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Trickle-down workaholism in startups (signalvnoise.com)
264 points by ingve on May 30, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 58 comments

The thing I dont understand is the exceptionalism and lack of understanding research. You'd think that an investor would want to choose the path that increases their odds of success.

To me this looks like:

1. Sleeping hours seems to be genetic, telling an 8 hour sleeper to just sleep 6 is going to undermine chances

2. People's productivity seems to drop after about 40 hours per week, especially if sustained long term. Outliers exist, but coercing a non-outlier to try and act like one leads to a reduction in total productivity, not an increase.

3. If investors really want people who are outliers they should find a way to test/verify they're working with outliers. Burning out the leader of a company they've invested in is counterproductive, it will just lead to the loss of their investment. Once the company is funded the investor should do what they can to make that specific person do their optimal path, which may include sleeping 12 hours a night.

Because people (investors included) are not rational individuals, and tend to warp the information they are exposed to in order to fit their preconceived notions and values.

They valorize the overworking founder with no personal life, and have grown up with not-so-accurate tales of the Big Names who were like that. And so you get quite sincerely held but incorrect beliefs that are shockingly resistant to evidence.

Welcome to the human species.

The thing is that some of those "Big Names" tales could be completely true, if they're outliers. Sadly the desire/willingness to work extremely hard doesnt turn one into an outlier.

>You'd think that an investor would want to choose the path that increases their odds of success.

Only short term -- they don't care for either burnout or quality. The want some shit produced fast they can use to exit.

I thought the productivity drop happens after 6 weeks or so, you don't exit after 6 weeks!

If you sleep only 6 hours or less, productivity drop is sooner unless you do something easy and repetitive - sleep deprivation kicks sooner then overwork.

Aren't entrepreneurs already a class of outliers? I'd be interested to see if there's any research on productivity and how it's related to self-reported relationship with ones work or product and occupation.

Probably the most proximate and salient example for me is mathematicians. A lot of them seem to have an almost monkish devotion to math, and breaking their brain day in and day out with little reprieve doesn't seem to bother them at all.

Although entrepreneurs are probably not nearly so eclectic, I don't think it's strange to think they might be somewhat exceptional in this regard.

I really respect the author for going against the grain this much. I'd like to distill some of the points it makes, because the intensity can make it easier to treat this as an all-or-nothing:

[Ideas posited] 0. Companies that fail rarely fail because of delivery speed (e.g. yahoo mail vs google mail).

1. Investors mistakenly believe working harder is the key to startup success.

2. Investors also have a financial incentive to objectify/manipulate workers, even when those very workers may have negligible equity often they are put under more pressure than the investors themselves.

3. Mission-focused-talk is likely to be disingenuous because investors know most companies will fail, and those mission statements are lofty anyways.

I largely agree with each of these points, however I think the attitude is too gloom-and-doom. If you stay late at work, it's because you chose to. If you're afraid of losing your job if you don't, that's because of market forces.

I also believe that working smart rather than hard helps the investors as much as the individual, so there is a win-win if people are open-minded to it.

>If you stay late at work, it's because you chose to. If you're afraid of losing your job if you don't, that's because of market forces.

So? How does that invalidate what they write? Market forces do exist, doesn't mean people should use them as a leverage to fuck people over.

Pretty good case for avoiding most startups and any company that demands overtime. There are jobs out there that aren't barbaric and don't require sacrificing sleep. I can't think of something I'd be willing to sacrifice less than sleep at this point. No wonder these startups want young, inexperienced people to come work for them. It's just so much easier to take advantage of the young, to the point where they become complicit in their own demise and start glorifying these inhumane tactics.

This is apparent to anyone outside of the echo chamber that is Silicon Valley.

You'd think so... But a lot of people see Silicon Valley, see the TV shows and movies, hear the stories of a dozen people in a 10'x10' room working 30 hour days and ordering in pizza for every meal and becoming rich... And they think that's a model to follow.

When, in your mind, "more hours = more product", then it's not a huge leap to think that the abusive and ridiculous parts of the "Silicon Valley Model" are the reasons for their success, not that the success happens despite it.

