Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Interview with self-help writer Greg Marcus, Ph.D.

Greg Marcus, Ph.D. is here today to talk to those of us who tend to work a bit too many hours. His book, Busting Your Corporate Idol: How to Reconnect with Values & Regain Control of Your Life, is the topic of conversation. The paperback version of the book hits shelves today.

Dr. Greg Marcus is a recovering workaholic who helps the chronically overworked find life balance through his book, public speaking, and personal coaching.

In his first incarnation, Dr. Greg was a research scientist, earning a Ph.D. from MIT in molecular biology, followed by a research fellowship at Stanford. In his second incarnation, he spent nine years as a marketer, managing breakthrough technology that helped revolutionize human genetics.

For a time Dr. Greg was working 90 hours a week, which impacted his personal health and family relationships. Then, he cut his working hours by a third, and at the same time accelerated his career. The secret? He rejected his corporate idolatry, and started putting people first.

Two years after putting his life into balance, Dr. Greg left the corporate world to be a stay-at-home dad, speaker, coach, and author.

Welcome, Greg. Please tell us about your new book.
Busting Your Corporate Idol is a self-help book for the chronically overworked. Busting is full of stories, many that come from the thirty interviews I conducted with men and women from the corporate world. Many successful people are secretly unfulfilled or downright unhappy. Corporate Idolatry is a metaphor for overwork. I cast overwork as an issue of values and priorities. Every person I talked to who is working too much has made the company the highest priority in their lives. And the people who have balanced lives make people their highest priority. I break it down step-by-step, showing how everything from an untrustworthy colleague to a “just make the numbers” corporate culture can lead to overwork. Each chapter has practical tips and tricks on how to regain control of your life. And yes, I cover how to deal with a boss who cares more about hours than productivity.

What inspired you to write this book?
On Yom Kippur in 2005, I was sitting in services, reflecting on my life, when for some reason I started to think about the sin of idolatry. I started to dismiss idolatry as an archaic idea, no longer relevant in the modern world, when I remembered a phrase I had heard many times from my bosses and colleagues: “You need to do what is best for the company.”

I realized that doing what is “best for the company” is not the same as doing what is “best.” I thought of myself as a family first person, but I realized that I couldn’t be family first because I was working ninety hours a week. Then and there, I decided to start putting people first in my life. This insight led to a cascade of changes for me. Within a year, I was working 1/3rd fewer hours, and was being more successful in my career, without changing jobs.

I had been a true believer in my company. I thought the company had a mission to change the world, and I needed to devote myself to help the company achieve these laudable goals. I thought I was getting paid a lot of money to change the world. In reality, the company’s first, second, and third priorities were to make money. Some very good things did come from the company—we developed cutting edge tools for scientific research that led to thousands of papers in the top journals. However, the price I paid in terms of my health and happiness was very high. I was literally killing myself for the company.

At that time, the most important thing in my life was the company. I am ashamed to admit it, but it was true. I had always told myself that my wife and children were the top priority, but when I look at my actions, decisions, and time spent, it was all about the company. I thought about work in the shower. I talked on my cell phone as I drove in to work, and as I drove home at night. I worked after dinner, and I had trouble falling asleep because I was going over the day in my head. The next day I would get up at five AM to work on email and to call my colleagues in Europe. I worked on most weekend days. The more I sacrificed, the more important the company became to me, which in turn led to more sacrifices.

My insight on Yom Kippur set off a chain of dominos. Once I saw the world in this new way, there was no going back. In the past, I had unsuccessfully tried to change my priorities. This time I went a step further and changed my values. My family and my health had to come before the company. Lo and behold the priorities in my life changed. It didn’t happen overnight, but over time small incremental changes made a big difference. Even when I was working close to one hundred hours a week, I always ate breakfast and dinner with my family. It was a line in the sand, a boundary I never crossed, and doing so served as a model for the additional changes to come.

I made a conscious choice to work fewer hours. Instead of thinking in a negative way, beating myself up to work less, I focused on the positive.

My health is important. I need to stop working by 9:30 PM, so I have time to wind down and get to sleep.

Then it became I need to stop working by 9:00 PM, so my wife and I can spend some time together.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, choosing an action that reinforces a value is a virtuous cycle because the action itself reinforces the value, making it easier to take a similar action the next time.

During the year I transitioned from working ninety to less than sixty hours per week, my fascination with idolatry grew. As I learned more about it, I found more connections to my corporate life and surprising solutions in ancient texts. For example, according to the twelfth century Rabbi Maimonides’ Laws of Idolatry, it is forbidden to wear the clothes of idolators. Maimonides reasoned that wearing the clothes of idol-worshippers was a way of giving tacit approval to the idolator’s value system and made it more likely that the wearer would adhere to it. On a lark, I stopped wearing company T-shirts on weekends, and found it helped me keep my mind off of work.

What exciting project are you working on next?
Now I am working on building coaching products to help other people make the changes I made in my life. The corporate world is filled with miserable people who are working too much, and are missing out on the most important things in life. It doesn’t have to be that way.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
My English teacher senior year in high school was shocked that I was going into science. I’ve always remembered that, and in hindsight I realize that writing was often part of my career. I wrote papers as a scientist, and I was amazed at how much I enjoyed writing ad copy when I was a product manager. My ads won awards, too.

Writing a book has always been on my bucket list, and when I found myself as a stay at home father for a few months, I decided this was the time to start.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
For someone who writes about life balance, I find myself very busy. I am a stay-at-home father, life coach, public speaker, and writer. I’m not a fast writer – I tend to revise a lot. I do best in the summer, when I have longer days. I’ll get up at 5:30, and write from 6 to 8.

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Thank you for being here today, Greg!

1 comment:

Greg Marcus said...

Thank you Lisa. Chronic overwork is an epidemic in this country. Thanks for the help getting the word out.