Workaholics Anonymous


Dear Artist,

It seems that researchers at the University of Victoria have determined workaholics to be no happier or more highly realized than anyone else. Assistant Professor of Psychology Fred Grouzet, 31, reports, “Working doesn’t make you happy. We can’t do one thing incessantly. We need to balance our time.” Fred and his co-workers have some statistics to back them up. This might come as bad news to those artists who eat and sleep their work.

What Fred and his pals are not taking into consideration is the large number of workaholics whose regular lives are already miserable for other reasons. Driving themselves for a smidgen of joy, they can’t get off the wagon. These folks are predisposed to unhappiness. I have to report that most of the creative workaholics I know are not miserable at all, and part of their ongoing happiness lies in a healthy commitment to their work. A few are so positively delirious they have to be pinched regularly.

Still, it’s a sticky business. Many of us do exhibit some of Workaholics Anonymous’s well-published “Seven Signs of Warning.” Here they are:

1. Instead of accepting yourself, you seek approval and justification for your existence in work. 2. You work to escape your feelings, shutting out your true needs and wants. 3. You use work to tamp down the uncertainties of life by over-organizing and refusing to give up control, losing your spontaneity and creativity. 4. You create crises and get adrenalin highs by overworking to resolve indigenous problems, then suffer withdrawals into anxiety and depression. 5. You hoard work to insure you will always be busy, seemingly important and never bored. 6. You fear free time. 7. You’re typically a perfectionist, unwilling to ask for help or delegate because no one can meet your standards.

In my experience there are six conditions needed for happy workaholism. 1. You have a philosophical understanding of the dangers lurking in all of the above. 2. You are more or less proficient at what you do. 3. You seem to be getting somewhere with it. 4. You have learned the arts of self-reliance and self-governance. 5. You have had other doors closed to you for reasons of health, family, ignorance, incompetence, misguided education or missed opportunity. 6. You secretly know that work is play.

Best regards,


PS: “Human beings are of two classes: those whose work is work and whose pleasure is pleasure; and those whose work and pleasure are one.” (Sir Winston Churchill)

Esoterica: Evolved creative work means finding a “zone” that the average worker knows not of. “As you work,” said the British painter Francis Bacon, “the mood grows on you. There are certain images which suddenly take hold and you need to do them. The excitement and possibilities are in the working and can only come in the working.” This is an eternally sanctified and valid attitude. It might represent our highest calling. Channelled, and yes, “balanced,” it actually leads to personal happiness and possibilities for the common good. “Your work is to discover your work — and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.” (Buddha)


No shutting the art off
by Denise Brown, Portsmouth, NH, USA


“Nova Scotia Boats at Low Tide”
watercolour painting
by Denise Brown

I often wonder if the people who worry about workaholics so much ever really liked their own work enough to want to work 100 hours a week on a project for the love of it. I myself would shrivel up if I had to do research and statistics all day long. The meaning of work is totally different for the artist. Even though it is called work, it brings a deep joy and a self purpose when someone is driven to work on what they love to do. So perhaps the case studiers and researchers have never experienced this overwhelming excitement deep inside the pit of the soul of artists/workaholics in accomplishing or getting closer to a goal. I doubt that the researchers ever have, or else they might understand why we have to do what we do. It is something that ‘gets in your blood’ and you can’t let it go or even want to let it go. It has a strong pull like the tide and you become a force to be reckoned with when the creative flow starts. There is no shutting it off.


Engaging in meaningful life
by Charles Peck, Punta Gorda, Florida, USA


“Florida Flag”
Charles Peck at work

The error young Grouzet makes is not understanding Sir Winston Churchill‘s, Francis Bacon‘s or Gautama Buddha‘s quotes in your letter. There are those for who work is a distasteful burden to shoulder in order to accomplish an unrelated end. It is made possible by the advantages gained through subjecting oneself to that which is onerous. There are those fortunate ones who live and breathe their play/work which is that which they love, look forward to, and want to do, which include of every persuasion of artist and scientist. In other words, those who are engaged in life with joy and curiosity are able to secure sustenance from that which they do. In the end Grouzet has created a palliative for those enslaved to the ‘factory’ without dealing with the root causes. These folks need to get to the place where they find a way to become engaged once again with life in a meaningful way. Maybe take art classes from those of us who follow our own drummer.


