Silicon Valley: Work-life balance is for losers, not closers

The latest shot in the work-life balance debate was fired by Mukund Mohan, a Bangaolore-based serial entrepreneur with roots in Silicon Valley, and author of the "Be a Force of Good" blog.

Mohan's most recent entry, "My discipline will beat your intellect," argues that the key to start-up success is to recognize that it's necessary both to "work smart" and to "work hard" - really, really hard. 

He writes,

"Some ‘older' entrepreneurs (usually over 35 years of age) will share their ability to ‘strike a balance' between work and life. Practically speaking (I hate to break this to them) that does not exist in a startup. If you have that balance, you are not serious enough about your startup.

I understand they have families and kids, but I have come to the realization that both smart work and hard work are necessary (but not sufficient) to run a successful startup."

I took a similar message from a recent David Brooks column discussing a Bloomberg profile by Ashlee Vance of noted Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk.  Vance reports that Iron Man director Jon Favreau "has called Musk the basis for his version of comic book hero Tony Stark, the playboy inventor who builds a flying weaponized suit."

While the Brooks piece focuses mostly on Musk's many professional accomplishments, and doesn't discuss his five sons (twins plus triplets), Brooks also notes,

"Many employees love him, but there has been at least one blog set up to catalog his mistreatment of those he deems mediocre. He's run through two marriages already, and his first ex-wife wrote a brutal but not necessarily persuasive takedown of him in Marie Claire. He's taken a grand total of one vacation in four years, and his romantic life has faltered. As he told Vance, ‘I would like to allocate more time to dating, though. I need a girlfriend. How much time does a woman want a week? Maybe 10 hours?' "

Between the Mohan blog and the Vance and Brooks articles about Musk, there's a fairly coherent version that emerges of the consummate Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and it's pretty intense.

Two questions come to mind:

(1) Are there other models of entrepreneurial success?  Are there entrepreneurs who've been amazingly successful while also maintaining a sense of work/life balance?  In other words, are most highly successful entrepreneurs basically like Musk, or is it that Musk fits our preconceived vision, so we remember (and discuss) examples that fit the mold, and perhaps overlook other examples who don't.

(2) Even if we assume, for argument's sake, that most successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs do fit the Musk mode, perhaps this is an accident of history or of the particular technology and sort of people who've driven much of the innovation in the Valley.  Going forward, you'd think that other examples might still be possible.

I'm not going to react to the first question, or rather, I'd prefer to crowdsource that response - I'd be very interested in hearing in the comments section below about examples of wildly successful entrepreneurs who either fit or contradict the Musk model.

I will offer an initial, and perhaps somewhat personal response to question two, from the perspective of someone who both loves to be with his family and who, while not an entrepreneur, has definitely experienced the sense of Csikszentmihalyi "flow" associated with total immersion in an activity about which I've been passionate.

My honest answer is that I think there are few experiences more amazing than "flow," when you are so at one with your activity that you lose almost all sense of time and life outside the thing you're working on.  You are exceptionally productive.  And other commitments do slip - you really are so much less available for others.

I suspect that most (perhaps not all) creative and successful people, whether Silicon Valley entrepreneurs or not, probably do need the time to detach and focus, to put their head down and selfishly think about their work and no one else.

The thing is, when you're so immersed, you also tend to be far more fulfilled, more excited about life, and thrilled and enthusiastic by what you're working on - a phenotype that I suspect may at some level be easier for your friends and family than the opposite.  I'm not sure how much of a treat it is to be with someone who feels deeply unfulfilled at work, simply clocking in and clocking out.

I'm also not sure states of flow are a constant for anyone, even successful entrepreneurs.  I see even the most creative and involved work as a series of sprints, with essential respites in between, recovery periods valuable not only because they restore the mind and enable you to dive in again, but also because it's the time you spend with the people you care so much about that gives both work and life meaning. 

Right?

The uncomfortable question is whether in embracing and taking pleasure from personal commitments, we are subtly eroding our potential to do something really, really big. 

I want to believe our efforts to achieve work/life balance reflect our sophisticated recognition that happiness and fulfillment result from integrated involvement across a range of domains, with family being by far the most significant.

At the same time, there's a part of me that worries that work/life balance simply represents a hedge, a rationalization, an acknowledgement that we'll probably never write the great American novel, or start the next Google. 

Most of us pursue work/life balance because we believe this represents the most fulfilling expression of our human potential; let's hope that we've not instead stumbled upon a devastatingly effective way to constrain it.

 

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