Back in 2000, I worked long hours for a company named Equilibrium. They were known for a product that was very popular among professional graphic artists, DeBabelizer. It converted graphic files from one format to another. But I was hired when the company was on a big expansion, creating a product that they still sell, MediaRich. At the time, it was pretty cool, but now sounds almost trivial. It allows websites to change images on the fly. So if you are looking at a page selling shirts, you could see the model in all the different colors the shirt comes in. And it could do a whole lot more than that.
I liked that job. It paid well and I worked with some really great people. But I remember this one meeting. We had been working long hours because we were getting ready for some kind of product launch and one of the vice-presidents said, “We work hard and we play hard!” I thought it was a stupid thing to say because I had heard the exact same thing said at every corporate job I’d ever had, including at Microsoft. And it was always said with the same cheerful enthusiasm that indicated that the speaker thought it was a clever phrase they had just made up rather than the most tired of cliches.
Long Hours Goofing Off
Over time, I’ve come to see that it was not just a cliche, it was also a lie. In fact, it is a double lie. My time in corporate America has shown that mostly, people do not work hard. They work long. It’s a way of proving fealty to the corporation, “Look, I’m willing to spend 12 hours a day in this cubical and rarely see my wife and kids! I’m a team player!” Meanwhile, these same people mostly goof off. I even see it here on Frankly Curious. I had asked my direct boss why it was that traffic here goes down so much on the weekends; she said, “It’s the same for every site; people surf the web most at work.”
Similarly, my last job was a tiny startup. We did amazing work until we ran out of money and the company was taken over by a bunch of real estate investors who destroyed it through utter incompetence. But the head of the company was in every day, putting in those hours. But what was he doing? Every time I looked, he was on some website about sail boats (he was really into boats). It’s pretty typical, though. So the idea that everyone is working hard is just nonsense.
At that point at that company, I wasn’t working either. I was terribly sick (I almost died). But more, everything I had built the two years before was being destroyed in the name of the egos of a real estate agent and a boat mechanic. When I was at Equilibrium, however, I wanted to work and go home. I did not like this nonsense of hanging out at work. But then, I was about ten years older than the other workers and was far more interested in finishing my first novel. And it annoyed me that I was expected to work long hours as though it were some kind of religious observance.
But the other part of this myth is the “play hard” part. I don’t even know what it is to “play hard.” But these people certainly didn’t do it. They didn’t play at all. It would be better to say that they “worked long and goofed off hard.” Because just killing time in a way that doesn’t seem like you are goofing off is a large part of what the people at Equilibrium did.
This occurred to me today as I was reading Thomas Frank’s new book, Listen, Liberal. A lot of the book is a critique of the “innovation mentality.” You know what it is: this idea that if we all get college degrees and think like entrepreneurs, then we will live in a bright shiny world. He talks about how every town goes out of its way to bring in those great “innovators” who will revitalize the boarded up downtown regions where people only go if they want to by sex or drugs. Frank remarked:
I remember at Equilibrium, we had a great big break room. And in it was a very expensive Foosball table. I never saw anyone play it. In fact, in all those long hours I never saw anyone in the break room (which I passed by often), except on Thursday mornings, when they would bring in bagels, and people would come in, get a bagel and cream cheese and take it back to their desks where they would eat and “work.”
This all goes back to the breakdown of worker solidarity. And here we have a variation of the paradox of thrift. Everyone wants to prove to the boss that they are the hardest worker. But there isn’t really that much work to be done. There were certainly times when long hours were required, but these were rare. And they were always because of sequencing: I needed to wait around for one person to finish something so that I could do my part. But the rest of the long hours is just one individual trying to outdo another individual. The end result, is that everyone ends up spending a whole lot more time at work, without any more getting done.
“Work hard, play hard” is a myth people use to justify wasting large parts of their lives.