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Balancing Acts

You Can’t Always Get What You Want by The Rolling Stones

I wanted to take a little bit of time to reflect on what ended being a surprisingly controversial number for me in 2018: approximately 2,600 hours worked. I had originally just written it down and moved on. A few people pointed it out and asked some hard hitting questions I hadn’t really thought about, or at least hadn’t thought about in a larger context. They’re pretty typical startup questions:

  • Why do you work so much?
  • What else could you do with all that time?
  • Are you happy working all those hours?

They start all seem deceptively simple but are pretty complex. Let’s try and work through them. I’m hoping that writing about it will also help me set some internal expectations and/or goals.

Why do you work so much?

The really simple answer: I work at a company that has more work that workers, and I like having control over what I do. If I want to have control over how things are happening, then that means you have to step up and do them normally. This does tend to snowball slightly. Once you have a reputation for stepping up and leading new things, people will expect you to continue doing that for a whole array of other tasks. That is a little frustrating when you don’t really enjoy those. There’s also the compounding aspect of being understaffed: you have more work than you know what to do with, but you need to spend even more time on hiring people to fill those roles. That isn’t free time either and someone (hint, my/yourself) is going to pay it.

This is where it gets interesting though. It’s would be easy to write this off as something simple: “Ambitious people want to succeed so they’ll do what they need to do”. That feels slightly weak, on both the vocabulary and the proof front. Ambition has a big positive connotation to me. I would rather replace it with aggressive - more negative for some people, but a neutral word to me. If no one is solving a problem, then you need to be aggressive. If there’s already a solution in place, then your aggression is just obnoxious. I definitely lean on the aggressive side. This symptom feels like it started way back in drum corps and having an inferiority complex compared to the larger groups we’d compete against. The parallels to a startup are not lost on me, but the funny inside niche jokes are probably lost on any readers. I think there’s one or two friends I have who would “get it” actually, not bad.

What else could you do with all that time?

Honestly, a lot. If a normal work-life is 40 hours/week, that means I “should have” only worked 2,000 hours. For a fun point of comparison, if I maintained the rate I was working and stopped at that point, that means I would’ve stopped working around the second week of September! This is honestly the first real point that spurred me to create this post. Nearly a third of the year would just be off-time. That is a distressing amount of hours when you think of it that way.

I don’t know exactly how I would fill all that time, but I have a pretty good guess. I have so many side projects just sitting in drafts that would actually get implemented. My gym habits would be much better and more responsible. I would certainly cook more of my own meals and become better at it (ideally). Personal entertainment: movies, video games, reading - those would all go up. TV probably wouldn’t, I really can’t get myself into all of that.

Hidden in there is a somewhat deceptive theme that I want to dig out. I would likely spend a lot of my time doing self-improvement on technical work. This is how I slightly justify it. Work affords me a lot of really cool opportunities that I wouldn’t get anywhere else, so I take advantage of them. These are things that I would like to do and enjoy doing and learning about, so getting paid to do them is just awesome! This is definitely not for everyone. In fact, I think it’s for a particular type of someone - a person who enjoyed (or would have enjoyed) grad school and academia but couldn’t {do something}. Not sure of the closing tag, but the prefix is pretty me.

Are you happy working all those hours?

Ah yes, the best for last. Some people argue this is the only question that matters, as if it’s some kind of universal binary truth. Some people go beyond that and cast it to an unary system. One my favorite pieces of advice: “All jobs suck, some just suck a little less for a little bit”. Once you get to a conclusion like that, what does being happy at work even mean? Well, I’m an analog guy, so casting things to simple digital states seems a bit… crude to me. I prefer to think of it as a distribution.

Overall, I’m happy working at my job. Sometimes I work 80 hour weeks because I’m just in the zone and making a crazy amount of knowledge flow. That’s incredibly rewarding for me, and I’m glad I have a place that fosters those environments. That is not true everywhere, and I’ve come to appreciate it. Other times I’m just really in the mood to do something else, so I don’t work as much. Usually that’s fine and life goes on.

Of course, the other situation is the one that inspired this post. What about when I don’t want to keep pushing those hours but also am asked and/or am otherwise obligated to? This varies for everyone, but I’ll be blunt: I just do it. Why? I don’t know, that’s just who I am. There is something that does get me complaining though. Somewhat ironically, it’s acknowledgment. Especially public acknowledgment, makes me shudder just writing about it.

Before we get any further, let’s clarify what I mean by this. Results are something to take pride in. If you have a task, and you accomplish it, you usually produce a result. If the result is good, I’m all for praising that. What I hate is when people focus on the work, or even worse, the d(Work)/dt factor. It seems impossible for me to decouple these factors:

  • glorifying the exaggerated “all work - no life” stereotype
  • thanking someone for stepping up and working hard

Thanking, as an act in of itself, is praise. Yeah, I’m going 30 mph down this slippery slope, but it’s my truth. Praise is indirect glorification. Why is glorification so bad? All coins have two sides. Glorifying one person is putting them on a pedestal above others. That’s fine in directly competitive contests! If you win the football game, congrats. If you win every football game, you’re Tom Brady. Acknowledge that! But in a collaborative environment, it feels wrong. There’s always this weird vibe or undercurrent associated with it. I would prefer we glorify (team) results and, if you really need to, privately acknowledge the sacrifice it took to get there.

I’m honestly not even a fan of awards or gifts. Maybe you think verbal compensation is the issue, as kind words don’t pay the rent. Cool, get a bonus in your paycheck or some gadget I guess. This doesn’t cut it for me, and if it did, I would’ve put those things in the previous section. Time is without a doubt our most precious resource, and you can’t give that back. Anything else is almost disrespectful to me.

Overall, this is obviously a fairly privileged position to have. I wouldn’t recommend dying on this hill. It’s not an iron set rule for me either, I’m sure to be flexible on it. The only way you can really discover your values is by searching for them, so I’m pretty grateful for the chance to write this.