My friend Paul Chen has written a very provocative article about comparing the work practices of Chinese and American companies. Paul’s article says, among other things, that he’s writing a book on how Silicon Valley can learn from the experiences of China’s start-up tech companies. You can find his article at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-you-can-benefit-from-996-vs-work-life-balance-china-chen-%E9%99%88%E6%89%AC%E6%B4%8B-/
That lesson would be, it seems, that working fast and furious, twelve hours a day, six days a week, enables companies to develop new products and markets at lightning speed. Silicon Valley’s 955 - nine-to-five, five days a week – style has some benefits, too, but it could lead to loss of market share to China’s new companies.
Paul ,who describes his work pace in previous years as 007 – working until midnight, seven days a week - says he plans to compose an article on balancing life and work. I’m writing in ignorance of his thoughts in this aspect of the question, therefore.
First, a bit about myself. I suffered a physical breakdown in May 2018. It wasn’t my first. Similar crashes sidelined me in 2001 and 2013, with mini-crashes occurring every few years, sometimes more often. In each case, working too hard was a major factor in my collapse. I’m still recovering from last year’s crash; I think I’m back to about 90% of where I was before I broke down.
But that’s not all. Since the early 1990s, I’ve struggled with fibromyalgia, a very distracting and sometimes debilitating condition that makes you feel as if you have either a mild or a severe case of the flu most of the time. Although mental-emotional stresses have been major drivers of this illness, working too hard for too long has made things worse. One component of this, for me and for many, is chronic fatigue, which has plagued me for almost thirty years. For decades, close friends and colleagues have said that I seem to be attempting to accomplish the work that two or even three men could reasonably be expected to do.
So, I know a little about the relationship between work and health.
What drives me?
This past year, as I was placed on mandatory sabbatical leave by my Board, I had time to read and reflect. One book showed me that I’m a workaholic.
That surprised me, because, despite working hard, I take regular midday siestas and sometimes rest for an hour or so at one or two other times in the day. I observe the Lord’s Day strictly, doing no work of any kind. I talk walks and go on dates with Dori. I exercise regularly each day. I don’t fit the profile of the workaholic.
The author of that book is a psychiatrist, however, and he probes the heart, the motives. He helped me understand that my work is too important to me. Dori has always said that I think about my work all the time.
That means that my work occupies my attention most of the time. In other words, I am pro-occupied with my work. You could say that I’m obsessed with it. Like a drug, it dominates my inner and outer life. I am a workaholic. In other words, I have made my work into an alternate god, an idol.
I say, “I am,” because this sort of addiction doesn’t go away just because you know you have it. You have to dig out the roots of it, and kill persistent habits, before you can break free. I’ve begun to do this, but I’m still in progress. I have to watch my thoughts, and guard my impulse to keep working even when I’m tired; to take more frequent breaks; to think about something else; to listen to the birds in my back yard.
So, what’s driving me?
Fundamentally, I am seeking to justify myself by my performance; specifically, by the books and articles I wrote or edit.
In addition, I work in order to generate income. I’m afraid that if I don’t continue to produce, my supporters will stop giving to our organization.
Beneath these motives, there is another: I’m still trying to prove to my father that I’m just as worthy of his love and respect as my middle brother Rodger, who was an outstanding athlete like our father. My father died in 1970, but his opinion still matters.
And even deeper than that, I clearly lack faith in God as my Father, who loves me and will take care of me. I lack faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ, who died for my sins and was raised for my justification.
On the contrary, unlike John the Baptist, who said, “I am not the Christ,” I seem to have an implicit belief that I am capable of doing far more than I really can. I also seem to believe that my efforts are necessary for the “salvation” of others.
Furthermore, I’m ashamed to admit it, but I enjoy the praise I sometimes receive when I accomplish something, like write a good article.
To put it in other terms, I am seeking to be considered "successful."
What is work?
Switching the subject for a moment, let me share something our pastor at the time said several decades ago: “Work” includes all the task that I must perform, not just the ones for which I am compensated.
Washing dishes is work, as is taking out the garbage, weeding our flower garden, washing the care, paying bills, etc.
So, the commandment to work six days applies to all sorts of work, not just my paying job. That’s why I don’t “work” all day on Saturday. I save time for necessary chores, like mowing the lawn.
What is success?
It seems to me that “success” is the true god of many people. By success, I mean a level of performance that not only earns enough money to live on, to supply the needs of family and to contribute to the advancement of God's kingdom, but that garners the admiration of my peers and of the world in general. I suppose I have to admit that some for of "success" has been an idol for me.
But what is success, really?
For Christians, success consists in doing what pleases God and honors him. We “measure” that partly by how well we keep his commands. Those commands encompass all of life: loving God, honoring our parents, loving our spouse, bringing up our children, living with integrity.
More than that, God commands that we love him with all our being, and our neighbor as ourselves. He also requires that we be content and thankful, not always greedy for more money, power, or praise. That presupposes that we will be reading, memorizing, and meditating on God's Word day and night (see Psalm 1:1-3; Joshua 1:8).
Going back to the 996 vs 955 debate: Will Chinese companies that push their employees, or Westerners who work all the time, really be able to generate long-term creative productivity?
Paul mentions the value of taking time just to think and reflect. That does seem necessary for sustained innovation.
At a minimum, to me that means taking one full day off from all sorts of “work.” Saturdays can be reserved for non-paying work.
There’s more, however.
I have discovered that if you are driven by fear or ambition, you will wear out your body and your mind. In the past year, I have slowed down, checked my motives, sunk my mental and emotional roots deeper into God’s love, read and pondered more of his wisdom-filled Word, and taken even more time to relax with Dori and our grandson.
I spend more time reading the Bible and in prayer. Sometimes I just ask God what’s on his mind in general and what’s on his mind for me.
One benefit of such prayer is that I have deleted some tasks from my “to do” list. I mean, big things that I planned to do, like write more books.
These actions free up space and energy to focus on fewer things and to ask for wisdom about how to do them well.
Today is Saturday and I’m going to take a walk with Dori in a few minutes, so I’ll close
Frankly, I think we need to re-orient ourselves toward God and away from the expectations of others, including our parents, our peers, and our spouse.
We need to re-define “success” to include health and “happiness,” not money, power, or prestige. Such happiness includes loving relationship with our spouse and children, as well as with other believers. Nothing relaxes or energizes us as much as love does!
What does worldly “success” mean if we are tense, anxious, and tired, and if our marriages are dry or even broken?
We need to seek satisfaction in God, his will and his love, and not in our performance or others’ responses to us.
We need to give up trying to justify ourselves by what we do, and rest in the love of God, who demonstrated his love for us by sending Christ to die for our sins and be raised for our justification.
We need to spend time listening to him in his Word and speaking to him in prayer, not just individually but with our spouses, children, and fellow believers.
I’m slowly learning a different way of living and I like it very much.