To work is human; to overwork, divine

It is a mark of our monstrous amped-up, overhyped culture of glorified workoholism, that I've been burdened by guilt each time this week that I was one of the first people to leave the office. It's not that I'm sneaking off early or missing deadlines, though I did nip out for a quick coffee with Miffy yesterday; it's that I genuinely can leave work at the appointed hour without screwing up any of my work and responsibilities.

In the moments when I've staved off the guilt, it also blows my mind that --- for this short-term period, at least --- I actually seem able to complete my work within the designated work hours. This is what, as a kid, I thought work would be: a predictable, manageable 9-5 routine, my little automaton self merging seamlessly with the rest of the comforting masses that constitute the "workforce". It wasn't a nightmarish scenario, as a kid, to be doing what everyone else was doing. As an adult, stumbling into the vicious, unforgiving pace of the modern-day office environment, it's an unholy grail that, when finally found (or earned?), can cast a pall of guilt everlasting over one's too-quiet cubicle.

Of course, it's worthwhile to ponder if the same misguided culture of excessive effort coloured my formative years. All those conversations in the school canteen over who had started studying for next week's test, where the point was to pull off the nonchalant guise of not even knowing what would be on the test, while simultaneously sharing the dirt on which chow-mugger (loose translation: over-studying uber-nerd) had already memorised the ten-year-series. All the bemoaning after the test that one hadn't studied enough, the falsified dread at receiving the graded test paper, only to bashfully fold it over to conceal the 'lucky' A. But I suspect that was just my school, where each class of overachievers faked underachieving for four years --- then mostly went on to even better schools and even higher grades.

Not everyone in Singapore is cursed with this crazy Asian work ethic. I know someone who refuses to do a jot of work after 6.30pm --- but he's made it clear that he's not interested in career advancement, either. (Am I interested in career advancement? Not really, but more money is always good, and that always seems to be partnered with 'advancement'.) And there are always people shopping downtown, even on weekday afternoons; they clearly aren't killing themselves with work.

But in my experience, these people seem to be few and far between. Most people I know work overtime as a matter of course (and aren't compensated for it). No one really wants to, but it's expected or 'necessary' because they wouldn't otherwise get all their work done on time and would then incur the wrath of their bosses, which might in turn undermine their job stability or promotion prospects. And unlike in (my) school, where the social norm was to pretend not to be doing any work while plugging doggedly away at it behind the scenes, working adults all talk about how much work they're doing:

"Oh, I stayed till only 9 pm last night."
"Yeah, I have to go back to work after dinner."
"I'm not having lunch today, too much work."

There was also the bank employee who felt obliged to go back to work, at 9 pm or so, after watching Spiderman 2 with her department as some sort of corporate bonding exercise. Yes, the entire department went to watch the movie, then all felt they had to go back to work right away.

Again, unlike school, I'm pretty sure this isn't inverse braggadocio, taking pride in how much work one does. These are plain statements of fact, plaints in search of commiseration, numbed resignation to what is rather than what should be. I don't want to sound too precious and self-indulgent about it, but surely I'm not alone in feeling that there is something wrong with a social norm that people should spend 90% of their waking hours at work (regardless of how much one loves the job) rather than on the rest of their life that really matters?

In university, I had a roommate who epitomised the chow-mugger (note: she wasn't Singaporean). She was always studying, always said she was going to be studying and always said she had studied for the test. I lived with her for 6 months and she only went out once, to a movie. I'm hardly a party animal, but next to her I looked like the social chair at West Beverly High. I wouldn't say she was the saddest person I've ever known, but there was a flatness to her sense of self that really creeped me out. The world of work? Sometimes seems like it wants me to be her.


At 7/24/2004 11:26 am , Blogger * the mad monk of melk * said...

kind of sad isn't it? three years ago as a rookie teacher, i worked insane hours, somewhat convinced it would pay off. suddenly one day, it hit me that it was all pointless and i downshifted all the way to first gear. and have been there since. :)

At 7/24/2004 2:18 pm , Blogger Agagooga said...

Work sounds so dreary.

At 7/24/2004 2:22 pm , Blogger Agagooga said...

And if it's any comfort, RI boys in my day did pretty much the same thing as RGS girls in yours ;)

At 7/24/2004 11:48 pm , Blogger Tym said...

Yeah, teaching really doesn't lend itself to the 9-5 mantra or, indeed, to any sort of regular schedule, other than having to show up every morning by 7:20/7:30 am. What we need are official knock-off hours for teaching, so that the line is drawn for all to see and people can go home at a decent hour.

Agagooga - Didn't you get the memo after the A levels? Work is dreary.

At 9/01/2008 3:11 pm , Blogger JC said...

hi, I am a Korean girl, and happened to find your blog and completely agreed with what you observed. "to work is human but to overwork is divine.", this statement is so catch that I should ask you if I can use this sentence for my thesis.

I will of course make a reference and everything.

At 9/01/2008 8:25 pm , Blogger Tym said...

jc - Sure, go right ahead. Would appreciate being referenced! :)


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