Dr. Drew – the famous radio/TV addiction-specialist doctor of Loveline, Sober House and Celebrity Rehab fame – has a layman’s definition of addiction: it’s any activity that you continue engaging in despite adverse conditions. Hits it right on the head, I think. If you keep drinking after a DUI, you’re addicted. If you keep doing drugs after going to jail, obsessively playing online bingo after your spouse has threatened to leave you, eating sweets after developing diabetes or smoking while you have a cold, you’ve got a problem. You don’t have to experience the adverse condition to be addicted, of course, but the adverse event is the proof, if you will.
I like this definition because you can apply it to many other areas of life. For example, if you keep charging crap on your credit card after you’ve started being charged interest for past purchases, you’re continuing in the face of an obvious adverse event. The interest is a fine, a continuing adverse event that would cause a normal, non-addicted-to-credit person to stop using the product. And many, many people have a far more severe addiction: the addiction to their job.
Just to prove I’m not preaching, I’ll use myself as an example. I have a good job – although, strictly speaking, it’s not a job. I do contract consulting and I am able to charge substantial rates for my work. I flatter myself sometimes that it’s because I’m just that good, but the real reason is that I offer my services to giant corporations for whom my fee is a footnote to a footnote to a rounding error. They don’t mind flinging some cash in my direction to avoid the hassle of hiring a permanent employee to finish their projects; they don’t have to train me, give me benefits and then file endless mounds of paperwork before they let me go. I can come in, do the work with a minimum of supervision, and leave with no fuss. So I get paid at a premium.
And because of that I’m addicted to my job. I’ve continued doing it for years, despite many adverse events and conditions, some obvious, some not. The job is stressful due to boredom, physically uncomfortable working conditions, long commutes, inflexible working hours and sometimes unpleasant coworkers (overworked, underpaid, and overstressed themselves). Audit often results in uncovering illegal, unethical or simply incompetent work by other employees. Stress comes easily when others around you are constantly suspicious, frightened or hostile that you are “out to get them.” And despite being freer than the the average employee to direct my work, I still have the adverse work conditions that arise from a direct exchange of my time for the client’s money: my income increases and decreases directly in proportion to the hours I work. Stress if I work too much and stress if I earn too little. Could you pass some cheese, by the way? I need it to go with my whine.
But how many people are addicted to their jobs? I know the argument is always that a job is a job in this economy. Fine. I am sure all of the people who stuck with their “good jobs” at now-shuttered assembly lines throughout Michigan are patting themselves on the back that they stuck with a good job instead of getting out and getting training in a new field before GM and Chrysler imploded. I’m sure that all of the finance guys who were putting in 80 hour weeks at my Wall Street clients are happy they put in all that unpaid time doing a job they hate before being laid off in 2008. Sometimes clinging to a job to the bitter end is a bad thing, even if it provides some temporary financial security.
It’s not just financial security; that job addiction can impact your long-term health. Many of us are happy to be moderately fit, moderately overweight and to have a job that doesn’t make us throw up before going to work every morning. Whitman’s quote about most men living lives of quiet desperation is not any less true for being massively over-quoted by people like me. I don’t think any parents dream for their kids to grow up to slog through life delivered in two-week increments when a paycheck arrives. Nobody wants to have a slow trickle of stress poured down their throat for 40 years. Your health – physical and mental – will inevitably suffer. True health is being free of addiction to any behavior that hurts you – be it alcohol, gambling, drugs, violence, TV, a bad job, on and on. It’s not enough to be fit and hate your job, either. It’s not enough to hate your job but endure it simply to make money. Whether you’re literally prostituting yourself for another puff off the crack pipe or figuratively prostituting yourself to break your spirit for 40 years so you can visit the beach twice a year for a week, you’re a junkie.