Silicon Valley prides itself on “thinking different.” So maybe it makes sense that just as a lot of industries have begun paying more attention to work-life balance, Silicon Valley is taking the opposite approach – and branding workaholism as a desirable lifestyle choice.
An entire cottage industry has sprung up there, selling an internet-centric prosperity gospel that says that there is no higher calling than to start your own company, and that to succeed you must be willing to give up everything.
“Hustle” is the word that tech people use to describe this nerd-commando lifestyle. You hear it everywhere. You can buy hustle-themed T-shirts and coffee mugs, with slogans like “Dream, hustle, profit, repeat” and “Outgrind, outhustle, outwork everyone.”
You can go to an eight-week “start-up hustle” boot camp. (Boot camp!) You can also attend Hustle Con, a one-day conference where successful “hustlers” share their secrets. Tickets cost around $US300 ($380) or you can pay $US2000 to be a “V.I.P. hustler.” This year’s conference, in June, drew 2800 people, including two dozen who ponied up for V.I.P. passes.
But for some, “hustle” is just a euphemism for extreme workaholism. Gary Vaynerchuk, a.k.a. Gary Vee, an entrepreneur and angel investor who has 1.5 million Twitter followers and a string of best-selling books with titles like “Crush It!,” tells his acolytes they should be working 18 hours a day. Every day. No holidays, no going on dates, no watching TV. “If you want bling bling, if you want to buy the jets?” he asks in one of his motivational speeches. “Work. That’s how you get it.”
Vaynerchuk is also a judge on Apple’s “Planet of the Apps,” a reality show where app developers compete to win funding from a venture capital firm. A recent promo depicted a contestant alongside this quotation: “I rarely get to see my kids. That’s a risk you have to take.” The show’s promotional tweet added: “For the ultimate reward, he’ll put everything on the line.”
Good grief. The guy is developing an app that lets you visualise how a coffee table from a catalogue might look in your living room. I suppose that’s cool, but is it really more important than seeing your kids? Is the chance to raise some venture-capital funding really “the ultimate reward”? (Apple pulled the promo after a wave of critical comments on Twitter.)
Workers buying in
This is sad enough for start-up founders, but rank-and-file workers are buying into this madness, too. Last year, Lyft published a blog post praising a driver who kept picking up fares even after she went into labour and was driving to the hospital to give birth. Critics saw dystopian implications – “horrifying” was how Gizmodo put it – and Lyft deleted the post. But people at the company, including the driver herself, seemed genuinely puzzled by the negative reaction.
A century ago, factory workers were forming unions and going on strike to demand better conditions and a limit on hours. Today, Silicon Valley employees celebrate their own exploitation. “9 to 5 is for the weak” says a popular T-shirt.
A venture capitalist named Keith Rabois recently boasted on Twitter that he worked for 18 years while taking less than one week of vacation. Wannabe Zuckerbergs are told that starting a company is like joining the Navy SEALs. For a certain type of person – usually young and male – the hardship is part of the allure.
The truth is that much of the extra effort these entrepreneurs and their employees are putting in is pointless anyway. Working beyond 56 hours in a week adds little productivity, according to a 2014 report by the Stanford economist John Pencavel. But the point may be less about productivity than about demonstrating commitment and team spirit.
‘Do, do, do, until you can’t do anymore’
“Everyone wants to be a model employee,” said Anim Aweh, a clinical social worker in the Bay Area who sees a lot of stressed-out tech workers. “One woman told me: ‘The expectation is not that you should work smart, it’s that you should work hard. It’s just do, do, do, until you can’t do anymore.’ “
This has led to tragedy. Last year, Joseph Thomas, an engineer at Uber, committed suicide. His widow blamed the company’s gung-ho culture, with its long hours and intense psychological pressure.
Now some are pushing back. David Heinemeier Hansson, a software developer, is on a crusade to persuade entrepreneurs that they can succeed without working themselves to death. (The sad thing is that this even needs to be said.)
In a recent essay Hansson excoriated venture capitalists as brainwashing founders with “an ingrained mythology around start-ups that not only celebrates burnout efforts but damn well requires it.” He says VCs are exploiting founders. Their attitude is, “Make me rich or die tryin’,” he wrote.
“Die trying” is by far the more likely outcome. The vast majority of start-ups fail. The odds of striking a huge Facebook-level success are infinitesimally tiny. No one knows this better than the VCs, who improve their odds by spreading their bets onto dozens of companies and whipping them all into a frenzy.
Hansson’s essay singled out Rabois, the venture capitalist who worked for 18 years with hardly any vacation. This prompted a debate on Twitter, where Rabois sniped that Hansson’s take-it-easy approach to building a company would be perfect – “for lazy people who want to accomplish nothing.”
Hansson and his business partner, Jason Fried, run a Chicago software company, Basecamp, that employs 56 people and turns a profit. The workweek is capped at 40 hours and gets pared back to 32 in summer. Hansson has enough free time that he competes as an amateur driver in endurance car races.
In 2010, the two men published “Rework,” a book denouncing workaholism, and they’re publishing another one, “The Calm Company,” next year. Hansson told me that they’ve grown dismayed “seeing people being asked to give up their vacations, their sleep, their youth, their family and their morals on the start-up altar.”
They run workshops and do a lot of public speaking. Their talks usually go over well – although in San Francisco they often hear “incredulous gasps,” Fried reported. Hansson added: “People tell us we’re not ambitious enough. We’re not trying to change the world. The perversion runs so deep.”
The chance to become the next 20-something tech celebrity billionaire has not lost its power. Every year thousands of fresh recruits flood into San Francisco, hoping to be baptised into the religion of the hustle. As bad as things have become today, there might be worse to come.
Dan Lyons is the author of “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble” and is at work on a book about workplace culture.
The New York Times