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Fire the workaholics (37signals.com)
64 points by cag_ii on March 8, 2008 | hide | past | favorite | 23 comments

My favorite people to work with fall into neither category. The most productive, creative people I know are passionate enough about their work to put in tremendous numbers of hours when it matters, or when they're getting good work done -- but they also care enough about the rest of life to take it easy when there's no good reason not to.

From what I've experienced, that's pretty much how any creative person works. When you're on a roll, you don't want to waste it. I'm like that myself, I've done a 36 hour 'shift' before because I was on the damn biggest idea of my life -- so much so, I did 1,000% work and it was to my usual standard, if not higher, for quality. If I do one of these days in two working weeks (10 days) then who cares if I produce less work on a day to day basis, as long as my average productivity is equal or higher than the rest?

Some days I blatently just don't work, creativity hits me when I'm doing something different. If I'm focused too much on a task, it's like I inhibit my mind from processing it in different ways. It's like pushing a rock up a hill, if you just keep trying you never think that pushing it in a spiral is much less effort and faster than killing yourself taking the direct route and getting nowhere.

Hackers should know this lesson as it takes creativity. The unconventional way is what everyone here should be interested in, otherwise it wouldn't need hackers; would it?

More bullshit from 37signals. The successful people I know are "on call" 24 hours a day, and actively working only somewhat less.


Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode's office and said, ``How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?'' He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, ``You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.'' I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: ``Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.''

Um, yeah, if your metric for success is "I've read more articles than the other guy" or "I've published more papers than the other guy", obviously you'll benefit from... reading more articles and publishing more papers.

Personally I don't give a crap that I am 10% as "productive" as John Tukey. I suspect that his productivity made him happy, but that it bought him no more happiness than my own, somewhat lesser productivity buys me. I'm pretty damn sure that all his work didn't bring him much extra money or buy him one extra year of life. I suspect that my friends and relations would rather have 10% more of my time than watch me publish 10% more papers. And I'm with DHH: If I worked with guys like Tukey I would quit rather than be constantly told that I'm some kind of slacker because -- unlike Tukey -- I have more than one interest in life. I know this is true, because I did work in academia with guys like Tukey, and I did quit.

[NOTE: I actually know nothing about the life of the real John Tukey. I'm using the poor guy, as Hamming did, as a notional example of the workaholic. For all I know, Hamming and his boss were wrong, and the actual Tukey had lots of fun hobbies, spent most of his life having fun, and was famous as a genius because he was, in fact, a genius who could do more in three days on the job than most could do in a year. I mean, that plan worked for Feynman.]

I don't think you'd need that metric to make Hamming's point. I can't speak for your personal sources of happiness but what if your metric is 'When I'm old, can I look back and feel content?'?

The difference between what is and what could have been could cause regret in either direction (productivity vs 'fun').

Well, I haven't exactly read the Stumbling on Happiness book -- and that really is something that I regret -- but one of the points that the author made in his TED talk is that the ability to "look back and feel content" depends very, very much on your personality and very, very little on your biography.

I can't quite manage to look back on middle school with happiness, because I consciously remember that it was a profoundly unhappy time in my life. But I can remember the happy bits (many of which centered on the blessed Commodore PET and Apple IIe) much better than the sad bits.

My time at ArsDigita was absolutely the most stressful time of my entire life -- it was completely confusing, I worked 80 hours a week, I didn't really know who my manager was, the VCs smiled a lot but seemed to be speaking an alien language, my project was a weapon which various turf warriors would occasionally use to bash other turf warriors over the head -- but I now look back on it with... happiness! It was trial by fire! I learned a lot of valuable stuff about dysfunctional companies! I met lots of smart but overworked hackers who used Lisp and emacs and Kinesis keyboards, and remembered them as models to emulate! I learned that Boston was a great place to live! (How, I'm not sure. I certainly didn't feel that way when I left town the first time... I needed to decompress from that experience for several years before my sanity returned.)

From this we can conclude that I am basically an optimist. My late grandmother was not. She had Alzheimer's, and as she lost her memories she became a gloomy, paranoid person who was constantly unhappy. I am hopeful that I will take after my late grandfather, who also had Alzheimer's, and who was a cheerful and sunny person right up to the last hour of his life.

Anyway, let's climb out of this rathole and ask: What's my point? Tukey was happy doing work in the moment. I seriously doubt that Tukey gave a damn about whether or not he would "look back and feel content" in his old age. He worked like a dog because he loved reading and writing statistics papers. And, hey, god bless him. We're all grateful that he got so much joy out of something that is do darned useful for the rest of us. But expecting yourself to be addicted to that kind of work -- let alone expecting your coworkers to be addicted to work -- is a recipe for unhappiness and disaster.

/downvote for ad hominem, including completely unsupported ad hominem (it says more bullshit but doesn't reference any previous bullshit)

ad hominem

This would be if I was attacking pretty-boy DHH himself, which I'm not.

You didn't say "the content of this is bullshit" you said "more bullshit from 37 signals". you brought up the source to go with your attack.

also, amusingly, you've now called DDH a pretty-boy, which is attacking him personally as well as homophobic (or possibly sexist instead?).

