The Real Mad Men: the Workaholics

How many of us (myself included) have sat with a car engine running, a few blocks away from "home" reading emails and trying to avoid going home at all? How many of us feel more intimate with email and Internet colleagues we "know" at a safe distance?
05/30/2012 03:15 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2012

"We basically stay so busy that the truth of our lives can never catch up". (Definition of a workaholic)

I worked for a workaholic once, or perhaps more than once, but this one was special. He won a Nobel Peace Prize and was changing the world through his work with the poor. I respect him more than almost any other person on the planet. His integrity is astounding. His ability to jet around three hundred days a year in his seventies amazed me. We had wonderful conversations, and non-conversations, about many important and less than important things, for example, how to find someone to iron his shirt before a speech, or why poverty was not, as yet, in a museum. But I sure as heck would not want to be married to someone like that.

My mother once told me to never marry a businessman (she meant a guy who starts his own business) or an engineer. Her father had been both and had dedicated the first part of his marriage to business and the second part to business, as well. That marriage did not last. His wife, children and surely others suffered because of his focus on making money, a reputation, carving a place in society to be remembered.

But as I sat at my grandfather's funeral when I was all of eighteen years of age, I thought, "Why are the so many people at his funeral? Who are these people?" Obviously they felt they needed to show at the funeral, pay their condolences, demonstrate their respect for someone whom, I wager, they did not deeply know, either. We rarely saw the man, much less knew him. I had a dream about him once in which he and my then Philosophy professor, the late, great Louis Mackey, changed places and I could actually have a long, profound and meaningful conversation with my grandfather, during which he was actually present and able to communicate fully with me. I existed for him. He cared about what I said, how I felt and, most importantly, he had time for me.

I almost married someone who ended up being married to his job (and his mother, but that is another story). He changed somehow from the man I met early on in the relationship into someone who really, truly, defined himself through his work, money and the lifestyle that came with both. When I asked his friends why he had changed they replied, "But you met him while he was on vacation. That was him on vacation." I wondered how someone on vacation could be so different from someone in their "real life," and why and how someone actually did not incorporate vacation into that real life. That window of opportunity, when the guard is down, the time is abundant, and the woman of the moment basks in the light of adoration, is usually limited.

A workaholic is, in fact, married to his (or her) work. In some cases it is an addiction. They really cannot turn off, put down the Blackberry, iPhone, iPad, and chill. In some cases they can chill, but only so that they can multitask again at an inhuman pace, one which would have most of us gasping for a big breath of nothingness. Some workaholics have learned to mix naps, meditation and other work-extending ways of living into their day, in order to, in fact, work even longer hours. Their children know them by their darting glances to the blinking mobile devices. Their wives know them by the timetable of the last commuter train home for the short hours of real life, after the children have been tucked away, and a half cold dinner has been eaten, alone, as his wife slumbers, having tried to stay up to kiss him before she dozes off.

Some are workaholics because they do not want to go home. How many of us (myself included) have sat with a car engine running, a few blocks away from "home" reading emails and trying to avoid going home at all? How many of us feel more intimate with email and Internet colleagues we "know" at a safe distance? And how many end up, when it is too late, waking up to find that their bed is not only empty and cold, but that they missed the best thing that ever happened to them?

Money, prestige and accomplishment cannot buy human connection. They can buy sex, perhaps the odd gold-digging wife or husband, the unsettled child, and a lot of stuff. But that is pretty much nothing when one imagines the real experiences and exchanges and love which have been left as litter on the side of the highway down which the workaholic rushed, until he or she could rush no more.

Because eventually we all hit a wall. We hit it via health issues, or even death. We hit it because our children become dysfunctional or our spouse leaves us. We wake up wondering how it all went wrong and how we could ever have imagined that "success" was worth it.

In fact, we have done everything possible in order to never become vulnerable. "When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability... To be alive is to be vulnerable" -- Madeleine L'Engle

I would ask, how much of this financial crisis, of the creating no "there there" can be linked to people avoiding feeling vulnerable? Working even when it creates nothing of value, simply to work, is in itself a kind of sickness. The economy, and the humans who served it in unhealthy ways, worked it to death, literally kicking the dead horse to see what more they could get out of the nothingness. The divorces, the psychiatrist bills, the distance created with one's children, are all part of this madness.

We have forgotten how to prioritize human connection. Because human connection makes us vulnerable.

And to end on a lighter note, I saw this video today and it made me laugh... but it is sadly more true than most workaholics, still suffering from their addiction, ever realizes. Enjoy.