Work versus Life. Greatness versus Family.
A few weeks ago ago I get an email from someone asking if I’d written anything on the topic of startups and family.
"We want to have a thriving family life, and a thriving creative life, but it seems like most really cool jobs in the tech/start up are almost comprehensive lifestyle and time eaters.. The more young single guys at an office, the more the plan of dinner as a family seems foreign and inconvenient"
Right around the same time, I saw this post by Bijan in which he asks:
What if Steve Jobs was happy and balanced? Could he have turned around Apple? What would have become to Pixar? Could he have it all?
I was a workaholic until I had my first son five years ago. In the sense that I worked as often and as hard as I could. My identity was tied in with my work, so I felt empty if I wasn’t pushing excellence.
I’ve gradually been shedding assumptions about work habits ever since. It’s shameful for me to think that it took parenthood to boot me out of it and I feel like an asshole for the time I lost with my wife before then.
To set the foundation of the thinking that I’ve grown into, I’ll share a quote with you that I find myself coming back to often:
I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to studypainting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain”
— John Adams in a letter to his wife, 1780
Which, in my head, I usually shorten to:
"I go to war that my son may be a politician, that his son may be a merchant, that his son may be an artist."
With that said:
Yes. I have faith that it’s possible to accomplish great things and also to be a great family man.
I’ve run this by a few people, and the inevitable response comes back “So you’re seriously saying you can do something other Great Men haven’t?”
The hubris is difficult to stomach.
But while it’s a temptation to put myself in the shadow of other’s Greatness, (as doing so removes the pressure of having to ask the question at all), whether or not Rockefeller or Curie or Jobs or Carnegie or Welles or Earhart or Buffet or King Jr. or Aurellius or any other historically Great Person could have been great while also being dedicated and present for their family is ultimately irrelevant to the question.
The question isn’t whether they could, the question is whether I can.
In which case the answer becomes Yes. Absolutely yes.
Because I have the internet,
because I have hipchat and ichat and an iPhone. Because I have email and Adobe and broadband and computers and information theory and the electrical grid and grocery stores and an education and western privilege and an audience of billions.
How many generations worth of effort did it take to get me in this garage sitting at this laptop doing meaningful work just a few doors down from where my kids are sleeping?
The John Adams quote reminds me of the sacrifice and effort that went into getting me where I am today, not just in a generic sense, but as an acknowledgment that I’m a member of a society where the arts, which include design and development, are at the pinnacle of where things are headed.
As artists, we are at the bleeding edge of a technological bell curve which is slowly spanning the entire population. We’ve been placed at the peak of a pyramid 10,000 years tall, and we act like we can’t call a truce with our inboxes for long enough to go spend meaningful time with our kids.
Go home early! Stay out late! Watch a movie! Read a book! Do whatever you need to do to fill your brain with the goods it needs to churn out the work you’re hired for.
"If I’d been born in my grandfather’s time, I’d have made my grandfather’s mistakes." — Frank Herbert
We’re all eating a fat slice of Sagan’s apple pie, to the point where it’s impossible to see down to the first set of shoulders we’re standing on. The amount of efficiency and opportunity baked into my life makes anything less than the pursuit of greatness in both my work and my personal life an insult to the people who got me here.
Anecdotally, (and as something you can show your boss if you need something like that), when I was running Svpply I showed up at the office at around 8 and worked till just before 5pm, at which point I got on the train for an hour+ commute to Westchester (north of the Bronx).
Nowadays, I work from 9am to 5:30pm at a card table in my garage. I’ll have occasional spurts of discipline where I work earlier in the morning before the kids wake up, but generally I’m working a ~45 hour work week.
As a brain-worker who spends as much time struggling with how to approach my work as I do actually pushing pixels, I find that when I give myself more hours the only thing that scales up is procrastination. There’s little difference in my productivity in a 80 or 40 hour work week.
One more aspect of this that I’ll mention is that, as a manager or CEO, especially of a startup, there’s only so many things you can do to control the success of your company. Market acceptance, competition’s activity, and the ebb and flow of trends are inherently beyond their grasp.
Employee work hours, however, are one thing a manager can control.
So they do.
If a boss is feeling insecure about how their company is performing, then leaning on their employees for more hours is one of the few ways that they can feel like they’re turning the cogs towards success.
Fight the good fight and don’t let pressure steer you clear of your values. If someone fires you because you’ve prioritized health and love in your life, then embrace the opportunity to start your own company or find a new one that isn’t going to degrade you.
Don’t buy into an assembly-line mentality when it’s clearly opposed to everything we’ve worked towards as a society. Treat yourself like an artist, John Adams would’ve wanted it that way.
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Some rare clear thinking on work-life balance …
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“I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to...
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