By LARRY KANTER
Farhad Mohit doesn't have a girlfriend. He hasn't gotten around to seeing "Titanic." He hasn't cooked a meal in two years, and his refrigerator is empty, except for a single bottle of spring water.
"I don't even know what's going on with the president and Monica Lewinsky," he said. "I hear people making jokes, and I can see how they might be funny, but I don't really understand them."
What Mohit has is a job. And it's a killer.
Mohit is chief executive of Binary Compass Enterprises, a Culver City-based market-research firm specializing in electronic commerce. And like the head of many an Internet start-up, the 29-year-old Wharton School graduate spends nearly every waking hour at the office, often logging 14 hours a day, seven days a week.
Mohit's routine is not all that uncommon in Los Angeles. The city is full of similarly driven people working similarly absurd hours all in a grueling effort to succeed.
There are jobs, and then there are "killer jobs." They're the ones that make mere 9-to-5'ers shake their heads in wonderment, or perhaps bewilderment. They routinely involve 80- or 90-hour work weeks, traveling three weeks out of four and making multimillion-dollar decisions on a daily basis. They're also the occupations that can leave one's personal life trailing far behind even with a six-figure salary.
"There are more demands on every layer of organizations these days," said Cathy Shepard, a principal in the L.A. office of William M. Mercer Inc., one of the world's largest employment consulting firms. While many companies downsized during the belt-tightening days of the early '90s, few have re-staffed to their 1980s levels despite the demands of an expanding economy, according to Shepard.
As a result, she says, "people are being pushed harder than ever."
That's especially true in Los Angeles, where growth in such fast-moving, leading-edge industries as entertainment, high-tech, finance and international trade tends to drive up the stress level, said Donovan Greene, an industrial psychologist with the McMurry Group, a consulting firm in Encino.
"There is a generally more stressful dimension in the workplace, especially in California," Greene said. "Clearly, there are a lot of companies where people are doing more with less resources. Overall, the pace is accelerating, and that's ratcheting up the anxiety and tension level in the workplace."
Of course, that's precisely the environment in which a good number of workers thrive. Jourdi de Werd, managing director of the L.A. investment banking shop Greif & Co., is a good example. Anxiety and tension? Bring it on, he says.
De Werd figures he's worked an average of 14 hours a day since about 1984, first as a software entrepreneur, then as a dealmaker. And he has no intention of altering his pace anytime soon.
"It's such rewarding work that it is difficult to contemplate slowing down," said the 41-year-old father of two.
De Werd's workday generally begins at 6 a.m., when he rolls out of bed, turns on the computer to check the overnight news, and answers any e-mail messages that might be waiting. By the time he arrives at his desk at 7:30, the day is in full swing, the phone already ringing.
It doesn't let up for at least 12 hours, at which point de Werd often finds himself heading out to a client dinner, or taking advantage of a few hours of quiet to hammer out the details of pending deal. As often as not, he doesn't get back home until 10 or 11 o'clock.
"It's tremendously rewarding in every respect," he says.
De Werd admits that he doesn't see his children much during the week. But he counts himself lucky in several respects. For one, Greif & Co. focuses on companies in the Western United States, so traveling isn't quite so taxing. And the 15-person firm has a clearly articulated philosophy, he says: "The week belongs to our clients, and the weekends belong to our families."
That optimistic ethos seldom stops de Werd from opening his briefcase on a Saturday night and putting in a few hours after the kids are tucked in to bed, he admits.
Why work so tirelessly? Certainly money is a factor. But according to workplace experts, it's far from the only reason.
"There is definitely a premium paid for this kind of work," said Shepard of William M. Mercer. "But money only motivates to a point. What we've found is that you can't pay someone enough money to do something they don't want to do. It's got to be a personal decision for growth or power, or another underlying motive."
Adds Judy B. Rosener, a professor of management at U.C. Irvine: "People get hooked. It becomes a stimulus, almost like a drug."
Whatever the reason, there is growing evidence that people who consistently perform at such a high level of intensity contribute more than their fair share to a company's success.
A recent study by the Corporate Leadership Council, a trade group for senior-level human resources professionals, found that certain highly driven employees dramatically outperform their peers in terms of productivity. That difference only widens as job complexity increases. A superstar computer programmer, for example, produces 12 times more than the average performer, the study found.
"Your best chief information officer is going to make a several thousand percent difference in impact," said Pope Ward, a spokesman for the CLC. "That's why they get paid in the millions."
But that level of intensity often can exact a steep price in terms of psychological and physical health, according to Gene Ondrusek, a psychologist with the Center for Executive Health at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.
Each year, several thousand mid- and senior-level executives from all manner of companies nationwide come to participate in the center's preventative health programs. Among the symptoms Ondrusek regularly encounters: fatigue, muscle tension, severe headaches, back pain, insomnia, short-term memory loss, irritability, depression, high blood pressure, and others.
Very often, hard-charging executives will change their behavior only in the wake of a calamity, such as a heart attack, Ondrusek says.
"People will come to me and say, 'I think I just got a wake-up call,' " he said. "It's amazing how fast one of those medical events can change a person's attitude."
And that, according to workplace experts, is creating a kind of backlash, with seasoned executives and recent business-school graduates alike increasingly interested in striking some kind of balance in their lives or, in many cases, trying to have a life at all.
"I'm noticing a tremendous number of people saying, 'I'm just not going to do it anymore,' " said Rosener. "There definitely is a move to get a life."
Alec Hudnut, chief executive of University Access, which designs education programs offered via the Internet, is one executive who is trying to have it both ways. He recently scaled back to just 70 hours a week, from 80 or 90, and wakes up at 6 a.m. to spend a couple of hours with his 2-year-old son each morning.
"To run a company well, you need to have a strong personal well to draw from," said Hudnut, 34. "It's important to spend time with friends and family. I get a lot of strength from that. I don't think you can run at 80, 90 hours a week consistently. We do it in spurts. But it's not sustainable."
Don't tell that to Mohit, of Binary Compass. So far, his hard work appears to be paying off. Binary Compass' main product, a Web site called bizrate.com, is becoming one of the leading sources of data on consumer habits on the Internet. The company has gone from two employees to 28 over the past 24 months and it recently received a $4.5 million infusion of venture capital funding.
Sure, Mohit says he'd like to slow down someday. But for now, the stakes are simply too high to contemplate putting on the brakes.
"Frankly, I'm doing something that will set me up for the rest of my life, he said. "I don't want to blow it that's the bottom line."
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