Overwork and the illusion of a “high-paying” job

I recently read a short article in The New Yorker titled “The Cult of Overwork.” In it, James Surowiecki writes:

“For decades, junior bankers and Wall Street firms had an unspoken pact: in exchange for reasonably high-paying jobs and a shot at obscene wealth, young analysts agreed to work fifteen hours a day, and forgo anything resembling a normal life.”

Reading that, I had a thought. If you're working 75 hours a week, is your job really “high-paying”?

Let's say you have a choice between:

A) 40-hour-a-week job that pays $100,000 a year, and

B) 75-hour-a-week job that pays $100,000 a year.

Obviously, “A” is the better deal. And if you break it down by the hour, without holidays, “A” pays $48/hour and “B” pays $25/hour.

Suddenly, that high-paying job seems pretty average-paying.

Last year, I earned a high income. Part of my goal for this year is to earn as much money as I did last year, and, if I work 80 hours a week, I could probably make that happen. Since my layoff, I'm fortunate that things are looking up, and I now have work options, one of them being: work twice as much and make a lot of money.

But last year, my high income wasn't based on 80 hours a week; it was based on 40 to 50. I'm not saying it's a bad idea to work twice as much and earn a lot of money. It's an appealing option. But if my time has any value, I just wouldn't truly be accomplishing my goal with that option.

In mulling this over, I had an unsettling thought: I don't want to simply earn a lot of money; I want to be a high-earner. To me, earning six-figures and working 80 hours a week does not a high-earner make. It just means, essentially, you're working two jobs.

For me, this thought was unsettling because the poor kid in me is screaming: Who the #*%! do you think you are? You should be so lucky to work 80 hours a week for that kind of money!

At my core, I can't help but to agree. But part my agreeing is that I feel guilty for thinking there's more out there for me. I don't want to be entitled, after all. Plus, I'm a workaholic anyway; it's only natural for me bend to the “cult of overwork.”

But I really don't like the principles behind that reasoning: guilt, lack of self-worth, addiction.

So I decided to entertain my original thought: If most of your life is spent overworking, are you truly a high-earner? I'm not asking about job satisfaction. I'm curious how one's time factors into a high-paying, quality career.

The Value of Time

Another friend of mine recently convinced her boss to give her a long overdue raise at her demanding job. He increased her salary a little on the condition that he could increase her workload a lot.

“It doesn't seem like a raise,” she complained. “It's just…more work.”

The value of time is an important consideration here. When most people ask for a raise, they're asking for an increase in the value of their time and effort.

Thus, when you're paid more money to do more work, your time isn't valued any better. It can be a great opportunity, sure. Lots of people want more work, after all. But getting more money in exchange for more of your time is different than earning more money per unit of time.

Here's another example. I used to work for a contracting company; the owner was an intelligent and savvy businessperson. I always looked up to her, and I was lucky to have her guidance. Once, she found out I was staying long hours for a client without charging them. I was just trying to be a good, diligent worker. But when my boss found out, she insisted that I charge the overtime. I thought she was just being nice. “No, really, it's OK, I told her.

“No, it's not,” she said. “If you don't charge for your time, you're not only lowering your own rate, you're lowering the company's rate.”

That advice/direct order made me realize my time has value.

But What About “Paying Your Dues”?

In that article, Surowiecki continues:

“Habit, too, is powerful: things are done a certain way because that's how they've been done before, and because that's the way people in charge were trained…'I went through it so you should' is a difficult impulse to resist.”

But, as he suggests throughout the article, and as studies have suggested, just because something has been done a certain way since forever doesn't mean it works.

“The perplexing thing about the cult of overwork is that, as we've known for a while, long hours diminish both productivity and quality,” Surowiecki writes.

“Paying Your Dues” Can Undermine Hard Work

I'm all for paying your dues if it serves a practical purpose. When you start a business, part of paying your dues is indeed constantly working your butt off in order to get things going — that's part of the luxury of working for yourself and being a self-made person. In this case, “paying your dues” serves a practical purpose.

But working overtime simply for the sake of “paying your dues” makes little sense to me. You'd think employers would value quality and hard work over the premise, “well, that's what I had to do, so you have to, too.”

Another on-the-job example:

I was working on a project at an engineering firm. More than the project managers wanted to do a good job, they wanted to look like they were doing a good job. Which meant that employees, freelancers and contractors were expected to work at least 10 hours a day, despite having absolutely nothing to do. Because I didn't want to be singled out as “the girl who goes home at 5:00,” I did my work very, very slowly. Put nicely, it was a really inefficient use of assets. Put rudely, it was a big, stupid waste of time.

And I think the whole pay-your-dues mentality comes from the same place. In most cases, it's an empty gesture — like sitting on your butt for an extra two hours just to appear dedicated. What's more, it turns a blind eye to waste, and it undermines true, hard work. Again, long, overworked hours “diminish both productivity and quality.” Talk about counterproductive.

In contrast, when you're resourceful, efficient and diligent, you can get a lot done.

Loss of Quality

Pick your cliché: Jack of all trades, master of none; burning the candle at both ends; spreading oneself too thin.

All of those maxims point to the same problem: overdoing it usually makes things suck. And that's what I've been reflecting on in terms of my career. I don't want to be a “work-churner.” I'm a workaholic not because I want to churn out as much work as possible, but because I actually enjoy the work. And more than I want to work a lot, I want to work hard.

I've worked for employers who simply wanted me to churn out as much work as possible as quickly as possible. And I've worked for employers who encourage me to take my time and produce something of quality. At least in my own experience, the latter paid much better.

In most cases, quality pays off in the long term, and I think that's true with becoming a high-earner, too.

A True High-Earner

Don't get me wrong. Again, I'm not saying that, if you have the opportunity to earn a lot of money by working 75 hours a week, you shouldn't do it. Based on my current situation, I'm all for grinding as many hours as possible while still maintaining a quality of work, life and health — all so I can earn as much money as I did last year.

Of course, I'm also not knocking workers who don't really have a choice. Plenty of people are struggling just to survive, and that's brutal. I'm certainly not above it, either. If I had no money, and I was struggling to pay my debts, and I lost my job, I'd definitely take the first job I could find. I just think, if we can, we should strive for more than that. My mom didn't have much of a choice, and it was her goal to raise children whose work was valued. When it comes to being appreciative of what you have, I'm all for looking at things against the backdrop of “someone has it worse.” But using that perspective to keep you from your goals doesn't seem like a good idea.

I'm also not necessarily arguing that working a lot is a bad thing. I'm simply saying: Even more than a worker who simply makes a lot of money, I want to be a worker whose time and skill set are worth a large amount of money.

Personally, I don't want it to take double my time to earn a single salary.

It's not an easy goal, and maybe it's an ambitious one that will take time; but I think that, in the long run, quality beats quantity.

Like I said, at my core, I revert back to the thought that I should be lucky to have any job at all. I'm not quite sure what part of myself I agree with more. So I'd like to know what you think….

Are my thoughts unappreciative? Does striving to be a high-earner without wanting to work 80 hours a week make me entitled? Is it audacious to set a value for my time?

More about...Career

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