As A Gen-Xer, I Grew Up Thinking You Had To Work Yourself Into The Ground

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I started my first job the summer before I turned nine. I picked berries at a local farm and would wake up every morning when the sun came up, ride my bike a mile down the road, pick all day, then come home.

I got paid 25 cents for each pint of raspberries I picked and I made over $200 that summer which allowed me to buy a hell of a lot of school clothes.

I was applauded by my boss and parents for bringing my peanut butter and jelly sandwich to work with me, eating it in under two minutes, then getting right back at it.

I liked the praise. It made me feel strong, important, and like I had some kind of special powers because I was pretty much told that.

I stayed and worked in the pouring rain or sweltering heat while the other kids wanted to go home, and I got a three dollar bonus each time I did this. So I kept doing it.

Looking back, this set the tone for me. The adults in my life thought I was a hard worker, so I couldn’t not be that. I worked all through elementary school. I’d pick berries in the summer and babysit whenever I could.

In high school, I always worked after school while my friends were at practice or doing something fun. I’d wake up in the morning, go to school, then go to work bagging groceries six days a week, then go home and do homework. On Saturdays when everyone else was off, I was carting grocery carts around and loading them into people’s cars from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Again, the praise came in from other people about how dedicated I was. It didn’t matter to me that I was exhausted.

After I got my appendix out in 11th grade, I went back to work after a week because I felt like it’s what I should do, like it was expected. No one said this to me. But looking back, I realize that I had created my identity around being a hard worker, pushing through even if I was sick or had a big paper due. If I let some of this slide, who would I be?

After graduating college and getting my first real job in the early ‘90s, I learned very quickly I’d been primed just right. I worked in retail and quickly became the youngest store manager in my district for a popular clothing brand.

The reason? Because I worked lots of hours. I never called in sick and I went above and beyond, even though I didn’t get paid for it — because that’s what got me attention and recognition.

One night during the holiday season, I kept my crew at the store until 1:00 a.m. cleaning up the frenzy that had happened that day, even though I had to turn around and be back there at 7:00 a.m. to open for the extended holiday hours. They were starting to fizzle around 10:30 p.m., just after we’d closed, and I found myself getting angry at them.

We’d do floor sets which would involve changing the entire store around after it would close, and I’d stand up and eat the pizza we’d delivered, choking down a slice or two in under ten minutes to set an example.

I started having a burning feeling in my stomach, diarrhea every morning, and became addicted to Mountain Dew in order to stay awake. I was 23 and felt older than I ever had. But the praise for hard work kept coming, and anyone who worked like I did was recognized, so I kept living this way.

The same thing happened when I started working for a recruiting firm. We were expected to work over 40 hours a week and only got one week off a year. We were asked to do a lot of things with our coworkers outside of work and not get paid. My boss would make it sound like it was optional, but I can assure you it was not.

The message was you should eat, sleep, and breathe work — or you were lazy, didn’t like your job, and you weren’t a team player.

When 9/11 happened, an office manager came around within an hour and said if we wanted to go home and take the rest of the day off because of the tragic events, we could. That was exactly what I did. There was no way I could concentrate. I was one of the only ones who did go home, and my boss made a few comments about it afterwards. Then, when I went on a business trip and told one of my coworkers I planned on having children and staying home with them very soon, I was let go.

I should also mention this company offered zero paid maternity leave. They did, however, let you know that you could come back to work if you wanted to take six weeks off (unpaid) because that was the law. No one questioned this.

When I wanted to start my own business after this happened, I didn’t get a lot of support. Everyone wanted to know where I was going to get my money from. I was reminded by my father that I needed a regular paycheck and health benefits. “Anything else is just irresponsible,” he told me.

Gen-Xers were not brought up in a time when it was okay to take time off if you were sick or needed a mental health day. If you did this, if you took care of you, you were frowned at. You were called lazy and irresponsible.

If you came to work after throwing up that morning, you practically got a trophy. If you returned early after undergoing a surgery, you got applause.

If you asked for more vacation time, you weren’t considered a go-getter. No, those accolades were saved for people who didn’t use their sick or personal time. You were a hero if you didn’t take your vacation or you were at the office late on a Friday night.

No one gave a damn about how you were holding up mentally or physically.

When I got back into the workforce after staying home with my children, I still had this mentality. I worked every single day. I’d cancel dinner plans if a job came up. I’d stay up late thinking of ways to grow my career. I said yes to every opportunity and didn’t take a real vacation for over three years.

Then, I started floundering. My work was slipping. I was tired all the time. I was drained and I would beat myself up if I didn’t go hard every day.

What I realized is you can’t live this way and produce quality work — it took a while to undo some of my prior training. When you grow up thinking that the harder and longer you work, the better you are, you can become tied to that.

Then, I woke up one day and realized people were recharging and enjoying time off because that’s what is necessary to live a good, balanced life.

I was actually nervous to schedule my first vacation. When you work for yourself, you don’t get paid for time off, but this wasn’t about the money. It was that I felt like a slacker for taking the week during a major holiday off to enjoy time with my kids.

How twisted is that?

I want my kids to know you can work hard without grinding yourself into a nub that has no energy or time for anything else.

I want them to see life is about so much more than the grind, the hustle, and there is no value in showing up to work sick or not taking time off that is, very much, deserved.

For our future generations, we need to get rid of the notion that you have to feel mentally and physically depleted and be a workaholic in order to get ahead.

We need to normalize time off, rest, and put more importance on a healthy life than on how much money you make or how many hours you work.

I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to realize this, but I now know, and I can set a better example for my kids so they don’t fall into the same workaholic trap that kept my nose to the grindstone for far too long.

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