On Being Addicted to Work

My friend the artist David Choe summarized it best for me: work is the last socially acceptable addiction.

I agree. The term workaholic is a silly name for a very real, very intense thing. Chefs often talk about the rush of opening a restaurant. It’s not only a rush to me. It’s heroin. I know I’m not alone. I received a message recently from a young woman named Joanna who listens to my podcast, and asked for her permission to share part of it with you:

What stuck with me was the way you describe your addiction to work. I’ve been so used to hearing of depression as something that forces you to do absolutely nothing. But pushing my limits became my drug. It was essentially a form of masochism. 18 years old and I found myself working nonstop for 20 hours a day. I didn’t socialize. I major in computer engineering and spent my day in front of a laptop. I wear glasses now from staring at screens so much. Getting things done let me avoid taking care of myself. I was just “too busy.” 96% of the things you focused on relating to your struggles have caused me to think, “Oh my gosh, it’s not just me!” Frankly, you helped me realize working so hard was a side effect of my depression, a source of control, and not just something other people who didn’t know what was up admired me for.

When I set out to open Momofuku, I remember being paralyzed by each and every task ahead of me. How do I get a permit? How do I get an air-conditioning system? How do we make noodles? Where can I buy a pasta cooker? Why the fuck doesn’t anybody want to work with me? Every problem was an impossibility. The sensation of gritting my teeth, bearing down, and somehow doing what needed doing gave me a primal high.

I crave that resistance, whether it comes from the city, my landlord, my staff, or my own shortcomings. It’s not just helpful, it’s necessary. You think a salmon really wants to swim upstream and die? They have no choice. That’s how I feel, too.

I hated work when I was younger. I was a poor student, a poor employee. But the kitchen was different. I found meaning in the repetitive tasks, as long as I did them with intent and purpose. All that peeling, plucking, slicing, and chopping could seem frivolous, but only if I let myself think that way. When everything else felt out of control, cooking was my North Star. It wouldn’t let me down. Putting something on a plate is a finite task. I could see the mise en place in front of me and the customer waiting in the dining room. I saw the pan, the stove, and the process that needed to be accomplished for the dish to make it into the dining room and onto the table. I saw sales numbers. I saw reviews. Each step provided a tangible point of contact. And with success came validation—not only of the work but of myself. One morning I had this simple idea to serve a pork bun—pork belly, hoisin, pickles, steamed bread—as an accompaniment to our ramen, and then we sold a thousand of them in a week. It’s an addictive feeling.

As with any addiction, the deeper I got, the higher the dosage I needed. Drug addicts don’t get the same pleasure that a random party kid gets from doing a bump in a bathroom stall. They need much more. Sex addicts continually need to up the stakes of their pursuits—more partners, multiple partners, married partners. Marathon runners graduate to ultramarathons and Ironman competitions. It’s no different for workaholics.

For instance, I contrast those early impossible-feeling days of opening Momofuku with my schedule as I write this. We’ve taken on outside investment, which means we’ve been opening a new restaurant every few months for the past two years, including one this week. Two of my best chefs have put in their notice while I’m simultaneously dealing with a crisis at our L.A. restaurant. There are TV shows to shoot and podcasts to record. I’ve got a new son at home and I’m locked in trying to write this book. The anxiety and dread are as vivid as when I first felt them. I describe it to Dr. Eliot this way: I used to want to learn how to juggle two balls. Now I’m tossing around motorcycles, chain saws, and babies.

When I’m able to take a step back, I realize that I’ve created my own prison. I physically cannot take on any more responsibilities. There’s no room to do more, and I’m afraid of what that means for my addiction. I want so much to quit and walk away, but I don’t know that I have the courage to give it all up. Recovering alcoholics talk about needing to hit rock bottom before they are able to climb out. The paradox for the workaholic is that rock bottom is the top of whatever profession they’re in.