Extreme Jobs (and the people who love them)

Eighty-hour weeks. Relentless travel. Unpredictable schedules. High risk, high stress. Your worst nightmare, maybe — but a dream for a group of elite workers.

Extreme Jobs (and the people who love them)

Sunday, November 7, 2004, was a slightly more energetic workday than usual for John Bishop, an investment banker on Citigroup’s global energy team. After working until 10 p.m. the previous night, the 31-year-old rose at 6 a.m. and headed to Staten Island to run the New York City Marathon. Three hours, 49 minutes later (a time good enough to rank him 6,363 out of 35,562 runners), he dashed over the finish line in Central Park, then headed home to sack out for a few hours before heading back to the office for a 6 p.m. conference call. An important presentation to a client in Houston the next day kept him grinding through documents until 1:30 a.m. But after misplacing some research materials, he was back at the office copy machine by 4 a.m. before heading to the airport for his 5:30 a.m. flight. By 9 a.m., in Texas, Bishop met with the client, then headed back to New York, returning to his office by 7 that evening for a few more hours of work. Feeling a little weary, he decided to knock off early. He clocked out at 10 p.m.


Sure, this was a little over the top, even by the notoriously excessive standards of investment banking, but it wasn’t so far off the charts that it earned Bishop any medals for heroism. “I might be a little skewed to the workaholic, but realistically, expecting 90 to 100 hours a week is not at all unusual,” says Bishop, wantonly pausing for a cup of coffee late one Friday afternoon at a cafe near his office.

Time was when toiling 60 hours a week signaled that you were a corporate warrior, willing to put work at the top of your life’s priorities. Now, with corporate downsizing forcing staffers to shoulder the load of fallen colleagues, and a job market still so frosty that workers know they go home early at their peril, folks far down the corporate food chain are often logging grueling hours, less because they’re passionate about their work than because they’re scared not to.

But the implacable effects of globalization, technology, and competition have also combined to create another class of jobs whose demands have amped these requirements up by several degrees. Investment banking certainly qualifies; management consulting, with its relentless travel, typically fits in this league; and a whole range of jobs that require constant communication and coordination with the Far East — from manufacturing to software development to media — are now joining these ranks.

Like daredevil athletes, the workers who gravitate toward these jobs often thrive on the challenge. Bombarded by information, tethered to technology that links them to global partners, vendors, and customers around the clock, they labor extraordinary hours, log staggering numbers of air miles, and juggle mind-boggling schedules. Their jobs are often high stress and high risk — the corporate version of an upside-down double spin on a half pipe. Sure, the money’s a big part of the allure: These people don’t exactly live paycheck to paycheck. Still, many of them are happier than a snowboarder in a foot of fresh powder. Welcome to the world of extreme jobs.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy at Columbia University, coined the term after a discussion with a woman from Deutsche Bank in London. The banker, Hewlett says, was a fan of Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, in which a group of climbers brave extreme conditions while scaling Mount Everest (albeit with disastrous results). She thought her job was similarly high altitude and risky. “Two elements in the word ‘extreme’ spoke to her life and the activities in her business,” says Hewlett. “One was the intensity — the feeling that you were pushed to the limits of your intellectual and physical endurance — not in a brutal, but in an exhilarating way. The other was that it’s alluring. She told me, ‘I’m profoundly turned on by my life.’ ”


“I can count on the fingers of one hand the days in my career when I didn’t want to come to work.”

In the realm of extreme sports, Chuck Carothers is a champ. One of the world’s leading motocross riders, he has broken 21 bones in his career. Yet he keeps competing, describing the rush he gets from sailing through the air on a motorbike as a “complete addiction.” In a weird way, Irene Tse, the 34-year-old head of the government bond-trading desk at Goldman Sachs — Jon Corzine’s old job — understands Carothers’s passion. “I’ve done this for 10 years,” she says. “And I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of days in my career when I didn’t want to come to work. Every day I wake up and I can’t wait to get here.”

The bond market hasn’t exactly been a lot of laughs during that decade. And overseeing a desk that trades billions of dollars daily, with profits and losses in the millions — Wall Street’s equivalent of Carothers’s famous flying barrel roll — can be hair-raising. “There are days when you make a lot, and other days where you lose so much you’re just stunned by what you’ve done,” Tse admits. But the exhilaration of her work, and the challenge of figuring out what forces are likely to next roil the markets, has kept her motivated through a decade of 80-hour weeks.

Indeed, there’s an addictive quality to her work that has rewired her body. There are no broken bones, but Tse says she hasn’t slept through the night in years, typically getting up two or three times to check on global market activity. “Through time, your body clock just wakes up when London opens,” she says.

Three thousand miles away, on a nasty, gray winter night in Amsterdam, Tony Kurz is pounding his BlackBerry and watching golf on TV, trying desperately to chill out from a 15-day odyssey. Kurz, 33, a managing director at Capital Alliance Partners, raises funds for high-end fractional real-estate investments. He travels the world, talking with equity investors and prospective clients, skipping from luxury resort properties in Costa Rica to Hawaii and back to the company’s headquarters in London. His job is often, literally, a day at the beach. But before you can frolic on the sands of Hualalai, he says, there’s a lot of schlepping between Newark and Houston. And this most recent voyage evidently tripped some internal switch that has thrown his body’s hard drive into a spin.

