Say Maybe

Disclaimer: This is not your typical article on feminist work/life balance because I am not going to talk about babies or my plans to have babies or role models of mine who have babies.

Dustin Moskovitz recently published an article declaring that he wishes that he worked less hard while founding Facebook and generally lived his life differently. I generally agree with his article, though blanket statements like “it is counterproductive to work more than 40 hours per week” are probably false. Moskovitz’ thesis is similar to Arianna Huffington’s, who describes in her book Thrive that current work-a-holic habits and 60+ hour work weeks, put in place by white men, are unsustainable for everyone and especially for women.

On the other hand, Sheryl Sandberg advocates in Lean In that we should go for it. We should take a seat at the table and push ourselves ever more towards “success.” The mantra of so many women in tech events is, basically, that we should do more — network, climb the career “jungle gym,” and advocate for other women along the way. More, more, more.

These are the two opposing threads that I have wrestled with throughout college. But the thing is, succeeding in work and life is not as clear-cut as to always “say yes” or “say no.” What is a girl to do? In my (very limited) life experience, I hazard a few thoughts.

Is working more getting you where you want to go any faster?

Many of my friends (certainly a high-achieving biased sample), myself included, are beyond the point at which working more hours will improve our long-term work goals. One obvious thing to do is to take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. For example by forgoing sleep, you suffer the consequences of being essentially drunk.

Here is my controversial thesis, Dustin Moskovitz style:

If, on average, my friends spent slightly less time working (for a vague definition of work), they would actually be more successful in their careers.

This may or may not be true for you, but I am almost definitely one of those people who could benefit in my career from literally working fewer hours. I have noticed that during semesters where I take on less of an academic load, I spend more time having conversations with friends and professors that lead to career developments. If I were slaving away on psets all of last semester, I doubt I would’ve had the energy to start Gender Inclusivity in Math. Not only that, but I often find that after spending a few hours away from a hard problem, I come back with fresh insight. So in many cases, it might not be a tradeoff at all between “leaning in” and “chilling out.”

Perfectionism: Bad For Work and Life?

I learned a few lessons about perfectionism while working in Silicon Valley. At small companies, products are far from perfect. As soon as something is good enough for users to begin playing with, you ship a minimum viable product. There are two main reasons for this.

The first reason is that until you put your product out there, you can’t collect any data or get feedback. Data-driven companies want to “rapidly iterate” by putting imperfect products in the market and making changes based on user feedback. Some things require a huge amount of attention to detail and care, but most things just need to be good enough. Often, if you put your work out there, you can get more rapid feedback and do a better job than if you spent hours making it “perfect” in your mind from the outset. Tara Mohr emphasizes this in her book Playing It Big.

The second reason is that the marginal impact that you could have by starting another project, rather than making the first one amazing, is almost always higher. Projects often have graphs with severely diminishing marginal returns. Spending twice as much time making your project 10% better — reaching “perfection” if there were such a thing — is often an ineffective use of time.

Perfectionism is where work/life balance most intersects with gender. Based on an unscientific poll of my own experiences, women tend to be way more perfectionist-y than men. Women tend to worry more, likely as a result of feeling inadequate in a world without female role models, leading them to work harder. And, the idea that women need to be twice as good as men in order to make it means that women tend to adopt work-a-holic strategies.

Ultimately, I think that perfectionism is what most holds people, especially women, back from achieving their long-term goals or putting their work out there. And, it simultaneously bad for “life.” Perfection puts work and life in less sharp of a contrast with each other, seeing as it helps neither.

Do What YOU Want To

This leads me to my last thesis:

If, on average, my friends spent slightly less time working, they would lead way more fulfilling lives.

The post up until now assumed that one is strictly optimizing his or her life for success in work only. But, that’s almost never one’s explicit goal.

If you ask people at the end of their lives what they regret, as Clay Christenson did, one of their top regrets is spending too little time with family. It’s almost never that they wished they worked harder.

So what I’m trying to say is: Do whatever YOU friggin’ want to!

Here’s my litmus test for figuring out what I truly want to do:

  • Do I want to do this because I want to impress people, e.g. show the guys that I can do it? Do I *not* want to do this because I am afraid? (Sheryl Sandberg’s question)
  • If I truly want to do it, do I want to do it more than the one of the 125738 things I’m already doing?

College has been a process of slowly discarding the things I thought I was supposed to do and picking up the things that I actually want to do. As much as I like the idea of being a research mathematician, for example, that’s not what I want to do. (That idea was formed by a combination of identity labels and wanting to show the world that I could do it.)

So, you might ask, what is a good girl (or guy) to do? Say yes? Say no? I have found a few role models in this domain. The first is Radhika Nagpal, who documented her quest for work-life balance in the midst of stressful tenure track faculty life. The second is Tara Mohr, who emphasizes in Playing It Big that there are times to push yourself and times to pull back. In particular, she highlights that finding inner peace doesn’t mean categorically avoiding things that make you anxious — after all, those are often the experiences that push you to grow. The third, and by far most influential on me, is my mom, who somehow manages to do it all and still have time for herself. (Darn it, I mentioned babies :( )

I hope that if our generation of women and men can find a version of work/life balance that works well for them, then our world will be more innovative, tolerant, and compassionate.