I've run across several local (and very far from Silicon Valley) businesses that try and model themselves after the Silicon Valley startups, thinking it's some key to success. But the parts they model aren't the parts that, arguably, actually lead to success - exploring new ideas, MVPs, failing fast, making industry connections - it's the workspace design and cultural attitude towards hours and work/home balance.

We have several local web development shops that try and act like Silicon Valley while pumping out $3k brochure websites, and can't figure out why they're not rich yet.

I fear it's trickling down to other areas as well. Here in Israel, I hear about this too, and it's terrible.

Our dear President Macron seems to have his mind in this echo chamber though

From Wikipedia:

| Rabois came to Thiel's attention after he was found outside an instructor's home, shouting homophobic slurs and the suggestion that the instructor "die of AIDS."

I must be doing this all wrong.


From Rabois' letter to the Stanford Daily regarding the incident:

> I don't necessarily hate homosexuals, but do believe in Jack Kemp's suggestion that they may not be the best teachers of young children in public schools and recognize that the spread of AIDS has a direct casual link back to their activity. I hate Democrats, not homosexuals; they're the ones that have hurt the country.

Well-sourced article on this:


Also, I just learned, Rabois left square over allegations of sexual harassment.


Wonder why the so-called PC-police haven't taken his job yet... </s>

So strange since Thiel is gay and Rabois is rumoured to be the same as well...

Thiel persecuted the publication (Gawker) that outed him to an incredibly disproportionate degree, hatching an elaborate scheme to destroy them. As a gay person who absolutely loves being gay, it is my opinion that Thiel is... not exactly unconflicted about his identity. I don't know anything about Rabois.

Rabois's aforementioned sexual harassment case involved a relationship with another man at Square. And yet see homophobic comments above from Stanford days.

At the same time, not every gay person wants to be publically out. I'm perfectly fine with any publication that forces that upon someone dying in a fire.

I'm not prepared to disagree with you, but it's at least a complex question, right? Maybe there is a real social benefit to rich, powerful people being "out." Maybe there is something bad about who you are attracted to being a secret that you have the right to keep hidden if you want? Not all queer people are even capable of hiding it, right, so maybe Thiel being "in" is a sort of privilege that isn't fair in the first place? I don't like the idea of forcing someone "out" but his status as a powerful public figure complicates all this in my mind.

No. It doesn't matter how "rich" or "powerful" you are, that does NOT give anyone else the right to decide if you're out or not. Thiel being who he is doesn't complicate things in the slightest.

So even if, say, Thiel being out saved four teenagers from committing suicide, that has no bearing on his right to hide himself?

Do you disagree generally with US law that public figures do not have the same rights to privacy as other people?

I reject your premise entirely. And I reject any notion of the idea that anyone else, aside from the person in question, gets to make the decision on whether they're out or not. That is my final say in the matter.

That's not really much of an argument, and I can't imagine why. As a society we decide what information is hidden and what isn't all the time. Some cultures make women cover their faces even. And, that doesn't address the fact that some queer people cannot pass as straight.

Because this isn't something to be debated. A person has the sole right to decide whether they are out or not. No one else. End of story.

Projection is often the source of hate.

Thanks for this simple but eloquent comment. You've reminded me of this truth.

Money is a great thing to help you put aside your differences...

Yeah weird, since the natural habitat of such men is Vatican City. You'd think they would have joined by now.

The most precious resource you have in your life is time. Unless you like working long hours, you're wasting your life. Even if you do like working long hours, you're probably still wasting your life. And a big pile of money does you no good when you don't have time to use it.

Being constantly under the gun is not healthy. Continuously working harder to compensate for understaffing is not healthy. But, on occasion, for sprints, overwork can compensate and allow you to get to your (immediate, intermediate, etc.) goals. Balance, or rather, knowing the limits of this option are key. One can't just give up when misfortune springs up, but also one can't keep on compensating indefinitely.

Elon Musk is big on working long hours. And it's hard to argue with what he's accomplished.

But is it sustainable? Obviously, a young person can do it for years. But can they do it for decades? Or is there a cumulative cost that will shorten their life?

It also matters whether those long hours involve constant sitting or not. Is there a lot of creative interaction? Do they personally care about the mission of the company? Or is just about the money?

