Last week, famous entrepreneur and notorious investor-call dope-ist Elon Musk started what passes for a debate on LinkedIn by declaring that people ought to work 80 hours a week.
"Nobody ever changed the world," he said, "working 40 hours a week."
Yeah, well a lot of people never changed the world working 80 hours a week, too—except for making their own world narrower.
I've spent 25 years trying pretty hard to figure out how hard I ought to work to get the most, and make the most, out of my life.
I spent my twenties working my way up from editorial assistant and sometime gopher to editorial director at a fast-growing publishing company. There were times when I worked a lot of hours, I suppose, because the place meant a great deal to me and because I love to work. When the founder of the company died, I spent a couple of nights compiling a memorial issue of the magazine and slept on his office couch next to his stilled typewriter. Another night I drank half a bottle of Tanqueray, huffed down two packs of Marlboros at my desk and wrote a whole issue of a 24-page magazine. Other days we skipped out at lunch and spent the afternoon on a boat.
I spent my thirties as a freelancer. Trade journalism and corporate writing subsidized the magazine and newspaper journalism that proved to me that I could play in the bigs and write about every subject under the sun and even the moon. A good workday back then was furious writing and reporting from 7:00 a.m. to about 2:00 p.m. and then off for a round of golf in the afternoon. But at the height of my physical powers and the peak of my ambition, I got more done in those first seven hours than you do in a week.
Day to day, I could have lived like that forever. But it occurred to me that I wasn't building anything. Even the most impressive article—even a book—was a one-off. A journalist friend once laid tongue to the feeling: After all the reporting, writing, rewriting, editing, fact-checking and proofreading, you read something wrote in The New York Times. You savor the words and you keep looking up at Special to the Times by David Murray in the font the paper invented. You try to contemplate thousands or millions of other people reading the words you wrote at the same time all over the country and the world—on trains and planes, in kitchens and barrooms. And you finally finish the last sentence and you say, "Oh, fuck. Now I have to do another one."
Somewhere around 40, I decided I needed to sort of point myself in a particular direction, and organize my work in such a way that it gathered, somehow. What I've learned in the course of a decade of that—I turn 50 next year—is that it's not the hours per week you that make the difference. It's the weeks per year and the years in a row doing the same thing. And thus, it's your ability to find something to do that's sustainably interesting and energizing to you over all that time—and useful enough to others that they'll pay you to do it, over and over and over again.
It's sort of a miracle, is what the hell it is. And when that miracle has happened to you—and at a moment in life when you actually appreciate it—then you naturally put in the occasional 14-hour day or 80-hour week or insane two months or seriously fucked-up year in order to keep your claim on it. (And if you're really lucky, you find someone else to work with who has a similar appreciation. That should be seen as another miracle, connected but separate.)
I got these miracles, and a few more. They haven't made me rich. But my work has gathered, does perpetuate and pays regular. Which gives me a kind of bottom-line peace among the weekly stresses and monthly strains. And it makes me happy. And it promises to lead into another interesting decade and many more journeys with some really wonderful people.
What did I do to deserve this? If I did anything, I did this, for close to 10 consecutive years:
Less and less dabbling. (I'm grateful for my dabbling days, which included gonzo journalism stints sailing across the North Atlantic and playing quarterback for a professional football team—in a women's league.)
I took at least one flying financial leap, during which time my then-13-year-old daughter observed that my shoulders were always up over my ears. "Is it because you're afraid of how much work it's going to be?" No, honey. "Is it because you're afraid you're going to screw everything up?" Yes, honey.
Less golf, more tennis and running. I exercised almost every weekday to keep my body in shape and my head clear and my sense of humor intact; napped every weekday too. (Still worked harder than you.)
When the going got tough, I pretended I was in a documentary film about a business guy for whom the going was getting tough. I don't know why that helped, but it did. (You sort of have to love the drama itself.)
If a certain job seemed too menial for the owner of the company to be doing—then I did that work at night, while drinking screwdrivers in front of Cubs games.
If it had to do with building the thing, I was available for at least a phone call, and probably a guest lecture. "Can you—" "Yes."
I planned and executed bigfun trips—annual guys' golf weekends, extended motorcycle rambles and family beach vacations—because all work and no play makes Jack forget why he bought the business in the first place, and the only thing sadder than a self-pitying entrepreneur is a self-pitying president of the United States.
I invested in deep relationships with good people in my business—reading the books they wrote, trading jokes over the phone, having them over at my house and staying up with them until 4:00 in the morning—thus making all the work more meaningful and personal to all of us.
So how much do I work every week? It's not that I couldn't count the hours—but it's sort of that I don't always know exactly which hours to count. Which makes me lucky in work—and grateful in life.
I seem to be having a better time of it, anyway, than Elon Musk.