The sinister side of Work Ethic

ice cream cone

Summers were always a fertile season for productivity.

We spent them in France and I came prepared.

SAT flash cards.
A “Beginner’s Guide to HTML” book.
Ankle weights to spice up the workouts.

Then at night we’d go get ice cream.

But there was a problem. The Ice Cream shop was closed.


Where was the Work Ethic?

I was incredulous.

To close an ice cream shop – for a month – during PEAK tourist season?

It was like a lottery winner refusing to claim their jackpot because they didn’t want the hassle of managing the money.

And as a striving teenager committed to getting into an Ivy League, all I could ask was:

Where on earth was their Work Ethic?

After all, I had built myself up to be a heat-seeking missile of punctuality, reliability, diligence and professionalism.

I was consumed by learning, growing and excellence.

And here was an Ice Cream shop turning away “free money.”

Why do we vilify Leisure?

The owners were not prioritizing productivity. Instead, they were prioritizing leisure.

To my younger self, that was blasphemous.

But today – deeply ensconced in midlife – I find myself wondering: is there a sinister side of work ethic?

One that breeds anxiety, injects you with self-loathing, robs you of the present and emotionally detaches you from the people you love most.

I wonder.

Work Ethic has always been my “secret weapon.”

As a young kid, I made websites for local businesses.

I taught myself how to invest in High School.

I got into Yale. Majored in Computer Science.

Worked on Wall Street. Got promoted to MD.

Became a moderately-successful entrepreneur.

I proudly place these achievements on the pedestal of Work Ethic.

What are the hidden costs of Work Ethic?

The burnout of constantly and relentlessly pushing yourself to do more. (And never being satisfied.)

The toll on my physical health. High blood pressure. Alopecia. Binge drinking. 15 years of 6 hours of sleep. Grinding all the enamels off of my teeth. (The list goes on.)

And the deleterious individualism. Praying to the altar of the self. The flawed and isolationary belief that this was all “because of me.”

Could it be that my single-minded focus on work come at a devastatingly steep cost?

And would the owners of the Ice Cream shop be aghast if they were to see my NYC lifestyle?

(Crossfit → Wall Street → Side Hustling → All while listening to audiobooks at 2x speed.)

How’s your Life Ethic?

I’ve come to believe that the Ice Cream store (and Europeans, generally speaking) had mastered a different ethic: Life Ethic.

Life Ethic takes the Deferred Life Plan and flips it on its head.

Instead of waiting until retirement to travel, you take more time off today.

Instead of eating on the go, you leisurely enjoy meals with loved ones.

Instead of hiring life coaches, you have deep emotional intimacy with your partner, friends and community.

And you take naps. (I mean, Americans thought it was nuts when we could “work out” in the middle of the day during the pandemic.)

How much Life Ethic do you need?

Now there’s an inherent paradox between Life Ethic and Work Ethic.

Work Ethic is about doing. It’s about WHAT we do and WHAT we accomplish.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Life Ethic is about being. How we interact with leisure, loved ones, food, the arts and nature.

So how do we build lives where Work Ethic and Life Ethic coexist in harmony?

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