The Long Hours Fetish

Brian Wong, during a panel at Echelon 2012 uttered the unfortunate phrase “Don’t hire people with kids”. I glossed over this comment in my day one wrap because he quickly backtracked to a less extreme/quotable position when challenged.

I remember being 21. I knew everything too and I hadn’t even had any of the success that Brian has had and deserved, he’s an entertaining and charismatic speaker as well, the talented bastard.

However it sat with me that there was an unfortunate overtone of a requirement for exploitation. Whilst Brian’s latter position was less extreme, there remained a sense that you need to flog the people working for you to enable you to be a world-changing, rich and famous entrepreneur.

Startups are hard, mentally, physically and (often) emotionally for founders and early employees. However this is also true of other small businesses looking to establish themselves. It’s also true of jobs in big companies. Which might be a ‘NEWSFLASH’ to startup zealots.

My concern remains that the comment is more about a romantisized lifestyle that is perpetuated in ‘the startup world’. I find the idea that we fetishise long hours and late nights to be peculiar; these should be a symptom, not a requirement.

If you’re working hard or late or weekends, ask yourself why. It should be because you find the stuff you’re doing fascinating or important or something that only your unique blend of experience and skills can bring into the world. This is true whether you are a ‘founder’ or employee #1 or even working in a huge company.

Bizarrely in the startup world it seems it is the symptoms that are ‘sold’ or held up as virtues. This is because a busy (lazy?) entrepreneur can easily judge a colleague based on obvious symptoms rather than spend the time to assess intrinsic motivation or contribution. Think about that the next time you knee-jerk decide that someone is not ‘working hard’ enough.

The point of all of this stuff (and life I suppose) is to have a fulfilling time of interesting experiences. At some stages of your life that’s working for yourself, at some stages working for someone else, at others focussing on family and for some people all of this at once, if they can manage it.

We need to be honest in our communication with each other, the things we do with our days and time should not be a hardship, imposed upon us or something we stoically put up with. We should not be looking to be admired by our peers for our time at work, or derive our self worth from our self perception as ‘hard workers’. We should be doing stuff that makes the world better. People should look at you and think ‘man, that guy/girl LOVES what they do’.

My point is to not to disuade people from working hard, or even long (in bursts), but to encourage people to optimise their lives for happiness. This might mean working hard on something cool, as anyone who knows me would know that’s the path I always try and choose.

However it is important to get your head up and know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Mindfulness with action is better than furious activity.

Also take regular breaks, perhaps even a holiday. The human body & brain doesn’t deal well with exhaustion. Often a little perspective is what you need, I have seen some stupid decisions made by people who surround themselves in a non-communicative startup bubble. You’ll be better prepared for the unexpected shifts in your young buinesses if you get enough rest.


2012