Being A 20-Something Workaholic Changed My Perspective And Career Goals


What they say about a combination of opportunity, praise and success being dangerous had always struck me. Dangerous is certainly right.

I recently made a career mistake that left me shocked, discouraged and entering month 4 of a fruitless and stressful job search. My rookie mistake was forgetting to take time to see where my projects were heading and letting my networks fall apart.

You CAN become a workaholic at 24 and you CAN burn out at 28.

Heed a slight warning: No matter how engaging your job may be, it’s good to stay at least a half step ahead of yourself and check in with how you’d like a role to contribute to what you value in life.

I had not gone without “valuable” work throughout my 20s. I became engrossed in working diligently for the organizations I served, but my identity became a funny new thing. Growing up, being somebody (at work) and having prestige did not represent my full picture anymore. I couldn’t have helped that my values and priorities shifted dramatically from 21 to 29.

Now, in retrospect, I see that it was completely natural – a major career shift for the true me was inevitable. I just didn’t see it coming and I didn’t create the opportunity to navigate it correctly. Chasing success and recognition without checking in with myself became my potent recipe for early burnout.

You CAN become a workaholic at 24 and you CAN burn out at 28.

I have completed some remarkable feats in my former sector, but it came at an expensive price. It cost 2 failed and stress-filled relationships, no moments to catch up with people who used to be very close friends, existing for months at a time on very little sleep and spending 5 of the past 8 years just trying to generally not freak out after one too many espressos.

Adding insult to injury were employers who began to expect my level of performance. In 8 years, I diligently racked up notches on my bedpost of success, but I had no idea where it was taking me. Along for the ride, I felt that as a young person early in my career, that this is what one has to do to move forward. That work is where I need to put in the most energy to secure a good future.

When burnout began to show its ugly face so early on in life, I decided this lifestyle was not for me anymore. Future or no future, I was sure anything was better then where I was heading. My health was in the gutter and I barely recognized the short-tempered, unfriendly person I was becoming. I decided to make a sweeping change and leapt very far before I looked.

At the time, I lacked clarity on what would keep me happy in my current role. I was unable to communicate anything to (a willing to keep me) management but “I want out.” Lack of foresight left me with an unplanned and impractical break. Soul searching while job searching was not only very unpleasant but also a bad combination; it sucked any positivity I needed as one of my top assets for moving forward.

I did pull myself together and tried to spend time getting to know myself better, but I spent a fair amount of time wishing someone had told me earlier that a significant skill while being on top is to make mental space to manage one’s next move. I learned that it is just as important, when you are doing well at work, to create opportunities to look for your horizon and how it is all fitting into your larger plan.

Monitoring how that plan may be changing is a difficult task, but major and minor career shifts need some attention. These circumstances that presented themselves were avoidable, but my achievements became so intense that a leap seemed like the only way out.

Looking back, I could have taken some steps that would have prevented most of this drama. Going forward I will always take note of my workmates, evaluate the culture, and understand better which parts of myself will naturally shift toward assimilation and if it would be an accurate reflection of me. Put simply, I wasn’t a workaholic alone.

My days of living and breathing work and identifying myself solely on what I do for a living are over. I’ll be more careful to not leave so many people in the dust. My friends and family understood that there were very stressful times at work, but it was still their role to keep on inviting me to participate in my life.

At 29, I am starting my over my career in a sense and working hard to not idealize a new lifestyle to myself. I now realize that there is no one prize – life goals shift, especially when we are young. My ego took the forefront with all of that opportunity, praise and success. It gave me a large case of the bighead, which left no room for anything else to grow.

In thinking about my future and questioning how I would like to spend my time, I’m noticing new answers that are not work-centric anymore.

How do you keep the workaholic side of yourself in check?

Photo credit: workaholic. by Kahlo F on Flickr