What happened to achievement?

Several years ago, my son came home from school with a report card that included mostly B’s and A’s. When asked about the B’s, his response was that his teacher said that B’s were good. In fact, he said that his teacher told him that it’s okay to strive for B’s or even C’s (“as long as you pass”)—and not work so hard to get A’s.

We have become a society of underachievers.

Consider these facts: workaholics have higher social status, exceptional achievers live longer, and the ten most workaholic nations in the world produce most of the world’s GDP.

It’s not uncommon to hear complaints about how much e-mail and smartphones have taken over our lives. But let’s get serious for a minute. Has technology really taken over our lives? Or are we saying we’re overworked because technology runs our lives?

When we let technology run our lives, we end up wasting time on e-mail, cell phones, playing games on smartphones or computers … so much so that we become underachievers. Underachievers don’t complain about working hard on the trivial, but when it comes to working hard on the important, a proclamation of “overwork” is made.

The world’s most influential people such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerburg, J.K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, and others rise to the top because they worked (and continue to work) hard to accomplish the important. Their passions drive them to succeed. These people are not overworked. It is not possible to be overworked if you love what you are doing.

For those that underachieve and proclaim to be overworked, perhaps the blame rests with personal coaches, bosses, teachers, and other authority figures—those who say, “There, there, you will do better next time.” Failure does not guarantee success next time. And giving an “’atta boy” for each failure only reinforces the failure.

With continued underachievement, our society’s general level of ambition is also threatened. Chamorro-Premuzic observes this about the younger generation: “If you go to China and East Asia, Gen Y is totally different, consumed with ambition, very similar to post-Second World War Americans and Canadians, who took advantage of a booming economy to set out to run the world.”

Now ambition is withering. He says: “We’re behaving like people who say that we don’t like chocolate ice cream because we can’t get chocolate ice cream. In the rest of the world, they want chocolate ice cream.”

The way to become an achiever and never be overworked again is to stop working in a job, get a career, and embrace hard work. These are the only ways to succeed—both personally and for your organization.

Taming the Workaholic

Hi. My name is Mary and I used to be a workaholic.

Ever since I can remember, I would spend endless hours “doing.” First it was school projects, then work projects for my employer, and then in the 1980s when I started my own business, I spent endless hours working in, on, and for my business. And somewhere in between, I also spent countless hours volunteering for various associations, this on top of my already full work and family schedules. Why am I telling you this? Because along the way, I learned from experience and research that being a workaholic is not only counterproductive, but it can ultimately kill you or, at the very least, make you very tired and maybe even very sick. Here’s what else I learned.

Working more than 35 to 40 hours a week does not contribute proportionally to your productivity. In fact, studies have shown that industrial workers that worked eight-hour days produced the same amount of widgets as those that worked 10-hour days. However, occasional overtime can yield results, but the gains won’t be directly proportional to the time worked. For example, if the work week is extended by 50 percent, say from 40 to 60 hours, there would only be a 25-30 percent increase in productivity. This is because people typically do their best work between hours two and six of an eight-hour work day. After that, fatigue may affect productivity. In addition, if overtime is sustained over a long period of time, fewer productivity will result because of sustained mental exhaustion.

It turns out that factory workers may be able to turn out a fairly productive eight-hour day; whereas, knowledge workers are not as productive. Productivity for knowledge workers maxes out at about six hours a day (not eight). On top of this, research by the US military has shown that cognitive decline is equivalent to a .10 blood alcohol level with even just one hour less sleep per night. What this means is that if you’re not getting enough sleep, regardless if you’re a factory or knowledge worker, you may be making the same quality decisions as a person who is inebriated. Think about that the next time you show up for a full day’s work when you didn’t get quality sleep the night before.

Workaholics be aware: you are doing yourself and your organization a disservice. You will be far more productive sticking to a 35-to-40 hour work week. If you’re having difficulty adjusting down, speak to a coach or therapist and get back on track to getting your life back. You’ll be glad you did.