Growing up in a working-poor family, I internalized the need to constantly be in search of income opportunities. My parents set the example when I was a kid, working long hours, multiple jobs, or both. My family members were hardworking people of West Indies blood, and there were implicit rules for what my relationship with labor would become:
You should have more than one job.
You should not be complacent.
You should never turn down the opportunity to work.
My community reinforced lessons about working hard in school in order to be accepted to college and earn a good job. After parent-teacher conferences in middle school, I would shrink in the back seat of the car when my mom would criticize me for being content with a C, or tell me that “you don’t apply yourself.” I didn’t know what “apply yourself” meant, but I understood the gist: You’re being complacent. I learned that my success or failure as a person would be determined by where I chose to land on the spectrum of laziness to diligence. I learned that I was as good as my work.
In hindsight, I can see the obvious effects of capitalism and my lack of inherent self-worth on my life choices. I overcorrected as an adult: I triple majored in college, and I took 15 credits during summers. One semester, I took 22 credits while working night shifts at the computer lab and slept in my car. I took out a bajillion dollars in student loans for grad school. I currently have at least four jobs. To the part of me that fears complacency, those things are accomplishments. But to the larger part of me that knows better, they are deeply embarrassing.
I thought about the self-awareness of workaholics as I watched Hacks on HBO Max, which just finished its second season. You’ve likely already heard how amazing the series is—it’s smart and funny, and it gives the wonderful actor Jean Smart the kind of role she deserves—so I won’t get into that too much here. Suffice it to say that you’ll enjoy Hacks whether you’re in your 20s (like Ava, the young writer who is hired to work for a wealthy celebrity) or in a later stage of life (like Deborah, the legendary entertainer who is learning to reinvent her comedy through vulnerability). But I found myself rewatching Season 2, Episode 5, “Retired,” for its take on the paradox of self-aware work addicts.
In one scene, Ava and another member of Deborah’s team, Marcus, have time to kill at a circus as they wait for Deborah to perform. Their impulse is to work, but Ava convinces Marcus that they should take a break and enjoy the circus. They decide to have their caricatures drawn, and the experience highlights how different they are from people who live balanced lives.
“What do you guys do for a living?” the artist asks.
“I’m a writer,” Ava says.
“And I’m the chief executive officer for an entertainment personality’s media and consumer empire,” Marcus says with a straight face, not realizing how strange of an answer that is. The artist tries another tack, asking them what they do for fun.
“Writing,” Ava says after a pause.
“But isn’t that your job?” the artist asks.
“I own and manage several rental properties,” Marcus says.
“Look, guys, I’m kind of looking for hobbies here, you know? Something I could actually draw.” But Ava and Marcus are stumped, and they agree that the artist should just make something up.
Meanwhile, Deborah runs into an old friend, Susan, who had been equally talented at comedy in college, but had given up on a comedy career years ago and now lives a normal life. Deborah feels guilty for the competitiveness that made her succeed at Susan’s expense, but their time together also makes Deborah realize that Susan has completely different memories of their shared experiences. Susan recalled a comedy showcase in which Deborah’s daughter suffered a concussion backstage, and Deborah only remembered how well her closing joke landed with the audience.
The episode has small moments of reckoning, as is always the case in stories about overwork, but Hacks approaches the subject with a rare subtlety and empathy toward those who prioritize work over the rest of their lives. Its characters are aware of the toll that overwork takes on their families, relationships, and happiness, but knowing it doesn’t make it easier to stop working all the time.
“All this stupid, competitive shit,” Deborah says to Ava as they sit beside an empty pool. “For what?”
“I’m the same way,” Ava confesses. “I can’t turn it off either. And nothing matters more, even if it should.”
For me, not being able to “turn it off” is a source of simultaneous pride and shame. The ability to work past the point of exhaustion feels like a superpower that comes with a cost. And while I wish I could say that I’m better at work-life balance now, that’s not exactly true—I’ve simply become aware of the consequences of burnout and the potential for resentment from family, partners, or friends. While I take pride in the work I do, I take even more pride in the amount I can work without having a breakdown. The only difference between my college days and my life today is my recognition that no amount of diligence or accomplishment will satisfy the part of me that fears complacency.
I believe that most people who succumb to overwork are, like me, a certain kind of optimist. We believe in a “later” that doesn’t exist. Things will slow down. Things will get better right after this project, this week, this month, this year. There will be time for those other things later. It’s an obvious and embarrassing cliché. But Hacks brings a nuanced look to the costs and benefits of rejecting the quest for work-life balance, and maybe offers some hope for discovering who you are outside of your work. Because awareness of overwork isn’t always the problem—sometimes it’s learning to look at yourself without the accomplishments and like who you see, complacent or not.
Thanks to everyone who responded to last week’s Humans Being with examples of TV shows that they like but wouldn’t recommend! My favorite response came from Will, who wrote, “I think the series with the strongest ratio of enjoyment-to-difficulty-recommending might be The X-Files. I didn't start watching the show until 2014 or so, and boy did I love it at first … But the episodic format is a tough sell for a lot of people these days, everything with Mulder leaving the show and Scully's pregnancy is downright bad, and the whole government conspiracy has a very different flavor in the days of QAnon and the ‘deep state.’”
I’ll echo that sentiment by admitting that I never watched The X-Files because I wasn’t allowed to watch “demonic” programming growing up, so I only sneaked a few episodes here and there. (The one that stands out is the episode about the chupacabra, which terrified me as a kid.) So I tried watching it as an adult and yeah … no. Definitely file that right next to Space Jam under “universally beloved, but only good now through nostalgia.”
For anyone in Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., heads up that I’ll be in both cities this month to discuss my book, Piccolo Is Black: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Pop Culture! I’ll be in Philly at 2 p.m. this afternoon at Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, and Politics and Prose in D.C. next Saturday, June 18, at 5 p.m. Hope to see you there! And even if you can’t make it, you should still read my book and support indie bookstores!
This week’s book giveaway is Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, by Anne Helen Peterson. It’s an amazing book about people who live by a never-ending to-do list, and discusses the social and economic factors that have led to our culture of normalized burnout. Just send me an email telling me if you consider yourself a workaholic or not, and I’ll send the book to a random person who hits my inbox. You can reach me at email@example.com, or find me on Twitter at @JordanMCalhoun.