Mind Matters

Can we discover the function of work in our lives by seeing what happens when it's suddenly removed?

My patient Philip was in despair. He had recently lost his job and with it his sense of direction. At the moment, however, he was visibly shaken by something else.

"I couldn't sleep again," he said, fidgeting in his chair. "I lay in bed for hours, then finally went down for a cup of tea. I saw the clock above the kitchen sink--3:17--then I heard a sound by the window. I went to check, and suddenly I was face- to-face with this enormous man wearing a ski mask. Scared me to death. Still, it wasn't until he was gone, and the police too, that the worst thought hit me: Something might have happened to Mary and the boys. That really shook me up, Dr. Yalom." He sighed. I braced myself. Then I plunged in.

"Philip," I said, "it's curious that you say something might have happened to your wife and children. Because, you know, eventually something willhappen to them. And to you and me."

Why did I choose not to comfort him? Why did I focus instead on thoughts of death? To understand, you need to know that Philip, a highly driven and successful person, had been a psychotherapy patient of mine. His story illustrates a problem plaguing many business executives: finding the right balance between work and other parts of life.

So, what is the function of work in our lives? In the past, animal physiologists studied how endocrine glands work by removing them surgically and observing the effects on the animal. We might use a similar strategy to discover the function of work, examining what happens when it's suddenly removed--which brings us back to Philip.

At the age of 53, he had been the chief executive of a successful start-up. He regularly clocked 72-hour weeks that he augmented by lugging home an overflowing briefcase each night. From the first, Philip's professional life had seemed a constantly ascending spiral of success. Mind-numbing labor was the necessary fuel for that ascent.

He had little life satisfaction. His work afforded safety, not pleasure; he worked not by choice but to assuage his anxiety. He hardly knew his wife and children. Years earlier his wife had had a brief affair, and he had never forgiven her--not so much for the act but because the pain he felt had been a major distraction from his work. His family had suffered from the estrangement, which kept him from dipping into this potential reservoir of support.

Then a disaster occurred. The venture capitalists who funded his company's early growth gained controlling interest and brought in their own management team. Philip was edged out and suddenly found himself unemployed--and possibly, given his age and salary, unemployable. He had developed severe anxiety as this was going on, and he sought psychotherapy. Initially, his anxiety was focused entirely on work. Waking regularly at 4 a.m., he would lie in bed ruminating: "How do I break the news to my employees? How do I negotiate the best severance package?"

Philip couldn't find a new job, and as his last day of work approached, he grew frantic. In therapy we gradually pried loose his anxiety from the work concerns to which it adhered like barnacles to a pier, and we uncovered its deeper sources.

A recurrent dream tormented him: Walking along the steep dunes of a gray, windswept beach, he looked down to see rivulets of sand streaming off beneath him. He scrambled to outpace the decaying ledge, but something dragged him back into the wake of the sand slide. He repeatedly awoke muttering, "I won't make it," and thinking of his father, who had died at sea years before.

Why all the anxiety? He had no financial concerns; the severance package he accepted was generous, and decades of careful investing were paying off. No, it was something else: the removal of work uncovered the bare scaffolding of his life. Like many work-driven people, Philip had few other interests. How would he fill the chilling vacuum of free time?

It was then that the incident with the burglar occurred, and I found myself reminding a shaken Philip that, eventually, something would happen to his wife and children, to him, and to me. I didn't comfort Philip just then because, free of his obscuring workaholism, he now had a rare opportunity: to reprioritize his values, to shake things into perspective.

Philip passed through a difficult period over the next several months. His customary defenses were broken: his consuming investment in work, his relentless climb to success. Just as he had faced the burglar, he now faced some fundamental facts of life: groundlessness, the inexorable passage of time, the search for meaning, the inevitability of death. A sense of urgency came into our sessions, and Philip worked hard to harvest some satisfaction from his world. Together we focused on his isolation--from his wife and family, from friends, from me during our meetings, from himself.

To some extent his isolation was fostered by the corporate environment, in which executive leaders have few peers and must constantly maintain the appearance of confidence. But now those reasons were no longer valid for Philip, and I urged him to explore his fears of intimacy. I suggested that he tell his friends he was out of a job and having trouble finding another. Initially, his sense of failure and fear of pity were too great, but gradually he learned that sharing his emotions opened the door to intimacy. During one session I offered to pass his rÉsumÉ to a friend, the president of a large Seattle company. In a formal manner Philip politely declined, but he thanked me. Then, seated in his car in the parking lot, he "cried like a baby" for the first time in 35 years.

We talked a great deal about this release and how it felt to reveal those emotions to me. As he learned to accept his vulnerable state, his sense of communion deepened--at first with me, then with his family. He began to find with other people an intimacy that he hadn't experienced since his adolescence. His orientation to time changed as well: it was no longer a bitter enemy but a friend to enjoy. He spent long hours with his children and took up the clarinet, which he'd abandoned in college.

After eight months Philip was offered a challenging position in another city. In our last session he said: "These months have been hell. Still, I'm glad I didn't find a job immediately. I'm glad I went through this."

Philip's story shouldn't discourage a dedication to the work in which many of us invest our dreams. Rather, it's a caveat to attend to the rest of our lives as well. When we lose sight of the whole, we are weakened. Our vision narrows and we grow limited, both as individuals and, frequently, as businesspeople.

Don't mistakenly think about the need for balance as sequential rather than immediate. Many people forever tell themselves there will be time later to enjoy the fruits of their labors; after an early retirement, they imagine, they will rejoin their families and make space for beauty, truth, spiritual development, even wisdom. Don't wait; life cannot be postponed.

Dr. Irvin D. Yalom is a best-selling novelist and a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. Ben Yalom is editor of the collection The Yalom Reader: On Writing, Living and Practicing Psychotherapy.