Pete Huang

On work ethic for ambitious people

The debate about working long hours, “hustle porn”, and work-life balance is mostly overblown.

In one corner, you’ve got the workaholic himself, Elon Musk, with other characters like Keith Rabois and Gary Vaynerchuk. They regularly encourage those younger and less rich than they are to work hard, harder than most would ever imagine themselves doing. 40 hours a week is a joke to them - Elon pulls 120 regularly.

In the other corner, you’ve got people like DHH, who argue against Silicon Valley’s worship of the first group and for healthy work-life balance. They believe that sleep and time for family are just as important as your work, and you should prioritize them as heavily.

These groups are talking past each other. Like most debates, the “right” answer is somewhere in the middle of the two major arguments. Work ethic is a combination of hours and quality of those hours, not one or another. The messages I take away for myself and the ones I find most applicable to young people are:

  1. If you are exercising ambition, put in enough hours to make it slightly uncomfortable for you, but no more.
  2. Focus more attention than you think necessary on optimizing those hours.

Hard work is necessary, but it’s not the same for everyone

I think that the people writing that success only comes from cranking 80 hours a week at work really mean something less restrictive: that there are no shortcuts. If you’re looking for outsized results, you need outsized effort. The examples are endless and cross-industry. It is even more true if you are directly converting your time into money, as in a hourly wage job.

Likewise, if you are looking for outsized results, but you cannot reliably provide outsized effort, you should probably temper your expectations. You can and will be successful, but you may have to get there (wherever “there” is for you) in 3 years instead of 2.

It’s also a reminder that we are more capable than we think. It’s worth conducting a sober evaluation of your daily priorities, to make sure that you’re spending time where you want to spend it, and to challenge yourself to do more if work is important to you.

Hint: if you are ever jealous of the people who get a full night’s sleep on 5 hours (“think of all the stuff that you could get done with that extra time!”), you’re probably due for such an evaluation. You could find 2-3 hours of productive time in your current day-to-day, and the only reason you haven’t is because we default to the path of least resistance.

Lesson aside, gatekeeping “hard work” at something like 80 hours a week is not very helpful to many groups of people.

If you are raising a family or have to take care of extended family matters, you may only be able to put in 40 hours at work, 45-50 if you push it. You would still consider yourself as working hard.

If you are young but working hard for you means 65 hours a week because your mental performance declines after that point, you are certainly working hard and should not feel like you aren’t because you didn’t reach a magic number.

And though this is likely not a concerning topic for this group, if you have the ability to and you want to work 100 hours a week, you should have the liberty to do so without the hovering pressure that you may be working too much, according to some generic thought leader.

So instead of counting and comparing hours, if we want to encourage ambitious people to challenge themselves while respecting different stages of life and perspectives on work, I think it’s better to set the bar at whatever is the mental barrier for you, then raise it just a notch.

Be honest about your output and your desired outcomes

I think the other camp has also overstated their arguments. They seem to suggest that nobody ever needs to work 80 hours a week. I think they’re really saying is: not everyone is looking for outsized results, only good ones, and the people who are ought to spend their time more wisely.

One of the reasons the spread of social media has become dangerous for social fabrics is that it amplifies extremes and makes them more appealing than moderation. You only see the most popular, the funniest, the most right/left-wing, the most intense of whatever the desired angle - this is largely where this debate is rooted anyways.

If you want to run a lifestyle business instead of a billion-dollar company, if you want to be a middle manager and not a CEO, if you want to become wealthy by silently investing in real estate and drycleaners instead of by investing in flashy startups, you’re in much better company than you think.

It’s true: if you aren’t looking for those flashy, maximal outcomes, then don’t pretend that you are.

But if you are, then it’s worth taking a look at how you spend your time. Are you letting your work expand like gas, taking up whatever time is available? Are you sure that you are making each hour as productive as it could be?

Most people, myself included, need some practice in optimizing their days. In some parts of 2018, I found that by deeply concentrating on work in the first hours of the morning, I was running out of work to do by the early afternoon. Because I was setting a mental expectation that I’d be at the office until the late night hours, I let my work take up that entire time range instead of working on more things with that extra time.

I think this is a common mistake for people who focus on putting in hours. By letting the hour-by-hour diligence slip, working more hours means nothing at all.

Broader than a question of hours

In summary, some questions to ask yourself as you consider advice from people like Elon, Keith, DHH, and others:

  • Are you / are you looking to be ambitious with regards to your work?
  • What types of outcomes are you hoping to achieve for yourself?
  • What do you consider to be hard work right now? What do you consider to be hard work if you had to push yourself to new heights?
  • Are you as effective as you could be with each part of your day?