Why Elon Is Wrong About The 80-Hour Workweek

Dispelling The Myth of “Hard” Work

“Work like hell. I mean you just have to put in 80 to 100 hour weeks every week. […. ] If other people are putting in 40 hour workweeks and you’re putting in 100 hour workweeks, […] you know that you will achieve in four months what it takes them a year to achieve.” — Elon Musk, CEO Tesla, SpaceX

Wrong. Simply, wrong. ☝️

The Universal Commodity

Through some sort of agency, and regardless of who you are, you get blessed with 24 hours in a day. You spend it engaging in certain activities, and in return, those activities yield you certain results. We all, suspiciously, get the same amount of time everyday, but yet don’t ever get the same results.

Obviously, the reason for this is simple; we don’t use our time identically. The billionaire CEO does different things day to day than the lower manager of a struggling franchise. Both start with 24 hours, and yet the differences in their outcomes are night and day.

It’s Not About The Hours (or Sweat)

Oddly, if you asked both the CEO, and the lower manager whether working harder and longer is a key to success, they would undoubtedly agree.

If this were true, why not go find the “hardest” job you can, and work at it the longest. Heck, maybe take up two jobs. Coal miner by day, sewer inspector by night. Give up sleep too. Who needs sleep when you could be working. Ah.. the price of massive success.

Putting the satire aside, how can this logic possibly hold up? Mustn’t there be some level of delusion when claiming this? I’d say it’s probably downright ignorance, because despite what it seems, there is ZERO CORRELATION between HARD WORK AND SUCCESS.

The only correlating factor has to be the effectiveness of your actions. Otherwise, why would humans invent tools over doing things the “hard” way? And how could one professor win a Nobel prize, while another professor, who works just as long day-to-day, come up short of everything but a paycheque. How hard, and how long you work simply doesn’t add up to success.

I’ll add a caveat by mentioning sometimes working harder and longer, is the most effective action to take — for a given period of time. But we shouldn’t mistake that for a causal relationship, or the yard stick by which to measure things. The only relevant factor remains to be; how effective you are.

“Working”, 24/7

The prescription then, is to work 24/7.

… I know this seems like a contradiction. How could I bash hard work, but then recommend working all the time.

Developing the “virtue of paradox,” seems yet again, a useful skill to deal with unorthodox principles like these.

The Employee Mentality

Let’s redefine what we mean by “work.” If you’re like most people, your parents probably worked a “9–5.” To them, getting paid meant working, and coming home meant the end of work. What they did during the “off” hours didn’t matter since they were no longer on the clock.

I call this the “employee” mindset and it’s something many of us picked up subconsciously. It’s a failure to recognize, because time is the universal commodity, every minute of your day is worth as much as the other.

The Owner Mentality

Now let’s assume you’re self-employed. You choose your hours. At any given moment you can be working on your business. If, as an example, for every hour of work you put in, you earn $50, then you’re sacrificing $50 for every hour you “waste.” This is what economist refer to as an opportunity cost. Watching an hour long TV show, really costs you $50.

Understanding this, is “the owner’s mentality.” It’s really the case for everyone, including the employee, but it’s only the self-employed person who can feel this tangibly. However, in many cases, the self-employed person dogmatizes this. If they can make $50/hour for every hour of work, what stops them from working ALL the time. Some will say work-life balance, which sounds like a nicer way of saying to lower your ambitions.

And so the self-employed person often overworks themselves. They’ll masquerade this by saying they are committed, and that you must work MORE to achieve more. Yet, there is someone in the same position who can make $100 for every hour they work. Again, it seems to come back to effectiveness.

The Purpose Mentality

And so a third way presents itself. To illustrate, we’ll use the example of a student. This student, let’s call her Jill, is preparing for an upcoming exam next week. And like the business owner, she knows that she can be working at any given moment.

But Jill is what we call an effective student. She studies a couple of hours everyday, and makes sure she sleeps right. In fact, she took Tuesday off completely to hang out with her friends and family. Her classmate, Bob, ridiculed Jill for being so lax. He stayed up for the past two nights to get as much studying in for the exam. The exam comes back, and Jill outshines Bob completely. What happened?

Jill has what we’ll call “the purpose mentality.” She knows that her purpose for the week is to eventually do well on her exam. She recognizes she has just as much time as Bob to prepare. And yet, she takes time out of studying to sleep well and to unwind with friends. Bob, like the employee and owner, believes he must actively be studying to do well on the exam.

Jill is aware that she’s actually working 24/7. She’s not simply unwinding with her friends, but rather, engaging in the resting aspect of studying. She sees hanging out with her friends just as much a part of her purpose of passing the exam, as actively studying for it. Jill also knows she’ll be even more effective if she gets adequate sleep. Bob believes in hard work, whereas Jill, at her very core, is concerned with effectiveness over anything else.

This is why we tell the fable of The Tortoise and the Hare.

Doing Less, Being More

So let’s assume we have complete control over our destiny. We can choose the purpose we want and how we go about achieving it. And let’s also say, we are playing a very long term game — that we will spend the next 50 years working towards something.

The question then becomes, how do we know we’re taking the right course of action at any given moment? How do we know whether hanging out with our families is the most important thing we can do for our purpose today, or if coming into the office and grinding away is?

In other words, how do we know how effective our actions are?

Flow and Creativity

To know something like this means you’d be able to simulate the entire set of possible actions, taking as much information into account over 50 years, to see which one is the most effective. This is simply impossible for anyone to do, despite our best efforts and technology.

What might be possible, is to see if we can atleast sense what this is. In fact, the incredible part of the human body-mind is that it’s a super intuitive, feedback system. It’s developed a nervous system that is not only extremely concerned with effective information-processing, but also with providing you feedback on that information. This feedback is felt as our intuition, or as you may figuratively refer to it as; your “heart.”

A psychologist by the name of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, set out to study the internal state of top performers of various fields, or rather, the most effective performers in these fields. What he discovered is that, regardless of the field, whether sports, art, or business, the peak performers got into a state called “flow” more often than anyone. This state is characterized by the following:

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. Merging of action and awareness (i.e. pure consciousness)
  3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness (or egolessness)
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. A distortion of temporal experience (time just flies by)
  6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding

In other words, Csikszentmihalyi discovered peak performers, weren’t performing or doing anything at all. Everything they did was effortless.

Think back to when you were a child and having a blast playing games. The time would just pass by, and next thing you knew, you became amazing at the game. You were in a state of flow. Peak performers have turned their “work”, into a game. Not having any resistance at all, they aren’t doing, just simply “Being.”

Work For Alignment.. Nothing Else

So yes, we’re faced with yet another paradox; to get more, you must do less.

It’s counterintuitive because our whole culture is geared towards more doing. Yes hard work is necessary sometimes, especially in short-term sprints. However, if you’re playing a long game, hard work is actually counter-productive. You should only be concerned with effective action.

And your intuition will tell you if you’re doing too much. We feel it as stress, a neurosis. And yes, it’s unfortunate but we have social structures that are set up to in a way that encourage neurosis. This is often the case when these structures are created from a place of neurosis themselves — often to fill short-term needs, over a genuine sense of “creativity.”

Therefore, if you want to build something that will withstand the test of time, and you want to be happy and fulfilled while doing it, don’t work. If you’re going to work, work for alignment with a purpose that will put you into a state of flow throughout your day. That’s all.

Your heart will tell you what that thing is. Strive then, towards a psychology of Being rather than one of doing.


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