outside of work? What life? 24/7 only leaves enough room to be
“The One Minute (fill in the blank) Friend, Spouse, Parent, Son,
or Daughter.” LiNE Zine recently interviewed a close friend of
ours “Chan Geng Ways” in the process (step 6 of 13) of turning
his life around from the throes of workaholic despair. We thought
you might learn something from hearing up close and personal how
much work it takes (ironic isn’t it?) to mend one’s workaholic
ways and find some balance between the parts of your life.
Zine: How long would you say you’ve been obsessed with work?
I have recollections in third grade of not going out for recess
and staying at my desk working. This behavior took a big jump
in junior high when I would study endlessly for exams, sitting
on my parent’s bed with my hands over my ears in a sort of a “hear
no evil” pose.
many years, I approached everything this way—my business, my consulting
work, my biogen start-up. It was common for me to be at
work by 4:30 a.m. most mornings fending calls until late at night.
Zine: How did you feel when you did this?
Well the traffic wasn’t bad. Only joking. Let’s see, I felt different
ways. Some days I believed I was on the true path, really making
things happen. Almost godlike. Other times I felt nothing. Nada.
I was mainly numb, sort of drugged by the experience. It was just
a blur. I guess like being drugged more than anything.
Zine: Addictions are often looked at as inward looking psychological
systems that don’t take external feedback. They feed on themselves.
When did you begin to realize that work was becoming a drug, like
The first wake up call came about a year and a half ago when
I realized that I had been mismanaging our bills and debts and
investments—when I took a hard look at my behavior it was exactly
like a drunk—ignoring bills, denying the growing debt, wishing
bad news away.
the big wake up call came six months ago. I walked into the ER
with chest pains. Next thing I knew I was quickly lifted onto
a gurney and was staring up at the ceiling as cold and sticky
EKG stuff was slapped onto my chest. I had developed a heart murmur,
high cholesterol, and high blood pressure—the hallmarks of the
workaholic. It took about a second to put two and two together
and realize I needed to change.
Zine: What worked? Oh, maybe I should use a different word
Very funny. I started taking to heart—literally—the work I’d done
years ago developing a course (if you can believe this) on work/life
balance and addiction. I found that looking at work as an addiction
was a very useful perspective and looked at being a workaholic
from the biochemical angle. We become intoxicated and then toxic
with our own internal chemicals. Compulsive work releases dopamine
for excitement, eating fills the brain with serotonin, and makes
Zine: Like turkey at Thanksgiving?
Exactly. And norepinephrine is released when we are acting like
control-freaks feeling all-powerful and mighty. So is it like
an addiction only you get it from the way you act and it’s injected
into your brain from your body.
like any addiction it produces a craving for more and more of
the “rush” we get from the chemical. Like people who free climb
or skydive. After a while, it takes on a life of its own. That’s
why it’s different from simply having someone make you work a
lot or being overworked. You do it to your self.
Zine: How does it all start?
The people I’ve spoken with tell me it usually starts with some
deep and powerful emotional pain that is repressed. I used to
think this was a bunch of psychobabble, but now I’m not so sure.
discovered in therapy and by meditating practice that one of my
big fears was standing on the edge of a great cliff with no bottom
in sight, losing my balance, and falling forever. It just seems
to be related to why I try to control so much and get a sense
of release from working so hard.
Zine: Looking at you now, you seem more at ease and relaxed.
Six months ago you wouldn’t have even taken the time for this
interview. What’s changed?
A few things. I found that if I can take small steps at different
points in each day they add up to a big step, a big difference.
For example, I find that if I start the day with something reflective
that is not work-related that’s a good start. And if I
remember several times a day to breathe, to do a deep breathing
exercise for a minute or two, or do a bit of meditation practice
that helps. Also if I manage my eating, what I eat and how I eat—there’s
a reason they call it “fast food”—it all helps me start to balance
my mind and my body, instead of only living in my mind, where
I work all the time and forget about my body.
Zine: I saw you had a new screen saver on your computer.
Yep, it’s a picture of me and my wife and kids. It’s on my laptop
as well. Reminds me of the people I love who are also part of
also keep a monthly calendar behind my desk and I list the things
I need to do each day to take care of myself.
Zine: What kinds of things?
Well my current list includes taking vitamin supplements, meditating,
walking in a natural and beautiful place, and spending time with
my children. I put a check mark next to those things I have actually
done. It sounds really dumb to even say it, but there are millions
of workaholics in this country and corporate cultures that support
their behavior. My checklist is my reality check. It lets me see
if I’m slipping back into my work addiction. It’s been magical
for me. I can honestly say that I feel and act differently now
and other people have also noticed the difference.
also make sure to include the bigger things as well, like going
to the kid’s soccer games and taking holidays and vacations. At
one point I was actually proud of the fact that I had accrued
three years worth of vacation time.
Zine: Anything else you want to say to others who are trying
to take off their “workaholic badges”?
Yes, one more thing that is most important and most difficult.
Adopt an attitude of loving-kindness. To yourself and to others.
Zine: I’m not sure what that means...
Well, when someone at work makes a mistake, I no longer panic
and scream, “If you want something done right you’ve got to do
it yourself,” then automatically jump into my old workaholic self.
I don’t let myself feel that rush or high anymore. I take a deep
breath and practice a loving kindness that envelops me and all
beings. Slows everything down to normal speed. Don’t self-inject
the old adrenalin.
Zine: Does it work?
Not always, but like I said, change is a process. Reminds me of
a line from the poet Rilke which goes something like, “Learn not
to seek the answers, but first love the very questions themselves.”
Geng Ways is a roving mystic who would rather not, for obvious
reasons, get any more email.