Being A Chronic Overachiever: I Had No Idea What It Would Cost

Being A Chronic Overachiever: I Had No Idea What It Would Cost

Iremember that my father was absent more than he was home. And when he was home, he revealed little about who he was, although we heard in conversations between my mother and him quite a bit about what he did.

When I think about the time when I was six or seven years old growing up in Ohio, my strongest memories of my father are of him leaving for work either to his office in downtown Columbus or to his home office. It wasn't just that he was home less than he was at work. There was something important about the ritual of him preparing for work on any given day. He was off to do important things. He was off to do business, to work, to provide for us. Our mother made it clear to my sister, my brother, and to me that HE WAS WORKING. It wasn't really important what he "did," but that he was working, and work was something you talked about very seriously.

My father was self-employed. That meant he didn't have bosses in the traditional sense of the word. However, he was a sales representative, which meant, among other things, that he actually had a number of bosses because he represented five or six manufacturing companies. He had to make those men happy with his performance, and had to make his customers happy, too. Making all those people happy took a great deal of work. He was always overseeing some near-catastrophe, real or imagined, lest these folks be unhappy for a single moment.

If his leaving in the morning was an important ritual, waiting for Dad to come home had an air of expectation. Did he have a good day? Or a bad one? Was there some crisis left at the office that would cast a shadow over the night? Because even if Dad wasn't outright angry about work, even if he didn't take it out on his family as mine sometimes did, if Dad had a bad or unproductive day, we had to be respectful of it. No one would have dared to challenge him on this: "Come on, Dad, maybe it wasn't so bad," or "Gee, Dad, maybe you can just solve the problem the way you solved all the others." Work was something magical and difficult and not to be shrugged off. It was mystery and tyranny all wrapped together in his life.

The sad part was that in making all those people happy, my father was rarely around for us -- to be made happy or not. We never wanted for anything, at least not materially. What I found out as I was growing up is that all we wanted was him. But what we got was his anger and his frustration about his work, which swallowed up most of any time he might have had for us. It wasn't an act of cruelty or dishonesty. He simply did not know how to interact with his children, or often our mother, or even in superficial social situations with friends (and he didn't have any to speak of). The center of his attention was his business, as it was his father's and, most probably, his grandfather's.

Did Dad Have A Good Day Or A Bad Day?

I've talked to a lot of men with similar memories. The success of the balance of the day rested on the answer to the $64,000 question: Had Dad had a good day or a bad day? If Dad had had a bad day, we intuitively backed off, Mom swept in with a drink and sympathy, and we kept our distance until the coast was clear. If Dad had had a good day, we could fly into his arms, share some happy news, or maybe dump our own problems -- the brother who'd been mean to us, the best friend who wouldn't play with us, the bad test score, how we'd blown it on the soccer or football field.

We should have been longing to see our Dad turn up the sidewalk or pull into the driveway, but a lot of us waited with a sense of trepidation, even fear. Sometimes we were relieved when he had to work late again -- relieved at not having to walk around on tiptoe and whisper to give Dad a break after his hard day. It was just easier not to be on guard.

My father knew no "normal" office hours. Nor did we. You could find him at his desk at 9:30 at night and at 7:00 the next morning. I knew that he worked incredibly hard. He sacrificed himself for us. He was largely anonymous, but loved for what he provided for us. He was desperately unhappy, but we didn't really recognize it because there was virtue in his immersion in his work. To make matters even more convoluted, my mother began to work for him as his "right hand" (read: secretary). So now we got the same message twice: "We're both killing ourselves here, but look at the schools you're attending and the cars in the garage."

We all have an image of Americans in the fifties glorying in cocktail parties and backyard barbecues and taking long, lazy motor trips across the country. Europe opened up as a tourist destination, and Disneyland beckoned us. But my parents socialized little, or when they did, it was often work related. My family took few vacations.

The Virtuous Worker: Working All The Time To Be Able To Enjoy Life?

The hypocrisy of working all the time to be able to enjoy life may be obvious to some, but not to all of us. In our house, we were made aware, intentionally or not, of how privileged and truly fortunate we were to have the home we had, the clothes we wore, the way we were perceived by the community. We felt every effort and the energy my father expended to provide for us. I honestly don't believe my parents were aware of how intensely they transmitted this value to us.