FWIW, I don't think calling someone a pretty-boy is homophobic OR sexist.

It's an insult based on his femininity.

Or a compliment.

Which sounds more positive: "pretty-boy" or "ugly-boy" ? :)

Knew a developer who solved problems by modifying code until it worked: a veritable one-man GA (Genetic Algorithm) poor at math but able to sling code 24x7. He worked atrocious hours. Usually he got something close enough to correct for others not to notice. The bosses admired his "work ethic". Last I heard he was an officer in a VC firm, on his third marriage, in failing health and still working round the clock. He asked the same of his developers which led to hi turnover.

I know another developer: after analysis he could predict time-to-completion within days; he was always correct; his code was always perfect and well-documented; he didn't pad his work: nobody else could do equivalent work in the same time. He's worth 10 of the GA-type developer. Today he remains a developer; he's in good health, happily married and hasn't worked over 45 hours a week in the last 10 years. He's very well-paid.

Life's like that: incompetents often succeed (after a fashion) but few are lucky enough to depart the game unscathed. And as some Chinese guy said it _is_ better to be lucky than skillful!

I for one would agree with this - if my startup ever hires an outside employee the cheesy inspirational poster on our virtual office wall would read - Work smarter, not harder. 'Tactical' code decisions compound over time, making changes in the future harder and harder.

Sorry, Joel got this right, the answer is boring, and isn't going to help anyone write any more clickbaiting blog posts. Hire for "smart, gets things done". What the hell else is there to it?

37Signals has a 4-day work week. Calacanis optimizes for maximim work-hours per week (hoping, for instance, that buying home computers will keep people working 1-2 hours extra at home, and buying ridiculous coffee machines to "capture" the 20 minutes people spend at Starbucks).

Who gets more done? Between Calacanis' company and 37Signals? Is this a joke? Has anyone here given a dollar to Calacanis?

It's easy to talk about balance, and I agree; but I've observed few people achieve it. Most are either overcommitted (working like machines at the expense of their own creativity) or undercommitted (putting in time at a day job they don't much care about).

When people talk about how hard startups are, I think they mostly mean that you can't be in the latter category and succeed. Obviously, they don't mean "work so much that you inhibit your own effectiveness". But that's what most of us who take that advice end up doing. Conversely, the day-job types call themselves "balanced" but, in my observation, most are lackadaisical, which is not the same thing. (At least not for those who aspire beyond mediocrity.)

My point is that this is a hard problem. Glib statements for or against workaholism don't shed any light on it. But glib statements in favor of workaholism are more harmful. I worked briefly at a startup where people were looked askance at if they went home at midnight instead of 3 am. This company got nothing done. But they certainly pointed to every blog post about workaholic startups that they could find.

i think both of them are aggressive hyperbole and this should be considered when calculating the usefulness of the information.

They're coming from opposite situations: startup vs. established business. I wonder: could a startup succeed (make its founders rich) if it was made up of non-workaholics?

This tension has been rather tough for someone doing a startup on 'finding interesting things to do'. http://www.mobtropolis.com Part of the reason I started it was because I felt like I haven't really done a lot of the things that others have--part of the whole carpe diem sort of thing.

While I have to spend most of my time coding, I take some time off to actually go do the things on the site, to both play test it, and to get my butt out of the computer chair and actually experience things. But sometimes, it's tough because I just want to get more coding done.

In a startup, I think you probably have to err on the side of working longer than normal, but I think it's probably spot on to say that even if you're John Carmack, you can only work for so many hours before losing concentration. It's healthy to stretch your legs a bit.

And besides, seeing more of the world gives perspective and background--something that attributes to developing taste, but we never give it much the credit.

I think it totally depends on the kind of work you're doing. If you're doing a creative, intellectually demanding job, then working for too long will burn you out to the extent that the each extra hour you spend working has a negative impact on your total productivity. More routine mechanical tasks don't degrade in the same way.

I think that the best advice I ever heard from anyone regarding work/life balance was from an old marine who was going back to school when I was in college. He told me that you should work like an old hunting dog. You should lay around sleeping on the porch 99% of the time, but when the hunt is on your ears should perk up and you should amaze everyone by how much energy you have. I think the point is to work your ass off when it really matters and avoid doing the inane minutiae that takes up 99% of everyone's lives. I think startups are the future because they avoid a lot more of the busy work that large companies create (I think Paul Graham's best essay covers that point.)

I think what it comes down to is focus. I work as hard as I can on the project at hand and (usually) know when it's time to take a break, but the focus remains on the project, not the break. If I cared more about snowboarding, for example, than my startup, I'd be a lot better at snowboarding but I can guarantee the company wouldn't exist.

In my mind startups are all about short bursts of intense and admittedly unsustainable bursts of energy. That's why it's a startup with an end goal in sight, not an established company that intends to continue forever. It may make sense for 37signals to fire the workaholics, but I don't think it does for me.

Couldn't resist this one (sorry!): http://www.toondoo.com/View.toon?param=182598

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