Knowing When Work Has Taken Over Your Life

May 9, 2011

I recently heard some news about a colleague from my residency. He’s doing quite well for himself, holding a full-time job and also covering extra hours on the side. I know more than a few full-time radiologists whose annual salaries are less than half of what he’s earning, so it was a surprise to learn that he’s feeling frustrated. His dissatisfaction is not due to his long hours; his central issue is that his annual take is below the million-dollar mark.

I recently heard some news about a colleague from my residency. He’s doing quite well for himself, holding a full-time job and also covering extra hours on the side. Although this means having little vacation-time and working through at least half of his weekends, he’s raking it in, hand over fist. I know more than a few full-time radiologists whose annual salaries are less than half of what he’s earning. So, it was a surprise to learn that he’s feeling frustrated and unhappy with his state of affairs. It was even more perplexing to hear that his dissatisfaction is not due to his long hours or quality of life. His central issue is that his annual take is below the million-dollar mark.

Why a million per year? No particular reason -  at least, none he could verbalize. He just decided that this was a benchmark that might satisfy him.

His educational loans are paid off, or nearly so. He doesn’t have an expensive house with a hefty mortgage, doesn’t go on super-expensive vacations or drive high-end sports cars, and doesn’t have monthly financial obligations such as alimony or child support. Nevertheless, in the pursuit of this arbitrary number, he’s willing to routinely work himself to the point of burnout with virtually no time off to recuperate.

Change a couple of the variables, and the scenario becomes much more familiar: A newly-minted Board diplomate, for instance, with massive debt (financial aid, auto loan, and mortgage, to name a few typical sources). Factor in a spouse (or soon-to-be spouse) and/or kids…and if you really want to pile it on, you can add an ex-spouse or two. Throw in some premium-payments from decent insurance policies (disability, life, umbrella, etc.), regular contributions to investment and/or retirement accounts.

Suddenly, that post-residency salary isn’t looking all that generous anymore. The temptation can be great to find extra work to bankroll these financial drains, let alone have a bit of cash left over to buy some optional extras - evenings out, vacations abroad, or even just some nicer furnishings and quality electronics around the house.

For some folks, cash is king-money is not the means, but the end itself. This is not necessarily a bad thing; for instance, it can be comforting to know that you have more stashed away in the bank than you could ever possibly need.

Some corporate CEO-types liken their millions to a way of keeping score, and find it satisfying to know just how much ahead of their peers they are.

I have known a few people who plan to work harder now so they can retire earlier than they otherwise might. I hope that they are able to follow through on their plans; that is, when their target-date arrives, they can truly let themselves relax and enjoy, rather than working just a little bit longer…then a little bit longer…until they realize they’re never actually letting themselves cross the finish-line.

Such motivations are, of course, highly variable, and what makes perfect sense to one person may seem arbitrary, silly, or downright ludicrous to someone else. It never hurts to consider that the “someone else” may one day be you, looking back on what you’re doing right now.

To tweak an old quote: You work for a living. Don’t kill yourself working.