Let me tell you about my father.
He was the product of divorce — my doctor grandfather ran off with his secretary when Dad was 8 — and of squandered wealth (from the oil on his Cherokee grandfather’s land). So he carried the weight of a disapproving mother and the inadequate feeling of being abandoned by your dad.
So he spent his teen and early college years drinking, smoking, and pretty much living out the frat boy dream. And then Vietnam happened. He attempted to slip out of combat duty by joining the Coast Guard — they promised him he’d “patrol the East Coast” on his tour. He failed to have them specify which country’s East Coast he’d be patrolling.
But the Coast Guard shook him out of his frat boy slumber. After a few years floating in the Gulf of Tonkin, he came home driven. He double-timed it through the University of Oklahoma’s architecture program, ended up with two degrees, knocked up and married his girlfriend along the way, and went to work.
And never stopped working. Dad was all hustle. 40 hour weeks became 50. 50 became 60. He worked for a firm, quit in disgust to start his own private practice, came back to the firm when they begged him to return, quit again in disgust and started his own firm, ran it in the midst of the worst recession Oklahoma had seen since the Dust Bowl, and eventually had one of the leading small architecture and engineering firms in the Southwest.
And promptly dropped dead at 47.
That last week of his life he’d worked over 90 hours. He had come home late Sunday morning — having gone in at 4am, per his usual — complaining of a backache and looking agitated. 15 minutes later, he collapsed and was dead within minutes, the back of his heart having exploded.
Thing is, 90 hours wasn’t uncommon for him in those final years. And he wasn’t working 90 hours because of a deadline — he worked 90 hours because he hustled. He was after business. He never took a vacation. He’d only stop for sleep and OU football.
Dad didn’t trust his junior architects to drive projects to completion, so he’d often take some of the important, overarching parts for himself. When Mom took over the business, she needed seven people to replace Dad. That’s how hard he worked. But he didn’t leave a pretty corpse. At 47 he looked like he hustled enough for two lives.
The spectre of Dad’s early death has haunted my vocational decisions. It was when I realized I’d hit hour 90 of work at a dotcom that I realized I had to walk out. I probably stayed in my higher ed job longer than I should have because leaving that job after 5:30 was considered workaholism. I took my current job because of a promise of work-life balance.
I’ve spent the last 40 years ambivalent about hustle. I don’t want to commit, but when I do, Katie bar the door, do I ever come. I’ll work past midnight to get things right. I’ll take on far too much work in the name of winning fame — and “doing a good job.” I’d sometimes flaunt my willingness to work long and hard as a badge of honor to be burnished in front of a crowd of adoring fans.
But I also don’t want to commit. I don’t want to turn into Dad. And so I was in this weird space of wanting to be a total control freak and wanting to work incredibly hard, yet feeling like because I wasn’t one of those kids who “hustled,” I was never going to make it.
In the last few weeks, though, I think I finally have understood what the lessons of Dad are — and they’re not even what I thought they were.
It’s about focus, not hustle
I think in the tech world we have oversold the idea of hustle. I have a lot of Gen Y friends who talk about their late working patterns, saying how “their generation is different” and “you only get there when you hustle” and “building it yourself without help shows your greatness.” So they work. A lot. And they mythologize the people who work a lot. And people who don’t work a lot, well, they just don’t want it.
But I also find their work can be a lot of noise. They end up doing a lot of things they may not be good at in the name of being a hustler. They’ll give an employer 80 hours of work a week, which makes the employer happy since they don’t have to hire a second person, but also makes the employer worry the hustler’s going to burn out awfully quickly.
Michael Jordan was never seen as a hustler. Maybe Marv Albert might mention it every once in a while when he was saving a ball going out of bounds, but Michael Jordan was never considered a hustler.
Who’s considered a hustler? The kid off the bench who flies around the court knocking the ball around, diving for loose balls, grabbing the rebound, and generally generating noise on the court.
There’s nothing wrong with having a player with hustle on your team. But in a contest between twelve Michael Jordans and twelve hustlers, who’d win? The Jordans. Because Jordan wasn’t about saving every last ball or snapping down every last rebound. Jordan was about being focused on his craft — and about being extremely competitive. He didn’t hustle because he was focused on winning.
