Do We Really Have to Choose Between Work and Life In Order to Be Successful At Work?

I got a bit depressed this week after reading about Amazon’s work culture and some follow-up blog posts doing the apologia of extreme work at the detriment of one’s family. I think that the reason why this struck a chord with me was neatly laid out in this Fast Company piece by Joe Lazauskas:

“What made the story of Amazon’s alleged psychological abuse of its employees so entrancing to the tech community? Anyone who’s worked in the field—or in an office, for that matter—can identify with the story at some level. But I think a bigger reason for all the hubbub is the shared sense that in order to accomplish anything really spectacular, we’re supposed to be working as hard as the poor Amazonians supposedly are.

The tech industry is unmatched in its zeal to glorify those who never leave the office. The 80-hour work week is a staple that comes up in virtually every story about startups. The insinuation is always that if you’re not treating work like a frat boy treats a cooler of free Bud Light—bingeing on it relentlessly—you’re failing. Some of the reactions to the story from the Silicon Valley elite only reinforced the impression of that powerful anxiety”

Lazauska correctly points out that working longer than 50 hours per week is likely counterproductive (and that research seems to support that). Equating hours worked with productivity is simply dangerous as people can spend weeks doing ‘fake work’ (or worse, a lot of Facebook). The law of exponential decay means that productivity drops off a cliff if you push people too hard for too long. Anyone who has coded for 40 hours straight knows that doing this is a bad idea: you will certainly introduce bugs that might end up taking a long time to fix. Some of my medical doctor friends also embrace the macho extreme work culture. They boast of working 15 hours straight at night and then go do an emergency in the morning. I would not want to be that patient…

To me all these posts hinted more generally at Silicon Valley’s culture. It’s part of the reason why there is not enough diversity there. Women leave tech because of that macho culture:

“Women in tech are the canary in the coal mine. Normally when the canary in the coal mine starts dying you know the environment is toxic and you should get the hell out. Instead, the tech industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying “Lean in, canary. Lean in!” When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn’t enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.”

I want to work in a healthy and diverse environment. A place where there is a diversity of cultures, genders, ages, religions, and sexual orientations. There is no doubt in my mind that these things contribute more to productivity than slaving away at work (at least in the creative and knowledge-based industries). The other thing is that, there should be no need for that sort of culture in my opinion. If Amazon needs 100 units of productivity, it could have 50 employees at 2 units of production, or 100 at 1 unit, or 200 at 0.5 units. In a perfect world, workaholics and non-workaholics would co-exist in harmony with corporate success achievable by all. This world implies that compensation could adapt perfectly to the amount of work one’s want to perform, something that is unfortunately generally not the case in this day and age. And it also implies that there is no scarcity of workers, something that cannot be said of the tech world, or for doctors in Quebec for that matter.

At 36 and with two young children, I am sometimes conflicted between my professional ambitions and my desire to have a fulfilling family life. Speaking with my fellow MBA friends and alumni, who are also of the ambitious types, I can sense that they struggle with the same issues at this stage of their lives and careers. Are you willing to make the sacrifices to climb the corporate ladder? Do you have to? It seems like the proper way to climb to the top (at least in North America) is to work tirelessly and dismiss most other distractions. Must all CEOs forever be single and childless, or distant spouses and distant parents?

On August 5 2014, Max Schireson, MongoDB’s then CEO, announced that he was leaving the best job he ever had to spend more time with his family. He wrote that Mary Barra (CEO of GM) and Indra Nooyi (CEO of PepsiCo) were often asked how they balanced the demands of being a mom and being a CEO. As a male CEO, Schireson was asked “what kind of car he drives and what type of music he likes”. Resulting media comments and opinions from Schireson’s blog post were mostly in the line that this event was “good for work-life balance and a leap forward for women execs”.

Emma Plumb however had a different and interesting view. She wrote that “suggesting that his departure from the role is a good move for the workplace at large sadly reinforces the idea that you cannot be an involved parent and a successful CEO at the same time—and that’s the very notion that has strongly contributed to the fact that women currently hold only 5.1 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions.”

I tried to find data on CEOs / upper managers with children versus the general population but could not find any. Apparently 43% of women with children leave their jobs, at least temporarily. Only 74% of professional women will rejoin the workforce in any capacity, and 40% will return to full time jobs. Paulette Light, with a Masters from Harvard, an MBA from Wharton, and a prestigious job at a management consulting firm, was one of them:

“Leaving the workforce was not easy for me. I spent many a mommygroup crying in the bathroom after other moms declared that being a stay at home mom fulfilled everything they had ever hoped for in life—the best job ever! I mourned my career and the role where people listened to me, where there were right answers. That couldn’t have been the farther from the truth as a mom. Turns out that you can graph milk intake in many different ways, but it still doesn’t mean your five-month-old will sleep through the night.”

Elon Musk has five kids. Sheryl Sandberg has two. Marissa Mayer has one. Her pregnancy announcement while freshly at the helm of Yahoo! reignited the “women can have it all” debate. And there are people like Helena Morrisey, 9 children, and CEO of Newton Investment Management, a UK-based investment firm with just under $50B in managed assets and 400 employees. Her husband does not work however, so I am not sure this confirms anything… I guess that there is a trade-off, no matter how you look at it. Being very productive and organized should help. As being more zen and putting less weight on one’s shoulders. But unfortunately, I am still feeling like there is a choice to make. Moreover, it is important for me that my partner can also flourish and have a fulfilling and satisfying career. I sometimes feel like trying to achieve on many fronts might just cause failure in all of them. Maybe I am just whining and having a premature bout of mid-life crisis.

In one week from now I will attempt to start a new venture at TandemLaunch as an entrepreneur in residence, something I wanted to do for a while. Starting a company is analogous to climbing the corporate ladder for work-life balance. In fact it is most certainly more energy and time consuming. In “The Hard Thing about Hard Things” (a very good book), Ben Horowitz wrote:

“To make matters more complicated, my second daughter, Mariah, had been diagnosed with autism, which made working at a startup a terrible burden for our family, as I needed to spend more time at home.

One very hot day my father came over for a visit. We could not afford air-conditioning, and all three children were crying as my father and I sat there sweating in the 105-degree heat.

My father turned to me and said, “Son, do you know what’s cheap?” Since I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, I replied, “No, what?” “Flowers. Flowers are really cheap. But do you know what’s expensive?” he asked. Again, I replied, “No, what?” He said, “Divorce.”

Something about that joke, which was not really a joke, made me realize that I had run out of time. Up until that point, I had not really made any serious choices. I felt like I had unlimited bandwidth and could do everything in life that I wanted to do simultaneously. But his joke made it suddenly clear that by continuing on the course I was on, I might lose my family. By doing everything, I would fail at the most important thing. It was the first time that I forced myself to look at the world through priorities that were not purely my own. I thought that I could pursue my career, all my interests, and build my family. […] I decided to quit NetLabs the next day. I found a job at Lotus Development that would allow me to get my home life straightened out.”                      

Horowitz did not stay long at Lotus though. He went back to work for a startup called Netscape, as head of product management. After that, he co-founded and was CEO of Loudcloud.

I guess the struggle will linger for a little while…


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