What you need to know:
For a workaholic, fatigue is our boon, not a bane. How can something that puts you off give you such a high? This is what being a man is, the demons whisper, how hard can you push? How many more responsibilities can you take on? How many ducks can you put in a row?
I’m in bed. Alone. My phone pings. Text message. I checked it. It says: “Hi, how can I become like you?” Huh? I replied. “Ha ha!” she – it’s a she – throws it back. “I mean, I have been trying so hard to hold on to the tiny part of me that is young, innocent, and carefree but now adulting is here and I’m so nervous about it all,” she continues and: “I now have become like you…worrying, working and always on the run from demons.”
That’s not true, I say, I run with the demons nowadays.
She then proceeds to text me some rather salacious stuff that also involves working (on her) but nobody needs to know that.
At first, it was amusing, but then her prescient words stayed with me. This is the river of all overthinkers, and I knew I would have to cross it alone. She has a point. I am a self-diagnosed workaholic. If there is anything I despise more than anyone who claims Kendrick Lamar is a better rapper than J. Cole, it is someone who just “sits there”. Usually, they are the same person.
A bit of context then: for some time now, I have been writing from home. In the kind of home I grew up in, you never wanted to be seen as lazy. When my parents woke up, everyone woke up. Usually, in keeping up with demon culture, they woke up at 5am. If I didn’t have anywhere to go or school to go to, I busied myself around the house. Cleaning this. Washing that. Spraying here. Spreading there. It felt good to be needed, to be seen, to be acknowledged.
That validation was priceless. Currently, I live alone – despite what the streets might say – and I barely have enough time to get anything done. “Wait till the kids come,” my friends-with-kids admonish, “You won’t know how you got to 48 years old in a day.” As if I needed another reason to put off my surging baby fever hormones. “Work your ass off now that you are alone!” They would say, as they balanced the tears. And so I work, but I decided to keep my ass.
Speaking of ass, a good day is when I am donkey tired. The perfect corporate hamster wheel. No complaints, and always going for the extra hours. And when done, I am ready to do it all over again. Taking a day off feels like vanity and self-aggrandisement.
For a workaholic, fatigue is our boon, not a bane. How can something that puts you off give you such a high? This is what being a man is, the demons whisper, how hard can you push? How many more responsibilities can you take on? How many ducks can you put in a row? In this Nairobi’s soulless get-money-at-all-costs mantra, stress becomes the default heuristic.
But she won’t get it. She just doesn't understand that when it comes to men, our meaning comes from our work. It’s not who we are, it’s what we do. Women know what they have to do; men have to figure it out. Isn’t it the Carlylean notion that the history of the world is but the biography of great men?
I don’t define my work as much as my work defines me. Want proof? Think of the greatest men in history: Edison? Known for the bulb. Churchill? War. Jesus? For saving mankind. Nobody cares who they were, everyone cares what they did. It reminds me of that popular Toni Morrison essay (2017) on the work we do: “The pleasure of being necessary to my parents was profound. I was not like the children in folktales: burdensome mouths to feed, nuisances to be corrected, problems so severe that they were abandoned to the forest. I had a status that doing routine chores in my house did not provide – and it earned me a slow smile and an approving nod from an adult. Confirmations that I was adultlike, not childlike.”
To be born into a rich connected family is to win the first prize in the lottery of life. For the rest of us, however, as soon as we’re done growing up, it seems, we must decide what to do with our lives. Life thrusts you into the arena, and whether you fight or not, it’s going to beat you down – if you let it. It feels like you’ve gambled and lost, even if you don’t start playing.
It’s why I have never actually really thought about those inflated job titles, a shot of ecstasy down your varicose vein. A fancy title helps us cling to the idea that our work has meaning and, ergo, that our lives have meaning. It’s not enough to just be, you have to be something.
So I should be well at home with this productivity culture. Problem is, you quickly discover, there is always more work to do. I constantly feel like there is a hand left unshaken, a baby unkissed, and an invoice unprocessed. The productivity terminology encodes not only getting things done but doing them at all costs.
“Is there a day off?” she asks.
I want to tell her, No: the more you show up, the more respect you could earn. I mean, this is your chance to show them what your momma gave to you, and prove that if you left, that organisation would crumble without you (it won’t but it’s the thought that counts). Most of your career is really still ahead of you, and if you are not putting in the work to achieve it, then who will?
What I eventually told her: “Don’t be so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”
The problem is, for a man, this is life.