Distinguishing Between a Calling and Workaholism

Spend a day and maybe an evening watching someone intensely dedicated to their work and it's hard to distinguish between whether the person is exhibiting the symptoms of workaholism or whether they're just living their calling.
04/10/2012 01:22pm ET | Updated June 10, 2012
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Are you a workaholic or a "work-a-frolic"? The term "workaholism" is now 40 years old, but the average American works 200 more hours per year today than they did when this word was first coined. Spend a day and maybe an evening watching someone intensely dedicated to their work and it's hard to distinguish between whether the person is exhibiting the symptoms of workaholism or whether they're just living their calling.

In order to distinguish the difference, you can't just rely on external appearances. Instead, you must look within the person (or yourself). When someone is living their calling, they've tapped into some deeper reservoir in themselves or in the collective consciousness in such a way that their work energizes their soul as opposed to depleting them. This person is living Khalil Gibran's quote, "Work is love made visible." It's almost like "invisible hands" are directing you and you can exhibit many of the qualities of self-actualization and being "in the flow": losing a consciousness of the self, losing track of time, having moments of inspiration and insight throughout the day, and feeling a combination of passion and, most importantly, peace of mind. When you are at one with your calling, you have developed a certain intimacy with who you are and what your purpose is on this planet.

A workaholic prefers not to experience intimacy ("in to me see") as typically -- as with most addictions -- they are using their work as a means of distraction. Quite often, we get intoxicated with something that alters our mood (including work), partly because we feel compelled to run away from emotions or fears that prey upon us. Scratch the emotional surface of any addict, and underneath you'll find some common emotions: a feeling of unworthiness, a feeling of being unlovable or shame, and a belief that success can become the magic wand that will turn their life around. Workaholism equals "What are you running from?" divided by "What are you living for?" Those that have tamed their workaholic tendencies have taken Henry David Thoreau's quote to heart: "The cost of something is measured by how much life you have to give for it." Reacquainting oneself with what they're living for and calculating the "opportunity cost" of the addiction is a profound way to help a workaholic wake up to what this addiction is costing them.

Here's a quick test that can help distinguish between one who is living a calling versus one who is addicted to their work. Look at the following eight statements and pick the four that best describe your relationship with your work.

1. I often feel like the work I'm doing is coming from some greater source than just me. It's like I'm channeling this energy or talent, and I'm amazed by its power.
2. If I'm not working, I still prefer being busy as I find just sitting and doing nothing to be a waste of time and it makes me a little uncomfortable.
3. I love my work. There's nothing else in my life that gives me nearly as much self-esteem as doing my job well.
4. While I am passionate about what I do, when I am engaged in activities with others or on vacation, I'm able to give all my attention to that without thinking about my work.
5. I have a pretty distinct end goal for my work. I believe that having a clear, defined goal will more likely help me be successful. And, with that success will come more professional respect and happiness.
6. Occasionally, I feel sort of compulsive about my work, especially during times when other things in my life aren't going all that well. For me, work helps create order in my life and that makes me feel better.
7. It seems like the deeper I get into my work, the less ego I have about the work. I sort of lose myself and almost feel like I'm trying to recover my sense of the miraculous about life.
8. There's no way I could do anything else but what I'm doing. If I were doing the average job, I probably wouldn't be able to apply myself very well at it and I'm sure I wouldn't dedicate nearly as many hours.

If you (or someone in your life) chose answers 1, 4, 7 and 8, you scored a perfect 100 percent for having a calling. The other four answers skew more toward someone who may have a workaholic tendency in their work. While this test isn't scientific, it just gives you a sense of some of the causal factors for a calling versus workaholism.

In my life, I've experienced my work in both of these ways. I know that when I attached my sense of identity a little too closely to my work that I might be distracting myself from feelings of unworthiness. It wasn't the number of hours I worked or how bloodshot my eyes were that defined the difference. It was something internal.

In the early days of my first hotel, The Phoenix, friends would ask me, "How's life, Chip?" I would respond, "The Phoenix is doing well," even when -- as a 26-year-old entrepreneur -- I was pretty nervous my company might not make it. One day a friend who wasn't satisfied with my answer put her hand on my heart and said softly, "Chip, I didn't ask you how your business is doing. I want to know how you're feeling." For most addicts, friends and family see our predicament before we can acknowledge it.