Workaholics, Holidays, and Finding Joy in the Waves of Work

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Hi, my name is Lu-ise Hattingh… and I’m a workaholic.

At least, that’s who I thought I was, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Picture this.

It’s the June school holidays in Cape Town, South Africa, 1998 (that’s the Winter holidays for us in the Southern Hemisphere). Eight-year-old Lu-ise has been up since 6 am, preparing for her friends to come over for a playdate. Instead of packing out sweets, and Barbies to play with, she’s creating homework activities and sharpening pencils for her friends to play ‘school-school’ with her.

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What. A. Weird. Kid. ‘What a little nerd!’.

Yup, that’s me. That has always been me.

Every school holiday, my days would be filled with practicing piano, going to extra math lessons, and completing school-related activities. Both of my parents were teachers and I loved going to school with them – writing on the whiteboard and helping them lay out the books for their students before the school term began. I didn’t lounge around, watch movies, or get bored. It’s just not what brought me joy. I liked preparing for the next school term and continuing to do what felt like being productive to me.

I never missed a day of school – even when I was sick, I would insist on going to school because I didn’t want to fall behind, or worse, miss out on homework! I always overloaded my schedule for the school term running between classes because I took 3 additional elective classes (over and above the required 7).

On top of my busy school day, I packed every after-school hour I had left with extra-mural activities – drama club, orchestra practice, choir rehearsals, dance classes, charity work – you name it, and my name was on the sign-up sheet! If that wasn’t enough, I wanted to start building my empire as soon as humanly possible, so when I turned 16, I entered the labor market and spent my weekends waitressing at a local burger chain.

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Why am I telling you all this?

It’s not to brag about how hardworking I am or to convince you of what a true nerd I am, no. I would like to invite you on a journey of discovery I went through recently.

I’ve always been driven to improve myself in any way I can. Reading self-development books on vacation, listening to podcasts at the gym and taking online courses in the evenings.

In the age of information, we are constantly bombarded with online content – podcasts, webinars, articles, videos, and online courses to drown ourselves in, to help us evolve, do things better, do more, do less, unplug – again, the list is never-ending. We’re constantly influenced by colleagues, friends, and YouTubers telling us about the latest breathing method, or some kind of self-help, self-improvement craze that’s all the rage. That’s the zeitgeist we’re living in, right?

Since my adult friends are not as patient with playing ‘school-school’ as my 8-year-old friends were, and their idea of fun isn’t sitting around on a Friday evening, learning together (perhaps something we should normalize), I’ve felt alone in my learning journey.

I found myself completely absorbed in what I read or heard about: different ways to approach your work; the path to achieving a work-life balance; how to identify if you’re a workaholic; how to detach yourself from your work; creating boundaries and all kinds of (what I thought was) brilliant advice.

I started to follow the gospel of these articles which led me to complete a bunch of online tests, and was finally diagnosed as a workaholic.

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According to a couple of online dictionaries, the definition of a workaholic is a person who compulsively works excessively hard and for long hours. It is someone who never takes a break, and loses touch with reality.

Stopped in my tracks by a single definition.

Was this really me? But I love what I do, surely that would differentiate me from a workaholic?

I didn’t like the connotations of this word. The mere mention of the word workaholic brings with it a stench that I just didn’t want associated with me.

So, I found myself working really hard not to work so hard (which was really hard work!). I had to resist the urge to stay up late or check emails on the weekend because I was convinced by my online ‘teachers’ that this would perpetuate my disease. It was bad. It was unhealthy. I had to do better. I had to find happiness somewhere else.

In my pursuit of finding joy in things other than work, I’ve read books, meditated, and in the last 2 weeks, I even took a holiday (the longest of my 10 year career). I planted my not-so-workaholic behind on a remote island with no cellphone reception or electricity to ensure I could ‘relax’.

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The Holiday

While on my supposedly much-needed unplugged holiday, I felt a lot of pressure to live up to my (and my husband’s) expectations of what it means to be on holiday. My husband was so proud of me for leaving my laptop at home.

No technology, no distractions, no work.

This was the very definition of relaxation, right? Wrong.

3 days into my holiday, I felt more stressed than I can ever remember being in my life. I was unreachable by my team, I couldn’t help them if they needed me, and for an Enneagram 2, that’s REALLY stressful!

