Dead Man Working

Scroll down ↓


A nation of sleepworkers…

In 2005, a Harris Interactive study of 7,718 American workers completed during a time of great prosperity revealed:

  • 42% felt burned out,
  • 33% felt dead-ended,
  • 21% wanted desperately to change jobs,
  • 85% did not feel strongly energized by their work,
  • Nearly 70% believed their employers did not inspire the best in them,
  • A whopping 37% of management didn’t care about the fate of their employer, and
  • An incredulous 34% planned on never being able to retire

And, this was all before the economic debacle of 2008/9. The one that’s now summarily tossed hundreds of thousands out on the street after years or decades of sacrifice in the name of a better, healthier, happier future that never came.

Despite all this, driven by a near-maniacal quest for prosperity and pervasive disbelief in the ability to earn a big enough living doing what they love, few people ever change course.  Millions pine for a more meaningful existence, but, in the end, few are willing to step up to the plate.  They’ve become dead men and women working. Inertia rules!

Outing The Joneses—it ain’t about money

Something has gone horribly wrong in this massively pervasive quest to keep up with and, whenever possible, whup the Joneses.  We’ve ended up, getting everything we wanted, but we didn’t feel like we thought we’d feel.  Then, for some of you, in the blink of an eye, or the pink of a slip, it was all taken away.

And, even if you accumulate exactly what you hoped to, 20-years down the road, you’ll very likely find yourself wanting another 20-years, because, according to research by University of Southern California economist, Richard Easterlin, once you get there, what you thought would make you feel safe doesn’t.

Does this mean money doesn’t matter at all?  Please, I’m an optimist, not an idiot.  Of course, it matters! But, probably not in the way you think.

If you are living at or below the poverty level, earning more can have a tremendous impact on health and happiness.  Beyond earning enough to comfortably cover fairly basic living expenses, though, the research is clear—there is little relationship between income and happiness (Diener & Oishi 2000).  Wealthy people are generally only slightly happier (at least in the U.S.).

Yes, money may enable you to do more and experience more with your already happy, fulfilled life, and that makes a very real difference.  But simply having more won’t make you happy and fulfilled.

But, what about the fact that money lets you buy stuff?

It ain’t about stuff

Maybe a big fat pot of thousands won’t guarantee me happiness, but it’ll let me buy things that go a long way to making my life a better place to hang out…right?  Short answer, yes…the same way a hit of acid makes you happy until you slide back to reality and begin to hunt for the next fix.

Two words—acquire and habituate.

Huh?  It’s how most of us live our lives.  We are an acquisition nation.  And it’s why your new gold-plated Bentley buzz wears off shortly after the first speck of dirt hit’s the Betty Boop mudflaps.  Big ticket salesmen call it buyers remorse, but there’s actually a lot more going on than that.

According to Jonathan Haidt, we have a remarkable ability to habituate to circumstances and surroundings.  This ability can serve as a powerful buffer to untoward circumstances, but it can also, just as quickly, dissipate the sputter of increased joy that follows a positive change in circumstances.

Lets take this principle from the extreme to our daily lives, though.  We work like crazy to buy a better car.  The day we drive it home, we are in heaven.  It takes us about a week to show it off to all of our friends and, through that process, we stay pretty damn jazzed.

But a few weeks later, that blip on the happy-screen has pretty much faded.  We’ve got what we wanted, but it’s no longer adding significantly to our overall level of happiness or satisfaction on a daily basis.  We have “habituated” to having it.  And, a few months later, we find ourselves ogling a different set of wheels that we are quite sure will change our lives forever.

So, if we all have this same experience of habituation, why do we keep on keeping on, knowing that whatever hit we get will go away quickly and leave us wanting an even bigger dose next time around?

Because, we’ve become addicted.

The short-term emotional and chemical bump helps make up, at least momentarily, for the often pervasive lack of deeper fulfillment that comes, in part, from sentencing ourselves to jobs that consume our lives, but not our hearts.  And, just like any other addiction, until we change the fundamental circumstance underlying our addiction—the life-sucking way we spend the better part of every day—the compulsion never diminishes.

Excess money doesn’t equal security.

There’s something else going on in our mad dash for cash and stash.  We want to feel secure and we equate money and stuff with security.  The recent collapse of the U.S. banking system and subsequent loss of hundreds of thousands of supposedly “rock solid” jobs and trillions of dollars in personal assets, net worth and investment income has made this all to evident.

