2008-03-23 16:20 in /tech
Paul Graham’s latest essay, You Weren’t Meant to Have a Boss, has caused quite a stir. Although I thought the discussion of the pathologies of large organizations was interesting, the assertion that only startup founders are living life the way they are meant to (lions on the savannah, rather than caged animals) really rubbed me the wrong way. The Cliff Notes version attempts to smooth things over, but in a way also basically says that employees are choosing to live in cages.
Graham starts his essay with an anecdote about a recent experience that he feels demonstrates his point. After spending some time thinking about why I felt his point was wrong, I realized that I also have an anecdote with relevance to share.
I happen to have a friend(1) who is in this YCombinator round. Last week I was in the Bay Area for a couple days, so I dropped him a line to see if he had time to meet up for dinner. He replied that my timing was good, because I was there the day after “demo day”, so they had a day off(2). We met up in downtown Mountain View and went looking for a place to eat that fit his budget: $10 entrees would be okay, but $15, as was common at most of the restaurants, was too much. At dinner, I kvetched about Yahoo, and he kvetched about YCombinator. I talked about my jaunt up to San Francisco the previous evening to meet up with friends for excellent cocktails (on another trip it might have been a great restaurant, or an art museum, or hiking on the beach or Mt. Tam). It turns out he’s been in Silicon Valley since December but has yet to make it into SF. He also only gets to eat out once or twice a month.
Unlike Graham’s conclusions drawn from a couple minutes of observing strangers, I’ve know this person for over 10 years. I’ve seen him go through good times and bad times. I want to be fair; he’s far from the least happy I’ve seen him. But I also definitely wouldn’t say that he’s the most alive I’ve known him to be either. I definitely didn’t feel like a caged animal in comparison.
Even in the case of these founders that Graham describes who are passionately consumed by their work, I still question the assertion that they are living life as they were meant to. How much time do they spend with friends and family? Do they get to enjoy the amazing city they live just outside of? Can they go out to dinner without having to count their pennies?
By some argument, perhaps this is how we were “meant” to live, in an evolutionary sense. Historically humans spent almost all their time hunting and gathering and performing other essential survival tasks (i.e., working). The modern concept of leisure is, perhaps, evolutionarily unnatural. But regardless, the fact is that productivity has risen to the point where most people can work 40 or so hours a week and produce enough to cover their needs (and a reasonable amount of their wants). We can accept being less than fully self-actualized at work in exchange for the ability to pursue a variety of other activities during the remaining 60 hours of wakefulness we have each week.
Furthermore, Graham seems to assume that all people share the ambition to produce exceptional results at work. I assure you, they do not. I know plenty of people who wouldn’t complain too much about the “team-building” exercise he scorned because, hey, they’re getting paid to run around Palo Alto on a silly scavenger hunt, rather than having to sit at their desk. While coworkers who accept average results may sometimes be frustrating to those of us who aspire to greatness, I still have to admit that I sometimes envy the folks who can manage to just not be bothered by whatever is going on at work, and who can just go home at 5 and put it out of their mind until 9 the next morning.
Are there people working big company jobs that deaden their souls? No doubt. Are there startup founders who are fully alive, in all parts of their life? Probably. But in both environments, there’s a more diverse set of experiences than Graham is admitting to. Furthermore, there’s also a diverse set of goals — people don’t universally agree about what living life fully means. Failing to acknowledge that, and putting down people with different values as a result, is the fundamental flaw in Graham’s essay, in my opinion.
(1) For a couple reasons, I’ve chosen to keep my friend anonymous, unless, of course, he chooses to reveal his identity.
Does it strike you as odd that the startup founders at YCombinator apparently get told when they can take a day off? Me too.My friend informs me that what he meant was that he had granted himself a day off. My apologies for misrepresenting the comment.