“For the first time, for the past three nights, I’ve only been able to sleep three hours a night,” he says. Normally, gonzo travel doesn’t affect him much. He does, after all, log more than 300,000 miles a year, and has learned to sleep on planes and deal with jet lag. But the trip that took him from Amsterdam to New York to Houston to Costa Rica, back to Houston to San Francisco to New York to Houston and then home to Amsterdam — in the space of two weeks — was, even by his standards, “a doozy.”


To further complicate things, Kurz’s girlfriend, Avery Baker, has a similarly manic schedule. Baker, 33, the senior vice president of marketing at Tommy Hilfiger, Europe, logs about 400,000 miles a year, mostly within Europe and to New York and L.A. While the couple’s move to the Netherlands was designed to help them spend more time together, it hasn’t always worked out that way. Before Christmas, Kurz says, there was a six-week period when they saw each other for a total of five nights in four cities — and twice in airports for coffee. They’ve since pledged to limit the length of their trips, even if it means taking a red-eye to get home. “It’s not easy to maintain a relationship like this,” Kurz says.

Baker agrees that two weeks is probably the longest time it’s healthy to be apart. “After that, you get into independent mode,” she says late one Sunday night after seeing Kurz off to London.

From the road, Kurz fires off his own secret for sustaining a long-distance romance: “Phone sex.” (His monthly cell-phone bill: $1,500.)

The percentage of people — let alone couples — who inhabit this strange world of extreme jobs is still small. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that only about 17% of managerial workers worked more than 60 hours a week in 2004, and the bureau doesn’t even track data at the upper fringes of the curve. But anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that it’s a trend on the rise. “The 40-hour workweek is a bit of a myth now,” says Allan Schweyer, executive director of the Human Capital Institute. “The 50- to 60-hour workweek is now the norm.” Recent data from the Families and Work Institute indicate that women’s reported workweek has risen to 44 hours from 39 in 1977, while men report spending 49.9 hours on the job, up from 47.1 hours. And those are just the rank and file.

James Waldroop, who codeveloped CareerLeader, the interactive career-assessment program used by more than 240 MBA programs and corporations, says work-hours inflation is growing, not just in the United States but globally. Last summer, he says, the newspapers in Madrid were ablaze with reports of the demise of the siesta, as Spanish workers scrambled to keep up with their E.U. counterparts. In Germany, workers at Siemens grudgingly agreed to an extension of their workweek to 40 hours. The French government is contemplating lengthening the 35-hour workweek established in 1998. In Japan, there were 160 official cases of “karoshi,” or “death from overwork,” in fiscal 2002, and another 43 people committed suicide because of overwork.


Extreme jobs are a problem when they’re staffed by workers who aren’t necessarily stoked by the spine-tingling thrill of a shift in interest rates, or jazzed by the chance to restructure a call center in Omaha. In the United States, both consulting firms and investment banks lose a significant number of their young associates — particularly women — to the unrelenting toil of the job. The career Web site says that 55% of consultants and 30% of investment bankers quit after five years. “The sheer demands of the job burn people out,” Bishop says. “Or they leave when there’s been a shock to the system — a new baby comes along, or they want to devote time to a relationship.”

While there are still reports that long hours are part of a hazing ritual (one young analyst at Merrill Lynch recalls a supervisor saying, “When we ask you to work on Christmas Day, it’s not that we’re being mean. It’s just building character”), most firms deny an attempt to wash out the less committed. “Sure, there’s a natural selection process,” says Melanie Karbe, a partner at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in San Francisco. “But I don’t think it’s a Darwinistic approach to see who survives. People will understand whether they really enjoy this and want to do this. We do not say, ‘Let’s be as brutal as we can, especially at the associate level.’ ”

Still, some experts think business-service firms in particular are caught in a predicament of their own creation. “When you’re charging huge amounts of money, companies want you to dance to their tune, not yours,” says Waldroop, whose own firm, Peregrine Partners, works with Fortune 50 corporations. “Frankly, consulting firms and I-banks have built up these expectations. In the 1950s, they didn’t operate like this.”

Stewart Friedman, who runs the Work/ Life Integration Project at the Wharton School, says he’s seeing more students and workers who are looking for career tracks that don’t require such sacrifices. “The problem is that there are certain unquestioned assumptions about what’s required to be successful,” he says. “And for every one of those people telling you ‘I gotta do the 24-7-365-BlackBerry-travel-around-the-world deal,’ I’m willing to bet a lot of money I could help them figure out ways of creating boundaries that could reduce some of that demand.”

