Evaluating the Correlation Between Hours Worked and Success Achieved

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Evaluating the Correlation Between Hours Worked and Success Achieved In The Trenches

Though there are countless books, blogs, podcasts, and social media accounts that serve as thoughtful and informative resources for current and prospective entrepreneurs, unfortunately there appears to be an equal number of resources that demonstrate seemingly no limit to the fundamentally bad advice that they’re willing to impart upon others.

Early last year, I encountered a post on social media suggesting that watching the Superbowl was a waste of time, and that any entrepreneur worth their salt ought to instead be spending that time building their business. More recently, I encountered another post suggesting that spending time with family and friends on weekends ought to be reserved only for those entrepreneurs who had maximized the revenue and profit generating capabilities of their companies. If not, “keep grinding”, the post suggested.

Though social media should serve as nobody’s singular source of truth, this line of thinking has unfortunately become so prevalent online that I felt it necessary to provide the entrepreneurial community with my own perspective on the matter.

Hours Worked is not a Proxy for Commitment or Ambition

Too often, entrepreneurs and CEOs mistakenly conflate taking a break or slowing down with being lazy or lacking commitment. In my opinion, this is an intellectually lazy line of thinking that is flat out incorrect at best, and possibly even dangerous at worst. In my experience, I’ve observed that anybody can fill time with work and anybody can make themselves perpetually busy. Perpetual business is nothing to be proud of, and it often signifies more problems than it does merits.

I don’t mean to suggest that hard work, dedication, and sacrifice aren’t fundamental components to the entrepreneurial success formula. They very clearly are, and indeed, otherworldly levels of each tend to be required for any enduring level of success to be achieved as an entrepreneur or CEO. But untethered levels of ambition, sacrifice, and hours worked can often be as much of a hindrance to success as a facilitator of it.

As a young CEO and entrepreneur myself, I recall often feeling guilty resting while others were (ever so publicly) working. With experience and hindsight however, I’ve come to appreciate that my concerns were misguided, as resting is exactly what I should have been doing at the time.

If your situation and circumstances dictate that working through weekends, holidays – and yes, even Superbowls – is the best thing for you to do, then by all means dive into your work without hesitation. However, if catch yourself working for its own sake, working because you think you ought to be doing so, or (worst of all) working because you see others doing so, then stop and question whether or not you’d be better off resting without hesitation.

Below are a few observations that I still need to remind myself of from time to time:

(1) The sum of the hours that one spends working is not a proxy for their levels of commitment or ambition.

(2) Never compare yourself to others. You’ll always end up feeling inferior in some way as a result. Do what you believe is best for you. Comparison is the thief of joy.

(3) Lack of a life outside of work is not something to be proud of. It strikes me as odd that this even needs to be stated publicly.

(4) When you’re working, work fully. When you’re resting, rest fully. Time spent in the middle is the worst place of all, as you reap none of the benefits of work nor of rest.

Evaluating The Returns to “Brute Force”

In certain circumstances, jobs, or stages of one’s career, there likely are high returns to what I will refer to as “brute force” (a singular focus characterized by unsustainably high levels of imbalance, hours worked and/or sacrifices made). In these types of circumstances, there can indeed be a positive and linear correlation between inputs (like hours) and desired outputs (like salary, career progression, achievement of product/market fit, and the like). First year investment banking analysts and the entrepreneur with only 1 month of cash left on her balance sheet can likely relate.

However, there are an equal number of circumstances, jobs, and stages of one’s career where there are not only diminishing marginal returns to brute force, but in many instances the correlation might actually be negative: In situations like these, the relationship between inputs and outputs (if there is one) is often not of the linear variety: A few good decisions per year by a private equity investor might be able to return an entire fund. One or two major strategic decisions by a CEO might fundamentally change the trajectory of her business. In these types of circumstances, desired outputs are for more correlated with clarity of thought than they are with hours worked.

In a recent essay entitled “How to do Great Work“, Paul Graham, legendary venture investor and co-founder of Y Combinator, echoed a similar sentiment when he said: “While you must work hard, it’s possible to work too hard, and if you do that you’ll find you get diminishing returns: fatigue will make you stupid, and eventually even damage your health. The point at which work yields diminishing returns depends on the type. Some of the hardest types you might only be able to do for four or five hours a day.

Of course, this is a bit of an oversimplification: Admittedly the investor mentioned above was likely only able to make those few good decisions after years of evaluating thousands of companies to develop the context and pattern recognition required to make such decisions. But once those skills have been developed, her value as an investor is likely no longer linearly correlated to her inputs as it once was earlier in her career. As CEO coach Marshall Goldsmith states “what got you here won’t get you there”.