Finding personal fulfillment
by Jamie McDonald Gray, Calgary, AB, Canada

I was very disturbed to learn that in exhibiting every one of the “signs of warning” for workaholics, what I’ve been calling “passion” in myself has actually been leaning more toward sickness. This makes me think that I’m shooting myself in the foot – spending a lot of money on education and working to exhaustion. Now I find out that for weird and useless reasons I might not have staying power. I would be glad to know if there is some way to get help to straighten this out and become a more joyful and spontaneous artist. I’d like my reasons for creating to have less to do with my mother’s approval and more to do with fulfillment in myself, whether I end up being a success to the world or not. Can you or others of the Painter’s Keys community suggest anything?

(RG note) Thanks, Jamie. Everyone has to work out their own methodology, and I’m sure you will receive a few suggestions. Disregard those who recommend turning to Scotch. Gin or Vodka are better choices.


Avoidance by working the business
Marion Barnett, UK


by Marion Barnett

I’m a full time artist these days, but got there because of the breakdown from hell. Around ten years ago, I was working as a Human Resource Manager, ironically working with people to avoid this kind of problem. I am a workaholic, and, if I allow it, I will lapse into the old patterns, and work incessantly. It’s not the painting I work on, though, it’s the rest of it, the marketing, the promoting, the business stuff. I see opportunities, I exploit them, I overwork, and then I can’t paint. No matter how well I think I know myself, or how philosophical I am about the whole thing, these urges take over. These days, I’m better at stopping myself, regulating my life and ignoring opportunities (or passing them onto someone else). I will admit, though, that it seems impossible to overwork myself with paint or cloth. It’s not therapy, it’s just joy.


Keeping fresh by switching media
by Petra Voegtle, Denmark


silk painting, 49 x 29 inches
by Petra Voegtle

I am not quite sure whether I am a workaholic per definition but as I am working on and with my art 7 days a week I probably am. But under no means I would say I am unhappy because of it. I am unhappy when things happen which pull me away from working on art, such as daily life issues which can never be totally avoided. In my case I do not limit myself to one style of art (eg. painting). That would be unhealthy. If the weather is fine I am outdoors on my bike, taking my camera for whatever I might find interesting. I never know what I will encounter, looking for new motifs or other stuff that can be “used” in a way or for inspirational purposes. Switching between techniques and media, working on different series with different subjects is a wonderful means to keep on the move and away from becoming bored, unproductive and repetitive. Regarding free time, I don’t really have any, unless you would not call dreaming and pondering new projects another kind of work.


High energy builds interest
by Linda Whitmore

I am a well-adjusted workaholic. My studio work becomes uninteresting if I do not participate at a level that others around me would consider overkill. Feet must be tired as well as the body. It is not a thorough search if the job is only half done. This I know from experience and it is necessary to monitor my level of “awareness participation” regularly. If not monitored, the work often shows cracks or seepage where creative identity is put first. The process is only the beginning. After follows a period I would describe akin to Descarte’s essay relating to Dream Doubt, a waking reality.


Finding your niche
by Joel Simpson, Union, NJ, USA


“Party Series”
original photograph
by Joel Simpson

Thanks for your wisdom on workaholism. I definitely qualify, but when I play, I play. I used to be neurotic (on the face of it, a suspicious assertion). After 6 years of psychoanalysis (which is all about acceptance; insights come and go, but the breakthroughs come when you admit something you were scared to say), and those motivations in your first list were very true of me. That was when I was a jazz pianist. Now I’m a full-time photographer, recently post-therapy, and the second list is more germane. Now as a professional photographer I love what I do. The trick is to find time for my own work, though I enjoy the work I do for clients. I must admit that while on vacation I photograph obsessively, even with company. The results can be astonishing, but I’m in high dudgeon surrounded by sublime geology.


