Ruthlessly Prioritize

If you’ve ever toured the Facebook Campus, you would have noticed posters plastered in groups on many of the walls. They serve to instill the values and culture that have been established there over the years. Their design is simple and bold, as are the messages they display: “Fail harder”, “Move fast and break things”, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”, “Done is better than perfect”.

Of all of them I’ve seen, there is one that always stands out to me: “Ruthless Prioritization”. On the surface its message is clear: Take consistent inventory of the work you have in front of you and make sure you’re focusing on the most important things.

I had lived in Toronto all of my life. In January of 2015, I moved to California to work at Facebook. I did so knowing I was leaving a lot behind.

I have two incredible teenage boys who live with my ex — the boys wouldn’t be coming. I helped build a successful company with people that I loved working with — some would make the move, some would not. I had friends and family, all of whom would be thousands of miles away. In short, it was a very complicated and personal decision, parts of which I’ve written and talked about elsewhere. Maybe someday I’ll write the whole story.

My new job comes with a lot of responsibility—my personal life does too. Personally, I have needs, desires and responsibilities, just like Facebook does. The term “work-life balance” makes it sound as though there were two separate lists of things to prioritize. There aren’t. It’s all on one list.

A trip back to Toronto to see my kids, a Zuck review, a 1:1 with a colleague, a phone call to my recently widowed dad back home, a design critique, a Bikram yoga practice, picking my kids up from the airport, running a design sprint— these things are all part of my life now.

That poster is not about prioritizing a list of my work tasks, it’s about prioritizing a list of everything in my life.

After the New York Times published an article about Amazon’s work management practices, Beth Anderson wrote an open letter to Jeff Bezos. It seems that for six years the Andersons prioritized their work at Amazon over other things in their lives—over nearly everything, by the sounds of it.

It would be short sighted of me to judge the choices the Andersons made. Like everyone, they have their own set of values, responsibilities, pressures, priorities, circumstances and fears at any given point in time. These undoubtedly weighed in on their decision to stay and persevere at Amazon.

Beth’s story is but one of many where her husband’s job and the trade-offs it demanded weren’t worth the subsequent payoff. I recently read about Linds Redding, a New Zealand-based art director who worked at BBDO and Saatchi & Saatchi. Linds suffered from esophageal cancer. Sadly, he passed away in October of 2012; before he did, he wrote a post about how his life as a creative in the ad industry wasn’t worth it. He said it pretty well:

Countless late nights and weekends, holidays, birthdays, school recitals and anniversary dinners were willingly sacrificed at the altar of some intangible but infinitely worthy higher cause. It would all be worth it in the long run…
This was the con. Convincing myself that there was nowhere I’d rather be was just a coping mechanism. I can see that now. It was’nt (sic) really important. Or of any consequence at all really. How could it be. We were just shifting product. Our product, and the clients. Just meeting the quota. Feeding the beast as I called it on my more cynical days.
So was it worth it?
Well of course not. It turns out it was just advertising. There was no higher calling. No ultimate prize. Just a lot of faded, yellowing newsprint, and old video cassettes in an obsolete format I can’t even play any more even if I was interested. Oh yes, and a lot of framed certificates and little gold statuettes. A shit-load of empty Prozac boxes, wine bottles, a lot of grey hair and a tumor of indeterminate dimensions.

While different, the stories Linds and Beth shared have a common thread: They thought, at some point, prioritizing work over everything else would be worth it. Their stories serve as a reminder that I need regularly to step back from motion and reevaluate what matters to me currently, and make sure there is balance and proper prioritizing in my life.

My move to California is working because the people it affects are strongly supporting my choices: My kids, my friends, my family, my boss, my colleagues and lots of other people are helping me make these many big life transitions smooth. They view my situation with compassion and understanding. I don’t ignore work for personal reasons, nor blow off personal things for work, I prioritize them; over time, each is addressed with equal importance and attention.

The point is that things in your life don’t have to be in battle with each other. If you separate your life into two discrete lists, then by definition each list will suffer at the hands of the other. There are compromises and shortcomings that will ping from one list to the other, with a zero sum of attention for each grouping.

However, if you have one list, everything on the list benefits from the inclusion of the others…in fact, the whole point is that it becomes one integrated thing, one important, valued, cherished grouping of imperatives that are all part of me and what I’m doing.

Me, on Twitter.

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