Slowly, over the years, and without really intending to, I have become something of a cognoscente in the realm of terminal office departures. To the outside observer, being the last person to leave the office can seem like some kind of flaw or failure, or at the very least a spoiler of real life. To my wife it can mean cold dinners and missed opportunities; to my kids it can mean waiting up past bedtime for a hug or homework help. It certainly doesn’t appear to them to be a step on the path toward fulfillment. But it’s not always so cut and dried. People who leave the office at five o’clock are all alike, but each person who stays until everyone else has left has his own story.
Sure, there are a few who meet the stereotype of the Classic Workoholic: the person with a hole inside that can only be plugged with overtime or monstrous billable hours. They stay late because the alternative would trigger waves of discomfort, akin to leaving the house when you are certain you left the iron on. But most people who get to turn off the lights when they leave are driven by different forces. There’s the Task Collector — the one who accumulates, over the course of ordinary business hours, a list of chores that must be completed before day’s end, but can’t even be started until the clock strikes five and the animate distractions (co-workers and customers) begin to disappear. There’s also the Pro-Crastinator, who spends most of the ordinary business day soliciting conversation, and sweeping mines, sometimes only to realize at dusk that an assignment that could have been finished with a little concentrated attention by 10:00 a.m. would definitely have to get put to bed no later than 10:00 p.m. the same day. And there’s the Deadline Daredevil, who through poor luck or poor planning always finds herself arriving at work the day before a big project is due with well more than eight hours worth of work to do on it.
I have been each of these people at different times — except the Classic Workaholic; I have too much imagination for that — and every time, I feel a little deflated, as if job fulfillment were leaking out of me with a hiss. It’s not just the grind and the time away from home; it’s the sense that either the job is too big, or I am too little for it. An occasional late night is excusable, maybe even interesting. But if you are on a first-name basis with the guy who empties the trash cans and vacuums the carpets, you are putting your overall sense of fulfillment at risk.
Still, not every late night has been a downer. There have been times when my work has simply been engrossing — due to the charge of figuring out a novel way to address a problem, or the drama and affinity generated by counseling others, or maybe just the quiet, steady pleasure of doing something worthwhile well — and only an incidental trip to the printer revealed to me that I was the only one left in the office, and that I was unlikely to get home in time to watch Alex Trebek. While the shock of sudden solitude was unnerving, the pleasure of having been so absorbed in the job compensated. Sure, I would be happy to realize that I was unexpectedly off the clock and free to head home. But I would also be a little reluctant to interrupt the flow that had caught me up in the first place. Sometimes I might even keep at it for 15 minutes more, telling myself I just had to get to a good stopping point. Maybe this is how Classic Workaholics get their start.
So, being the one to lock the office door behind me isn’t always anti-fulfillment. But there’s nothing that says I can’t just be captivated by my job during regular business hours, and leave the rest of my day for other types of fulfillment. Like all ideal situations, that’s not going to happen every day; but as a goal, it helps me focus on making the most out of the time I am meant to be at work.