Taking a break to appreciate
by TJ Miles, Spain


“Going round the bend”
acrylic painting, 50 x 70 cm
by TJ Miles

I think I much prefer your ‘happy workaholism’ to the miserable alternative. I tend to berate myself for failing to say no when it comes to workload, and yet I get a bigger buzz from ‘healthy stress’ than if I was stuck in a rut in an office. Doors open and close constantly; my work is play to a certain extent. I have been a self-reliant, self-governing autocrat in regard to my working life for so long now I would have to be dragged, kicking and screaming into a democratic societal role. On the days when I grumble about pressure and deadlines, I stop for a while, jump on my bike, head out for a coffee and drink in the sun. I remind myself how lucky I am that I have such a fulfilling job (albeit with ups and downs), live in the sunshine, and still have the freedom to start and stop as I see fit. Then, and only then, do I cycle back and get on with the work, re-energized.


The anxieties of pure joy
by Bonnie Hughes, Rochester, New York, USA

In regards to number 6, “you fear free time,” I once had worked myself into a dither over a particular issue of a magazine I edited and it had been put to bed. My friend’s self-made wooden sailboat beckoned and I went on a week’s holiday. As we were gently bobbing in a cove on Martha’s Vineyard, I looked past the sails and up into an osprey’s nest. All was peaceful there. In fact, all was peaceful in any direction we turned. Only distant echoes could be heard. And what could be felt? I was covered in a massive hive breakout because my body was experiencing relaxation. Throughout the next 18 years, I unwittingly cultivated a life of total disregard for my own pleasure. I crashed many times and suffered painful and metaphoric autoimmune diseases. I no longer fear free time. But at 63, can I return to the creative life just for the pure joy of it? I get on the writing sled but it stops a quarter of the way down the slippery slope. It’s not the free time I fear but the ditch.


Finding balance and diversity
by Aaron Zacharias, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“European Bee-Eaters”
acrylic painting, 22 x 28 inches
by Aaron Zacharias

I am more of the balance and diversity school. I find that my work in the mental health field, my social life, my advocacy and activism for the poor and homeless in our city, along with my enjoyment of nature and exercise (often in the form of interminable hikes in the woods), my enjoyment of music and my ongoing interest in the world around me have only contributed to my proficiency as an artist. Yet, painting for me still remains a vocation and not merely a pastime and it runs as a constant theme throughout my life. Everything works together in an organic whole, each part enhancing all the others. I think that I would be poorer as an artist as well as a human being without this sense of balance and diversity.


All about being alive
by Luz Perez, Riverside, CA, USA


“A Walk In My Garden”
oil painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Luz Perez

In 40-odd years of secretarial work, I can remember only 3 Golden Moments I could say were memorable: 1983, I became a citizen and could be promoted at my aerospace company, 1988 becoming a Certified Professional Secretary and receiving a raise, and 1990 competing against degreed competitors and actually getting the top job because of my experience. Trust me, those are the only times I really remember.

As a professional artist, I’ve only been at it for 7 years. But my God, what a heady, wonderfully fulfilling experience this has been! The Golden Moments keep coming and coming: The first time I saw a Monet in real life (I cried); the first time you printed one of my letters; my first sale, my first prize, my second prize; being accepted in a national competition; my first one-woman show; those wonderful moments when someone says they LOVE your work; every time a student says, “I understand now, I never saw it that way before until you showed me.” Also, when one of my students wins the prize and I don’t, I am elated! Watching someone else create beauty right in front of me and realizing that person is an awesome artist.

I can remember every reception I have ever been to. In my area we started a tradition which seems to be catching on: Give a rose to each artist when it is a group show, but a whole bouquet when it’s a solo. My bouquet is hanging up to dry and it reminds me daily of those unforgettable Golden Moments that took place during my show. I feel alive because I am an artist.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Workaholics Anonymous



From: Robin — Aug 31, 2007

#6 is the best!

From: John — Sep 01, 2007

I like #2. Too bad our society supports and pushes this so hard… and too few do anything about it.

