In the Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz recounts his experiences of his company Loudcloud coming close to failure. At a climatic moment, he makes a speech to his staff declaring the commitment they will have to show over the coming months. From pg 48:
“I have some bad news. We are getting our asses kicked by BladeLogic and it’s a product problem. If this continues, I am going to have to sell the company for cheap. There is no way for us to survive if we don’t have the winning product. So, I am going to need every one of you to do something. I need you to go home tonight and have a serious conversation with your wife, husband, significant other, or whoever cares most about you and tell them, ‘Ben needs me for the next six months.’ I need you to come in early and stay late. I will buy you dinner, and I will stay here with you. Make no mistake, we have one bullet left in the gun and we must hit the target
He initially feels guilty about asking them to entirely subordinate their lives to the company during this difficult time. But years later, he discovers that perhaps his staff enjoyed the experience when one says this. From pg 48-49:
Of all the times I think of at Loudcloud and Opsware, the Darwin Project was the most fun and the most hard. I worked seven days a week 8 a.m.–10 p.m. for six months straight. It was full on. Once a week I had a date night with my wife where I gave her my undivided attention from 6 p.m. until midnight. And the next day, even if it was Saturday, I’d be back in the office at 8 a.m. and stay through dinner. I would come home between 10–11 p.m. Every night. And it wasn’t just me. It was everybody in the office. The technical things asked of us were great. We had to brainstorm how to do things and translate those things into an actual product. It was hard, but fun. I don’t remember losing anyone during that time. It was like, “Hey, we gotta get this done, or we will not be here, we’ll have to get another job.” It was a tight-knit group of people. A lot of the really junior people really stepped up. It was a great growing experience for them to be thrown into the middle of the ocean and told, “Okay, swim.” Six months later we suddenly started winning proofs of concepts we hadn’t before. Ben did a great job, he’d give us feedback, and pat people on the back when we were done.
Can we see this as the pleasures and challenges of acceleration? While it’s important not to assume that because one relatively senior figure enjoyed the experience then all did, it’s nonetheless an experience which I think ought to be treated seriously. As I’ve argued here, there are pleasures to be found in acceleration:
- Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandisement available.
- Time-pressure can reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs.
- Time-pressure can facilitate a unique kind of focus in the face of a multiplicity of distractions. If we accept that priorities are invested with normative significance (i.e. they matter to us in direct and indirect ways) then prioritisation can be pleasurable. This can take the form of people who rely on deadlines to ensure things get done. More prosaically, it can undercut procrastination by leaving one with finite temporal resources to utilise for non-negotiable obligations.
- Time-pressure can leave us feeling that we are living life most fully. If the good life is now seen as the full life then living fast feels like living fully.
Periods of collective crisis within an organisation represent acceleration of a particular sort: temporally bounded and intensely sociable. I think something of this is conveyed in the way Horowitz elsewhere talks of the distinction between being a ‘wartime CEO’ and ‘peacetime CEO’.
In the last week, I’ve been exploring the notion of ‘business for punks’, the philosophy propounded by the founder of BrewDog, as the formulation of an increasingly dominant ethos in which ‘disruptive’ corporate activity is valorised as anti-authoritarian. I’ve been thinking about this mostly from the top-down, as a characteristic of founders and CEOs, but I’d also like to understand how this culture manifests itself from the bottom-up, possibly amongst people aspiring to be founders and CEOs one day, but also amongst rank and file staff.
In Battle of the Titans, a book about the feud between Apple and Google, I just encountered an interesting description of the eventual founder of Android’s early career, focusing on his putative lack of respect for authority. From loc 909:
At General Magic, an Apple spin-off that wrote some of the first software for handheld computers, he and some colleagues built lofts above their cubicles so they could more efficiently work around the clock.
Get that? Building a loft above your cubicle so you can absolutely subordinate your life to your (cubicle-bound) work shows a lack of respect for authority. Such a weird proposition demands hermeneutic insight: my proposal would be this manifests the ‘business for punks’ ethos, such that unsanctioned action is seen as disruptive, even if it reinforces rather than conflicts with existing power structures.
An interesting blog post by Nick Osbaldiston, reflecting on a study they undertook into the working lives of academics. The original focus was quantitative, with some of the findings detailed in the post:
• Academics in our study (n=155) reported working on average 9 hours per day
• However, Full-Time Ongoing Academics reported an average of 9.24 hours per day (9.36 for fixed term employees)
• Interestingly, casual/sessional academics were reporting an average of around 6 and a half hours – but we were unsure how much they were employed to do here.