I remember my own birthday parties as a child. They were always well planned and a great time for the guests. My father would be present for perhaps the first hour, but would then slip away to his office because he had an important call to return or an order to finalize. His hard work allowed me, year after to year, to receive incredible gifts -- the best bike, a television for my room (extravagant then), even a car when I turned sixteen. It sounds cliché, but as welcome as the gifts were, I would have been much happier to have had him there as an active participant in the gathering.

Looking back now, I realize how uncomfortable he would have been in this social situation. He, too, was a man who mistook his job for a life. This is why my parents would so often discuss work at dinner, during a drive to see my grandparents, or even on Christmas eve -- there were no "sacred moments" reserved for family. The house was a beehive; a place of business -- the work ethic observed night and day. The backdrop of my life involved carbon paper, files, phone calls, typewriters humming, and the house smelling of Pine-Sol and Spic and Span. But for all the buzz, there was often little else. Take away the work, take away the activity, and what did we have? If you're not careful, that's what hard work and dedication can get you: a house full of unhappy people, waiting for the mailman. We unconsciously absorbed a crucial equation: Virtue = Work

So, you do the math. Dad's life really is about work. Dad is his job. Dad is not Dad unless he's away, or on the phone, or at the office. And Dad is to be admired; why, he's a positive saint, he works so hard. If I ever thought my father's obsession with work would teach me otherwise, it didn't. I admired my father's ethic and, like any child, desperately wanted his approval. Like it or not, I became a facsimile of my father. My father was not solely to blame for this, nor was my mother. It goes beyond the home.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

It took me years to figure out how unhappy my parents were, slaving away under their self-imposed requirements for what needed to be done. At the time, I didn't know any better, and I even liked the business. It made me feel important, too. And so when my dad would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, even if I didn't know, I would always have an answer. That answer would always be something that I thought would make him proud.

Little boys (and little girls) learn a great deal by observation, aping and mimicking the behaviors of their parents and adults they admire. And what we learn is that being busy indicates work, which is virtuous. I wanted to be loved, to be seen as virtuous, so I copied some of my dad's behaviors. I got busy, or at least learned how to appear busy. I really wasn't "producing" anything. My schoolwork showed that I wasn't too busy. I was busy being away from the house. I wanted to be away all day, and all night. I didn't want to be in a place where joy was suspect -- where watching TV was seen as a total waste of time, where if you didn't have a "project," you were told you were "at loose ends."

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Even at that early age, I learned to inflate how busy I was. If I had a book report due, it didn't matter how hard it was to do, what was important was to make it seem hard and time consuming and in need of my full attention. I've had friends whose fathers regarded their reading books as wasting time, and one whose father sent him out to the yard to pick up sticks if he caught his son watching Saturday morning cartoons. ("Don't you have anything better to do?") I had another friend whose dad was always up by 6:30 every day on the weekend to get an early jump on the house chores. The message we all internalized was a more modern version of "Idle hands are the Devil's workshop." Ah, the great escape into the garage . . .

But even for all my best acting efforts, my father and mother knew that schoolwork wasn't all that hard, and they made sure we knew it too. They were always very clear, and not in a harsh way, but in a very restrained way, that the work adults did was much harder, more demanding, with so much more at stake: "Just wait until you have children of your own." It was demeaning. I couldn't live up to my father's idea of productivity. None of us could.

Gradually, like a lot of kids, I learned how to coast. But I knew if I continued, I'd not only lose any respect my father had for me, I'd also not be "successful." And so I realized, probably when I was just about to hit puberty, that I wanted to be the best little boy in the world. And I set out to prove I would be.

Because I was already the "peacekeeper" in the family, it only made sense that I'd also be the most "productive," and gain further favor. I just had to figure out what kind of work I'd do, how much of it would make me virtuous, and think about how my father would respect me for working myself to death. I was the self-appointed "good child" in the family -- and I proved it by being very successful.

I had no idea what it would cost.

Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. Copyright 2001. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced
or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Article Source:

The Man Who Mistook His Job for a Life: A Chronic Overachiever Finds the Way Home
by Jonathon Lazear.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book

About The Author

Jonathon Lazear, a literary agent, lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is at work on his first novel, A Timeshare on the River Styx. He is the author of Remembrance of Father, Remembrance of Mother, Meditations for Men Who Do Too Much, Meditations for Parents Who Do Too Much, as well as The Man Who Mistook His Job for a Life.


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