Working in the news business is not, and never will be a cushy 9-5 job. I have worked all hours, from the early shift to the late shift, and even nine months of overnight, from 11pm until 7am. Morning beers, evening breakfast, afternoon coffee, stale bagels at 3am, I’ve done it all.
But there is something to be said about finding a happy medium within these caddywhompus hours, squeezing in time for friends and family and activities that don’t include writing headlines and getting bylines.
Since moving to New York half a decade ago (gasp!), I’ve done that as best I could, joining several choirs, including the New York Choral Society and later the Collegiate Chorale, and exploring the far corners of this glorious metropolis one coffee shop at a time. But my first week-long vacation wasn't until the fall of 2011, nearly four years into my career. And my current schedule makes it difficult to be involved in any sort of organized extracurricular activity, let alone carving out time for friends and family.
I’m completely committed to my job, and enjoy the company of my co-workers. My commute is reasonable, and I can tell you that there’s nothing more satisfying than going home after a long day’s work to see your quotes splashed across the page, and the knowledge that your story informed and enlightened, even if only a little.
But there is a limit. After a certain point, the brain stops being sharp, the copy starts getting sloppy, and facts are looked over or missed entirely. Study after study has shown that the body needs rest and the brain needs a certain amount of time to unhinge itself from waking life.
There is also one's health to consider. Medical research indicates that those who sleep irregularly or not enough are more prone to diseases, weight gain, and depression. I gained a good ten pounds while working the overnight shift, though part of that is most likely because of the close proximity to Magnolia Bakery and how the croissants were always freshly baked by quittin' time.
And it is hardly coincidental that stories like the Lehman Brothers executive who ran herself ragged in order to climb the ranks to CFO lost her first marriage to divorce, or the lawyer who had to juggle 18-hour days at the firm as well as mommy duties finally threw in the towel and gave up her career.
There also has to be a reason why Anne-Marie Slaughter’s June/July 2012 cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” has more than 211,000 “likes” on Facebook. And nearly a year and a half later manages to keep its finger on the pulse of a cultural Zeitgeist.
We are at the cusp of some cultural paradigm shift. Or, at least, we should be.
New York culture itself is the mortal enemy of a holistic life. I’ve gone months without seeing some of my dearest friends, weeks pass without calls to family members, and it sometimes takes me days upon end to get through my seemingly endless piles of bills, emails, and other correspondence. When I was freelance, I worked six days a week, and compulsively hovered around my laptop on my day off, organizing pitches and emails for the week to come.
People of my ilk thrive on deadlines, and the fact that there is only 24 hours in a day becomes a challenge rather than a limitation.
Indeed, Americans have been hard-wired to think that working hard and showing dedication automatically equates a promotion, a raise, and perhaps even some well-earned vacation time somewhere down the line. But spending that extra half an hour checking emails or staying hours after your shift was supposed to end has its limits - often intangible.
Former Lehman Brothers employee Erin Callan writes in a brilliant New York Times op-ed on Sunday:
“Until recently, I thought my singular focus on my career was the most powerful ingredient in my success. But I am beginning to realize that I sold myself short. I was talented, intelligent and energetic. It didn’t have to be so extreme. Besides, there were diminishing returns to that kind of labor.
“I didn’t have to be on my BlackBerry from my first moment in the morning to my last moment at night. I didn’t have to eat the majority of my meals at my desk. I didn’t have to fly overnight to a meeting in Europe on my birthday. I now believe that I could have made it to a similar place with at least some better version of a personal life. Not without sacrifice — I don’t think I could have “had it all” — but with somewhat more harmony.”
Just as parents cannot guarantee their children will get into the Ivy-league school by getting them into the tony pre-school painting program, or that forcing them to take piano lessons will make them a concert pianist making his debut at Carnegie Hall at 16, there comes a point where work is simply out of your control. What good is it worrying, or sacrificing, all simply to get ahead? Isn't it just another facet of the ever-elusive American Dream?
Callan said that her biggest regret is being 47 and childless (though she does have step-children). I do not have children, nor do I intend to start a family anytime soon. But why should motherhood be the deciding moment in a fluctuating career, or the litmus test for when to “lean out?” (as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg puts it).
Why is it that unless you have children (and sometimes, even if you do) you’re expected to put in 10 hours in the office on top of a bone-rattling commute, and are in turn whisked away to mommy duty well into the night? Why does a healthy relationship between office life and home life seem to only come at the onset of parenthood - or more realistically, at the point of utter mental and physical exhaustion?
During construction in my the office last fall, I had to work from home because the dust and the noise triggered migraines. But I got just as much work done from home as I did from the office. And instead of paying $13 for take-out ordered from Seamless, I made healthy, budget-friendly meals at home. No creativity was sacrificed, and water cooler gossip was satiated through Gchat. Plus - who could argue with a commute time of 15 seconds from bedroom to living room?
The argument ultimately boils down to a slurry of ambition, sacrifice, and what is realistic. You can only be in one place at a time, but at the end of the day, a fond memory is not likely over how you ate Chinese dim sum over your keyboard and only spilled a little soy sauce.