Friday, December 10, 2010

The End of Work

Jonathan has found an excellent post from 2008 at 37 Signals called "Fire the Workaholics". It is a response to this post by Jason Calacanis, the founder of Mahalo, who originally advised start-ups to "fire people who are not workaholics" and told those people to "go work at the post office or Starbucks if you want balance in your life." An appropriately caustic response from TechCrunch, which interpreted the message to be "fire people who have a life", forced Calacanis to rethink his position somewhat, though not nearly enough. He now says you should "fire people who don't love their work". This morning, I want to address the system of values that seems to inform Calacanis's advice.

"Judge people by how much they get done," Jonathan reminds us, "not by how over-worked they seem to be." I would add that you should judge yourself by the same standard, and that you should judge a workplace (in our case, the department you work at, or the PhD program you're in) not by how hard it works you but by how much it lets you get done. If you are working under the impression that your workaholism is part of your job qualification, quit. Indeed, if you are a workaholic, just as if you are an alcoholic, your first problem is precisely quitting. You must stop engaging with the forces that are taking over your life.

If you "love your job" you have, I'm sorry to say it, a twisted sense of love. Not a few commenters in the discussion offered some version of "Mahalo is a joke", i.e, it does not necessarily deserve anybody's love. (I don't know anything about it, but it's in any case just a product.) What's the gold standard of love? How you feel about your family. And it is telling that Calacanis (at least at the time of writing) didn't seem to have much of one:

I DON’T expect folks to check their family at the door. In fact, some of the most productive folks on staff have families, spend tons of time with them, and ARE workaholics. It seems to me that folks with families somehow get much more focused and do more in less time, or find strange hours to work. I can’t explain it (anyone with kids want to check in?!).

Truth be told, I’ve never asked anyone to work harder than I do, and I work seven days a week. I never stop thinking about whatever project I’m working on, and I don’t consider what I do work–never have. Sure, I’ll go on vacation, but that’s when I get my inspiration and when I do a ton of thinking about solving problems. In fact, the entire post was around how to make folks lives BETTER by bringing in food, getting them great equipment, providing resources, and buying the good coffee.

Notice the complete lack of any logic in what's he's saying. "I’ve never asked anyone to work harder than I do," he says. But he works seven days a week, he says; and he never stops thinking about a current project. You can't work harder than Calacanis! He then says that people with families "do more in less time" and therefore find lots of time for their kids. But because he won't admit that he's wrong, he nonetheless describes them as "workaholics". Either they are workaholics and their families are suffering for it, or they're not. They sound like they're not, so if he's seeing them as such, it's probably because they think he'll fire them if they don't pretend to be all stressed out. He doesn't sound like someone I'd like to work for. (I wonder if Bob Sutton has studied this guy's style of "bossing".)

Good work is done by people who can stop working. These are people who understand that the purpose of work is to get something done. That is, work must by definition be completed not merely performed. The end of work is the end of work. Get the thing done and stop thinking about it. Go home. Relax. Every once in a while, take a vacation. You don't need to think about your "problems" while on vacation because, precisely, your work is done. All this goes for scholars too, and especially for PhD students. Don't try to prove that no one has ever cared more deeply about your subject than you. Don't try to prove (to your peers or your supervisor) that you "love" it. Don't be a workaholic. It's a stupid waste of your time; and everybody else's.

Important note to department heads, deans, and PhD supervisors: Do not give the impression that you'll fire people who aren't workaholics. Do not valorize mindless commitment to the job. Valorize thoughtful work completed.

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