I felt like a failure. I was so disappointed in myself – I couldn’t even ‘do’ vacation ‘right.

A Crab, A Girl and an ‘Aha’ Moment

On day 4, I was sitting on a beautiful white, sandy beach with my feet in the water staring at a hermit crab, while fighting the urge to run around like a complete madwoman trying to find reception.

Watching the hermit crab helped calm me down. He was just chilling in someone else’s shell. I felt like Mr. Hermit. Being on holiday and questioning why I wasn’t more relaxed made me feel like I was in someone else’s shell.

I looked at the waves, the white sand and the sailboats on the horizon, trying to unlock the reason for my ‘not so chilled’ relaxing holiday. I sunk deep into myself and sat there for a while with Mr. Hermit. I realized that where life, work, and energy are concerned, you cannot use other people’s podcasts and articles as your map. Your journey is filled with waves that come and go. Some waves are as long as the Chicama in Peru, which you ride for a long while during your career, they build and build, and you need to be there for that. And others are short, you can ride them only for a while before they wash you out on shore and you have to swim back into the ocean to catch the next one.

Something in me clicked when I came to this realization. I felt freed. So much so that I jumped up and ran into the turquoise water to treat myself to a celebratory dip, welcoming each and every wave.

Later that day, I sat with my realization for a little longer. This is what I came up with:

Right now, I’m on the long and exciting wave of my career. What I needed wasn’t a remote holiday disconnected from the world as prescribed by the blogs and podcasts I was consuming. What I really needed was a long weekend to sleep, and then a week with no meetings to research and reshuffle my thoughts, to prepare for the next term, like I used to do during my school holidays.

I also needed to be honest about who I really am and forgive myself for it. I was so put off by the stigma of the label “workaholic” that I didn’t actually take the time to reflect on whether or not I actually was one.

Working on my career is what excites me and as long as I’m honest about the energy and stamina I have to ride my wave, I should never feel ashamed that I enjoy being reachable for my team while resting, and that I like feeling like I’m productive while on holiday. (I did end up writing this article while on leave…)

It’s who the little teacher, telling her friends to do homework on a Saturday, would be proud of.

It’s who I’ve always been, and that’s ok.

So I sat myself back down on the white sand and let the turquoise water wash over my sun-kissed feet, I closed my eyes, and I sank down into myself, looking for my 8-year-old self to tell her that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to impress her parents, her teacher, and her future self.

“I’m impressed, and you did well, little Lu.” I wink at her and tell her: “You ride your wave!”

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Return to My True Self

I always thought I wasn’t successful in the eyes of the new-age success beholders because sometimes I like to work on a Saturday morning, or more often than not, I work until late in the evening. I work at my own pace, a pace that I’m comfortable with. I like being prepared and instead of listening to all the ‘guru’s’ telling me what I should be doing, I should’ve trusted myself. I should have asked myself what works for me.

“You’ve always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.” – Glinda, Wizard of Oz.

It’s as plain as day to see. We do it every day at Curious Lion (CL). It’s what I nurture in my team.

At CL, like the waves on my epiphany beach, we have ebbs and flows. Sometimes we’re required to put in the extra hours to make a deadline, and sometimes there’s a lull between projects. We all know to surf the waves. There are a lot of complications and trust that comes with running a company in this way. But it allows each individual to go (and grow) with their flow.

Today, I have decided, I’m not a workaholic, I’m proud of my work, and I get energy from doing what I love – being prepared, and giving my best. I find peace and fulfillment in supporting my team whenever their wave knocks them off their board. My ‘guru’ idols can judge me all they want and tag me with the negative modern labels, but it’s simply who I am.

I am invested in what I do because I believe in the living company that Curious Lion is. I’m willing to put in the work to make sure our company succeeds beyond my lifetime. And with all waves worth riding, you have to swim real hard at the beginning to catch it, so your future self can thank you for the ride. At Curious Lion, we are only just starting to catch our wave.

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Lessons I Learned on Holiday

  1. I need friends who are willing to play ‘school-school’ with me on a Friday night. 
  2. I should follow my wave. 
  3. There’s nothing wrong with being passionate about your work and truly finding joy in what you do, as long as you check-in with yourself and make sure that you take the right kind of breaks when you need it. 
  4. Don’t listen to everything and everyone on the internet writing and blabbering on about how you should live your life and work.

You do you, boo. Wink.

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