Robert Hanson/Getty ImagesPhoto by: Robert Hanson/Getty Images
Silicon Valley’s emphasis on work-life balance may be evolving, but its priesthood still values a very particular kind of grit. This ideological tension came to blows earlier this week in a marathon Twitter fight that started on Memorial Day, with anecdotal evidence and closing arguments still trickling in days later.
The dialogue began innocently enough when Blake Robbins, a tech investor who has worked or interned for companies like Google, Nest, and SpaceX, deployed a flurry of tweets about his philosophy on work-life balance. “When I first got into tech. I thought it was ‘cool’ to work on the weekends or holidays. I quickly realized that’s a recipe for disaster,” Robbins wrote. “Not hanging with friends and family because you’re working isn’t ‘cool.’ Burning out isn’t ‘cool.’ I promise you…your competition isn’t beating you because they are working more hours than you. It’s because they are working smarter.”
But the mood quickly turned. “Totally false,” venture capitalist Keith Rabois tweeted back at Robbins. “Read a bio of Elon [Musk]. Or about Amazon. Or about the first 4 years of FB. Or PayPal. Or Bill Bellichick [sic]. It is pure arrogance to believe you can outsmart other talented people.”
The fetishization of hours clocked in the office is nothing new for this crowd. Silicon Valley’s sense of self-worth is deeply tied to the idea that hard work is a prerequisite for success. Why else would mild bromides about burn-out strike such a nerve? For the rest of the business world, “working smart” is a time-management cliche, not a call to arms.
Nonetheless Robbins’ plea for saner hours prompted a venture capitalist pile-on, not so much on this one guy, but on the idea that luck may have had anything to do with success, even for a cohort of Stanford graduates.
Devoted to Crushing It
Work ethic is a perennial topic in the tech industry, which has its own blinkered take on the American dream of bootstrapped socioeconomic mobility. Parables of extreme devotion — like the story of Elon Musk sleeping on a bean bag next to his desk at night in order to get his online city guides startup off the ground or the story about Elon Musk keeping a sleeping bag near Tesla’s production line — are recited faithfully by entrepreneur acolytes and established VCs alike.
This week’s Twitter debate reminded Susan Fowler, the former Uber engineer whose allegations of a toxic work culture kicked off an independent investigation, of The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, the major work authored by German sociologist Max Weber. “There’s this concept of the ‘Protestant work ethic’ that’s intrinsically related to capitalism, the idea being that, to the Protestant, ‘hard work’ is a religious duty, a profession of faith and devotion,” she tells WIRED. “The harder you work, the better a Christian you are, the better chance you have of salvation.”
The ideology has become so powerful, it’s had a strong downstream influence on startups, the types of markets these companies develop, and even the way they advertise contract work to their potential labor supply. (A recent New Yorker article about the gig economy’s marketing style called Lyft “ghoulishly cheerful” for celebrating the fact that a driver worked through her last week of pregnancy.)
However, this standard Silicon Valley trope was met with instantaneous backlash Monday. Detractors aimed their fire directly at the investors pushing this prosperity gospel about how only the deserving ascend to the top. David Heinemeier Hanson, creator of the programming language Ruby on Rails, cofounder of communication software Basecamp, and a best-selling author, ripped into Rabois & Co. in a blog post calling their ideology “trickle-down workaholism.”
“There’s an ingrained mythology around startups that not only celebrates burn-out efforts, but damn well requires it,” Hanson wrote before delivering, quite literally, the money quote: “It’s the logical outcome of trying to compress a lifetime’s worth of work into the abbreviated timeline of a venture fund.”
Hanson dismantles the notion that that long hours are a mandatory part of a startup’s origin story — and, in fact, that there are other forces at play here. If tech financiers’ wealth depends on the productivity of its portfolio companies, then investor attitudes are partly responsible for the unhealthy work habits that have infected so many startups. “It’s not hard to understand why such a mythology serves the interest of money men who spread their bets wide and only succeed when unicorns emerge,” Hanson wrote. “Of course they’re going to desire fairytale sacrifices. There’s little to no consequence to them if the many fall by the wayside, spent to completion trying to hit that home run. Make me rich or die tryin’.”
Rabois tells WIRED that return on investment has nothing to do with it. “I feel it’s professional malpractice to give career advice to younger people that they don’t have to work hard,” he says. “People are going to wind up disappointed with their professional careers, lack of income, certainly with lack of reputation.” And easy affirmations could have devastating effects. “Look, there’s always trade-offs in life and success without sacrifice is a myth,” he says. People may aspire to be fitness models for Men’s Health, for example, but that’s not possible “if you don’t want to go to the gym everyday, if you’re not disciplined about what you eat.”
Rabois also says the call to work hard “has nothing to do with being a VC.” “That’s a nice clickbait sort of article or post,” he says, but it’s misleading. In fact, Rabois adds, practicing law is where he learned about the power of hard work. “High school and college were pretty easy for me,” he says, but in law, “several other very smart people just outworked me.” Tech isn’t even the most demanding field, he argues. “Certainly I worked harder in law than in tech.”
According to Hanson, however, the demand to sacrifice personal time is felt most keenly by employees, not executives, rolling downhill from the founder, gaining speed as it goes and landing on those “who actually have to make good on those exponential expectations.”
“Not only are these sacrifices statistically overwhelmingly likely to be in vain, they’re also completely disproportionate. The programmer or designer or writer or even manager that gives up their life for a 80+ hour moonshot will comparably-speaking be compensated in bananas, even if their lottery coupon should line up. The lion’s share will go to the Scar and his hyenas, not the monkeys,” Hanson writes. (When we’re talking about Silicon Valley salaries, of course, relativity is key.)
Fowler says the pressure manifests itself in two ways. Either management and founders tell employees they need to work long hours or they don’t belong. Or bosses don’t explicitly demand 10 to 14 hour workdays, “but employees who don’t work these hours are denied promotions or are seen as ‘not being cultural fits’ or ‘not being committed or passionate.’” Fowler has seen both examples in practice, including employees with families who “can ‘only work ten hours,’ and therefore aren’t ‘cut out’ for the industry.”
It “definitely limits the idea of a ‘someone who belongs in tech’ to the small section of the population that is young, has little to no responsibility, and honestly who doesn’t know any better,” Fowler says.
Ironically, this week’s debate occurred right in the middle of an initiative to move Silicon Valley culture away from that toxic definition of self-worth. On Tuesday, while Rabois was still tweeting out Nietzsche quotesand anecdotes from Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance in order to prove his point, Kip, a therapy startup backed by Y Combinator posted an Investor Pledge for Mental Health committed to building “a healthier culture in Silicon Valley” when it comes to burn-out, stress, and time management. The pledge was backed by seven small venture capital firms and a dozen or so investors.
Yet the message to startup employees remains muddled. Y Combinator may have invested in mental health, but one of the more contentious parts of this Twitter feud was a slide from a lecture that Rabois gave as part of a Stanford class on startups taught by Y Combinator’s Sam Altman. The slide features a quote from NFL football coach Bill Walsh. In one of his books, Walsh wrote that know you’re doing your job right if you’re up at 3am and “have a knot in your stomach, a rash on your skin, are losing sleep and losing touch with your wife and kids.” In a video of the class, Rabois pulls up the slide and tells the students, “If this doesn’t sound appetizing, you probably shouldn’t start a company truthfully.”
This post has been updated to clarify Robbins’ employment history.