When I was a lad of ten, I had a friend – call him “David” – who habitually exaggerated his talents. Among other things, he said he could run a mile in five minutes flat.
On one occasion, I was hanging out with David and some friends at an old football field that had a running track. David’s older brother was with us, and he expressed doubts about the five-minute-mile claim. Yet David continued to insist he could indeed run a mile in five minutes, at which point David’s brother reached into his pocket and pulled out a stopwatch.
“Alright David, you’ve been talking a lot, let’s see you do it.”
As it happened, David was wearing shorts and running shoes that day. And there we were next to a track. With a stopwatch. All eyes were on David. He had talked himself into a corner and would now have to prove himself. So when his brother set the stopwatch and gave him the signal, he was off, sprinting around the track as fast as his pudgy legs would take him.
In thirty seconds, he’d made it nearly halfway around the track. “Wow,” said David’s brother, “He’s really bookin’ it.” And then he stopped.
We walked across the field to where David was, sitting on the track untying his laces. David grimaced. “I got a rock in my shoe!” He held up his shoe, shook it, and an imaginary rock fell out.
And at that point, it seemed as though we all cut an unspoken deal with David. We wouldn’t razz him about quitting (apart from a few remarks by his brother), and in exchange he would permanently retire his five-minute-mile boast. It was a deal we all stuck to. A bit of successful childhood diplomacy on everyone’s part.
These days, I think of my childhood friend David whenever I hear someone brag about working a sixty or eighty hour week. In the past I always wondered whether I was incredibly lazy or whether everyone else was lying. Now I know, thanks to time-use studies by the Bureau or Labor Statistics, that I’m not so lazy after all. Turns out everyone else was lying. As reporter Laura Vanderkam explained a few years back:
Time-diary studies are laborious, but in general they are more accurate. Aggregated, they paint a different picture of life than the quick-response surveys featured in the bulk of America’s press releases. For instance, the National Sleep Foundation claims that Americans sleep 6.7 hours (weekdays) to 7.1 hours (weekends) per night. The ATUS puts the average at 8.6 hours. The first number suggests rampant sleep deprivation. The latter? Happy campers.
The numbers are equally striking with work. Back in the 1990s, using 1985 data, researchers John Robinson and his colleagues compared people’s estimated workweeks with time-diary hours. They found that, on average, people claiming to work 40 to 44 hours per week were working 36.2 hours — not far off. But then, as estimated work hours rose, reality and perception diverged more sharply. You can guess in which direction. Those claiming to work 60- to 64-hour weeks actually averaged 44.2 hours. Those claiming 65- to 74-hour workweeks logged 52.8 hours, and those claiming workweeks of 75 hours or more worked, on average, 54.9 hours. I contacted Prof. Robinson recently to ask for an update. His 2006-07 comparisons were tighter — but, still, people claiming to work 60 to 69 hours per week clocked, on average, 52.6 hours, while those claiming 70-, 80-hour or greater weeks logged 58.8. As Mr. Robinson and co-author Geoffrey Godbey wrote in their 1997 book “Time for Life,” “only rare individuals put in more than a 55-60 hour workweek.”
I thought I was one of them. So I kept a time diary. Alas, even during a week that left me feeling wrecked, an honest accounting of my hours didn’t top 50.
So the question isn’t whether people exaggerate the hours they work – they do – the question is why people feel the need to exaggerate. Like David’s five-minute-mile boast, when someone says “I work eighty hours a week” it always strikes me as somewhat childish. David’s five-minute-mile claim was childish but also understandable – he was a child, desperately seeking validation from his peers. Why is it that grown-ups feel such a need to exaggerate their work hours?
On this subject, nearly seventy years ago, Bertrand Russell wrote an essay about work and culture, In Praise of Idleness. Despite a few dated references, it’s still worth a read today.
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And on the subject of running – also as an antidote to “Rambo” – here’s the final scene in the film “Gallipoli”: