Over the last few days, several of the technology-oriented blogs that I read have included some spirited debates about the work/life balance and whether or not loving your work essentially equates to a workaholic devotion to it. This is an issue that I have spent a lot of time thinking about and working out for myself during my career and that has even contributed to something of a career change several years ago.
The online discussion was prompted by a recent blog post by Jason Calacanis, the founder of "human-edited" search engine Mahalo.com. The post focused on various cost-savings tips for people running technology start-ups. Most of the items in the post were pretty innocuous suggestions about things like office furniture and equipment, but there were a couple entries that could easily be interpreted as saying that a start-up should have no use for anyone that would in any way prioritize their personal life over their work life.
The most controversial item was the following:
“Fire people who are not workaholics…. come on folks, this is startup life, it’s not a game. go work at the post office or stabucks if you want balance in your life. For realz.”
He later attempted to soften it a bit by changing "are not workaholics" to "don’t love their work" and then crossing out "it’s not a game" and "if you want balance in your life. For realz." He also wrote a pretty lengthy follow-up post that did help to clarify his view a bit and also shared his own general approach to his work. Particularly in that follow-up post, he seems to be basically suggesting that unless you let your work largely dominate your life, then you must be working only out of necessity rather than actually loving what you do.
Even though my experience with working at start-ups is limited to a short stint at a tiny game developer that ended up folding pretty dramatically about 4 months after I started, I believe that Calacanis is almost certainly correct that a pretty intense career focus is probably necessary to survive during the very early years at most start-ups. Where I take exception is his apparent view that pretty much total devotion to work is a requirement to be able to say that you "love" your work. I don’t believe that having a life balance and actually loving what you do are mutually-exclusive.
I care deeply for the work that I do and I can honestly say that I do "love" my work. I currently work in the Internet division of a very large company that I greatly respect and even regularly patronize as a customer. I feel fortunate to be contributing to a product that I believe in and the work itself is stimulating, challenging, and interesting. What I have learned, though, is that allowing myself to actually let go of my work and focus on other aspects of my life truly helps me to remain positive towards my work.
Prior to my current job, I spent a few years working as a game programmer at Activision, a job that I truly expected to be a dream job as I had long had an interest in game development. The game industry has long had a reputation for requiring punishing work schedules and a nearly total commitment to the job. Seven day work weeks of 60+ hours were not at all uncommon and little time was available for anything else.
I will say that I truly did like the work itself. The mental discipline, complex problem solving, and creative collaboration involved with game programming was truly stimulating and very rewarding. What I found, though, was that I just couldn’t sustain the lifestyle that working in that business demanded. It was exciting and fun for about a year or so, which was pretty much the duration of my first really major project at the company. I had hoped that the several weeks of comp time that they gave us between projects along with the somewhat less stressful and intense ramp up period on the next project would refresh me, but as that second big project continued on (and extended long beyond its originally scheduled ship date), I found myself becoming more and more seriously burned-out.
Something that became quickly apparent was that, for the most part, that lifestyle simply isn’t conducive to outside relationships and is also really only suited to the very young. Even though I was only 30-years-old by the time I left the company, I was already older than most of my co-workers. Even the producers and directors that were running most of the projects were usually younger.
Most co-workers were also unmarried and unattached, but I also saw some marriages and long-term relationships fall apart. There was even one case where a co-worker returned home after pulling an all-nighter at the office to discover that a live-in girlfriend had moved away. What I think I found most bothersome was that he was so focused on work that this didn’t even seem to bother him all that much. Fairly late in the last really big project that I worked on at the company, I actually met and started dating the woman that I eventually married, which certainly played a big role in my decision to make a change.
Pretty much the last straw for me came over Memorial Day weekend. After having worked on Saturday and Sunday, I received the ok to go ahead and take the day off on the holiday. A number of my friends, including my future wife, were meeting for the day down at Disneyland, where we all had annual passes. I spent a very pleasant day at the park, but then arrived home to multiple phone messages from work. They had some relatively minor issue that they wanted me to address (really nothing that couldn’t have waited) and the first was a call from the lead programmer asking me to call in when I got home. The second phone message, about an hour later, was from the project producer chewing me out and essentially calling me a disloyal employee for not having stayed home waiting by the phone that whole day I later learned that most of the team was getting that kind of phone message by then (and most were ignoring them), but it left me with a strong feeling that this was not really the kind of environment that I should be working in.
That isn’t to say that my current job doesn’t include occasional "crunch" periods where some extended evening and weekend hours are needed to meet a tight deadline. That type of thing is pretty much a fact-of-life in the technology business. The big difference is that it is very much an exception rather than a rule. In the game industry, projects were usually planned on the assumption that the employees would all agree to frequent and extended "crunch" periods throughout the project. While I’m sure that helps with some short-term labor costs, I ultimately suspect that hurts the industry even more due to the overwhelming churn rate of employees.
One of the other points that Calacanis emphasized in his piece was the value to bringing in food for the employees and even focusing on scheduling lunch meetings in order to try and avoid a perceived loss of productivity due to employees leaving for lunch. At one time, I probably would have been right on-board with him on that one. During the earlier parts of my career, I often would either bring a bagged lunch from home or grab some quick take-out so that I could eat at my desk. I would usually spend a little bit of that time surfing the web or doing some other non-work task, I would usually also monitor and respond to email and/or often let my attention shift to other work tasks.
More recently, I have learned that I really do need that mid-day break to recharge a bit. I now almost always go out at lunch and, in most cases, eat my meal at a restaurant. Even if I decide to get take-out or brings something from home, I still generally try to eat at one of the tables set up in our building’s courtyard instead of at my desk. One other thing that I do, which some may find a bit controversial, is that I generally try to avoid going out to lunch with my co-workers, unless it is for a special occasion or something pre-arranged. I do try very hard to be friendly and sociable at work, but I also find that a bit of alone time during lunch is usually what works best for me. Part of the reason why I bought an ultra-mobile PC (mini-laptop) was that I can easily use it at restaurants to do some web surfing or work on a blog post or some other bit of personal writing during my lunch break.
In his follow-up post, Calacanis shares his own general view and approach to his work with the following quote:
Truth be told, I’ve never asked anyone to work harder than I do, and I work seven days a week. I never stop thinking about whatever project I’m working on, and I don’t consider what I do work–never have. Sure, I’ll go on vacation, but that’s when I get my inspiration and when I do a ton of thinking about solving problems. In fact, the entire post was around how to make folks lives BETTER by bringing in food, getting them great equipment, providing resources, and buying the good coffee.
He later states it pretty succinctly by saying outright "My work *is* my life." This is the fundamental difference between his approach to work and my own. Work is an important >part< of my life, but it certainly isn’t the whole thing. Even in the early days of my career when I didn’t yet have a family and I was working the long hours in the game industry, I still maintained a circle of friends that was separate from my work as well as various unrelated hobbies and interests.
While there are definitely times when I am so focused on a work task or problem that it largely dominates my thoughts regardless of where I am, I also am very capable of pretty much shutting work out of mind and focusing on other things. In fact, I generally make a point to try and do that as much as possible when I’m spending time with my family, vacationing, or even just simply trying to take some time for myself. I don’t think that prevents me from loving my work. When I’m at the office and focused on work, my mind generally isn’t on my family, but I certainly would hope that my wife and child would never question for a moment how much I love them. For that reason, why in the world shouldn’t I be able to love my work while also not letting it completely dominate my life?