Slave to Success

There’s a great deal of noise going around on Twitter right now about how you have to work 80 hours a week to be a success.

As far as I can tell it was kicked off by the tweet shown in the photo to the right from Ryan Selkis. It states “if you don’t work nights and weekends in your 20s, you’re not going to have a successful career. Sorry.” (I’d like resist the temptation to make fun of Ryan’s twitter handle, @twobitidiot, but… well, I can’t.)

Ryan’s thesis is that you just can’t get ahead in the world, especially when starting out, without “paying your dues”. That without trashing your personal life in sacrifice to your work life, you’ll never amount to much.

I can relate to this sentiment. When I was at Microsoft in the go-go 1990s, we had this cute “joke”:

We have flex time at Microsoft, you can get your 80 hours in any way you like.

We thought that was pretty funny. But funny not in the “funny <ha-ha>” kind of way, or in the “funny <strange>” kind of way. No, in the “funny <hits too close to home>” kind of way.

We all worked too hard. I slept under my desk as the Development Manager in the days preceding the launch of FoxPro for Windows. I traveled the world, gone for three weeks a month sometimes when I was VP of Human Resources. Throughout my tenure there, I was virtually never home for dinner. It was unhealthy. For me, and for my family. I paid a very high price for it. A price I now regret. But I’ll spare you those personal details.

The original poster, @jasonfried, had said this:

If your company requires you to work nights and weekends, your company is broken. This is a managerial problem, not your problem. This is a process problem, not a personal problem. This is an ownership problem, not an individual problem.

@jasonfried 12/23/2019

And he’s right. Plain and simple. But he got a lot of pushback, and most of it devolved into two main arguments:

  1. My company is a shipping company, a PR company, a 24 hour store, a restaurant/club, a factory, … We work 24/7, working weekend and nights is part of the gig.
  2. My company is successful because of this crazy work life: startup, wall street, law firm, consulting, … We live in a dog-eat-dog world and we can’t compete if we don’t do this.

The first of these arguments is just a strawman. Of course there are 24/7 businesses. Build a schedule for employees that matches your business. But don’t make individuals work 24/7. Here, Jason is dead on. This is broken. It needs to be fixed.

The second of this is really the crux of the issue. The thesis is that the only way to compete, as a company or as an individual, is to be a complete slave to the job. That the competition is out there working 80 hours a week so I (we) have to work 81. That hours are directly correlated to success.

If you can say that outloud and not laugh at yourself, you too are broken. If you don’t realize that you are not at all productive in hour 16 of a work day, or hour 60 of a work week, you are fooling yourself.

But Tobi Lutke, CEO of Shopify, explains it best, using his company as an example, in this twitter thread:

Tobi’s argument is that treating people well, that hiring for the long run (10+ years), and working people to their peak, is not just a great way to succeed, it’s the only way. A key point he makes is that the best way to build a company isn’t to hire rampantly, but to grow the people you have. Tobi is dead on.

This was the way business worked for generations. That’s how all the great companies of the 20th century were built. They hired young, and built people for the long term. People stayed at jobs for decades. They grew through training, through experience, through connections. Companies invested in people just like they did with plant and equipment. And people rewarded the company with their tenure and their long term value.

The keys to their success were a good idea, a vision of how to execute it, and the patience to execute well against that vision.

But somewhere along the way, we lost this. People got insanely wealthy off startups while working 80 hours a week, and they correlated the two things. They didn’t realize it, but the two were almost unrelated. The keys to their success were a good idea, a vision of how to execute it, and the patience to execute well against that vision. They got hung up on “first mover” when what mattered was “got it done well, and stuck it out”.

It’s kind of funny to see this reflected in other places. There are people who’ve made a bunch of money off YouTube. People with tens of millions of subscribers, and they make a very good living off their work. To the outside observer, they look like get-rich-quick overnight successes. But every single one of them hasn’t done it quickly, or by working 80 hours a week. They’ve been at it for years — some even a decade — being consistent, building quality content that people want to see. Slow and steady wins the race.

Smart companies, though, are relearning this. Microsoft under Satya Nadella has taken a turn solidly in this direction. And their stock is at an all-time high. Many other “older” tech companies are learning it too. It just seems that Silicon Valley and the startup world, still hasn’t figured this out.

They will. It will just take time. If they, their company, or their people survive that long.