Are you killing it at work, or is work killing you? The toxic stories we’re told about pursuing success
Entrepreneurs from Gary Vee to Elon Musk talk of extreme hours, weekends in the office and cancelled social lives as the price of building a great business. Back in the real world, these stories can also send people into burnout, ostracise friends and strip joy out of life, resulting in anything but success.
Elon Musk once said “…if somebody is working 50 hours [a week] and you’re working 100, you’ll get twice as much done in the course of a year”. Startup culture is awash with narratives about entrepreneurs grinding seven days a week in pursuit of success. These stories provide cocaine-charismatic narratives about the extreme personal sacrifices required to reach the top of your game, littering the internet like rumours that veganism is a universally healthy dietary choice.
The most pervasive rumours about achieving success, improving health or reaching a buddha-like state of personal enlightenment often prove to be the most harmful, or at their very extreme, give rise to a cult-like mania in their followers. The grinding-it devotion to work is one of those cults.
As Covid-19 swept through the country, I found myself working ceaselessly during the housebound springtime. Starting early in the morning and finishing in the evening, when a gin and tonic pulled me away from the desk, the hunt for functioning braincells became like finding a needle in a haystack.
A midsummer meltdown, when my brain finally hit a brick wall, created the perfect moment to step back and reflect upon my own career, as well as the stories we’re told about work. This led to the discovery that hustling, grinding and working every hour were breaking me, not making me.
Arnold Schwarzenegger believes that if you want to achieve more in life, you should forego the luxury of eight hours sleep and only take six instead. All you need to do is “sleep faster” during those six hours.
His logic is amusingly flawless, a life-hacking soundbite which speaks to the productivity gurus seeking to extract the maximum value from every twenty-four hours.
It was with similar casual humour that a business acquaintance recently said “I work the weekends to get things done”, as if working seven days a week is a perfectly natural, healthy activity.
Unfortunately, none of this is new. The protestant work ethic historically lodged the idea that hard, long work equals virtue in our collective psyche. This population-level shame says that whatever we do, it simply isn’t enough.
Messages about productivity from colleagues and superstars trigger yet more shame and set the narrative that we need to forego comfort, leisure time or our personal wellbeing, if we want to succeed.
I call bullshit.
The brain fog clouded my cognitive ability like a theatre fire curtain coming down. Staring at the screen, I couldn’t understand what to do with the list of emails trailing off the bottom of the screen, let alone conjure the willpower to deal with them. Clicking onto one message revealed a request for a communications strategy on a current project, a task requiring focus and clarity of thought. I looked away.
Another email asked for feedback on policy data, which is a brief, analytical appraisal. Brain said no. Another message listed the design changes on a report layout, a seemingly lighter task, yet, the fog rolled down again, squealing and grinding into place like the metal shutters on a shopfront, a last-stop attempt to protect the valuable goods inside.
Coronavirus lockdowns during the springtime brought the time and space to work as much as I wanted. That involved getting to at my desk by 7.30am and remaining there, bar occasional breaks, for around 12 hours. Weekends were largely for relaxation, except Sunday afternoon, when six hours would be devoted to tying up loose ends and preparing for the week ahead. It was a fantastically productive time, working 60+ hours a week, which is child’s play by Muskian standards. As summer rolled around, these commitments took their toll, the 12 hour days became a struggle and my concentration levels hit rock bottom.
The end arrived on Monday 13th July 2020, when, after a relaxing weekend, I got to my desk and felt like I’d had a full frontal lobotomy. After staring at my computer for 3 hours and producing zero work, I messaged my clients explaining I was off for the week. I collected a hire car, packed a tent and my bags and drove out into the Suffolk countryside. Over the following week, my brain crawled back into a co-operative and creative place, and my attitude to long hours changed, permanently.
Once back from holiday, I made three major changes to my life. I turned off my alarm clock for the first time in my life, and also stopped working weekends, forming a solid steel boundary around them. Lastly, my working day became an 8.30am to 5.30pm schedule. After that moment, I would go to bed when tired and wake up when my brain, body, God, the sun or the birds decided that no more sleep was required. Work would finish promptly, leaving an evening to learn Spanish, talk to friends and listen to music — I put my body back in control of how much work I could do.
