Work hard / work smart. @ Irrational Exuberance

Hi folks,

This is the weekly digest for my blog, Irrational Exuberance. Reach out with thoughts on Twitter at @lethain, or reply to this email.


Posts from this week:

- Work hard / work smart.
- Time and energy.


Work hard / work smart.

Twitter, Lyft, Stripe and several other companies had major layoffs last week, and with the undeniable tragedy of layoffs, a frequent debate has reemerged. Are the tech employees working hard enough? Is working hard a sign of puritanical virtue? Are long hours a sign of inefficient production that ignores a century of productivity research?

Unless you place a premium on social networking engagement, participating in these debates isn’t very rewarding. Folks enter the discussion with their mind made up, some jabs are thrown, and then the discussion winds down with the participants feet solidly in their starting positions. However, as you dig deeper into these industry memes, you can usually find one or two specific beliefs that divide the faithful on each side, and identifying those beliefs unlocks a more nuanced perspective.

Within the “merits/folly of hard work” debate, a recurring set of conflicting values is between (1) folks used to creating new things on small teams and (2) folks used to optimizing very complex, existing systems. This often surfaces as startup founders arguing that long hours are necessary to launch a meaningful product, and experienced scaled operators retorting that long hours are inefficient.

These can both be true!

Working long hours at a scaled company means excluding many of the key team members necessary to accomplish your goal: many of your coworkers will have young children, live in different time zones, or be balancing time across multiple projects. Working more hours in that sort of environment doesn’t accomplish much, because execution is generally blocked on input/output. A key role of executives in such organizations is that they’re able to secure high-priority input/output on their particular set of priorities (even though their prioritization inevitably causes other projects to get jammed up).

Small companies, and small teams without external dependencies, work differently. If they’re composed entirely of folks who are willing to work long hours, then you can work long hours in an effective and inclusive way. If they’re all in on working asynchronously and remotely, then some individuals can work long, effective hours and others can work short, effective hours. The inconvenient reality of small teams is that they aren’t teams at all, they’re just a handful of individuals haphazardly orbiting each other. No one’s fungible, and there aren’t any rules about how things have to work.

There absolutely are bad reasons to do things in a certain way, but you should be terribly skeptical of anyone who argues there is only a single way to accomplish anything important. You should be skeptical when startup executives insist their ten thousand employee organization should work the same way as their twenty person team from ten years ago. You should be skeptical when folks who’ve thrived in large organizations make definitive statements about what cannot happen outside the bureaucratic shackles (and leverage!) of a scaled organization. Finally, you should be even more skeptical of anyone who wants to debate complex topics in soundbites: it drives engagement and create fanatics, but it does nothing to advance the industry.


Time and energy.

A few weeks ago I bought a piano. It’s a digital piano, which I’m quite excited about for a few reasons: I remain haunted by forgetting to water our piano as a child, it was a ninety pound package that I could install myself rather than a standard piano’s seven hundred pound stature, and most importantly it actually fit in the available nook. One motivation was that our son loves music. If you put him near a piano he will bang on, and on, and on. I’ve also been feeling a bit of a hole in my life, and somehow arrived at the dubious conclusion that the hole might be practicing-piano sized. I played piano for four-ish years as a kid, never getting particularly good at it, but I can sight-read music well enough, so it’s been fun to pick it back up. There’s something powerful in creating music through your own hands.

Buying a piano as an adult who hasn’t played piano in thirty years is a celebration of hubris, but I’ve been enjoying it quite a bit. What’s most surprising to me, is that the piano creates time for itself. Playing it creates new energy for me. I’m early in the relearning curve, so it’s easy to notice improvements in my playing. Speeding up my play, avoiding gaps in transition between measures, playing a simple piece from memory. Rather than draining from a fixed daily energy-well, it fills the well up. This is a lesson I’ve already learned many times, but still manage to forget: when I’m tired, the cure is usually adding something joyful to my life, things rarely improve when I try to strip my life down towards its foundation.

That isn’t to say that I haven’t tried removing things. Removing things from my life is my default response to feeling anxious, so after these past three years, there isn’t much left to remove: we don’t watch TV anymore since the kid was born, don’t watch sports, and are generally in rather than out since the pandemic unfurled itself. Undeterred, I’ve entirely reworked my home office, simplifying it down as much as humanly possible. A new laptop dock to allow hot swapping between my work and personal computers with a single cord. Consolidated my monitor, microphone, speakers, and video camera down into an all-in-one option. I bought a paper shredder and shredded the miscellaneous documents I’d collected over the last fifteen years. Upstairs, I reorganized every cabinet to ensure that once again there’s room to put all our son’s toys away after he goes to bed. The front closet is spotless, organized, and arranged. I threw out my existing socks, and replaced them with only three options: sock, low-cut sock, and exercise sock. Now I can sort and fold my socks in a fraction of the time. That’s really important, I mumble to myself with shaky conviction.

As I bought pianos and purged socks, I reconnected with one of my least productive habits: searching for signs of relevance in my previous work. Any new tweets about my writing? How many Twitter followers do I have? What is the sales rank for my books on Amazon? Have I updated my books’ sales tracker with the last few quarters of sales? How many subscribers do my mailing lists have? I’m embarrassed to admit that seeing these numbers go up makes me happy, but you can easily starve while eating your fill of this sort of quasi-accomplish.

After years of trying to understand myself, I’ve come to understand that what nourishes my particular soul is a tenuous balance between family and the sorts of accomplishment which I’ve usually found in my professional work and my writing. With a kiddo around, I’ve spent more time with my family, particularly with my wife, than ever before. They’ve been numerous, and have also been some of the most magical, rewarding, and difficult moments of my life. Even today when our son has been sick and intermittently inconsolable, it’s undeniably something special.

Things are still going well in my professional work, but executive leadership has far more indirect contributions than direct accomplishments. This has been doubly true when I’ve been doing less hiring on my direct team, and spending more time helping the organization navigate the ongoing crises of the pandemic and recession years. Writing has also been going well this year, and I think I’ve written some helpful pieces this year like Hard to work with and Founding Uber SRE, but where I used to have a solid chunk of writing time each Saturday, I’ve struggled to find any consistent writing blocks. For a while, I worried that I’d lost the ability to write, but if I have a week off work–and still have child care–then the words return quickly.

Nonetheless, I still find myself longing for more time, and dreaming fondly of my life as it existed three or four years ago. It simply had so much space in it. Time that made it easy to fill so many different buckets in my life. Now I fill each bucket knowing that it means that another two will stay dry. The good news is that I imagine things will get much easier in a few years as the kiddo gets a bit older. Until then, the question that echoes in my head is, “Should I get better at living in this new world, or wait until the old world hopefully returns?”

Worse yet, I know the answer. It’s time to get growing.


That's all for now! Hope to hear your thoughts on Twitter at @lethain!


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Will Larson · 77 Geary St · co Calm 3rd Floor · San Francisco, CA 94108-5723 · USA

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