Money and stuff don’t stop speeding taxies, crashing markets, falling debris, lending crises, city buses, frivolous lawsuits, random acts, sports injuries, heart-disease, cancer, diabetes, economic downturns, corporate acquisitions, mass-frauds or any other unforeseen and unwanted fate from coming your way.  Life is uncertain.  And all the money in the world can only make it slightly less so, if at all.  Fighting this fundamental truth will, in the end, always lead to suffering on some level.

“Yes,” comes the reply, “but having more money and stuff means you are less likely to go broke.”  Here, you may be right.  But “may” is the critical word in that sentence.  Were you to continue to live a more modest $100,000 lifestyle as your income skyrocketed above that, barring unforeseen major events, it would very likely take quite a bit longer to blow through $10 million of savings than $1 million.

But, with rare exception, we grow our lifestyle lock-step with our earnings and savings, making it a lot easier, as we’ve just seen in the last few months, to wipe out much of what we’ve accumulated in a remarkably short period of time.  Yes, even if that number is seven, eight or nine figures.

Besides, security really isn’t about circumstance as much as it is about perception.  Even if you are right about having more making you that much more bulletproof, the problem remains that, for most people, amassing money and stuff won’t actually give you the feeling of security you think and hope it will.

We like to “project” how we think we’ll feel, based on our current mindset and circumstances, should we become wealthy some 20 years down the road.  It’s called “affective forecasting.”  Problem is, as one of the leading experts in affective forecasting, Daniel Gilbert, reveals in his book Stumbling on Happiness, we are horrible at accurately forecasting how we will feel about a particular circumstance many years down the road.

Why?  Because we project our current emotional state into the future circumstance and our current emotional state is inevitably radically different than our emotional state will be 20 years hence.  So, our belief that we’ll feel secure sitting on a pile of cash in twenty years is often completely wrong.

Reality is, true security goes way beyond accumulating money and stuff.  It’s not about what we have, but rather what we are capable of.  These are the renewable resources most likely to take you closest to your desire to feel secure.  And, wherever you go, they follow.

Doing it for the kids—may be doing more harm than good.

I would do anything to create the best life possible for my daughter.  We all would.  But is what we’re doing truly setting our kids up for the best possible future?  If we’re slaving away at a job that pays our bills, funds the college accounts, but empties our souls and steals our presence from the family, the answer is a resounding no.  Let’s look at this on three levels.

Presence count more than presents

  • Face-time & happy kids – A 1997 survey by psychologist BS Bowden and JM Zeisz that tracked 527 teens ages 12 to 18.  This study revealed the best adjusted teens were those who ate a meal with an adult in their family an average of 5.4 times a week.  Those who were not as well-adjusted ate with an adult an average of 3.3 times a week.  “Well-adjusted” teens were more motivated at school, had better relationships and were less likely to be depressed or get involved with drugs, while those who were less well-adjusted showed the opposite tendencies.  In fact, sharing meals as a family was more closely-correlated with being well-adjusted than any other factor measured, including age, gender and family type. Numerous studies back up these conclusions.
  • Face-time & healthy kids – Numerous studies show that kids who ate with families consumed more fruit and vegetables, dietary fiber, calcium, iron, folate, vitamins B-6, B-12, C and E and less fried food, saturated fats, trans-fats and soda.  Interestingly, kids who ate family dinners more often carried their healthier eating habits with them away from the home, too.
  • Affluence & happy kids – An extensive 2003 research survey by Suniya S. Luthar, published in Child Development concluded “children of affluence manifest more disturbances than others, particularly in relation to substance abuse, anxiety and depression—and 2 sets of potential causes: pressures to achieve and isolation from parents (both literal and emotional)….Among affluent (but not lower income inner-city) youth, substance abuse was significantly linked with depressive and anxiety symptoms, suggesting efforts at self-medication…These findings are of particular concern as substance use of this type shows relatively high continuity over time.

No doubt, there are many challenges to being more present as a parent.  I don’t know a single parent that wouldn’t do whatever it took and work as many hours as necessary to put food on the table and provide a roof over their family’s heads.  But, once you’ve comfortably passed that threshold, the law of diminishing happiness returns kicks in astonishingly quickly.

At a very minimum, it’s a choice we should all make consciously with a better understanding of the impact of swapping time for money.

We all want the best for our kids.  We want them to be happy, healthy, fulfilled and feel as secure as they can.  We want to the be loved and be able to love. We want them to succeed in life. But, we’re having trouble differentiating between the impact of being there versus getting there.  The handwriting is being applied evermore strikingly to the wall, but so many of us haven’t wanted to listen.  The time is now.  It’s presence, not presents that counts!

