I thought I’d be a lifetime member. Working triple-time was hard at first, but the reward – the warm flush of egotism that comes from hyper-productivity – was electrifying, a thrilling substitute for commonplace quiescence. The appeal was in the control. This validation came without dependence on other people – lovers, friends, parent-figures. All it ran on was deadlines and the clack of thoughts on plastic keys. Whenever I needed to fill the void – which was, is often – I could spin around, survey my columns of dutiful invoices, and tell myself “I have really made something of myself.”
At first, it was an exclusive sect. Then others began, by dint of ambition or circumstance or just plain growing-older, to taste the thrill of martyrdom. I’d hear more tales of people staying back late, of sacrifices to family and friendships, of who was working longer and harder and (always there, rarely said yet always there) who received more recompense. All sung with the same trill of boastful suffering: “see, oh see, how hard it must be!/I’m working so hard, I’m so proud of me!” It gripped me with revulsion: not for reasons pure of heart, but because I was no longer the best, no longer the only one. The cult had been broke wide open.
I struggled for a while. Like Brutus in a garden of forked tongues, I stumbled this way and that, calling out in vain. “Give them back,” I would cry, the ghosts of invoices past sleeking past my ears, “give me back my legions!” But all I heard were my own boasts echoed back from a thousand other tie-splattered throats. But soon even their crass company faded away, the chorus trooping elsewhere to find new members who would sing one another’s envious praises.
It took the incident to reboot my system, and even that hasn’t made me immune to the blandishments of Hard Working. That delectable feeling of being in-demand, of being wanted, is edifying and flattering and lascivious all at once. It makes you feel loved, but without the risks and traps of human affection. You’re a tool, lauded not for your personality or even your efficiency, but your commitment – blind, monotonous commitment to entities which are their own reasons for existence. And when you are loved for what you do, you can safely ignore all the cracks and holes and voids which reside in who you are. But the rewards, both monetary and emotional, are subject to the law of diminishing returns.
To the rest of you, I say: Don’t work too long. Don’t work too late. Hijack opportunities and be efficient. Stop caring about appearances, both in the office and the bar. Spend time with your friends, and maybe fall in love with one of them. Traipse around parks in the morning, or listen to the birds in the evening as they have dinner together and share stories from the day. Exercise. Read more books than those prescribed. Make time for yourself, because no-one else will. In the words of my mother, the source of more than 50% of my wisdom, work smart, not hard.