There’s a debate raging in Silicon Valley this week that you should really know about.
Though it may look like just a few heated Twitter exchanges and at least one scathing blog post, it’s really a high-profile fight over who gets to decide how we value work in the 21st century.
We can probably all agree that dedicated, diligent employees are essential for any workplace, but some people argue for more they want you to become a workaholic, singularly obsessed with achieving the company’s mission.
This is no small difference, and you probably feel the repercussions in your everyday life. You may be an industrious soul, devising creative solutions for whatever problems come your way, and are happy to devote your talent and time to your employer. But you might also resent the fact that your days are long so long that you rarely get to wind down with a bike ride, see close friends, or even spend time with your kids.
On Monday, Blake Robbins, an associate at the venture capital firm Ludlow, gave voice to such experiences, daring to challenge the culture of workaholism that pervades the startup world.
Not hanging with friends and family because you’re working isn’t “cool.” Burning out isn’t “cool.”
Blake Robbins (@blakeir) May 29, 2017
“When I first got into tech. I thought it was ‘cool’ to work on the weekends or holidays,” Robbins tweeted. “I quickly realized that’s a recipe for disaster.” In a follow-up post he added, “I promise you…your competition isn’t beating you because they are working more hours than you. It’s because they are working smarter.”
The remarks were sensible personal observations, but an hour later entrepreneur and investor Keith Rabois issued a two-word rebuttal: “Totally false.”
At first, the thread launched a conversation among male entrepreneurs mostly on the merits of nonstop work, and soon more skeptical people, including women, started to weigh in. Some clearly felt invested in the status quo, while others were alarmed by it.
The workaholism at the center of this debate demands that you take an endless string of sacrifices in stride as if a full-tilt obsession with work, to the exclusion of all else, is the only path to success. It ignores the reality that a person can be passionate, persistent, and hard-working and also find fulfillment in other aspects of life. Indeed, that satisfaction probably enhances their vision in ways that are difficult to quantify. The overbearing philosophy of workaholism, which is rooted in macho stereotypes about what hard work should look like, also conveniently leaves out some difficult facts.
First, that model of work in corporate America was pioneered by white men whose wives, often with aid from domestic workers, took care of running a household. Without such an arrangement, it would be literally impossible to work long hours or around the clock and have any caregiving responsibilities. And yet we continue to pretend that a “strong” work ethic requires nothing but your own iron will.
Second, workaholism is costly, even if you think the brute force of racking up hours in the office or on the road will inevitably yield innovation and success. What often happens instead is burnout, which can become an expensive problem for a company. A culture that promotes relentless work also sidelines a lot of talented women. They may feel that in order to be competitive with their male peers they must leave their kids in daycare for nine hours so that a nanny or grandparent (if they even have that support) can put them to bed, and decide that worshipping at the altar of workaholism isn’t for them.
A work culture that values how many hours you put in above all else also sets up the perverse expectation that men, by nature, won’t care as much about spending quality time with their children, that it’s expendable if the money or opportunity is right. And, hey, it might be for some men and women, but this is exactly how we end up with a less-than-diverse workforce.
Women of color, in particular, are effectively penalized twice by a philosophy of professional work created by white men. That myopic vision about which candidates are a good “culture fit” often leave women of color out of the picture, and when they do break through that barrier, they must still reckon with the practical challenges of having a family or a personal life at a company that thinks both of those things should come second to your work. This isn’t just a personal matter: Research has found that a more diverse staff is more likely to produce better financial returns.
This old-fashioned approach to productivity and creativity rests on a laundry list of assumptions about who you’re hiring and who’s holding down the home front. And even if someone’s wife or partner has her own job, the societal expectation is that she’ll drop off and pick up the kids, take them to their doctor’s appointments, and volunteer for field trips.
Workaholism perpetuates a macho vision of what the most valuable efforts should look like: grueling, never-ending, and capable of destroying your competition. These ideas didn’t just materialize from the ether. They’re engrained in how we’re taught to value the work that men and women do, but they’re also a special feature of the startup world.
Helpful to be precise what you expect: hard work or kill yourself? https://t.co/Qokgt48zGQ
Sarah Lacy (@sarahcuda) May 30, 2017
As David Heinemeier Hansson, cofounder and chief technology officer of Basecamp, pointed out in his blog post about workaholism, venture capital “money men” set these expectations by trying to “compress a lifetime’s worth of work into the abbreviated timeline of a venture fund.”
While Silicon Valley companies like Facebook and Google fret about how to increase the number of women in their ranks, few leaders in tech would suggest shortening the work day for the same pay. Such a strategy probably looks like an invitation to employees to take their jobs less seriously, even if it might help attract and retain more diverse talent.
“The status quo survived in tact with some modifications. Those concessions make it easier, but you still work the same, if not longer, hours.”
People should be offended, angry even, that they have to defend their desire to spend even a few hours a day with their loved ones. For single or childless workers, the burden is different but still punishing: Without the borderline acceptable excuse of missing a meeting or coming in late because they needed to tend to a child, they instead feel the pressure to have no personal life at all.
That parents haven’t revolted against an average work day that’s getting longer and now stands at 8.8 hours is worth reflecting on. While it may not seem like a long day, it’s certainly longer than most school days and day care availability when you also factor in the time it takes to commute.
The silence about this logistical nightmare probably has something to do with the long shadow of the Great Recession, which gave companies more power to wield over employees nervous about being laid off.
Yet there’s also the long march of white women entering the professional workforce during the 1970s and ’80s; to challenge the length of a work day widely accepted by one’s males peers would be to admit defeat in the hoary “can she have it all?” debate.
Instead, the women who stayed in those jobs found individual workarounds to spend time with their family, or simply decided not to be as present as they once hoped. The status quo survived in tact with some modifications, like remote work and flex-scheduling. Those concessions make it easier, but you still work the same, if not longer, hours.
Honestly shocked at the response that this tweet has gotten. It’s extremely interesting to hear everyone’s perspective and thoughts. https://t.co/DNtn4U7CEX
Blake Robbins (@blakeir) May 30, 2017
The truth is that our system for valuing work and appraising the contributions of talented, dedicated employees is broken because it places so much emphasis on time. What we need are companies and business leaders open to the idea that a macho work culture actually holds them back and may even hurt their long-term chances for success. (See Travis Kalanick’s Uber troubles, if you need more convincing.)
We need businesses that are willing to experiment with new ways of measuring creativity and productivity. Most of all, we desperately need senior leaders and mid-level managers to show their employees every day that it’s acceptable even encouraged for them to have outside pursuits, including families. Defending workaholism at this point demonstrates a tremendous lack of imagination about what people can achieve when they’re fulfilled at both work and home.
Also, as an employee, it’s important to understand what you are working for. Most are working to fulfill someone else vision or dreams.
Blake Robbins (@blakeir) May 29, 2017
But there’s something arguably more sinister happening beneath the surface of that apologism. People who justify workaholism often can’t admit that many of America’s favorite heroes renowned for their relentless work ethic built their achievements and empires on the backs of women and domestic workers, not to mention the innumerable sacrifices of employees who might not have been paid fairly and spent far too much time away from their families.
If that sounds quaint or naive, it’s time to rethink why you work so hard in the first place. Sure, it feels good to dedicate yourself to a mission or calling, and great if you can make money while doing so. But if we happily comply with the idea that gifted visionaries are within their rights to ask us to forgo our full humanity in pursuit of their fame and fortune, that ultimately means we trade in countless precious moments with our loved ones so that someone else can become a legend.
It’s long past time to strike a better bargain for ourselves.
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