Commentary: Career success is important, but what is the point of working yourself to death?File photo of a woman standing in front of a blackboard with a financial chart. (Photo: iStock/eternalcreative)


SINGAPORE: I heard recently that a former schoolmate of mine suffered a heart attack.

He was known to work 15-hour days, even on weekends, driving his career relentlessly from promotion to promotion and had little time for anything else.

“I want to have it all,” he once boasted, “I’ll rest when I’m retired, but for now, it’s all about career success.” I’m told his recent health scare has mellowed his perspective.

In this post-pandemic environment where the markets are picking up, many Singaporeans seem fatigued.

A recent study by The Instant Group showed that Singapore is the most overworked country in Asia, with 73 per cent feeling unhappy and 62 per cent feeling burnt out.

Fairly or unfairly, society today seems to place a premium on people who achieve success in their careers, and many are driven by this belief to seek fame and fortune at all costs.


And then the great career paradox happens.

This is the phenomenon when individuals think that the best way to achieve personal happiness is to relentlessly pursue career success, sometimes at the expense of everything else.

In their quest for fancy job titles, fat salaries and all the other hallmarks of success, they neglect their health, relationships and all the other things that should matter to them.

They give up so much while chasing career success that they ironically find themselves feeling even emptier than before – and drive themselves yet harder, resulting in a paradox where the more successful they become, the unhappier they feel.

In the end, they end up being successful, but frustrated.

This seems to suggest a trade-off in goals, but the lingering question remains – can we really have it all?


We often put our careers ahead of everything else as if it will magically solve all our problems. Want nicer things? Get a better paying job. Want more recognition? Work hard for a promotion.

We need to recognise that even though our careers may take up the bulk of our time, the truth is that there are other parts that are equally if not more significant to us.

Like time spent with family, maintaining our physical and emotional health, having sufficient time to do the things we love – and even having good quality, untroubled sleep.

The happiest people aren’t the ones with the most successful careers, but rather, those who have achieved a balanced and holistic view on the multiple aspects of life that are important to them, including their careers.

A man working on a sticker-covered laptop in a coffee shop. (Photo:Unsplash/Tim Gouw)


And therein lies the harsh reality that sometimes, failure in one area could mean failure in all areas.

A WHO study published last year found that people who work 55 or more hours per week have a 35 per cent higher risk of a stroke and a 17 per cent higher risk of dying from heart disease, compared with those working 35 to 40 hours a week.

As a result, overwork effectively led to the deaths of more than 745,000 people in 2016, the study showed.

It is so rampant that the Japanese even have a term for it – “karoshi”, which literally means death by overwork.

We need to pause and review our priorities in life, then decide which ones are more important than the others.

Are you really willing to die for your job?


Undoubtedly, our careers are important as a source of income and sense of self-worth, and we should strive continuously to curate and enhance it.

Once we realise that it is the biggest asset that we possess in terms of revenue-generation, it would make absolute sense to protect our career and increase its value-creation potential.

This could take the form of skills-enhancement, networking and being career agile. In other words, we need a career strategy to guide our decision-making processes.

Whether we want to accelerate, downshift or pivot to an adjacent role or industry, having a well-thought-out roadmap for the journey ahead will ensure long-term employability and maximum career enjoyment.

Once you understand how the game is played, you will be able to make better career decisions that are aligned to your life strategy at whatever stage you are at, leaving you in a better position to enjoy the things that matter to you.


I have been asked many times whether it is possible to have it all – a fantastic job, a fat salary, doing work we love, having time to focus on our family and enjoying absolute work-life balance.

To many, having it all seems like a pipe dream but my answer to this perennial question is, “Why not?”

To many, having it all could mean a great job with a six-figure salary, a million dollars in the bank, unlimited time off and being there for the family 24/7, plus time to walk the dog three times a day. Is this an unrealistic expectation that will only lead to disappointment or burnout?

Instead of having it all, how about having enough?

In life, everything comes with a trade-off or sacrifice so we need to find our optimum point on that cost-benefit curve to occupy, rather than always staying at the maximum point itself which can be exhausting in the long run.

Learning to be contented with what we have, as well as what we don’t have can lead to a wonderous sense of liberation – one that will free your mind to focus on the other things in life apart from your job, making you a much happier person in general.

Indeed, without a reprioritisation of our life goals and a robust career strategy to guide us, we might pursue the wrong things and end up even unhappier.

Adrian Choo is the CEO and founder of Career Agility International, a career strategy consultancy. He is also co-author of The Great Career Paradox, published by Penguin Random House.