farm with parents who had lived through the Great Depression. Feelings were something people expressed in movies or radio soap operas, but real life seemed to call for a kind of silent stoicism. There was always work to be done. You got over your feelings by focusing on that.

"Because of the kind of work I've chosen -- online consulting -- I am never more than a step or two away from it. We worked on the farm from sunup to after sundown, six and a half days a week (Sunday morning was for church). Now, because I do "knowledge" work rather than physical labor, I can do even more. My brain keeps chugging along whether I'm at my computer or not. I'm convinced that many nights I never stop thinking, even when I'm apparently asleep.

"I am embarassed at how my mind loses focus when I am with someone I care about. Even if I don't turn the subject of conversation around to my work, I am thinking about it while I talk to the person.

"I need to rediscover how to do nothing, to relearn that rest is not a waste of time. All of this effort is an attempt to control an outcome that is mostly beyond our control. There is no real security. We are vulnerable in unimaginable ways. I don't know how to resolve this inner struggle, but here are a few things I do to keep myself from going off the deep end:

1) I take solace in thought-provoking quotations, which I keep over my desk.

2) I write in a journal once every week or two. I look back at what I wrote the time before and make a report of what has happened since and how I feel about it.

3) I do a series of stretches my daughter once taught me. I sometimes think of her as I do them and try to focus on my breathing. It helps calm me down and gets me out of my head for a while.

4) My wife and I have a standing date for breakfast every Sunday morning at a restaurant we like. It doesn't make up for the lack of spontaneity in a relationship shadowed by worries about expenses and the constant pressure of getting work done. But it is a hiatus.

5) I have developed E-mail friendships with a few men of a range of ages and from all walks of life. The regular contact helps lessen my isolation.

6) When I get up in the morning, I read from Buddhist or Taoist writings. I realize briefly that while I'm convinced I'm working to live, I may have it the wrong way around.

"All of these are half measures. They only begin to scratch the surface. I habitually set aside the need to let go, while not completely giving up the hope that change is possible."

Thank you, Ron. At least you are questioning the way you do things -- something many people who work manically have stopped doing.

Have a question on how to handle the pressures of running a business and the impact on your personal life, marriage, and family? Contact Azriela Jaffe at AZ@azriela.com. Please put "BW Online question" in the subject field. Your real name will be kept confidential if you request, but please give an E-mail address, phone number, and your hometown so she can contact you for more information. Because of heavy volume, Azriela cannot guarantee that she will answer every query.

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