From: Chris Everest — Sep 03, 2007

I am not a workaholic. I am workaphobic. I desperately crave the chance to NOT work. I would love to allow my obsessive personality the CHANCE to obsess over something I actually wanted to do – something creative, all I need is time and the funding to not worry about my fiscal shortcomings. I would never be so arrogant as to risk my family life for a personal dream so its back to the lottery and the dream.

From: Brigitte Nowak — Sep 04, 2007

Re comment by Chris Everest: ‘I can’t be creative because “all I need is money and time” ‘. This is a fallacy. For many years, between a demanding fulltime job and family commitments, I maintained a professional art practice. It wasn’t ideal: I would usually paint between 9 or 10 p.m. (after kids were asleep) and 1 a.m., then get up at 6 a.m. for work. But because art was what I wanted to do, I always made – not found – the time for it. A few years ago, I took early retirement: minimal pension, but more time to paint. Now, being represented by several galleries, I find there are still external demands: certain styles, sizes, subjects are wanted; others aren’t. Life goes on.

From: Gillian Hanington — Sep 04, 2007

For me freedom came when I went through The Artist’s Way several times in a row. Its a wonderful guide to sorting out my feelings and working my way out of some counterproductive attitudes. I find your letters have a similar effect. I seem to need to be reminded constantly where I am going and what I am doing. But I did have one wonderful thing going. I have never made a distinction in my life between work and play. This is really great, but I find people look at me funny when I say it. Im sure it could be deliberately cultivated.

From: Janet Sellers — Sep 04, 2007

Work is play; does play make you rich? Only if wealth is the freedom to play. Work has gotten a bad rap, as a word. Money is useful, play is necessary. To paraphrase a famous poet’s line: I don’t know where artwork as play can lead; many people are dying every day for a lack of it.

From: Toni Ciserella — Sep 04, 2007

“6. You secretly know that work is play.” I’m not so sure about this one, Robert. Sometimes work is work and play is play. I enjoy working as well as playing and sometimes when I work it can seem like play and sometimes when I play it can seem like work. I believe that the root of any addiction- work, alcohol, drugs, sex, food, etc…stems from the inability to cope with life and the real issues that are not being dealt with. People think because work is regarded as a positive thing that more is better but, anything that is done in excess is harmful to growth. Churning out hundreds of paintings a year may make you a coveted artist but if you didn’t enjoy the process or struggle through obstacles, then what did you learn? How to be a robot? We’re human and meant to work and play. If you can balance them -all the better.

From: Paul Burns — Sep 04, 2007

Many businesses set up their Staff/Managers to feel like failures. Thus, allowing the natural instinct to succeed (feeling better about themselves or pleasing others) to drive them. They are manufacturing workaholics in the cooperate culture.

From: Paula Jones — Sep 04, 2007

The quote by Sir Winston Churchill and by Buddha ring so true with me. It’s a passion, a calling, a feeling of being free, to be able to do what I love… It’s not work, it’s who I am… It’s everything I do… I am so very fortunate to feel this way. Yes, there are times when I am discouraged, or dissappointed, but I always look at those times as times of learning and reflection.. Thanks Robert for your letters… I love them. Paula Jones

From: Scharolette Chappell — Sep 04, 2007

LIFE IS ART, not art the life. There is no one else on the face of the earth, or beneath, or above, that is me or you. Confidence in who we are is the ultimate prize. Art comes from living. Breathe your breath, art flows out in the exhale.