Dead Mom & Dad Walking

If you don’t enjoy what you do for a living, but feel locked into it for life, every day will be built upon a foundation of stress.  It may ebb and flow, as it does for all of us, but for you, it never quite diminishes to a level that lets you just kick back and truly relax.

Of course, we all experience stress.  And, the right kind of stress is essential for growth and even beneficial.  But, we are learning that chronic “job stress” can be incredibly devastating on so many levels.

A recent report from the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health reports:

  • 40% of workers reported their job was very or extremely stressful;
  • 25% view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives;
  • 29% of workers felt quite a bit or extremely stressed at work;
  • 26 percent of workers said they were “often or very often burned out or stressed by their work”;

And, a subsequent Integra Study revealed:

  • 19% or almost one in five respondents had quit a previous position because of job stress and nearly one in four have been driven to tears because of workplace stress;
  • 62% routinely find that they end the day with work-related neck pain, 44% reported stressed-out eyes,
  • 38% complained of hurting hands and 34% reported difficulty in sleeping because they were too stressed-out;
  • 12% had called in sick because of job stress;
  • Over half said they often spend 12-hour days on work related duties and an equal number frequently skip lunch because of the stress of job demands.

Beyond the effect of creating a family defined by one or more largely “virtual” parents, what effect do you think a job that leaves you financially comfortable, but chronically moody, sleep-deprived, achey from head to toe, unfit, overweight, irritable, at higher risk of heart-disease, anxiety and depression will have on your family and kids?

No doubt, we all experience job stress, on some level.

But the choices we make about the type of work we pursue, the setting and culture we immerse ourselves in and the balance between work and personal live make a dramatic difference in the way experience that stress.  They determine, in large part, how deeply into our personal lives, state of mind, relationships and wellbeing it intrudes.  Yes, I experience stress, but, rare is the day that experience leaves me “wasted, angry or down.”

So, we come back to the question – do the money, toys and illusion of security that we create by giving our lives to a high-demand job without substantial personal meaning outweigh the inevitable destructive impact upon our bodies, emotional wellbeing and its trickle-down impact on our relationship with our partners and children?

Not so much.

In The End

All this research is grand, but, in reality, we need only to look to our own experience and intuition to find the same answers.

We look at a man who makes millions, but along the way has estranged his wife, children and family, yet we call him a successful man. We look at a woman who has chosen a driver, a seasonally-glorious closet and an arrestingly-powerful job over friends, family and fulfillment…and we call her a successful woman. We look at an investment banker with a fabulous summer estate in his late fifties, stress-riddled, obese, unfit and a doctor’s visit away from a diabetic diagnosis and we call him a success.

And, by measures adopted by the bulk of society, they all are.

But, are they happy?

Are they healthy?

Are they fulfilled?

Are their lives brimming with purpose?

Are they really secure?

Are they setting up their kids to be happy?

What do YOU think?

Let’s discuss…

Join our Email List for Weekly Updates

And join this amazing community of makers and doers. You know you wanna...

16 responses

16 responses to “Dead Man Working”

  1. Awesome post. I can’t wait to get the book later this week.

  2. Jeff Sarris says:

    Our gold plated Bentley with Betty Boop mudflaps….love it! hahaha

    I’ve been thinking more about this lately and how, as a society, we are really programmed (brainwashed?) to think a certain way about things because it is the established “norm”. It isn’t until someone comes along and challenges the norm that we really start to break out of our trance and truly think about what it is that we’re doing. This post will open some eyes. Great job! 🙂

  3. I wonder if, perhaps, doing it for the kids has another knock-on effect: It teaches children that when they grow up, they’ll have to give up doing something they love in order to have children of their own – or “You can’t have it both ways, either you have a great life and really contribute… or you have kids.” I’ve been thinking about this after reading We Need To Talk About Kevin. Of course raising children can mean sacrifice, but what good does it do if your parents are miserable all the time?

  4. Ceres says:

    Up until 8 months ago, I was busy climbing the corporate ladder. I neglected my friends, my family, my passion…basically everything that is most important to me. It took a vacation away from all the stress for me to realize I don’t want to wake up 30 years from now and own everything I ever wanted yet have nothing that I truly value. The good thing is, I realize that now. The bad thing is, I’ve already lost many key relationships in my life, including a dear friend.