Elon Musk is big on working long hours. And it's hard to argue with what he's accomplished.

What does one have to do with the other?

Unless we can view an alternate timeline where Elon wasn't a workaholic, it's impossible to know if working long hours increased, decreased, or had a net neutral effect on his success.

Elon Musk has been divorced a few times.....

Elon Musk has done what he has done for decades. For some people working very hard is sustainable and for others (probably most) it is not. I much depends on constitution and also what one values and enjoys in life. I have personally also "worked" very hard since the 1970s, I enjoy doing so, it makes me feel good, and I plan to continue working hard into the future. One of my mathematician colleagues (Barry Mazur) is 80, and is one of the most mathematically productive people I know. For some people there is a cumulative benefit to long hours of hard work... for others it is surely a total disaster. Life is so complicated.

Yes, there is a great deal of variability.

Elon Musk has accomplished much in business. He has failed miserably at his family life. So how much has he accomplished?

That's not a fair statement... He has accomplished a lot by most peoples standards. If you're are implying that marital success is worth more in life than career, I wouldn't argue with you but I do disagree that one is objectively more valuable.

It really depends on the individual.

Clearly Elon made his choice, but he has kids he loves and a business empire. I wouldn't even go as far to say that he did it just for the sake of business success. I think he has long ago dedicated his life to the human race as a whole and his success in business came as a byproduct.

> The Kobe Bryant workout routine features a hefty mix of track work, basketball skills and weightlifting. His off-season workout has been called the 666 program because he spends 2 hours running, 2 hours on basketball, and 2 hours weightlifting (for a total of 6 hours a day, six times a week, for six months).

This seems disingenuous, given that Kobe does a lot more than just work out.

In a way I think this particular example actually hurts his argument. 6 hours of physical training a day is pretty damn high for an athlete. In college (soccer team) we had two-a-days 2 sessions of training (2-3 hours each) for about 2 weeks before the season started and that was an absolute killer, by the end your body would be ripped to shreds, and we'd have one week of a much lighter load and ball work to recover. Doing this six days a week for six months is almost the classic definition of overtraining, and shows the freakish nature of Kobe's physical ability.

Totally agree with his overall point though.

I think it's hyperbole. I don't see how it's possible, even for a super athlete. I'm sure it's highly inflated numbers, there would also be not benefit for Kobe to come out and say, Na that's wrong... I train half that.

What are you talking about? Kobe studying tape?

Point is that even one of the best players of all time was not out there practicing for 12 hour days every day. Resting the body was key to having a long and successful career.

I would imagine that brand management work would take up quite a bit of his time.

Ask HN: what is workaholism? There always seem to be a lot of exagerration. How many hours a week is it? And how many of those hours are productive, vs waiting around, dicking around, or optics/politics related?

I don't think it's being over worked. To me, workaholism is when you're sitting on your couch after dinner, or maybe midday on a weekend, and you decide to pull out your laptop and do work. Or you're at a friend's house or at a bar or event and pull out your phone and start scrolling through work email, or reading code reviews.


I was inches away from a total breakdown this past November after putting in months of long (some up to 90 hour) weeks.

Following the conclusion of the project I took some time off; almost an entire month (thank god for the xmas/new year holidays). For me, it was that or compromise my long-term health. The time off came and went, and I didn't feel revitalized at all, not a single bit. I started to think the problem was me. However, more recently I took another vacation, but this one was only a week long. In this instance though, when I came back from my time away, I felt more like myself, more productive, and happier than I had in years.

So what was the difference? During my first vacation I was still on-call, I was still expected to reply to emails and chat in a timely manner, review pull requests and so on --- you know, the stuff that is part of the "off-the-clock" aspect of many of our jobs. Essentially, while physically I wasn't at work, mentally I didn't leave the office for a single second.

This second vacation? It was the first time I my spouse of eight years and I were able to take a vacation together, in my mind it was the honeymoon we never got to have. So, I spoke with my management and asked for permission to go completely offline for the week. After some negotiation, I was granted the permission to do so. When I left the office for the last time before starting my holiday, I sat in my car and disabled all work related notifications and alerts, then I just sat there for as long as it took for the panic of knowing those notifications were disabled to subside.

