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We Need to Stop Making Workaholism Look Sexy (and Necessary for Success)

At least there’s a growing backlash against it

In an age of increasing attention toward the importance of work-life balance and taking paternity leave, it’s curious that we’re still pushing workaholism as a necessary ingredient of (male) success. A recent ad for Apple’s new competitive reality show Planet of the Apps ran a Twitter ad featuring app developer Andrew Kemendo, who created the app Pair, with the caption “I rarely get to see my kids. That’s a risk you have to take.”

The ad was taken down after being roundly criticized by just about everyone for its glorification of shitty fathering, but not before it was screenshotted and mocked into oblivion:

It’s no secret that Silicon Valley has long pushed a culture of workaholism, but that attitude has recently begun to be challenged from within by tech leaders who insist that it’s damaging and misleading.

While others still maintain that great (i.e., billion-dollar) companies aren’t built on 40-hour work weeks.

According to Basecamp co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson, we can blame venture capitalists for this mindset. Hansson wrote recently:

It’s not hard to understand why such a mythology serves the interest of money men who spread their bets wide and only succeed when unicorns emerge. Of course they’re going to desire fairytale sacrifices. There’s little to no consequence to them if the many fall by the wayside, spent to completion trying to hit that home run. Make me rich or die tryin’.

As a counter, he offers examples of prodigious thinkers and athletes who succeeded with a meaningful work-life balance, citing Darwin’s leisurely work pace and the fact that LeBron James gets 12 hours of sleep a night.

“So don’t tell me that there’s something uniquely demanding about building yet another fucking startup that dwarfs the accomplishments of The Origin of Species or winning five championship rings,” Hansson wrote. “It’s bullshit.” In the end, he concludes, “Workaholism is a disease. We need treatment and coping advice for those afflicted, not cheerleaders for their misery.”

While the culture in which Andrew Kemendo wants to succeed is to blame for sending mixed messages about what’s required of him, studies show the workaholic is more of a personality type anyway. It often involves an intersection of narcissism and perfectionism. Whereas the hard worker will bust their ass to get the job done, then take some time to regroup and reschedule—all while remaining involved in family or social life—the workaholic never slows their roll.

“They are obsessed with their work performance and hooked on an adrenalin-high,” psychiatrist Barbara Killinger writes at Psychology Today of the concept. “Bent on self-aggrandizement, these ego-driven folks reach one goal, and immediately set another more ambitious one.”

Killinger’s decades-long research into the phenomenon shows that many workaholics were pushed into adult responsibilities early — the death of a parent, for instance. Some grew up in families where love was given only when performance conditions were met. Killinger writes:

They are often the “good kid” who does well at school, excels at sports, and doesn’t cause much trouble. Although workaholics rarely acknowledge their own angry outbursts, when deep anger does surface to consciousness, one of its sources is reported to be the fact that these overly- responsible adults never had a carefree childhood.

There’s more nuance to the phenomenon, and it manifests in different ways — some workaholics aim to please, she writes, while others are motivated more by control. It’s also not only a dude thing. Women can be workaholics, too—and because the idea of a woman who works herself to the bone while neglecting her family is still so novel and unacceptable, workaholic women experience more work-family conflict, and are more likely to be chastised for it by friends and family members, according to one study.

Given the likelihood that workaholism is more of a personality type than the result of broader cultural forces, it’s hard to imagine that Kemendo or other workaholics like him could ever be shamed out of it.

Still, it’s one thing to acknowledge a culture that rewards an obsessive approach to work, and quite another to brag about never seeing your kid, as if it’s somehow an acceptable metric of your devotion. The backlash proves at least that such people can be shamed out of something—throwing their children on the sacrificial altar. Or, at least, that they may get the good sense not to do so publicly.