Death from Overwork is Forbidden

I noted on Twitter the other day that the chrysanthemum is obviously more important to the Japanese than it is to us Americans because their word for it is simply kiku (菊). I followed this with an observation that they also have a word for “death from overwork”: karoushi (過労死). That word really stuck with me. Here was a culture that experienced this so often they needed a simple vocabulary unit to express it.

During the daytime hours I manage video game development teams. Being the Japanese geek that I am I’ve taken that word and made it part of my team charter: karoushi kinshi (過労死禁止): “Death from overwork is forbidden.” I write it on my whiteboard, I hang posters in hallways, and when people ask me what it means it sparks an interesting discussion–one I know will stick with them every time they come to my office to ask for advice on handling a given problem.

The stories about terrible workplace conditions in the video game industry are fewer than they were 6+ years ago. The industry has acknowledged that months of 80+ hour work weeks are counter-productive and has started taking measures to combat it. I like to think I’ve had a lot to do with that during my tenure across three studios of Electronic Arts. They had one of the worst publicity problems in the industry at the time.

But “death” and “overwork” can apply to far more than salaryman type jobs and shuffling off this mortal coil. Very often we get wrapped up in our own pursuits to the detriment of the relationships we hold dear. For me, this pursuit was writing. It’s been all-consuming these past two years, and I’ve spent all the free time I could carve out between my job and my family writing some books and honing my craft. One night my wife went to bed before me and I stayed up late to get some writing done. The next night, I was really close to finishing some scene or other, so when she asked if I was coming to bed I let her know that I’d be there as soon as I finished up. Two hours later I rolled into the bedroom. Of course she’d fallen asleep, the lights still on, waiting for me.

It’s easy to fall into a pattern with our most passionate pursuits that unknowingly builds barriers between us and our loved ones. Two years later and it’s hard for me to remember the last time my wife and I went to bed at the same time. The worst part of all is that I didn’t even recognize it was happening. No, it was pointed out to me by a friend’s wife–and neither the friend nor his wife know my wife. Yet after I spent just one evening chatting with my friend’s wife, she immediately identified this as a significant problem I needed to address. And she’s right. I can’t believe I went so long without seeing it.

Just like the video game industry. One late night wasn’t so bad. That led to another. Then another. And it all snowballed until the only way to get a game built to budget and schedule was by crunching for weeks or months at a time. There was no malevolent intent, no man behind the curtain–just a blinding passion for one pursuit (in their case, making great games, in my case, writing great books). Like I remind my team that overwork isn’t always the answer, it’s good to have friends (or wives of friends!) there to remind me about the important things in life I’m missing out on or inadvertently allowing to die. Of course this problem will be rectified posthaste with lots of hugs, lots of flowers, and a reasonable bedtime.

過労死禁止。Death from overwork is forbidden. Is there something in your own life that’s suffered as a result of your dedication to a given pursuit? Ever stop to think about it? Perhaps some random blog post by some random guy who talks about random Japanese and writing-related things can spark your awareness of it.

Anything’s possible.

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5 thoughts on “Death from Overwork is Forbidden

  1. I would think of your writing as being akin to having a spouse who’s working full-time and going to law school at night. It’s necessary and time-consuming, but the payoff will be worth it. I don’t think you’ll ALWAYS spend that much time on writing. (BTW, my son wants your job when he grows up!) Props to your wife; she seems really supportive.

    It is just so difficult to carve out time for your own pursuits and a relationship when you have kids. After we take care of kids and chores, there just isn’t much couple time, and we’ve also got to attend to our own stuff (for example, he has to go to the gym b/c he has no time during the day). He’s also going to begin studying for a CFA program.

    But I agree, you can’t put off living until a theoretical tomorrow; somehow there must be a balance!

    • Yeah, finding that balance in a post-children relationship is tough. It’s important to do things together, but by the same token if you never get any time for yourself you can start go go a little crazy. She’s always been very supportive, and hopes that someday this can be a full time pursuit. That’s a rarely-realized dream in the writing world, but we’ve discussed it at length and she’s willing to work during the day to allow me to write at home should the situation ever present itself. So we’ll see where all this hard work gets me. For now, back to the edits! I’ve got my red ink pen and everything.

  2. I think it’s wonderful that you’ve recognized this about your habits and don’t want to let it interfere with your family life. “Compatible schedules” is a relationship factor I’m incredibly aware of, because my parents didn’t have that — still don’t — and it was definitely detrimental. As Margaret said, the life of a writer is always going to necessitate some amount of sacrifice from both parties, but the thing to strive for is balance. A few late nights here and there is okay, but not only does your mental/emotional/physical wellbeing demand a certain amount of rest, so does your relationship’s mental/emotional/physical wellbeing. I try to pay attention to Andy’s cues about when I’m working too hard, staying up too late, being too distant. And I try to remember to learn from my parents’ mistakes.

  3. Wow. I had no idea the Japanese had a word for this–that alone is so telling and powerful. I’m glad you implemented this motto in your work and were able to eventually see how it applied to your home life. Both my husband and I have struggled with this—he works in visual effects, and even when he was going to school for it (he graduated a few months ago) he’d stay up late most nights completing his projects. I was constantly busy with my writing, either freelance or fiction, but the problem was our schedules were incompatible. He’s a night owl; I wake up early in the morning when it’s crunch time. At some point we have to realize our lives are made up of many, many loves, and we can’t expect to pursue one exclusively without the other ones suffering as a result.

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