    I see the old me in this statement, “We look at a woman who has chosen a driver, a seasonally-glorious closet and an arrestingly-powerful job over friends, family and fulfillment…and we call her a successful woman.” But I no longer want to be that woman, and for that reason, I’ve decided to let go of my ambition to be a successful woman by society’s definition and instead learn to embrace what it truly means to be a successful woman by my own definition!

    Thanks for the great article.

  5. Thanks for this post. I think the hollowness we feel even after we meet our material goals points to the fact that most of us have our attention exclusively on enjoying the product of working — the plasma TV, tropical vacation, etc. we’ll get with the money we’re earning — as opposed to the process. What I’ve found amazing is that I can enjoy the process of working more thoroughly just by putting my full attention on it, and taking it off the past or possible future. Best, Chris

  6. When people work really hard toward a goal that doesn’t live up to their expectations, it can be incredibly disappointing. Unrealistic expectations are hard to avoid in a world where the programming and propaganda begin in childhood. Students are convinced that a good education is the key to the kingdom. Young girls are taught that they can marry and live happily ever after. The concept that happiness comes from outside sources (other people or stuff) makes for selfish pursuits and unhappy endings. Articles like this one, and Leo’s new book, are serving up a big dose of reality on this problem, thank you.

  7. Terrific post! But what if instead of using money to buy stuff, you use it to retire sooner? In that case, doesn’t more money lead to greater happiness via early retirement from the stressful job?

  8. Duff says:

    Great post. I’ve been taking many of these statistics seriously lately, and have found that it is a rare person who really owns up to the fact that more money doesn’t really equal more security and happiness.

    I haven’t exactly figured out how to make money doing what I love (coaching), but I’m on the path. Thanks for the inspiration–it can be a difficult journey to make money doing what you love.

  9. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Everyone – Thanks for the props. Funny thing is, most us already intuitively know what all the statistics and studies I shared reveal. But, we shelve what’s in our gut, because culturally we’re taught to define success in a very different way.

    And, it’s hard to go against generations of rules and expectations. But, I think what’s happening in the economy these days will cause a lot of people to step back and reexamine the type of success they want to strive for. At least, that’s my hope.

  10. Hey, Jonathan! Just got my copy of the book! Can’t wait to dig into it!

    Obviously, I’m a little excited… 🙂

  11. David Burman says:

    Another great post. I love the data that you present, and it just proves the point that we all believe that you must do what you love and be with the people you love, otherwise all the money and power is pointless. I started a blog for unemployed people in nyc as a place where people can gather to share advice in an informal setting and hopefully stay motivated to job search during these tough times. Thanks.

  12. Maggie says:

    Great post. I think more people will be forced to think about this side of the topic given the economic times. Forced back home or into “lesser” positions might be the proverbial “come to Jesus” that some folks need.

    I voluntarily left a 6 figure-salaried position with a top 3 ad agency in NYC 7 years ago to take care of my then 1-yr-old baby. My colleagues and sta-at-home-husband were shocked. I was miserable working 80 hour weeks and making the big bucks knowing my passion and happines lay with caring for my baby. My husband then switched careers chasing more “security” (read: a pension after doing his 20). I know I am MUCH happier and I am now pursuing blogging and some entrepreneurial ecommerce ventures that way more up my alley these days. My husband… I’m not so sure. As a boat captain, I think he’d found his peace away from the pressure his parents had put on him to be the doctor or lawyer. He’s successful in the eyes of others (mine and his own too) but under more stress. He’s waiting for me to “go back to making the big bucks” so the responsibility is not all his. I’m pursuing other things so I don’t ever have to choose between my family and my job again.

    Despite living [initially] on 16% of our former income, we were surprisingly more happy than when he was at home and I was doing the daily killer commute and power career thing.

  13. […] Career Renegade – Dead Man Walking […]

  14. […] recently came across a brilliant post on the Career Renegade website called Dead Man Working. It’s a revealing look at a nation of sleepworkers — people spending far too much of […]

  15. When I was working full time, I had visions of myself in the future with children. Actually they were based on my coworkers, and how little they saw their kids. All the parents had photos of their kids as a desktop wallpaper, but they rarely left work before 7pm. I don’t know about you, but spending time with your kids should be a priority. Another toy for them is not going to make them as happy as spending time with you.

    I was fortunate my parents read to me before going to bed, they helped me with homework, and we ate meals together. I’m very close to my parents, and I’m grateful for what they did for me. I want to be in a position to do the same for my kids. 🙂

  16. Scott Myers says:

    Great post, Jonathan. And, I really enjoyed your book. Thanks for the good food for thought (and action)!