Potential Space

By Alexandra Guhde, PsyD
 "Where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves." This phrase, according to a recent article in The New York Times, is popular among employees at Amazon.com, Inc., where brutal 80-hour weeks, confrontational staff meetings, and late-night vigils over email and spreadsheets are, reportedly, commonplace. The article, "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace," explores, among other things, the data-driven culture of white-collar workaholism. Taking Amazon's market dominance into account, it's a work-culture that works. At least, it works for the corporation as an energetic system.
The question is, what is it about this hive-like culture--bruising and combative as it is--that works for the worker? Because, although Amazon might do it bigger and more ruthlessly--with better data than most--this driven, über-dedicated environment is not unique. In my practice, I hear similar descriptions of work-life from clients in many fields, from tech to tap-dancing; from chefs, grant-writers, and athletes; and sometimes also from fellow psychotherapists.
Why is it so compelling to work too hard? Maintenance of status in the hive is a good-ish answer. Addiction is a better one. (A twelve-hour workday can be like one giant, slow-release sugar pill.) Another answer is the philosophical notion that the search for meaning must be a staggering, uphill quest. Moral masochism, and the confusion of submission for surrender, à la Emmanuel Ghent, go a long way toward explaining why someone would spend their precious vacation days on a laptop in Starbucks. You are as good as what you can give, or give up. All of these explanations work for me.
Yet, the answer that intrigues me most at the moment-it should be noted I write this paragraph late in the evening, after a twelve-hour workday-is that so many of the jobs that encourage the kind of sacrifice described in the Times also come with privilege. Maybe the privilege is knowledge-based. Maybe it's creative. Maybe the work is intrinsically meaningful, socially fulfilling, or all of the above. Privilege is, by definition, something not everybody gets to have. There's an instinct to hide it, to squirrel it away under a mountain of suffering. But, the thing is, privilege isn't something anyone can steal, or, for that matter, give away. If we don't enjoy it, no one will. True, if the overachievers at Amazon stopped feeling bad about themselves they might stop overachieving. They might quit (which might not be such a bad thing). Another possibility is that they might just stop feeling bad. Even when they're up late, working.