It may feel like you're only taking 30 seconds out of your time away from work to send off a quick two-sentence e-mail reply or thumb-up a tiny pull request. However, many of us are already too deep in the hole of a workaholic mindset to even see all of the hidden costs of such behaviors and thinking, regardless if they are personal, professional, mental, or physical.

(P.S. Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Frquhar, the founders of Atlassian, hosted a great presentation/panel discussion during the 2016 Atlassian Summit where they talked about and hosted a panel discussion surrounding the issues of workaholism and burnout and how they handle it at Atlassian.

During this sessions they spoke about how within Atlassian, if somebody (probably of significant importance at least...) is exhibiting the typical signs of burnout as we currently understand them they will force the affected employee to take a vacation, not a stay-at-home vacation, but an go-out-and-have-fun type vacation. They've even gone as far to conspire with the spouses of affected employees to ensure that they leave their company provided devices at home and do not bring them with them on vacation)

P.P.S. If you are interested in learning more about workaholsim and burn out: what it feels like, how to spot it within your team and colleagues, and how to actually help those being affected by it -- I would suggest you check out Avleen Vig's USENIX LISA 2016 presentation [Don't Burn Out or Fade Away](https://www.slideshare.net/avleenvig/dont-burn-out-or-fade-a...)

The permission to do so?

You need to get out of that incredibly toxic environment.

Probably but I also get it. In startups the core team members sometimes fulfill duties that no one else is either trained, able or has the necessary credentials to do...

It sounds like OP has put himself into this situation and made himself indispensable and now he needs to figure out how to fix it.

On-call on vacation? Expected to review pull requests? What the hell man? Get out of that hell hole.

The -aholism suffix suggests addiction. Addiction refers to behaviors whose repetition or extent is pathological, that is, have a negative effect on well being.

So, it seems to me that meetings, lost time and dicking around don't count as workaholism on the part of the worker, if they are the result of someone else's decision.

what is workaholism?

In my mind any type of behaviour becomes a disorder when it has a negative effect on the ability of that person to function. As a result, the answer is "it depends". Personally, I'd say you have a problem if:

1. You have no time or energy to address responsibilities outside of work (budget, chores, etc).

2. You are experiencing a negative impact on personal relationships with friends, family, spouse, children, etc, due to excessive work.

3. You have no time or energy to engage in physical exercise outside of work.

4. You have no time or energy to engage in extracurricular activities outside of work.

I'd also couple in physical symptoms related to continuous stress, including sleep disturbances, mood control issues, high blood pressure, etc.

I don't necessarily disagree with DHH's points, but most of his stuff comes across as completely oblivious to the fact he's not representative of the average startuper/developer. He's a complete outlier.

Sure, you can succeed if you're a top 0.1% programmer, and you don't have to work as much as other people. Do other people who are ambitious but not quite as talented have the same luxury?

Can you afford to not work at the peak of your intellect?

I tried the whole busting ass thing in my early years as a freelancer. I bombed, my output went down with no correlation to working hours whatsoever, I developed obvious markers for anxiety and it took years to get away from that.

Maybe if your job consists of answer dumb emails every day, but there's indeed a very limited number of productive, concentrated work you can get done during the day.

Most of the people who claim to work excessive amounts of overtime waste a humongous amount of time on meetings, confirmations, transportation and phone calls. If anything, they might have a mission and purpose that helps them stay up.

But to pretend that you can crank out code like a machine all day every day is the biggest greatest farce of our profession.

Well, given that, in the vast majority of cases, busting your ass for a startup doesn't get you anything (either the company still fails, or your equity gets dilluted to shit and you lose money compared to what you would have had working a normal job with normal hours over that time period), even if you're not a "top programmer", it doesn't make sense.

I think the more common ground here is that _all_ very successful people are outliers regardless if they work "hard" or not.

That may be that case, but the more relevant question is whether non-outliers can benefit from hard work. DHH says no (because he's a biased outlier, in my opinion). I would say it's far from clear.

Agreed, there is a lot of startup hype. Make sure you're doing it for the right reasons.

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