Tom MacWright

Work hard and take everything really seriously

Every few months on Twitter, there’s some dustup about work-life balance and whether it’s a good or bad idea to work hard when you’re young. Like most of these recurring debates, it has generated two opposite archetypes:

The anti-capitalist tells the young worker not to trust HR and not to buy into the idea of work as family. Your employment contract is the only thing that binds you to your job, and that can be terminated on either side. Arrive at 9, leave at 5. Prioritize the family.

The hustlebro tells you to wake up at 7am and get to work, and give it your all. Hustle, and earn as much as you can, build those connections. You can get work-life balance when you’re older, your early 20s are the time for making that cheddar and staying up till 1am.

In the short form, it’s hard to take a stance and not get grouped into either extreme. It’s also hard not to feel baited by someone who’s engagement-farming their social media presence by using time-tested bait questions.

This last time I responded something like:

work really hard and take everything very seriously

But I deleted it. A truism as an answer will lead people to all kinds of unintended conclusions about me and whatever I’m saying. I’ll need to use more words.

Wisdom is acquired by experience

I think the honest answer is that most people can’t gain perspective and moderation and maturity by reading someone’s advice online. The wise 35-year old dads on Twitter can follow their own advice about work-life boundaries because they’ve suffered the consequences. There’s no shortcut to perspective: you have to acquire it by experiencing bad things and suffering consequences.

Energy begets energy

I attribute a lot of my career path to my working really hard and caring a lot about things. I quickly internalized the lesson that a 9-5 job wouldn’t teach me enough, and wouldn’t give me all the intellectual stimulation or rigor that I wanted – so I worked longer hours, worked on side projects, hunted down my interests like a puppy chasing a squirrel.

The thing is, when you find a good thing to focus on, a thing to pour energy into, it can be positive-sum. It can give you energy in the rest of your life, give you a sense of purpose. The human body is not like a battery with a finite amount of energy. There are lots of things you can do, like exercise, learning, and practice, that can be rewarding and increase your ability. This is obvious, right?

If you have that thing that drives you, and that thing isn’t work and can never be work, then sure – get the lightest-duty job you can. Pour time into that thing. Maybe what you do at work is your main output, or part of your output, or just what you do for money.

Most jobs don’t give you time to learn

Many jobs, especially in technology, don’t have real, intentional, educational components. There is no time set-aside for learning, no time to practice, and no dedicated instructor.

It’s unlikely that what you learned in college fully prepared you for the job. It’s possible that you’ll have a wonderful mentor with lots of time to spare, but probably not.

I’ve worked with people who are smart enough to learn everything on the job, from 9-5. I’m not one of them. For me, to really understand something, I need to build it two or three times, write about it, use it incorrectly, and learn the consequences. Working hard meant playing around, having fun, but essentially playing with a lot of things that were not directly part of what I was paid to do at that time. This, honestly, worked out extremely well and some of those things led to jobs and opportunities that I never would have had otherwise. Writing this blog is one of those things.

Working hard on boring repetitive stuff is bad

Probably the biggest caveat to this whole post is that working hard in my experience was never working double-shifts or “hustling” for money or having multiple jobs. There are a million kinds of work that you simply don’t learn anything from, after a point. Thankfully, technology work is usually accretive, as are other sorts of knowledge-work.

Maybe you don’t want to do this, but I did

Maybe you don’t want to follow that path. That’s fine: not everyone is compelled by learning or intellectual rabbit-holes or exists in an industry where it’s pretty easy to self-educate. Or wants to “max out” their career. And it’s dangerous to generalize from a single experience. And it’s also dangerous to judge “a career” based on external appearances, which don’t tell you whether the person turned out to be happy, or rich. I haven’t maxed out either of those things, but I have few career regrets: I’ve always cared most about building useful things and learning and I think I’ve nearly maxed out those categories.

This is the answer to that question, of what advice could I have for someone in their early 20s. Well, that’s what I did – I worked pretty hard and was pretty unrestrained in pursuing interests. It worked out fine. Now that I’m older, my priorities have shifted slightly and I spend a little more time on other things, and am slowly becoming more balanced. But balance isn’t how I got here. Balance isn’t how a lot of the people I admire got to where they are now.

I’m all for moderation, but sometimes it seems
Moderation itself can be a kind of extreme - Andrew Bird

When your priorities shift, you’ll know

In the end, most people gain responsibilities. You’ll have a baby or a family member to take care of, or a thriving social life that demands more of your time. Your priorities will snap into place and you’ll realize that you care about new things. This is great. This will probably happen. But before you have those new responsibilities, you don’t have those new responsibilities. You have time to try and build a ‘rocket ship’ startup or chase down silly projects or learn a new instrument or run a thousand miles a year. Do that stuff. You don’t have to prematurely act like you’re older.

So, heed the warnings of those 30-somethings about burnout and workplace boundaries. And don’t work 24/7 on busywork for a startup if you’re not learning anything.

You can burn out by going too fast, or your flame can dim because you don’t let yourself spend silly amounts of time on silly projects to satisfy your intellectual curiosity. Beware of both outcomes: cultivate your enthusiasm for the things you want to hang onto.

It isn’t a revolutionary idea that people who are excellent in their fields often get there by trying really hard. If you can figure out the difference between busy-work that only benefits your employer, and the kind of work that makes you as a person feel like you’re making progress and becoming more skilled, then you’re ready to learn.