Friday, December 5, 2008

On the Exaltation of Exhaustion

Huffington Post founder and editor Arianna Huffington makes a compelling case contrary to the American "ideal" of what constitutes success. Is it truly the ones who work themselves into exhaustion, the people who truly do not "have a life" who are most successful? Check it out:

This morning on the CBS Early Show I was asked about Ed Rendell's off-mic assessment that Janet Napolitano is a "perfect" choice for Homeland Security Secretary because she has "no life," "no family" and "can devote, literally, 19-20 hours a day" to the job. Did I think his comment was sexist?

I didn't. But I do think it is emblematic of a pervasive misperception in America: the idea that to be a success you have to drive yourself into the ground, and that making work the be-all and end-all of your life is a good thing.

I've touched on this before: The prevailing culture tells us that nothing succeeds like excess, that working 80 hours a week is better than working 70, that being plugged in 24/7 is expected, and that sleeping less and multi-tasking more are an express elevator to the top.

Rendell's paean to workaholism epitomizes this wrong-headed approach to achievement. Indeed, the truth is the exact opposite. It turns out people are not only happier -- they are also much more productive if they are able to get away from work, and renew their passion and focus.

The alternative approach is what has led to America being awash in heart disease, high blood pressure, and other stress-related ailments.

The Sauce
Your faithful Bernays Sauce editor has been there. I've spent many a 16 or 18-hour day with my nose to the grindstone....and I don't mean occasionally. I'm talking about working those kinds of hours for weeks at a time. I would work myself sick. I'd gain weight, smoke, drink way too much coffee...I was plagued with intense cluster headaches and just plain felt and looked bad.

What did it get me? Not much. My job performance began to go down because I was so exhausted mentally and physically.

A few years ago I had a bit of an epiphany. I'll spare you the details; suffice it to say that I'm into my forties now and I still work hard--sometimes with very long hours. But I also have a newborn daughter and interests outside work. I balance my work life with a healthy family relationship, regular trips to the gym and writing fiction in my spare time. I also read...a lot. I pay attention to popular culture.

Guess what? I'm successful. I do quality, respected work that benefits my clients. When necessary, of course I pull a long day--but I strive to make that the exception, not the rule.

What it boils down to is this: a mentally and physically exhausted, ill-informed public relations professional is more than just ineffective: they're a genuine liability. To be at your best as a public relations professional you need to have a balanced life. Recharge the batteries. Take time to read and know what's going on in the world. Be truly present when you're with your family--put the Crackberry away and play with the kids. You'll do fresher work, make fewer mistakes and your enthusiasm for your work will increase.

Recently, I had the honor of speaking in a session at the Kansas City Ad Club career day. The luncheon keynote speaker was Brian Brooker, CEO & Chief Creative Officer of Barkley, one of the largest independent ad agencies in the U.S. He gave a great talk about his career and what up-and-coming young people should expect from a life in the agency world. One thing he was very clear about was his disdain for "pulling all-nighters." I'm paraphrasing here, but Brooker warned that too many long nights equated with mediocre work. He told the audience that they need to have a balance between their work and personal lives. Not what I expected to hear from the leader of such a prominent, successful agency--but I'm glad he said it.

I will add this caveat: in a down economy such as the one we labor in today it is not a good time to appear to be anything less than essential to your employer or clients. But you still need to keep that work/life balance, or the quality of your work can suffer and may make a difference in keeping that job or client after all.

Now take a break! The comments section is open for your opinions and stories.

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