In my own career as an entrepreneur and CEO, at different points I’ve found myself playing both of the “games” above. My early years as a CEO were largely spent playing the “brute force” game, whereas my later years were spent playing the “clarity of thought” game (how well I actually played this latter game is another question entirely). While this is reasonably normal and largely to be expected, what I want to impose upon you is that problems will surface when:

  1. One doesn’t recognize which of the two games they’re currently playing; OR
  2. One takes advice from (or compares themselves to) somebody who is playing a fundamentally different game from them

Our Propensity to Overwork

So, why is it that so many of us lean towards overwork, even when the next marginal hour is unhelpful or even counterproductive? Below I present three hypotheses that attempt to explain this, at least in part:

(1) The Role of Inexperience (and Potentially Insecurity)

I can’t speak for others, but when I was a young and inexperienced CEO, I felt as if there were only so many levers that I could pull to grow and improve my company: Given my age and resulting lack of experience at the time, I naturally couldn’t pull any levers related to context, experience, pattern recognition, or lessons learned from mistakes previously made. As a result, about the only lever I felt I could pull was that of “brute force”. In other words, I was compensating for all of the things that I knew I couldn’t bring to the table at the time.

For a while, this worked for me, as I suspect it does for many others operating under similar circumstances. However, at a certain point in my career, I (unknowingly) moved from playing the former game to the latter game, yet continued to pull largely on the same brute force lever.

I suspect that one of the reasons why I continued to do this was because of an underlying – perhaps subconscious – sense of insecurity related to whether or not I had indeed arrived at a point in my career where I’d be able to add value to my company through pulling other levers. Because so many of us have progressed in our academic and professional lives entirely through hours worked, tests studied for, projects successfully completed, and other similar blunt force instruments, it is often hard for us to trust that we’ve finally arrived at a point where we can succeed by using other tools in our toolkits.

I’m not suggesting that every person who publicly brags about working 80-hour weeks is insecure, but it’s likely that at a deep, fundamental level, at least some of them are. It’s worth remembering this the next time that you compare yourself to others, especially if that comparison has you questioning the very real benefits of rest, rejuvenation and recovery.

(2) The Role of Guilt

I suspect another reason why some work when they’d be better off resting stems from the concept of guilt. Put simply, many of us feel guilty when we’re not working.

The guilt that often stems from not working is one side of a paradox that I’ve observed both in myself and in many other entrepreneurs: On one hand, when entrepreneurs and CEOs prioritize the roles in their lives that are not related to work (for example, their roles as a spouse, parent, or local community member), they often report feeling a sense of guilt stemming from the difference between the hours that they are working and the hours that they feel they ought to be working. Paradoxically, when these same people prioritize their work at the expense of the other roles in their lives, they often report a similar sense of guilt, though this time it stems from wanting to do better as a spouse, parent or community member, but feeling as if they are simply unable to do so.

Perhaps the noted philosopher Bart Simpson was on to something when he suggested that “you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”.

(3) Stillness can be Uncomfortable

As somebody who still deals with anxiety, I’ve observed that I’m least anxious when I’m working, and most anxious when I’m resting (or, at least attempting to rest). I know many others who feel similarly.

I believe this is so because when we’re working, we feel like we’re actually doing something to combat whatever it is that’s making us anxious, and consciously or otherwise, this sense of control and agency can feel temporarily comforting. When we’re resting however, in a very literal sense we’re not doing anything to actively deal with whatever is making us anxious at the time, and that temporary lack of control and lack of agency can feel very uncomfortable indeed.

In Sum

In writing this, my intent is not at all to suggest that entrepreneurs and CEOs would be better off by tempering their levels of drive, ambition, or tenacity. As mentioned above, otherworldly levels of hard work, dedication, and sacrifice are almost always required for any enduring level of success to be achieved as an entrepreneur or CEO. Instead, I chose to write this to subject the unfortunate trend of “hustle culture” up to the thoughtful light of scrutiny. Though in many cases “brute force” inputs are positively and linearly correlated with desired outputs, in an equal number of cases they simply are not.

Though this post may ultimately come to be interpreted as the wishful musings of an aspiring couch potato, it is my belief that, in some instances, our otherwise admirable desire to work hard for the rewards that we seek has gone too far, and in many instances, perpetual busyness impedes success more than it enables it.

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One thought on “Evaluating the Correlation Between Hours Worked and Success Achieved

  1. I work in medicine, a profession that is also famous for its workaholic culture. Your article is spot on. All work and no play is a recipe for a hard burnout. You have to stay connected to your reason for wanting to work in the first place.

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