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Does Work-Life Balance Reduce Innovation?


Did you notice that Goldman Sachs (of all companies!) has just forbidden its interns from working after midnight? Seems like their HR people, if not the pooh-bahs, have just suffered an attack of political correctness aka social responsibility. So even if one of their starting interns wants to work his version of overtime (like into the wee hours), s/he won’t be allowed.

OK as a married man myself with kids I understand the tradeoffs. Sometimes the HR people have got to stop you killing yourself for the sake of your family and kids. I get it. But is everyone even a workaholic anyway?

Maybe I am revealing a gross lack of observational skills, but in my work experience what I have observed is that the people who have lacked the most in the work-life balance have usually been the ones who made the biggest breakthroughs and contributions to their companies and professions. They were usually the innovators.

Did you ever hear of Steve Jobs or Elon Musk telling their employees to slack off for the sake of their families? What do you think would have happened to their products, companies and shareholders if they had?

Remember Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000 hour rule (from his book “Outliers”)? That was what he calculates you need to put in workwise to make a breakthrough in any field. Do you think the Beatles would have succeeded if they had all decided that they would do the 10,000 hours over their lifetimes instead of just a couple of years? Would we have had the Merseybeat if they had chosen just to take it easy?

Nope, you wanna make incredible breakthroughs; you gotta make “sacrifices” (more on this later). And, although it’s not politically correct to say so, so does your family. It’s just the nature of things. Ask anyone who has achieved great things and see if they tell you anything different.

And that doesn’t just mean business. How about art? Ask Van Gogh. He went crazy of course, but look at his art. Do you think we remember him just because he lived in Paris and liked to spend his leisure time drinking with his pals?

Or the poet Rimbaud. Francis Crick of DNA fame. In fact anyone who ever achieved something really great. And not just for themselves; for their company, country, mankind.

And for these people who strived mightily, was it really a sacrifice? Of course not! In the vast majority of cases they were doing it for themselves! For them it wasn’t work, it was fun!

In the great debate about work-life balance, for them this wasn’t work, it was life! Just like normal people get their hots on from watching their kids play soccer or going shopping with the wife to and kids, workaholics get theirs through working 24/7 on things that they too are passionate about; in their cases things that can change the world, or their company instead of giving their family the benefit of their presence.

We might not like to talk about that aspect but that doesn’t make it any the less true. Those breakthrough types are having their own kind of fun; but in their case it has huge social, not family achievement as its aim.

When Big Brother mandates that we all strive for work-life balance, we are descending yet another level in the gradual depreciation of human achievement. It’s up there with grade inflation and declining school scores for math and reading.

The mommy state is now telling us that we shouldn’t work too hard achieve because it might make some people – yes, families, kids and spouses – unhappy. But what about society advancing? Doesn’t that matter? What about all those families who have unhappy and unfulfilled lives with a breadwinner who leans mightily on the life side – say an alcoholic – and who doesn’t give a s**t for them anyway? Maybe that doesn’t ever happen??

Most people are normal anyway. That means most people, without any prodding by anyone, will go heavily for the life rather than the work, at least if they have half a choice. The vast majority of people aren’t going to have the disproportionate societal impact that the workaholics have. Those people are relatively rare. Wouldn’t we need more of them, not less?

I do think most people should aim for work-life balance, as they probably already do from my observations on full restaurants on the weekend. That’s how we keep PTAs going, kids coached for soccer and raise funds for rowing clubs. But why try to rip the heart out of the overachievers who make the biggest breakthroughs and work the hardest for things they believe in? Surely that doesn’t make any sense?

Everyone is talking about innovation and how we need more of it. The work-life drive seems custom-designed to reduce or even eliminate it. You can’t have your cake and eat it. Yet the fashion is to reduce outstanding efforts and hope the rest takes care of itself.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Goldman Sachs made this inane ruling given that they are now visibly well after their peak and on the slippery downslope to mediocrity. The bureaucrats have taken over and we clearly shouldn’t expect that company to do anything of any significance any more.

That one-time innovator now looks more like a government department than a meat-eating corporate mover and shaker. How about copying the FAA which still doesn’t have a modern functioning computer system after billions of dollars have been totally wasted. Looks like it could use a lot more work and a lot less life, right?

As T. S. Elliott wrote: “That’s the way the world ends; not with a bang but a whimper”.

When the world’s end happens, we’ll obviously all be on our permanent vacation.


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