The Man Who Mistook His Job for a Life: A Chronic Overachiever Finds the Way Home

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Overview

At the end of the day, what really matters? Maybe it's been too long since you've asked yourself this question, because the workday is never-ending. You just don't have time. Indeed, if you're like Jonathon Lazear was for years, you don't seem to have time for much of anything besides work.

More recently, Lazear, a blindingly successful entrepreneur, found himself lost, burnt out, and wondering, not for the first time, why. But this time he ...
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Overview

At the end of the day, what really matters? Maybe it's been too long since you've asked yourself this question, because the workday is never-ending. You just don't have time. Indeed, if you're like Jonathon Lazear was for years, you don't seem to have time for much of anything besides work.

More recently, Lazear, a blindingly successful entrepreneur, found himself lost, burnt out, and wondering, not for the first time, why. But this time he did an extraordinary thing: rather than sweep these uncertainties under his desk and get right back to work, he made time to ask some of the biggest, most important questions a man can ask, questions he'd been avoiding since he started his career. What really matters? What are you afraid of? What are your other dreams? Who are you if you aren't your title and your paycheck? How much money is enough money? When was the last time you took a vacation and left work behind, disconnected from your cell phone, e-mail, pager, fax, and all the other toys that tell you you're important? Gave someone you love a gift that cost more time than money? What would you do on a Saturday if you weren't at the office — or keeping tabs on work from home? How will you reconnect with your family — and face the fact that you checked out on your wife and kids for far too long? Not only did Lazear confront these hard questions, but with probing insight and deep sensitivity, he found some answers and took them to heart. And he wrote it all up so you can, too. No excuses.

So meet The Man Who Mistook His Job for a Life. Short and to the point (because no one knows better than he how busy you are), thoughtful and wise, yet eminentlypractical, this book will remind you what really matters, help you give up what you don't need, and reclaim what you do.

Do you know what you're missing? If you stopped to look at this book, then at least somewhere deep down you probably do. Or if you don't know exactly what, at least you sense that you're missing something. Certainly, your family and friends miss you. It's time to go home.

How do you end the workday — or do you?

"As a man who mistook his job for a life, I have coped by remaining aloof, even silent. I have been an emotional isolationist, fleeing a real and imagined ever-present jury — my coworkers, my peers, my family, my wife, even my children. Sometimes I felt combative and aggressive, but mostly I was lost, unfeeling, unresponsive. And like you, I felt like I didn't have a choice. Downsizing, rightsizing, and just plain career terror had me clinging to my job for dear life. If you've picked up this book, you're probably struggling with the same questions and doubts. Your job has become such a big part of your life that it dwarfs everything else. You've spun a web that defines you but also conceals you. It is your salvation and your damnation — you're living inside the job and whether it makes you unhappy or fulfilled almost doesn't matter anymore, because 'choice' is not in the vocabulary of the man who mistakes his job for a life. What happened to the dreams that used to keep us going?"
— From the Introduction
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Literary agent Lazear (Meditations for Men Who Do Too Much) addresses men who work too much so they can escape family life: "Work was nothing. What was really stressful was everything but work. Our jobs, as demanding as they were, were actually the safest place to hide from the realities of life." He helps readers assess their workaholic tendencies and learn strategies for change. Despite some standard remedies--leaving work early, scheduling family time--Lazear's anecdotes, especially about slipping back to his old work habits, will hit home. (June) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In this short and engrossing book, Lazear, a literary agent and author of Meditations for Men Who Do Too Much, outlines the causes and consequences of his chronic overachieving. Although he includes quizzes, exercises, and a nine-step plan to help others identify and change their job-related obsessions, the meat of this work is Lazear's own story of how he managed to become less and less productive by putting in more and more hours at the office. He outlines the effect that his absence had on his family and friends, and the difficulty he had reconnecting with them once he realized that working 24/7 was not a realistic option. Most interestingly, Lazear outlines the appealing aspects of being married to one's job: the monetary rewards, the approval of others (especially of one's boss!), and the feeling of mastery over at least one domain in life. Lazear points out that men especially can feel like "King of the Office Jungle," but when they come home they're faced with the messy, touchy-feely world of spouses and children and they just don't know how to handle the chaos. Recommended for all public libraries. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780609608463
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/22/2001
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.35 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathon Lazear, a literary agent, lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is at work on his first novel, A Timeshare on the River Styx.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Best Little Boy in the World

Dad Works So Hard

I remember that my father was absent more than he was home. And when he was home, he revealed little about who he was, although we heard in conversations between my mother and him quite a bit about what he did.

