2012-01-15

My name is Chris, and I'm a workaholic

In the small-town elementary school I went to, the teachers read us Aesop's "Fable of the Ants and the Grasshopper". They asked us what the moral of the story was, and prodded us into giving the usual answers. First, save for a rainy day. Second, hard work is a virtue that always pays off in the end.

John Maynard Keynes popularized the paradox of thrift in the 1930s, and by the postwar boom of the late 40s, everyone agreed he was right. Decades later, ants and uncles still teach the impressionable young grasshoppers of the Western world that thrift is a virtue. I believed this until Grade 9, when I was first exposed to Keynesian economics through a geography class. But I continued to believe the fable's other lesson, that hard work was a virtue, until this past Saturday.


I stumbled upon WebMD's old article "Are You A Workaholic?" I already knew workaholics tended to neglect their families, but I didn't think I needed to worry. After all, I was firmly against having kids, and so would my wife have to be if I was going to get married. What surprised me was hearing that workaholics also harm their coworkers (by micromanaging and having unrealistic expectations) and their employers and customers (by producing overengineered, unimaginative work).

WebMD linked to Workaholics Anonymous' 20 Questions. Since workaholism isn't listed in the DSM-IV yet, this is probably the closest thing to a medical endorsement that an online self-test can have. According to WA, 3 "yes" answers is enough to warrant seeking help. I scored 16!

FM-2030 writes in Are You a Transhuman?: Monitoring and Stimulating Your Personal Rate of Growth in a Rapidly Changing World:
Such a work-intensive lifestyle—however gratifying to neurotic needs—is highly specialized and leaves large areas of intelligence and personality stunted. [...] In our new environment which demands multifacetedness the workaholic is inefficient. 
Workaholics are rarely creative. [... C]reativity is a
necessary asset in the postindustrial world.
How do I reconcile this with the economic analysis of my last three posts? In them, I concluded that I'd more or less have to be a workaholic to prosper, at least until well after the Singularity. My answer brings me back to the paradox of thrift: both thrift and workaholism are (at least for me and some other people) examples of the Prisoner's Dilemma.

In the graph at left, Curve B represents the net effect your existence has on society. If you work too little, you don't pull your weight. But if you work too much, you're drawing a paycheck without increasing your real productive output, and you're neglecting or overworking everyone around you. If you keep your work and life in balance, you're enriching the lives of your friends, your family, your co-workers and the economy.

If your own competing motivations also add up to Curve B, the work-life balance that's best for society will be best for you as well, and you won't face a Prisoner's Dilemma. Thus, while being on Curve B doesn't guarantee a healthy work-life balance, it probably maximizes the chance of one.

If you're on Curve A, you're under-motivated. You may work as much as someone who's on Curve B out of a sense of altruism, but not out of enlightened self-interest. For you, having a full-time job means sacrificing your own happiness for the common good.

If you're on Curve C like me, you'll tend to be a workaholic. Either you have too many perverse incentives to work, or you're intrinsically over-motivated. Maintaining a work-life balance again means sacrificing your own happiness for the common good, so you face the Prisoner's Dilemma just like people on Curve A. The only difference is that on Curve C, defecting means more work than cooperating.

How did my motivation curve end up so skewed? I blame several causes:

  • The school system's overrating of hard work as a virtue, of which the Ants and the Grasshopper lesson is a concrete example.
  • During my high school and undergraduate studies, I was often been given very high marks on projects where I made overambitious decisions, despite the lacklustre results. This leads me to fear wasting my potential more than I fear overambition.
  • I take a prescription amphetamine for Asperger Syndrome. During periods of heavy workload, I occasionally take more than the prescribed dose. Apparently workaholism involves dopamine-receptor activity, which amphetamines increase. Dopamine, workaholism and performance-enhancing amphetamines sound to me like the building blocks of a vicious cycle, but I'll have to research this topic further. It means a deep dive into neuroeconomics.
  • The only future scenarios I find plausible are those that lead, between about 2030 and 2060, to either a technological singularity or human extinction. Naturally, this leads me to attach quasi-religious importance to the continuing progress of science and technology. It's hard to be rational and quasi-religious at the same time.
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