But even Friedman concedes that among the folks who live to work — the ones he calls “happy workaholics” — such strategies are irrelevant. And don’t try telling them that long hours and high stress will ultimately make them sick. “There are studies that look at the impact of weekly work hours on health, and two that link it to heart disease,” says Paul Spector, professor of industrial and organizational


psychology at the University of South Florida. “But here’s the kicker: In order to pay the price, it has to be a job where you’re forced to work hours that you don’t want to.” In other words, if you like what you’re doing, there’s no physical risk. “The data suggest that people who are doing it because they want to are perfectly fine,” says Spector.

David Clark, 35, has one of those glamour jobs that make people say, “Where do I sign up?” As VP of global marketing partnerships for MTV, he travels constantly, following the music scene around the planet. In late January in his Times Square office, he was frenetically working to turn the MTV Asia Awards in Bangkok into a tsunami relief event and mapping the launch of the network’s 100th channel, in Africa, in the spring. Clark knows he’s lucky. He also knows how easily his job can suck the hours out of his week, a realization that’s become more acute since the birth of his baby, Nicholas, 18 months ago. “Since our son’s been born, it’s become more difficult,” he says. “I’m still figuring it out.”

Because Clark is “the global guy” at MTV, there are few hours in his day when some part of the world is not clamoring for attention. He wakes up at 6:30 a.m. to the alarm on his BlackBerry and spends half an hour answering the 30 to 40 messages that have piled up, before he even gets out of bed. His little son can already mimic Daddy’s BlackBerry thumb dance. After a few calls to clients in far-flung time zones, he heads to the office where the barrage doesn’t die down until late afternoon, when there’s a brief pause as Asia goes to bed and Europe goes home to dinner. Still, by 4 p.m. one day, he had 578 unread messages clogging his inbox, and Latin America was desperately trying to get his attention by phone. In the evenings, he says, he tries to get home for an hour with his son, and then it’s back on the phone and email until he collapses into bed at midnight. That’s when he’s not in Singapore or Rio. Curiously, instead of reducing the need for travel, all this connectivity has actually increased it, he says: “My theory is that there comes a time in any project where you just need to be face-to-face.”

Clark logs about 200,000 miles a year. But while he loves the travel and the challenge of doing global deals, he worries about the effect it will have on his nonwork life. “Some of the older managers have warned me that if you’re not careful, these all-consuming jobs can ruin your family,” he says. Still, “there are plenty of people who would love to have this job. They’re knocking on the door all the time. So that’s motivating.”

At least Clark has a family. Until recently, John Bishop — tall, smart, good-looking, and making an enviable salary — had trouble finding time for even a date. “I had a huge network of friends at Wharton. That’s shrunk,” he says, ruefully. “My friends say I’m much more difficult to reach now. I pull out of things at the last minute; I’ve canceled vacations, family time, dates. When you’re single and trying to start a relationship, nobody understands that.”


Bishop tries to lay the groundwork upfront, warning women that his job is unpredictable and unlikely to get better. “Somebody with a 9-to-5 job and a needy personality would never work for me,” he says. Fortunately, he has recently reconnected with a former girlfriend who’s now a medical resident in Boston with equally ridiculous hours.

But it’s the next step — having a family — that seems to be the point at which extreme jobs often become unsustainable. “I don’t have any concept of how I could do this if I were a parent,” says Avery Baker, the Hilfiger exec. “That’s why it’s enjoyable for us to have such an extreme life now, because we both know it won’t always be this way.”

Even workers who think they can handle the demands often find the trade-offs not worth the price. After trying to handle her job at consulting firm DiamondCluster International for two years following the birth of her son, Andrea Kampine, 35, recently left for a company that required less travel. “In the end, I decided I needed to see my family every day,” she says. “Life doesn’t get easier the more senior you get in consulting. I looked out on the horizon and didn’t see a point where constant travel would be okay for me.”

Some organizations are taking steps to keep workers like Kampine. Karbe says Booz Allen has put a lot of effort into retention and making jobs less onerous. “The industry has begun to evolve,” she says. “There’s a recognition that you’re not necessarily just losing the underperformers; you’re losing your good people.” Now, she says, managers are evaluated based partially on their ability to create work-life balance on their teams. “You cannot burn teams,” Karbe says. “We do not tolerate it. That didn’t exist 10 years ago.”

The Human Capital Institute’s Schweyer thinks more companies will have to find a way to reconcile draconian work demands with real-life needs. “The unsustainability is what companies have to prepare for,” he says. “They’ve been able to put it off because the economy and the labor market have been weak for the past five years. But what happens if we get back to the point like in the late ’90s, when the job seeker was in control? There will be a retention crisis.”


But Bishop, who recruits for Citigroup at Wharton, isn’t convinced. “Even if people leave, there’s so much demand for people wanting to get into the system, it doesn’t really matter. They can always find more.” And Tse says the question is beside the point. Periodically, she says, she toys with the idea of giving it all up to study music at a conservatory in Florence. But she can’t quite bring herself to step away. “If you’re doing something you love, and you’re great at it, life can’t be better.”

Linda Tischler is a Fast Company senior writer.