When I think about the time when I was six or seven years old growing up in Ohio, my strongest memories of my father are of him leaving for work either to his office in downtown Columbus or to his home office. It wasn't just that he was home less than he was at work. There was something important about the ritual of him preparing for work on any given day. He was off to do important things. He was off to do business, to work, to provide for us. Our mother made it clear to my sister, my brother, and to me that HE WAS WORKING. It wasn't really important what he "did," but that he was working, and work was something you talked about very seriously.

This is a common pattern. If Dad works long hours, we excuse his retreat from the family. He missed dinner again: "He's working so hard, he couldn't get home in time." He ducked out on vacations: "Dad will be here on the weekend; he had to stay home and work. After all, he paid for this vacation." He was a no-show at school meetings: "Dad has to be out of town those days; no one else at work can fill his shoes." He ducked in and out of the family get-togethers: "Dad's on the phone again -- they just can't seem to run their company without him." Countless meals were interrupted in our home by business calls; work came first -- there were no boundaries between the "home office"and home. When it came to work, our family was always ready to make excuses for Dad not being there. And that excuse was always work.

My father was self-employed. That meant he didn't have bosses in the traditional sense of the word. However, he was a sales representative, which meant, among other things, that he actually had a number of bosses because he represented five or six manufacturing companies. He had to make those men happy with his performance, and had to make his customers happy, too. Making all those people happy took a great deal of work. He was always overseeing some near-catastrophe, real or imagined, lest these folks be unhappy for a single moment.

If his leaving in the morning was an important ritual, waiting for Dad to come home had an air of expectation. Did he have a good day? Or a bad one? Was there some crisis left at the office that would cast a shadow over the night? Because even if Dad wasn't outright angry about work, even if he didn't take it out on his family as mine sometimes did, if Dad had a bad or unproductive day, we had to be respectful of it. No one would have dared to challenge him on this: "Come on, Dad, maybe it wasn't so bad," or "Gee, Dad, maybe you can just solve the problem the way you solved all the others." Work was something magical and difficult and not to be shrugged off. It was mystery and tyranny all wrapped together in his life.

The sad part was that in making all those people happy, my father was rarely around for us-to be made happy or not. We never wanted for anything, at least not materially. What I found out as I was growing up is that all we wanted was him. But what we got was his anger and his frustration about his work, which swallowed up most of any time he might have had for us. It wasn't an act of cruelty or dishonesty. He simply did not know how to interact with his children, or often our mother, or even in superficial social situations with friends (and he didn't have any to speak of). The center of his attention was his business, as it was his father's and, most probably, his grandfather's.

One of his ways of decompressing after a day's work was to watch Walter Cronkite's CBS News, which he would verbally annotate for the entire half hour. He talked backed to the television because he often felt so ineffectual at work. Much of his anger and frustration played out in his running dialogue with newscasters. I've talked to a lot of men with similar memories. The success of the balance of the day rested on the answer to the $64,000 question: Had Dad had a good day or a bad day? If Dad had had a bad day, we intuitively backed off, Mom swept in with a drink and sympathy, and we kept our distance until the coast was clear. If Dad had had a good day, we could fly into his arms, share some happy news, or maybe dump our own problems-the brother who'd been mean to us, the best friend who wouldn't play with us, the bad test score, how we'd blown it on the soccer or football field. We should have been longing to see our Dad turn up the sidewalk or pull into the driveway, but a lot of us waited with a sense of trepidation, even fear. Sometimes we were relieved when he had to work late again-relieved at not having to walk around on tiptoe and whisper to give Dad a break after his hard day. It was just easier not to be on guard.

My father knew no "normal" office hours. Nor did we. You could find him at his desk at 9:30 at night and at 7:00 the next morning. I knew that he worked incredibly hard. He sacrificed himself for us. He was largely anonymous, but loved for what he provided for us. He was desperately unhappy, but we didn't really recognize it because there was virtue in his immersion in his work. To make matters even more convoluted, my mother began to work for him as his "right hand" (read: secretary). So now we got the same message twice: "We're both killing ourselves here, but look at the schools you're attending and the cars in the garage."

We all have an image of Americans in the fifties glorying in cocktail parties and backyard barbecues and taking long, lazy motor trips across the country. Europe opened up as a tourist destination, and Disneyland beckoned us. But my parents socialized little, or when they did, it was often work related. My family took few vacations.

The Virtuous Worker

The hypocrisy of working all the time to be able to enjoy life may be obvious to some, but not to all of us. In our house, we were made aware, intentionally or not, of how privileged and truly fortunate we were to have the home we had, the clothes we wore, the way we were perceived by the community. We felt every effort and the energy my father expended to provide for us. I honestly don't believe my parents were aware of how intensely they transmitted this value to us.

I remember my own birthday parties as a child. They were always well planned and a great time for the guests. My father would be present for perhaps the first hour, but would then slip away to his office because he had an important call to return or an order to finalize. His hard work allowed me, year after to year, to receive incredible gifts-the best bike, a television for my room (extravagant then), even a car when I turned sixteen. It sounds cliché, but as welcome as the gifts were, I would have been much happier to have had him there as an active participant in the gathering.

Looking back now, I realize how uncomfortable he would have been in this social situation. He, too, was a man who mistook his job for a life. This is why my parents would so often discuss work at dinner, during a drive to see my grandparents, or even on Christmas eve-there were no "sacred moments" reserved for family. The house was a beehive; a place of business-the work ethic observed night and day. The backdrop of my life involved carbon paper, files, phone calls, typewriters humming, and the house smelling of Pine-Sol and Spic and Span. But for all the buzz, there was often little else. Take away the work, take away the activity, and what did we have? If you're not careful, that's what hard work and dedication can get you: a house full of unhappy people, waiting for the mailman. We unconsciously absorbed a crucial equation:

Virtue = Work

So, you do the math. Dad's life really is about work. Dad is his job. Dad is not Dad unless he's away, or on the phone, or at the office. And Dad is to be admired; why, he's a positive saint, he works so hard. If I ever thought my father's obsession with work would teach me otherwise, it didn't. I admired my father's ethic and, like any child, desperately wanted his approval. Like it or not, I became a facsimile of my father. My father was not solely to blame for this, nor was my mother. It goes beyond the home.

What Do You Want to Be?

Earlier I mentioned the ritual of asking children what they want to be when they grow up. Of course, little girls and little boys both get the question. However, no one ever asks a boy: How many children do you want to have? Or: What kind of a home would you like to live in? Or: What do you think will make you happy?

Sadly, most of these questions are thought to be "feminine" questions. The questions asked of boys focus on what they want to be, not who, or how, or why. So from an early age, we begin to dehumanize our sons, prizing them for attaining non-family-centered achievements; winning trophies, races, games; and yes, ultimately, working and providing for themselves and others.

It took me years to figure out how unhappy my parents were, slaving away under their self-imposed requirements for what needed to be done. At the time, I didn't know any better, and I even liked the business. It made me feel important, too. And so when my dad would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, even if I didn't know, I would always have an answer. That answer would always be something that I thought would make him proud.

Little boys (and little girls) learn a great deal by observation, aping and mimicking the behaviors of their parents and adults they admire. And what we learn is that being busy indicates work, which is virtuous. I wanted to be loved, to be seen as virtuous, so I copied some of my dad's behaviors. I got busy, or at least learned how to appear busy. I really wasn't "producing" anything. My schoolwork showed that I wasn't too busy. I was busy being away from the house. I wanted to be away all day, and all night. I didn't want to be in a place where joy was suspect-where watching TV was seen as a total waste of time, where if you didn't have a "project," you were told you were "at loose ends." Even at that early age, I learned to inflate how busy I was. If I had a book report due, it didn't matter how hard it was to do, what was important was to make it seem hard and time consuming and in need of my full attention. I've had friends whose fathers regarded their reading books as wasting time, and one whose father sent him out to the yard to pick up sticks if he caught his son watching Saturday morning cartoons. ("Don't you have anything better to do?") I had another friend whose dad was always up by 6:30 every day on the weekend to get an early jump on the house chores. The message we all internalized was a more modern version of "Idle hands are the Devil's workshop." Ah, the great escape into the garage . . .

But even for all my best acting efforts, my father and mother knew that schoolwork wasn't all that hard, and they made sure we knew it too. They were always very clear, and not in a harsh way, but in a very restrained way, that the work adults did was much harder, more demanding, with so much more at stake: "Just wait until you have children of your own." It was demeaning. I couldn't live up to my father's idea of productivity. None of us could.

Gradually, like a lot of kids, I learned how to coast. But I knew if I continued, I'd not only lose any respect my father had for me, I'd also not be "successful." And so I realized, probably when I was just about to hit puberty, that I wanted to be the best little boy in the world. And I set out to prove I would be. Because I was already the "peacekeeper" in the family, it only made sense that I'd also be the most "productive," and gain further favor. I just had to figure out what kind of work I'd do, how much of it would make me virtuous, and think about how my father would respect me for working myself to death. I was the self-appointed "good child" in the family-and I proved it by being very successful. I had no idea what it would cost.

Copyright 2001 by Jonathon Lazear
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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 25, 2002

    Insightful!

    Jonathon Lazear equates compulsive work with alcoholism ¿ a dependency that amounts to a disease. Carrying on that analogy, Lazear presents a list of workaholism¿s symptoms, and a 10-step program to overcome the obsession with work. Although passages condemning overachievers and perfectionists will sound like fingernails on a chalkboard to many business men and women, we from getAbstract recommend this book to all executives, who would do well to heed this much of Lazear¿s advice: Make sure that you are not letting your job crowd out the important things in life.

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