Are You Not Working Hard Enough? An Overachiever's Dilemma

November 7, 2014

One question I’ve struggled with for a long time is, “Am I really not working hard enough?” Like many of my personality problems, this one also has an exciting Korean twist. When I was young, my father worked at Hyundai. In Korea working for one of the big chaebol is a point of loyalty, prestige, and kinship. So, my father didn’t just work for Hyundai–he was a Hyundai man, and we were a Hyundai family.

This meant that growing up, I was fed a certain ethos of success that was defined by the legendary Hyundai founder, Jung Joo-Young. You can compare it to the way Steve Jobs or Elon Musk are idolized in America. Like these Western tycoons, Jung also had a super-macho, larger-than-life persona, but in a more folk-hero way. He had started out as an uneducated delivery man at a grocery store and had ended up as the richest man in Korea. The stories my dad told me about Jung were all about his legendary strength, stamina, and how super-humanly hard-working he was–earliest to rise, last to go to bed, everyday of his life.

Without actually putting it into words, the biggest lesson my dad has ever given me is that to be successful, you need to work harder than anyone else. It’s not enough to do just one thing each day–you have to accomplish 12 things each day, then go out to drink with your buddies (keep the men loyal and happy) and still wake up at dawn, the picture of vigor and health.

This was why I started running at 14–not because of any dreams as a runner, but because I wanted to be strong enough to get shit done. Since then I’ve always thrown myself into work. But this comes at a price and I frequently find myself either close to exhaustion or, in rare instances when I am away from work, incredibly guilty and restless. Guilt also happens when I try to schedule a brunch with a friend who works in finance (really, how are you awake?), or when I hear publishing friends complain about having to read 3 (no, 4!) manuscripts this weekend. Then I feel guilty for complaining about my workload and worry that I’m not at all hard core enough. Because secretly, I would really love to just not do anything at all for a few days, not even chores, groceries, or cooking, and be completely lazy. I have yet to find a few days to really plug off from work and not write a single newsletter, email, social media post, or blog post, and if I truly didn’t lift a finger we’d all starve in my family. But maybe the fact that I can even think this way auto-disqualifies me from success. Which brings on more guilt.

Are You Working Hard Enough? Overachiever's Dilemma

Even the fact that you feel exhausted can sometimes be a source of guilt.

I think that being pulled into either extreme isn’t ideal: you can easily push yourself to breaking point and burn out. In some cases this can bring on serious, lasting health issues. On the other hand, if I’d never learned to push myself, I would never have accomplished any of the things I’m most proud of.

I think the really important question isn’t, “Am I working hard enough?” Honestly, I never know whether I should answer yes or no, because the question itself is about comparing yourself to someone else or some ideal. This question can bring on a downward spiral of insecurities just like “Am I pretty enough?” or “Am I smart enough?” It shakes your self-esteem because at the end of the day, there will always be someone who’s working harder than you, in heels, and not even complaining about it. But when I ask myself, “Is this the life I want?” at various points, whether I’m stretched thin to my limits with writing or teaching, or occasionally enjoying a boring movie on the couch with my ham-shaped cat, I know the answer is “yes.”

If you also suffer from wondering whether you’re not working hard enough, here are some things to remember.

1. Is this damaging your physical or mental health?

Nothing is worth compromising your health and getting sick. You won’t get a medal for it! If you keep catching random viruses or your limbs feel like lead, or you just can’t seem to get out of bed in the morning–your body is sending you signs to please slow the heck down. Don’t blame your body and take a day off–and if that’s not available, take even just a 1/2 day off. Even giving yourself that choice sometimes makes you feel better.

2. If you postponed something an hour, half a day, or even a day or two, would it affect someone else detrimentally? 

Often, the things that we stress out over getting done has no effect on anyone’s well-being if it gets postponed or even dropped. I’m not saying you should drop every ball, but it’s totally okay if you don’t send that email out at 11:30 p.m. Very few things are a true emergency. If your boss thinks otherwise, make sure you draw the boundaries clearly without giving a detailed apology about your personal needs. Don’t answer emails sent on a Friday at 8:30 p.m. (Why are you checking that, anyway?) Learn to smile and say “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that tonight. I’ll finish it tomorrow morning.”

3. Really, is this the life you want? 

Sure, you have listened to how Arianna Huffington collapsed due to exhaustion with some mix of envy and awe. (And then went on to write a book about work-life balance…because writing a freaking book isn’t adding more to your plate). But is being on-call 7 days a week, 20 hours a day really the life of your dreams? Whatever state of work or leisure you’re in, as long as it’s in keeping (more or less) with the life you want, you’re fine. And just breathe.

Do you also suffer from this anxiety? 

Also see: Why Failure is Good Sometimes

Is Your Work Ethic Hurting You?

6 Ways to Restore Your Energy




Photo: cristian via Flickr


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