Long hours mean success? Bullshit. Here's my experience of why.

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Over the last few days, my Twitter feed has been alight with argument (what's new?) about something Ryan Selkis said in reply to Jason Fried:

The Twittersphere bundled in, some strongly in favour, some strongly against, some trying to take a pragmatic middle ground, and many just in it for the argument.

It got me to thinking about my twenties, the long hours I used to work, and where I am now in my career. On this rainy Dublin St Stephen's Day, I wanted to jot down a few thoughts on the experience of my early twenties, in so far as it relates to the question, "should I work long hours early in my career to be successful?"

The consulting business model

I started my career working for Accenture in their Financial Services consulting business in the UK. Over six years, I worked with several major UK high street banks on all kinds of things, from integrating banks after mergers, to designing and implementing anti-money laundering systems and processes.

In my experience, consulting broadly revolves around a small set of constraints:

  • The client has..
  • A lack of, or no, people with a required skill.
  • A temporary, often time sensitive, goal that requires that skill.
  • A budget.
  • The consulting company has..
  • People with the skill, usually senior specialists or management.
  • People learning the skill, usually more junior.
  • A goal to make a 30-40% margin on the deal.

Obviously, that's over simplified, but they're the constraints that relate most to the experiences I'm going to share.

To win a deal and get to work with a client, you need to balance these constraints:

  • Have enough skilled people to hit the goal. This often means a handful of experienced people leading teams of less experienced people.
  • Get the financials right. This means being affordable to the client, and still hitting your 40% margin target.

You can see where this is going. On many projects, and certainly pretty much every one I worked on in my time in consulting, the balancing act relies on one, unspoken assumption; do more with less. To get the margin and meet the client's budget, you use fewer people, and they work longer hours.

Failing others, and being failed

I worked in this world for as long as I did because it promised me a number of things.

  • Lots of experience. I got to work on varied and intellectually challenging projects.
  • Success. The career path for talented people was all the way up, and fast.
  • Money. Disregarding several factors (hours worked, social life etc), the money was good. Salary, incentives, bonuses etc.

This way of working, long hours being the norm, takes its toll. I failed people on this front, and was myself failed. On both counts it was because the signs of stress are not acknowledged because they are a part of every day working life when a 14+ hour day is the norm.

The man I failed

I once failed someone because I thought that working this way was normal.

I was responsible for several teams doing software testing for the merger of two high street banks. A talented Engineer was keen to earn a promotion and wanted to take on more responsibility for managing the team. As a management team, we thought this was great for him, and so we slowly began to increase his responsibilities and workload.

Soon enough, he was doing what we were doing. Long days, weekends, handling increased demands on his time. We coached him, and he seemed to be handling things as others had before him.

One day, he didn't show up for work. He wasn't contactable.

We found out from his HR rep that he'd been signed off from work by his doctor because of stress. The pressure, long hours, and increasing prominence of work in his life had taken their toll and made him unwell.

We had failed to spot the warning signs. Why? We didn't see them because to us they weren't warning signs at all. They were necessary parts of being successful in a role like that. We were doing the same things; working long hours, skipping meals, neglecting family and friends. These are the sacrifices you make to be successful, or so we thought.

To this day, failing him in that way is one of my biggest regrets. When I was training new consultants for six weeks in Bangalore, I set aside an hour to share that story and spend time with them to talk about coping strategies, spotting signs of stress, and knowing what support they had. When I see them, which now isn't that frequently, they still say that this was probably the most valuable thing they learned in the whole six weeks. A small way to try to make amends.

The time I was failed

I once failed myself because I thought that all of this was normal.

Despite what I learned, nothing changed for me. I was able to handle the stress. I was single, and most of my friends were from work, so the long hours suited my lifestyle. Besides, I was pushing for bigger and better things, right? I had to keep going.

On one project I was leading several large teams on a global network infrastructure project. Every week or two I was in a new country, with a team of people in tow, doing our thing. For several months, I worked 14 hour days, every day including weekends, without a break or time off. It was relentless.

I got my promotion. Validation.

At one point I was on site with a particularly demanding, and downright rude, client. His demeanour was understandable, though. The work we were doing was clearly a threat to the security of his role, and I was sensitive to that. I mention it because this was the spark, that lit the kindling, that started a raging fire within me. This was the engagement that caused me to lose my shit.

I was exhausted. I very directly told my manager that I was no longer able to cope. I needed him on a flight to this site in the morning, where I'd be ready to give him a handover. I was taking some time off.

He came. I took a few days off. Then I came back to the grind. A couple more months and the project would be over, and I made it clear that I wanted to separate from this client at the end of it. It didn't quite work out that way immediately, but I did move on.

After I left that client, I had something of a breakdown. I was signed off work for a few months. When I went to the occupational therapist, he said, "I see far too many of you Accenture people in here. My advice to you is to get out."

Choosing to optimise

Through those and many other experiences, through therapy, and through a long period of reflection, I was able to perceive all of this clearly. I'd been exhibiting the signs of stress for years, and the business I worked in promoted it through its working culture and the unwritten constraints built into its business model.

I had to make a choice. Continue as I was, and earn a lot of money, or optimise for my own wellbeing, and take the hit.

I chose the latter, and moved to Barcelona with my partner for a couple of years. I worked in a job that I loved, at a much more relaxed pace, for half the salary. I became calmer, fitter, more social. I've chosen to optimise in this way ever since.

How does that relate to success?

The whole discussion on Twitter on this topic is based on something seemingly simple; either you will be more successful if you work long hours in your twenties, or that doesn't matter and you can be successful without the long hours.

Do I think I've been successful? I'd say so. I'm doing a job that I adore, in a city that I love, and I'm not breaking my back to do it.

Do I think I was successful because of the long hours? In a way. I learned that I don't need to do that to be happy and achieve things. I do think, however, that the experiences I had at Accenture shaped me in many ways, and I may not have been as successful without that. Those experiences and the long hours were locked together.

Do I think I am as successful now than if I'd have continued down the consulting path? In terms of work, yes. I've done, and am doing, interesting and challenging things, and would have done so either way. In terms of money, no. I'm definitely earning less now than when I was in consulting, even back then. In terms of satisfaction and wellbeing, yes. I'm living a balanced life. I leave the office at 5pm every day, I see my partner and friends. I have hobbies and interests.

My perspective is this.. if you choose to base your business on the assumption that people will consistently work long hours, for long periods, you are being irresponsible. Whatever incentives you offer, you're asking for sacrifices in terms of mental health and wellbeing. There will always be times where we need to expect more from ourselves and others, but those should be a grave exception rather than the expected norm.

There is a human cost to this assumption. There is human benefit to challenging it.

That's my two cents. Much love. Peace out.

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