Interview with self-help writer Greg Marcus, Ph.D.

Marcus, Ph.D. is here today to talk to those of us who tend to work a bit too
many hours. His book, Busting Your
Corporate Idol: How to Reconnect with Values & Regain Control of Your Life
is the topic of conversation. The paperback version of the book hits shelves today.
Dr. Greg Marcus is a recovering workaholic who helps the chronically overworked find
life balance through his book, public speaking, and personal coaching.
In his first
incarnation, Dr. Greg was a research scientist, earning a Ph.D. from MIT in
molecular biology, followed by a research fellowship at Stanford. In his second
incarnation, he spent nine years as a marketer, managing breakthrough
technology that
helped revolutionize
human genetics.
For a time Dr. Greg was working 90 hours a
week, which impacted his personal health and family relationships. Then,
he cut his working hours by a third,
and at the same time accelerated his career. The secret? He rejected his
corporate idolatry, and started putting people first.
Two years
after putting his life into balance, Dr. Greg left the corporate world to be a
stay-at-home dad, speaker, coach, and author.
Welcome, Greg. Please tell us about
your new book.
Busting Your Corporate Idol is a self-help book for the
chronically overworked. Busting is
full of stories, many that come from the thirty interviews I conducted with men
and women from the corporate world. Many successful people are secretly
unfulfilled or downright unhappy. Corporate Idolatry is a metaphor for
overwork. I cast overwork as an issue of values and priorities. Every person I
talked to who is working too much has made the company the highest priority in
their lives. And the people who have balanced lives make people their highest
priority. I break it down step-by-step, showing how everything from an
untrustworthy colleague to a “just make the numbers” corporate culture can lead
to overwork. Each chapter has practical tips and tricks on how to regain
control of your life. And yes, I cover how to deal with a boss who cares more
about hours than productivity.
What inspired you to write this book?
On Yom Kippur
in 2005, I was sitting in services, reflecting on my life, when for some reason
I started to think about the sin of idolatry. I started to dismiss idolatry as
an archaic idea, no longer relevant in the modern world, when I remembered a
phrase I had heard many times from my bosses and colleagues: “You need to do
what is best for the company.”
I realized
that doing what is “best for the company” is not the same as doing what is
“best.” I thought of myself as a family first person, but I realized that I
couldn’t be family first because I was working ninety hours a week. Then and
there, I decided to start putting people first in my life. This insight led to
a cascade of changes for me. Within a year, I was working 1/3rd
fewer hours, and was being more successful in my career, without changing jobs.
I had been a true believer in my company. I thought the
company had a mission to change the world, and I needed to devote myself to
help the company achieve these laudable goals. I thought I was getting paid a
lot of money to change the world. In reality, the company’s first, second, and
third priorities were to make money. Some very good things did come from the
company—we developed cutting edge tools for scientific research that led to
thousands of papers in the top journals. However, the price I paid in terms of
my health and happiness was very high. I was literally killing myself for the

At that time, the most important thing in my life was the
company. I am ashamed to admit it, but it was true. I had always told myself
that my wife and children were the top priority, but when I look at my actions,
decisions, and time spent, it was all about the company. I thought about work
in the shower. I talked on my cell phone as I drove in to work, and as I drove
home at night.
 I worked after dinner, and I had trouble falling asleep because
I was going over the day in my head. The next day I would get up at five AM to
work on email and to call my colleagues in Europe. I worked on most weekend
days. The more I sacrificed, the more important the company became to me, which
in turn led to more sacrifices.

My insight on Yom Kippur set off a chain of dominos. Once
I saw the world in this new way, there was no going back. In the past, I had
unsuccessfully tried to change my priorities. This time I went a step further
and changed my values. My family and my health had to come before the company. Lo and behold the priorities in my
life changed. It didn’t happen overnight, but over time small incremental
changes made a big difference. Even when I was working close to one hundred
hours a week, I always ate breakfast and dinner with my family. It was a line
in the sand, a boundary I never crossed, and doing so served as a model for the
additional changes to come.

I made a conscious choice to work fewer hours. Instead of
thinking in a negative way, beating myself up to work less, I focused on the

My health is important.
I need to stop working by 9:30 PM, so I have time to wind down and get to

Then it became I
need to stop working by 9:00 PM, so my wife and I can spend some time together.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, choosing an
action that reinforces a value is a virtuous cycle because the action itself
reinforces the value, making it easier to take a similar action the next time.
During the year I transitioned from working ninety to
less than sixty hours per week, my fascination with idolatry grew. As I learned
more about it, I found more connections to my corporate life and surprising
solutions in ancient texts. For example, according to the twelfth century Rabbi
Maimonides’ Laws of Idolatry, it is
forbidden to wear the clothes of idolators. Maimonides reasoned that wearing
the clothes of idol-worshippers was a way of giving tacit approval to the
idolator’s value system and made it more likely that the wearer would adhere to
it. On a lark, I stopped wearing company T-shirts on weekends, and found it
helped me keep my mind off of work.
What exciting project are you working
on next?
Now I am
working on building coaching products to help other people make the changes I
made in my life. The corporate world is filled with miserable people who are
working too much, and are missing out on the most important things in life. It
doesn’t have to be that way.
When did you first consider yourself a
My English
teacher senior year in high school was shocked that I was going into science.
I’ve always remembered that, and in hindsight I realize that writing was often
part of my career. I wrote papers as a scientist, and I was amazed at how much
I enjoyed writing ad copy when I was a product manager. My ads won awards, too.
Writing a
book has always been on my bucket list, and when I found myself as a stay at
home father for a few months, I decided this was the time to start.
Do you write full-time? If so, what’s
your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find
time to write?
For someone
who writes about life balance, I find myself very busy. I am a stay-at-home
father, life coach, public speaker, and writer. I’m not a fast writer – I tend
to revise a lot. I do best in the summer, when I have longer days. I’ll get up
at 5:30, and write from 6 to 8.
Social links:

Thank you for being here today, Greg!

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