By Caitlin Abber
I have been working in the tech start-up and digital advertising agency worlds for the past six years. These two worlds overlap in a few places—namely social media and the uncertainty of being able to pay their staff in six months. But there is another area where I have seen a commonality so real it has grown from a stereotype to an expectation: the notion that working, all the time—as in 24 hours a day, Christmas Eve and at your kid’s dance recital—is not only normal, but encouraged.
I wrestle with this a lot when I work with the CEOs of these companies. I want so badly for them to slow down, to take a week off to go hiking, and to chill out so they aren’t so testy with their employees, but I know that is not the culture of the industry. Hustle, as a point of strength and character, is often the way these guys (and yes, they are mostly men) prove they really care about and believe in what they are doing.
In Tim Kreider’s New York Times piece, “The ‘Busy’ Trap”, he talks about how this emotional need to constantly work to fill time may just be a cover-up because we are scared of what happens when we don’t have work. “They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”
I think, for a lot of people, what we fear more than anything is failure, and especially in the tech world, the worst way to fail is by not working hard enough. Even if their company is not doing well, if a CEO is at the office until two in the morning, sitting at their desk looking stressed out, they feel they have done everything they can.
“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance,” Kreider writes, “a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”
As a self-employed person, I have found myself getting into similar habits when I feel stressed out, or like I am “not doing enough”. I make unmanageable to-do lists. I email 30 people in an hour. I fight with people I love and stress eat gummy candy and avoid going outside for entire days. Its like the start-up world has planted a worm in my brain. If I don’t succeed, it is entirely my fault for not wanting it enough. “Why are you going to bed at 11pm?” I will sometimes ask myself, when I am feeling my craziest. “Truly successful people work until 2am.”
Then I crash and spend a day doing nothing, or at the park with my boyfriend. I fight off guilty feelings about it, and try to pretend I am “European” — a lifestyle choice Kreider deliciously describes in his essay.
If you’ve been in the start up business for any length of time, you’ve heard of Gary Vaynerchuk. Vaynerchuck is famous for turning his family’s small liquor store into a giant online retailer. He video blogs about social media, running a business, and most notably, hustle. Small business and start-up people love Vaynerchuck because of his success story: he had an idea, worked really hard (like really, really hard), and became a thought leader and millionaire. Who wouldn’t want that to be their Wikipedia entry? But I can’t help but roll my eyes when another young entrepreneur links me to one of Vanyerchuck’s videos. I follow him on Twitter (Vaynerchuk has almost a million followers — a number anyone who has a blog or a small business would gleefully embrace), and I am often slightly befuddled by the tone of his tweets. Occasionally he will say things like:
So then, is committing ourselves to a life “excuse me, I have to take this call” during dinner the only way to live if we want to be successful? Something about that just doesn’t seem right.
Vaynerchuck’s assertion that people who work from 9-5 don’t want success as much as those who work endlessly is a bit uninformed. Aren’t 9-5 hours set up so that people can spend the majority of their time doing what they love and maybe don’t get paid for, like hanging out with their families, reading books, volunteer work, or “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” marathons? What we really need to consider is our expectations of success. Not only should we determine what it is for us, as individuals, but also as coexisting beings who live and work with each other.
I was managing the calendar of one of the CEOs I was working with, when I happened upon a conflict. It seems he had double booked himself for a meeting with a very important prospective client, and something that just said, “SBL – leave by 12”. I asked him about it, and he pulled me into a conference room and shut the door. “It’s my 40th birthday,” he whispered, almost embarrassed, “and my wife’s family wants to take me up to Stone Barns for lunch — how do I get out of it?” I looked at him; he was tired and sweaty and could use a shave. I thought about all the options, but not for very long. “Well,” I said, “the client mentioned they could meet Wednesday or Friday this week, so why don’t I just move the meeting a day? It’s no big deal.” He thanked me, and we never spoke of it again.
Perhaps we must stop pretending that we don’t have lives outside the office. It is great, admirable, and much desired to do what you love for money, but the reality of it is that is just not how the cookie crumbles for most people. Working hard and achieving success in your career is one thing, but being a truly whole person takes hustle of a different kind — the kind happy people are made of. Learning how to manage that work-life balance has to be the key to feeling truly fulfilled, and being okay with leaving the office when there is really nothing more to do.
And please, for the benefit of everyone, don’t tell me “well, there is always something to do.” Yeah, I know.