Work can kill you

In this age of cell phones, BlackBerrys and notebook PCs, work is more a part of our personal lives than ever before. Just don't let it impede your pursuit of happiness.

Back in the early '80s, when I was a young engineer at Texas Instruments headquarters in Dallas, my thoughts were mostly preoccupied with women and partying ... except at work, where I occasionally designed chips, too.

I worked with a bunch of college grads from all over the country. We were all single and at the same stage in our lives. There were road trips to New Orleans, New Braunfels (for Wurstfest--where Texans came every year to drink their weight in beer), the Guadalupe River, South Padre Island, and Colorado (where we attempted to ski). The rest of the time, you could find us at local bars--it was always happy hour somewhere.

Those were good times; we played hard and worked hung-over.

One day, I walked in on a conversation about the merits of bringing work home. We were all violently opposed to the idea, except for this one guy, Dirk. Dirk said he thought about the workday ahead on Sunday nights and when he got ready on weekday mornings. Dirk wasn't like the rest of us. He was actually a mature adult.

Still, I remember feeling sorry for the guy. I thought it was sad that work invaded his personal time like that. At the time, I never thought about work until I was actually in the building, and even then, well, we already covered that. Anyway, I was sure that whatever was wrong with Dirk would never happen to me.

Of course, it did, in spades. Around 15 years ago work became my life. It was actually kind of fun for a while. I got a pass to neglect everything, all in the name of work. I even got a workaholic key chain. But after a while, had I been paying attention, I might have noticed more than a few signs that I'd taken it a bit too far.

I started waking up in the middle of the night disoriented because I didn't know where I was. Sometimes I'd come home from an international trip and my wife would "forget" to pick me up at the airport. Then, when I walked in the door, the dog would bark and growl at me.

Wait, it gets worse. After years of living in the same place, none of my neighbors recognized me. Then, one night, I noticed that my wife wasn't wearing her wedding and engagement rings. When I asked her about it, she said she hadn't worn them in nine months. And that probably led directly to the next sign: somebody pulled up in front of my house and served me with divorce papers.

Don't feel sad for me. Believe it or not, I'm still married to the same woman, going on 18 years. It's a miracle. Actually, I think she thinks it's her karmic destiny to keep me from self-destructing. She'll probably be reincarnated as a saint.

Look, if you're going to climb the corporate ladder, and especially if you aspire to the executive ranks, work will infringe on your home life. That's just par for the course. Even now, as a part-time consultant, my mind is on work when it shouldn't be. Perfect example: just today I was running and thinking about a work problem, and that's when I had the idea to write this post.

I get some of my best ideas when I'm in the shower, running, or lying in bed half asleep. I like to work at night when my wife is watching TV, or laying out by the pool on the weekend. Hell, I actually enjoy my work. And an occasional business trip gives my wife and me a reason to miss each other.

There's nothing wrong with the pursuit of money, achievement, or whatever it is you call success. And, in this age of cell phones, BlackBerrys and notebook computers, work is more a part of our personal lives than ever before. It's only a problem when work, or the pursuit of success, becomes so much a part of your personal life that it impedes your pursuit of happiness.

It's all about knowing where to draw the line.

Only you know when you're not spending enough time with your family. Or when you're not working out enough, eating too much fast food, or otherwise neglecting your health and well-being. You know when you're not getting enough "me" time for you to effectively manage stress, relax and gain some perspective.

The irony is that, if you're a workaholic, you'll be the last person to notice any of that stuff. Unless, of course, you're reading this.

The bottom line: As I've said before, working hard and being driven are good things, especially in terms of climbing the corporate ladder. But you need to be mindful of overdoing it.

This may be counterintuitive, but in my experience, when I put too much pressure on myself, it always came back to haunt me. And the times I played hooky when I shouldn't have, never mattered in the end.

When I learned to relax and have fun working, that's when my career took off. Remember that the next time someone asks you why you're killing yourself for work.