One of those “unpopular opinion” tweets went wild recently, kicking up a storm of people responding on both sides of the fence.
Jordan Kong, opining on working at the weekends:
Unpopular opinion: the best thing young people can do early in their careers is to work on the weekends.— Jordan Kong (@ImNotJK) June 11, 2021
The response felt mostly negative, with people raising legitimate objections such as “you don’t need to do this to have a successful career, kids!”
I say legitimate because this is true: you do not need to be working weekends to be successful. And because there’s a risk to working too hard (which I’ll cover later) it’s right that this is the loudest response, to kill the implication that it’s necessary.
On the other hand, practice works, and the more time you spend practising the better you can expect to get. And if you’re going to choose when to do that practice, doing it earlier in your career is going to compound, giving you the biggest lifetime payout for time spent!
When I first started my career, I worked a lot. The problems pulled me in, and I’d get so involved I’d be unable to sleep until I solved a problem, sometimes escaping into my dreams if I hadn’t found a natural pause point.
The pace at which I was learning was exciting, and the energy that gave me made long hours fly by. I wasn’t just putting in the hours- every hour spent was active, focused practice, which fed back into the flywheel and helped me learn even faster.
The work I did beyond my normal hours had a significant impact on my ability, and translated into an accelerated career path which I think was well worth the time spent. For me, the time I spent paid off in a big way, and I’d say as much to anyone in a similar position as I was when I first started.
There is a dark side to this, though. Looking through the replies to Jordan’s tweet, I emphatically agreed with a lot of the warnings, and sympathised with the stories of burnout and regret.
So while already questioning my view, I notice a particular person enthusiastically supporting Jordan’s view:
I've never thought of weekends as "days not to work." If anything, they're the days when it's particularly good to work, because they're quieter.— Paul Graham (@paulg) June 13, 2021
Perhaps it’s because I’m British, but I struggle with a lot of Silicon Valley culture. Paul Graham is one of the most ‘Valley’ people out there, and I feel similarly about his content, where I can strongly agree and disagree to his points even within the same article.
Seeing Paul support Jordan’s view so unreservedly made me feel even more conflicted, with the “Are We The Baddies?” sketch playing in the back of my mind.
While I agree with a lot of his post, one quote screamed out at me, and was what pushed me to write this response:
The most basic level of which is simply to feel you should be working without anyone telling you to. Now, when I’m not working hard, alarm bells go off. I can’t be sure I’m getting anywhere when I’m working hard, but I can be sure I’m getting nowhere when I’m not, and it feels awful.
This scared me. I started by espousing the benefits of working hard, but this statement crosses a line I think is very dangerous to cross.
Paul advocates cultivating a sense of “discomfort” when you’re not working. I’m not going to question it’s efficacy- this is an extremely effective way of compelling yourself into a variety of habits- but this advice extends beyond that.
Doing this might help you work more, but it may permanently impact your ability to enjoy yourself outside of work. This type of mental trick is addictive, and it alters your perception of normal, developing a need to work that is disconnected from your personal goals.
It’s more than developing a habit, it’s building an addiction. There is a risk of losing your ability to be present and enjoy your life when you’re not at a desk making ‘progress’. Years after when you want to rid yourself of this itch, you may find it far more difficult to shake than it was to acquire.
Learning from others
As someone who has to be careful with how much time I give to work, I’ve been really lucky to have great role models who have helped shape my thinking about balance.
One of those is Grey Baker, who was VP of Engineering when I first started at GoCardless. Within minutes of meeting him, you’d see what a high-energy person Grey is- he has a ferocious commitment to his work that is really inspiring.
Knowing this, it may surprise you that on my first day at GoCardless, Grey found me at exactly 5pm and forced me to logoff. When I say forced, I mean he would not take no for an answer: he declared Mondays to be absolutely the worst day to be staying late, and packed me off with a few colleagues to go climbing.
Grey did this with anyone new, and- at least for me!- it had a profound effect of normalising a healthy work balance. Given his intense commitment to work it may seem hypocritical for him to push this message- but he did, and it landed. Ensuring you could be fully present in whatever you were doing was clearly important to him, and I’ve found this a healthy goal to balance against getting too into work.
A couple of years later, I moved within GoCardless to join their SRE team. I had no relevant experience, and it would be fair to say I had no idea what I was doing.
Joining the SRE team meant I gained a truly exceptional manager, Norberto. Having previously worked as an SRE at Blizzard, Norberto was no stranger to working hard- and the costs if you don’t find the right balance.
This turned out useful, as just starting my journey into SRE, I was fully immersed in learning. From the tech, to the problems and the literature, I found the space fascinating. Captivated as I was, it was usual for me to work into the weekend, especially enjoying the uninterrupted time that came with it.
Norberto had seen this all before, and soon took me aside for a chat. After he’d confirmed I wasn’t feeling compelled to do this work and I was truly enjoying myself, he gave me a stern suggestion to take more breaks. Perhaps sensing how little attention I gave that warning, he changed gears and explained this wasn’t just about me.
I was working in a team, he said. And the work I was doing out-of-hours was the teams work. Did I think it was fair for the team if they came back on Monday to find I’d jumped several steps ahead? If I were in that position, would I feel comfortable being on the back-foot like that?
Truthfully, this had never crossed my mind. Everyone talks about balancing your own energy, making sure you are healthy- it’s unusual you hear the other side of this, when your commitment and productivity turns negative and begins to harm the morale of your colleagues.
This wasn’t him telling me to stop, or to dial back my interest. It was, however, an extremely useful insight into a secondary consequence of working this hard. And one I found invaluable as I found myself leading, not just working in, teams.
Where does that leave us?
One reason I found Grey and Norberto’s actions to be so compelling is because neither gave advice to just stop, or work less. I don’t come to work to idle along, I come to really push myself- and I wouldn’t have found that advice useful.
Instead, they encouraged developing healthy patterns of separating yourself from work, and helped me understand how your working patterns can impact your colleagues. These lessons are some of my key principles that I like to role model in all the teams I work with- that we should be flexible to people’s needs, whether that be working more or less, while keeping your focus on working well within the team.
So yes, I still agree with Jordan’s initial premise: if you believe in practice (and I believe you should) then spending your early career working more can be an effective way to accelerate your development, and that early advantage compounds.
Just keep in mind the cost you’re paying, and be extremely cautious if you ever find yourself resenting your downtime. That’s a path to frustration and burnout, and could easily erase the gains you made from working so hard.