From: Mike Hill — Sep 05, 2007

Geez, have a heart Brigitte! Chris expresses a heartfelt feeling and fact of life that many people have and you who don’t understand the predicament, can only infer laziness! My wife is like many workaholic, multi-taskers (she’s proud of being one), but she is not good at any one thing, but she gets a lot done. She is not a good cook, because of multi-tasking – puts something on stove, goes off to do something, food gets burned or some seasoning is left out. And you, you went off to your “demanding full-time job”, came home, diddled with the kids in between doing your “family commitments”, patted them on the head and sent them to bed, then patted yourself on the back for “making” (not “finding”) the time to paint. Lets score this: work (getting ready, commuting, etc…) 8-10+ hours, paint 3-4 hours, sleep 5 hours, chores and kids 3-4 hours, Kids only time (??? you didn’t mention any). Gee, what was more important? Checkbook and day-timer tell all. There are just some people (me included) that have realized that in their lives there could be more important things in life than monetary and personal achievement. It has nothing to do with laziness. I’ve put in my, and many other’s, share of 120 hour work weeks – but I remedied that. I would love to go flyfishing every Sat. morning, and paint most nights, but there are in my mind more important things for my time than pursuing my personal dreams. Funny thing, eventually the fishing and the painting both get worked in! And yes, I am happy!

From: Anonymous — Sep 06, 2007

Mike, you are bang on. Multi-tasking sounds great and makes one feel like a hero, and it even disguises itself as a necessity, but it is in fact a silent killer – there is some sort of a breakdown waiting down the road. I know because I have done it – I used to be a workaholic, chasing a career and trying to be a perfect wife (no kids). My husband supported all that I did – money that I brought in helped of course, but he was so insightful that he signed me up in an art school, to balance off my stressful life. He probably saved my life, or at least my health by doing that. The problem was that my art took another bite into the time I was able to dedicate for us to be together. For years I tortured myself for any minute that I wasn’t spending painting, taking professional classes to excel at my job, etc…you get the picture. In that race it is impossible to see the other side of the rainbow – just like a hamster in the wheel, all you can see and admire is how fast you are able to turn the thing. I don’t really know what happened to get me out of that (perhaps the market bubble burst in 2002 and massive layoffs and closedowns everywhere), but one day I just realized that this is my only life with my loving husband and that there are millions of artists and overachievers out there and I am only responsible for this little part of the universe that the two of us have. The race still goes on but I consciously force myself not to work overtime and not to go to the studio but ask my husband to go for a walk instead. As you say, the money still gets made and painting still somehow gets done, and even my husband is lately showing interest in painting himself! That’s happiness for me. Don’t make the time, spend it generously with the loved ones!

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Sep 11, 2007

I think we need to be careful about how we apply the term “workaholic”. As the ending suggests, there is a pathological element to workaholism: it becomes a substitute for truly participating in one’s life. And I agree: from my observation of associates who are afflicted by workaholism, they are neither happy nor particularly productive. They are merely busy, and not usually pleasant to be around. Workaholism is very different, in my opinion, from the kind of involvement that comes from passion about what one is doing and which has the capacity to bring one to a delightful immersion in the process. I think this is true no matter what field or endeavor one is undertaking. One is removed from life, the other is infused with it. I see that you have addressed this other way of looking at deep involvement in your next letter, but since I am catching up on a backlog, I wanted to add my take on this particular use of terms.







acrylic on canvas
by Roxana Matamoros, Guelph, ON, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Frank Armistead of Regina, SK, Canada who wrote, “For me art is a major component of my recovery.”

And also Judy Phlegar of Greensboro, GA, USA who wrote, “How many people do we know, other than other creative persons like ourselves, that truly can say they love their work? Not too many, I’m afraid.”

And also Marc Rubin of Staten Island, NY, USA who wrote, “I am always running on a treadmill, always in the same place. How to get off the treadmill and get where I want to go?”

And also Patti Gibbons who wrote, “I mostly fall into the good workaholic, but can borderline on the other at times, but I am working on that. I love what I do. I can’t think of anything else I would rather be doing!”

And also Jane Kley of Hermann of MO, USA who wrote, “Art is foremost in my mind, and because it has never provided me with a steady income or put food on the table, I simply find it is aerodynamically sound and perfect for flight. I am diagonally parked in a parallel universe.”

And also Adria Arch who wrote, “I know a lot of people, artists and non-artists, who fit the category of Workaholic. However, I don’t really understand what you mean by “other doors have closed for you…” Can you explain?

(RG note) Thanks, Adria. It’s been my experience that some creative overachievers — and many are certified workaholics—had some sort of epiphany that made it clear that art was the vocation for them. In some cases the only vocation left.




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