This is a picture from when my oldest son was five years old. I have very few pictures of him at this age. Maybe twenty. Because I was never home. I worked almost 100% of my waking hours. And often I slept only four hours a night.
I did not walk him to school. I did not make dinner. I did not put him to bed. My (now-ex) husband did all of that. In exchange for giving up all my family time, I launched a startup (with two, twenty-year-old guys, of course).
Do you want to launch a startup and have kids? That’s what it looks like. And you know what? It’s fair. Because I had someone else’s money, and they made an investment expecting that I’d move as fast and work as hard as I possibly could to increase the value of that investment.
The first time I launched a startup, years before I had kids, the investor had already worked with me. He knew I worked long hours and every weekend and I was able to do three or four times the amount of work regular employees would do.
What I’m telling you is that I have been one of those people who worked insane hours and put my company before my life. And I’m here to tell you that there are people who really do want to do that. We should let them.
I know you know people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg who want to work all the time. But the article in the New York Times last weekend about Amazon shows us that it’s a much more widespread phenomenon than just a few famous billionaires. Amazon has 150,000 employees, and they fire anyone who cannot devote their life to their work. So there are a lot of people willing to devote their life to their work.
To get a sense of how extreme Amazon is, just know that basically people have to be on email at all hours, there are no vacations, and there are no weekends. You are expected to work all the time.
There is a ranking system and if you are ranked low, you are out. Which means you are competing against your peers, but you are also ranked on how well you can get along with them.
There are lots of people talking about how bad this environment is. But I have to say, I like it. I like the honesty. Amazon lays bare some truths about the workplace that other companies try to cover up. But if we could all be honest about work, we could all make better decisions about what we want for our lives.
1. People should pay a premium for a regular paycheck.
If you have ever tried working for yourself, you know that having a reliable paycheck, no matter what happens each week, is a great feeling. The stability of that paycheck ripples into the rest of your life, enabling stability in many other places. Additionally, you get paid without taking on any risk. There are very few situations where we can make money without taking risk. Working for someone else’s company is one of them.
In this way, it makes sense to me that you get paid well, and you get paid reliably, so you need to put the company before your personal life. If you want to give up getting paid well, or you want to give up getting paid reliably, then you can have some of your personal life back. That seems fair.
2. People should stop searching for the holy grail of balance. It’s not there.
We have known for years that there’s no such thing as work-life balance. You can do both at a mediocre level. You can do one poorly and one well. Or you can do an outstanding job at one and not do the other at all. (Please, I’m sure someone will say in the comments it’s possible to do both well. This is not true, because it’s relative since you don’t live in a black hole, and if you’re trying to do both well there is someone who is giving up doing one of those things well in order to focus.)
Since there is no balance, what about doing work and life sequentially? This is what many all-0r-nothing types do. They train for the Olympics and then they go to college after they compete. Or they work long hours for a decade and then they quit to have kids. Or they travel for five years and then start a career.
A sequential life means that you don’t give everything up, but you work for a while, then you take a break, then you work. When you work, you work very long hours. When you are not working you are really not working. How much you like to work will dictate how much time of your life you are working versus how much you are doing non-work.
3. Companies that have A players should be clear about their expectations.
Yahoo won’t let you work from home. Facebook expects you to work through dinner. Amazon requires weekend hours every weekend. The reason these companies can make such demands is that A players don’t mind doing these things. And if you want to work with A players, you have to comply with those demands, too. It’s simply not fair for some people at the company to put the company first and some people to put their home life first.
Which was, by the way, the biggest problem I had when I was doing a startup and I was the only one with young kids. For example, the company paid for two full-time nannies so I could travel with no notice. But it felt unfair to the employees who didn’t have kids. I felt like I gave up all my time for the company, but when I went to one, single, soccer lesson my co-workers thought that I divided my attention between family and work while they did not.
Of course people who want to take care of their family and work at the same time should be able to work. But they should not feel entitled to work with people who will give everything of themselves to the company.
4. Companies should replace caring about being nice with caring about being fair.
Even though I’d die before I’d work at Amazon right now, I think their policies are fair. I don’t see senior management asking anything of people that they are not doing themselves. And of course, anyone who doesn’t like the deal that Amazon offers should just quit.
I also think Yahoo is fair to say you have to work in the office. After all, Jacquelien Reses, head of Yahoo’s human resources, commutes from NYC to California and leaves three kids behind. If you are not that devoted to work, don’t work at Yahoo.
What I really don’t like is companies that function like Amazon and Yahoo but pretend they don’t. Netflix giving unlimited maternity leave? Please. No one who cares about their career trajectory will be taking that leave. We already know that because few high-performers take the paltry six weeks they get now.
Being nice is something that’s important if you have slaves. Or indentured servants. Being fair is a much more reasonable goal when the person has the option to work elsewhere.
5. More people should quit more of the time.
Instead of complaining that companies are not family friendly, how about just quitting? Work to make enough money, then take a break from work. Then work again when you need money.
Many entrepreneurs do this. They pretend to want a corporate job, but they really just need money for their next big idea. More people could do this if they were willing to handle a more erratic salary. Just live off less money and then you will need to be involved in the workforce less of the time. Be better at your job and you would make more money faster when you are in the workforce.
Today people don’t get penalized for quitting to take a break. They get penalized for not making a difference when they are working. Your resume can show job-hopping and gaps and all the other things that used to be death to a resume. But your resume absolutely needs to show that you had significant accomplishments when you were working.
Part of managing a career like this is hiring someone to write your resume to focus on accomplishments. (Nearly everyone who hires me starts out by saying they didn’t really have significant accomplishments in all their jobs. But I’m telling you, it’s never true.)
The other part of managing a career like this is accepting more risk. You quit a job when you’re exhausted, which feels risky. And you also put your personal life on the back burner for a short while, which feels risky.
But I’m not sure there is a better way for us to approach work. And I’m sure there’s not a more honest way.
If I did my life over again, I’d still put work first. It was fun and rewarding to do that. And I’d still stop when I had kids. And when I got bored, I ramped up work and, to be honest, sort of ignored my kids. I think I needed to do that to see that I didn’t like it. I’m not sure how else I’d be able to put work on the back burner now.
I’m not an A player today. And I’m not a top-flight mom. I’m probably mediocre at both. And I think that’s the way I like it. But when my kids are grown, maybe I’ll apply to Amazon.