The results were startling, I immediately started sleeping over an extra hour per night, from an average of 6 hours 18 minutes per night in June, to 7 hours 30 minutes sleeping in September. My wake-up time shifted by two whole hours, from a self-flagellating 5.30am in June, to a more serene 7.30am in August, after sauntering into bed around 10.30/11pm.
All of this contradicts the grind. Arnie would suggest we sleep faster. Tony Robbins has often spoken of working multiple jobs to get a career moving. These people might have got to their position by working 80+ hour weeks, but they also appear to have an exceptional capacity for mental and physical fatigue, or a naturally lower sleep requirement.
Margaret Thatcher famously slept for only four hours a night, a quantity of sleep so minisule that even the most commited party animal would baulk at surviving on so little. If I ever slipped down to four hours for one single night, the following day would be a tenacious struggle against exhaustion as my body tingled from fatigue, with sleep falling in the blink of an eye.
These superhuman feats of endurance by people at the top of their game demonstrate natural, physiological predispositions to handle extreme levels of stress. They are built different, they’re the exception to the rule. Success is not dependent on working 16 hour days or only sleeping as long as a good lunch lasts. Jen Miller in Notes from a Hired Pen documented how she’s made $135k working a mere 30 hours a week and taking plenty of breaks. The 95th percentile of society would be over the moon at a work schedule which can be smashed out in four days a week at $100/hour.
Arnie saying we should “sleep faster” is disingenuous, the cicadian equivalent of Eliud Kipchoge suggesting you should “run faster” to get a new marathon PB. It’s humorously simplistic and raises a smile, yet, as all professional sportspeople know, if you run too fast, too soon, you hurt yourself.
Our biggest improvements come when we rest, not when we run ourselves to exhaustion.
Dan Topolski was a famous English rowing coach at the centre of the Oxford boat race mutiny, renowned for his long, hard training sessions which typified the “no pain, no gain” mindset. Shortly after his era I rowed for my school, when intensity and quantity were two key markers of training, stacking up eleven training sessions per week. On one particular evening our rowing coach thought it reasonable to do hill sprints up the aggresively steep King’s Clump in Richmond Park, whilst carrying a crew member on our back. It’s enough to warrant a call to the child protection agencies.
Athletes still train intensely hard today, but the focus on rest and recovery has increased exponentially. Muscles which are damaged by intense training get stronger when rested, making sleep a vital part of an athlete’s training schedule. Kenyan runners, like Kipchoge, who is the fastest marathon runner ever, spend most of their time resting.
Our brains are the same, we need to give them time off. Kipchoge can run the marathon in 1'59", a feat that you and I will never, ever achieve, regardless of how much we try to “run faster”. Nor can we expect to reach Arnie’s levels of success simply by “sleeping faster”. Our minds and bodies are predisposed to running at different paces, which puts a limit on our capacity, regardless of how many hours we put in.
Because hard work is an entirely different concept to good work. An entire day could be used to organise emails and respond to those unreplied-but-not-urgent messages littering our inboxes. I could stay up late at the weekend scanning and digitising my old bank statements. These would be long, arduous tasks resulting in OCD-esque pride. Yet, they are also pointless activities which create zero value in my life or career, merely distracting from the things I enjoy; earning money, enjoying my social life, eating or exercising.
Tales of work-related sleep deprivation hold a kind of cocaine-tinged charisma, a cross-breed of extreme sports and rock and roll. This illusion is false, because rock stars are successful in spite of the drugs and debauchery, not because of it. Working harder or longer is not the key to success and can often be a road to personal ruin.
Why sleep faster when we can sleep slower, enjoying it, revelling in it, putting our health and wellbeing first. Finding values, beyond financial value, is where we find happiness in life. Slow, lazy summer evenings with friends in the park are priceless and cost nothing. Having the time for those evenings makes me richer than extra money in the bank. A slow lunch with family, or travelling across town just to see an old friend bring more joy into my life than the adrenalin buzz of getting a new contract.
Working long hours is no indicator of success, it could even be your downfall. Find the value in life, the little things that create peace and happiness. Avoid the adrenalin buzz of big numbers and long hours, because the high never lasts. Look for the wholesome interactions which leave a gentle smile on your face and a lilt in your heart. Then build a career which gives you the time you need to do those things, even if one of them is a lay-in on a Monday morning.
[Dan, Personal Growth is tailor-made for this story, would you be able to review for your publication? Thanks!]