• Research only academics were working the most over teaching/research and teaching only academics
• All cohorts (Full-time through to Sessionals) were reporting workingsometimes on the weekend
• Academics in our study reported around 2.79 leisure hours a day – however see below – with no differences in gender at all
• When controlling for caring duties and gender, we were surprised to see nothing significant in reporting of leisure hours (again see below)
• We found a weak correlation (r=.181) between work hours and publications reported to us in the study (still significant at p < .05)
• Most participants agreed with the statement that they feel more pressure to work harder and were mostly in disagreement with the idea that the university provides good options for work/life balance (though parents were a little more ambivalent here).
However they go on to point out that this is complicated by the fact that it’s “hard to ‘switch off’ as an academic because your identity is fused with it in so many ways”. The quantitative data on workloads is important but it doesn’t tell the full story because the work/leisure distinction on which it’s predicated often won’t map onto occupational realities very neatly. Take this blog post as an example: I’m writing it at 8:15am, I’m enjoying writing it, it’s something I’m undertaking voluntarily, it’s a distraction from work I am being paid to do, no one in relation to whom I am an employee will either praise or criticize me for having written it. But it contributes to preparation for a book I’m writing and surely the book is part of my work? Nonetheless, no one is paying me for the book, I have no part of my labour time allotted to it by an employer and any contribution to my career ensuing from the book exceeds formal structures of reward and recognition within institutions I’m part of.
Ambiguous features like this make work/life balance a tricky dichotomy. It makes sense within a structured career, where rewards and recognition are formally incentivized through an institutionally defined trajectory. People might move jobs but the career structure is something that carries between institutions. However the less structured this career becomes, the more activity that feels like ‘work’ (such as the self-development and self-promotion that become more crucial as a corollary) escape the formal institutional sphere of work. Throw in a portfolio career, all the more so if it’s motivated by ‘passion’ and the work/life balance dichotomy comes to seem remarkably crude. But there are institutional hooks, organisations still capitalize on personal motivation even if the biographical embedding of an individual within institutions becomes profoundly messier than it once was. As Nick argues, “if we overdo the idea that being an academic is a lifestyle and vocation, that we legitimize the intensification of workloads and pass on the need to ‘balance’ to individuals – all part of the neoliberal responsibilisation of the person“.
Therefore I’d like to understand the complexity of what I see as the intensification of work in terms of the multiplication of roles. Roles are, as Margaret Archer puts it, greedy: we can always do more and a crucial part of our everyday reflexivity involves negotiating between the competing demands of roles when we have finite attentional, temporal and emotional resources. In this sense, we can see the intensification of academic labour in terms of the decoupling of multiple roles from particular organisations (e.g. my role as an academic writer exceeding my connection to a university that employs me) and a growing greediness of those multiple roles which leads to a pull away from non-occupational roles. It’s a much more complex process than can be captured in terms of the blurring of boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘life’.
What a glorious way to describe the life of an organisation. I wonder which other organisations this might be an apt description for? What’s it like to work under these conditions? From Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance, pg 258 (my emphasis):
Just as it did in the early days, SpaceX continues to experiment with these new vehicles during actual launches in ways that other companies would dare not do. SpaceX will often announce that it’s trying out a new engine or its landing legs and place the emphasis on that one upgrade in the marketing material leading up to a launch. It’s common, though, for SpaceX to test out a dozen other objectives in secret during a mission. Musk essentially asks employees to do the impossible on top of the impossible. One former SpaceX executive described the working atmosphere as a perpetual- motion machine that runs on a weird mix of dissatisfaction and eternal hope. “It’s like he has everyone working on this car that is meant to get from Los Angeles to New York on one tank of gas,” this executive said. “They will work on the car for a year and test all of its parts. Then, when they set off for New York after that year, all of the vice presidents think privately that the car will be lucky to get to Las Vegas. What ends up happening is that the car gets to New Mexico— twice as far as they ever expected— and Elon is still mad. He gets twice as much as anyone else out of people.”
This looks like a great special issue of tripleC. I’m going to get started on it as soon as I finish this special issue of The Sociological Review on Gender & Creative Labour. I did an interview with the editors of this issue & it left me aware that I’m even more interested in these questions than I thought I was previously.
Interrogating Internships: Unpaid Work, Creative Industries, and Higher Education
Special issue of tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique
Edited by Greig de Peuter, Nicole S. Cohen, Enda Brophy
Vol. 13 (2): pp. 329-602
We are thrilled to announce the publication of “Interrogating Internships: Unpaid Work, Creative Industries, and Higher Education,” a special issue of the journal /tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique/. The issue features 22 articles, 32 contributors, and a mix of academic and activist accounts.
The issue’s publication was preceded by a public forum in Toronto, “Interns, Connect! A Forum on Upsetting Unpaid Work”
A launch event in Vancouver is in the works. As an open-access journal, all of the articles are freely available.
The table of contents is available here:
The complete issue can be downloaded from here: