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When Did Busy Become So Cool?

Most people I know in San Francisco can’t remember the last time they worked an 8-hour day. I remember a few years ago a friend who worked at Apple explained her schedule to me. “Well I catch the shuttle bus at 7am to try and miss some of the commute traffic. It still takes about […]

Most people I know in San Francisco can’t remember the last time they worked an 8-hour day. I remember a few years ago a friend who worked at Apple explained her schedule to me.

“Well I catch the shuttle bus at 7am to try and miss some of the commute traffic. It still takes about 90 minutes in the morning, but they have wifi on the bus so I can start working. I don’t usually leave until 6 or 6:30pm, but the traffic is horrible in the evenings, so I’m usually not home until 8:30 or 9.”

“What about lunch? Dinner?”

“Oh Apple provides meals so I usually just work through lunch. Sometimes I take a walk if I don’t have a meeting. If I can I go to the gym after work but I’m usually too tired.”

“Do you work on the bus ride home too?”

“Well I try not to, but sometimes it’s just a habit to keep answering emails.”

I did the math. That’s a 14 hours a day dedicated to work. If you budget the recommended 7–8 hours for sleep, that only leaves you with 2-3 hours of non-claimed time. Out of a whole work week, that’s only 12–15 waking hours to yourself, compared to 70 claimed by work. That’s less than 20% of your time that you can still consider your own. And based on the long work day, those remaining personal hours are likely heavily compromised by malaise. You barely have time to cook for yourself or attend a yoga class, let alone the energy.

The example above is obviously a worst-case, but there are plenty of examples of ridiculous work hours, even just in my circle of friends. Staying overnight at Tesla because it was easier than going home and coming back 8 hours later. Manufacturing engineers having frequent conference calls with China at 9pm. Consultants killing themselves trying to meet unrealistic project deadlines. Software engineers forced to be on-call in the middle of the night in case a server goes down. The 8-hour day has become more of a minimum suggestion. A relic of an older, less busy time.

But the strange thing I’ve noticed about many people working these busy schedules, is they don’t seem to mind much. It’s become normal. Expected. Glorified even. Have you really even “made it” if you’re not eating 3 free meals a day at work? Some seem to wear it as a badge of honor, as if to say, Look how hard I worked this week! I didn’t even have time eat a meal at home! This sentiment is no doubt influenced by popular “hustle” culture. Gary Vaynerchuck, a famously successful entrepreneur advises that working 18 hours a day is the fastest way to the ultimate reward. “If you want bling bling, if you want to buy the jets? Work. That’s how you get it.”

Life becomes work. Friday happy hour rolls around and all anyone can talk about is how much they worked this week.

“Ugh I’m exhausted, work was SO crazy this week.”

“We had a product launch yesterday so I was up until 2am working.”

“We’re trying to hit the quarter-end goal, so I have to work this weekend.”

Even our personal hours are being muddied with stress about work. Being frazzled and sleep-deprived is the new normal, and complaining about it is the new way to relate to your peers. Trying to steer the conversation away from work is often a fruitless and guilt-ridden effort. Oh you don’t need to rant about your busy week? You must not be working very hard.


It took me a long time to dissociate from this culture of “busy cool”. I’m no stranger to being relentlessly busy. I took every AP and IB class I could in high school. I got into a good public school for engineering. I worked myself into the ground just to score slightly above the curve. I did hours and hours of homework, most of the time sacrificing a social life for a B+. I applied to at least a hundred jobs as I graduated and finally got one as a research assistant at a pharmaceutical startup. It didn’t pay well but it was a job.

We had to clock hours at this job, and I remember my coworker judiciously warning me.

“Definitely never clock out before 5pm. Pim will notice”.

Pim was the CEO who sat a few desks away from me in our open-office layout. He had to walk right by my desk to go to the bathroom. I developed a lightning-fast reflex of minimizing whatever window I had open on my computer when I heard the bathroom door open back up. Heaven forbid you were caught doing anything non-work related during work hours. One time I had a doctor appointment in the late afternoon and I happened to see Pim ride by on his motorcycle when I was driving to it. I thought nothing of it until the next day when HR told me Pim had asked about me, and why I wasn’t at work. Oh right, of course, I’d forgotten to let the CEO know about my doctor appointment. How silly of me! I felt strangely watched over. My time was no longer my own.

At my next job, the senior-most manufacturing engineers constantly worked past 7pm, and on weekends. The young-20’s girl who worked the hardest hadn’t gotten a promotion in a couple years. Yet she continued to loyally slave away under the auspices of our micro-managing boss.

I continued to have these experiences with each new job I went to. My bosses (thankfully) became a lot better, but the culture of overwork permeated everywhere. Everyone around me dedicated themselves to work with reckless abandon. I felt guilty if I left at 5pm. I wondered, Am I being lazy? Should I be working more? Is this what your 20’s are for?

I started to notice though, that the people working longer hours weren’t necessarily rewarded for it. In fact, they’d often have more obligations piled on top of them and their workload would snowball. They’d complain about having to skip lunch and come in on Saturday, but didn’t have anything to show for it except more stress and less time in their schedule for recreation.

I desperately did not want to start down the path of thankless overload. So I started to experiment with setting boundaries around my work schedule. No I can’t take on that extra project, I am already at capacity. No I won’t work through lunch, I want to go to the gym. No I can’t stay late today, I have dinner plans with friends. No I won’t be checking my emails this weekend.

To my cautious 24-year-old self’s surprise, it totally worked. My bosses and coworkers started to respect my time and boundaries. Of course there was the occasional long day when there was an important deadline, but overall I was easily able to develop a healthy work-life balance. I had time to get all my work done and go rock climbing, or cook dinner with my roommates, or take a painting class.

And that’s when I started to diverge from buying into busy cool. I realized that there was nothing cool about handing over all your time to some corporation that inherently does not care about limiting your stress levels or making sure you have a life in your 20’s. I realized that you can excel at your job and have a life. They are not mutually exclusive. And if that’s the case, why should we kill ourselves sinking precious hours and energy into corporate objectives that won’t matter in 10 years?


Thankfully, many of the people I know who were enslaved to their jobs have since quit and chosen to work somewhere that affords a more balanced schedule. Maybe it’s a natural result of getting older, I’m not sure.

Occasionally I’ll be coming home from dinner somewhere and see a commuter shuttle bus chugging up a hill, dutifully returning employees home at 8pm. I’ll wonder who those people are, and if they’ve even had a chance to eat dinner. I wonder if they’re happy? Fulfilled? Have they had time to call their mom lately?

Eventually I realized that there is a benefit to working all those hours. You learn. You learn voraciously. About your career field of course, but also about yourself. You learn where your edge is. You learn how you operate when you’re stressed and exhausted and sleep-deprived. You learn that yes you are resilient and yes you can work double-digit hour days, weeks in a row, but do you want to? You learn that you ultimately have control over this, and that if you don’t set your own boundaries, no one will. You learn that your life and your time is too precious to allow it to be encroached upon constantly and carelessly. You learn that there’s a part of you that craves so much more fulfillment than just working hard.

It’s that part that I look for now in the eyes of the overworked peers of my city. We are so much more than our jobs. I don’t care about how many hours you worked this week. I want to hear about what burns brightly inside of you. Your dreams, your travel stories, the last time you laughed so hard that you garnered looks from passersby.

And so I invite you, next time you’re at happy hour or a party and the conversation turns to work, take the opportunity to also ask about how someone is doing, really. You might be surprised at how desperately the people around you just need an invitation to escape “busy” for a night. You might be surprised that underneath all the busy, almost everyone has a burgeoning collection of hopes and dreams that just needs a little bit of dusting off.

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