I see these tweets every day from people I know in the tech industry bragging about how many hours they’d worked. And I wonder if those hours are focused on their craft — becoming a better coder, designer, tester, whatever — or if they’re unfocused hours spent running around trying to do a thousand things, none of them well. I get the sense they’re not.
Because here’s the secret I’ve learned: You cannot do everything. The number of things we can do well is far smaller than we want to admit, and the number of things we can do well simultaneously rarely exceeds one. I’m learning, the hard way, that my own desire to be a hustling hero runs cross-purposes with my ability to deliver greatness.
I want to Save All The Worlds. At my current employer, there are many, many things that need attention if the organization is going to reach the “industry leader” greatness it wants to reach. The place seduces a person like me into believing everything must be fixed and that I am the one to do it.
Saving All The Worlds was grinding me to dust. The stress mounted, my weight shot up, and I was miserable. But at the same time, I was hustling, yes I was, with all my late night work and running from fire to fire. I felt important. But I also felt miserable (see the stress, the weight, etc.)
So I’ve changed tack. I’m not out to hustle anymore. I’m out to focus. I’m out to figure out what I absolutely rock at and push myself to be a Jordan-level competitor when it comes to that. But that means I’m not working late unless I have to, I’m not treating my work as if that’s what makes me great, and I’m certainly not going to run around talking about how much work I do.
Instead, I’m just going to be so freakin’ good at what I do that I don’t have to hustle. I just do great things. I’m just going to save the world I can save, and leave it to others to “hustle.”
It’s about trust, not control.
Another part of that Saving All The Worlds lie is the belief that you, alone, are capable of bringing about change. And is it ever easy to fall into that trap.
Back to that part about Mom hiring seven people to cover everything Dad did — it’s not like Dad hired incompetent people. Some of the young architects and engineers he hired have gone on to be partners in other firms in the Southwest. He had good people there. He just didn’t trust them.
I think in the tech industry we tell ourselves that lie — that no one is as competent as we are — because we’re afraid of the possibility that we ourselves will be found out. Impostor syndrome runs rampant in tech firms. Getting through that, letting go and having confidence in others’ abilities is the key to sanity.
I had an intern who was such a superstar at coding that we hired him full-time. I have no doubt he’s going to be an even bigger star some day. But I can also tell you that I, for a lot longer than I’d like to admit, felt threatened by his quality. It’s taken me a long time to realize that that’s counter-productive. Instead, I need to trust in his quality and let him be great. He’s no threat to me; instead, he takes away from me part of my anxiety. I don’t have to save his world. It’s in his good hands.
Dad refused to do that. Which is why he spent 90 hours at the office the week he died. His trust in hustle — and his inability to trust anyone else with it — led to his early demise.
Hustle is hype.
So when I hear someone talking about their hustle on Twitter at some obscene hour of day (which I’m usually awake for due to my anxiety-induced insomnia — see the Saving All The Worlds part above) all I can think is WTF were you doing from 8 to 5?
Now, some of the people talking about their hustle are freelancing at night to bring in extra money. Some of them are small (or one-person) shop workers who can’t afford to spread the work. Some of them are so single-mindedly committed to what they do that they really do eat, sleep, and breathe their craft. But not everyone.
A hundred years on, we’ve forgotten why we have all the labor laws we do. The unions wanted a 40 hour work week not because they were trying to screw over the employers. They wanted it because at 60-70 hours of work 6 days a week the factory and the mine were pulling fathers and mothers away from families. The social fabric of the Victorian nation was fraying, and the churches and the social reformers were looking to reasonable work for reasonable pay as a path towards a better society.
And yet, here we are in the 21st century with tech workers working 50-60-80 hour weeks because it’s all about “hustle.”
Hustle isn’t a sign of greatness. Hustle is a sign of weakness. Hustle means you’re not confident enough in your own skills to let them speak for themselves. Hustle means you aren’t focusing on what makes you great because you won’t let go of the things you aren’t great at.
It’s time to stop tweeting at midnight talking about how much you’re getting done. Because you’re not. You’re overworked and missing out on being a superstar. And you’re going to burn out soon. And when you do, at no point will you think all that “hustle” you put in was worth what you thought it was.
Hustle is hype. Greatness comes from focus and delegation, not from hustle.
Stop hustling. Start delivering.