Narayan Murthy’s comments have stirred the nation. It is worth evaluating where we stand on this because India and Bharat are at a critical juncture. Although it was misinterpreted and blown out of proportion, it sparked a debate that I think is great.
So I have a friend who wakes up and picks his Sitar first. He starts the riyaaz (practice) and only usually gets up for food breaks until late evening.
Doesn’t go to too many parties or typical weekend binges.
Is he a workaholic?
While I lived with him for a month, everyone admired his passion.
But imagine me sitting at a computer pressing keys for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Going from Zoom to Telegram to Whatsapp to Canva to Twitter to two thousand tabs open at any given point in time on my machine. This second guy does sound like a workaholic with no work-life balance.
I’ve been thinking why.
If an artist/athlete dedicates their entire life to their passion, 24x7, they are Gods. If anyone else does that, they don’t have a work-life balance.
Hard work and history
I cannot believe we, human beings, have strayed so far from our roots that I have to make a case for hard work. If we went back to any time in history and tried to argue against hard work, humans would then think we are crazy or drunk.
It has been clear that we are constantly in need for resources as individual humans as well as any shape or size of organisations we create to thrive. This makes hard work necessary for survival. This was clear throughout history except for the last fifty years.
So here are my arguments for working 70 hours (actually I think at least 84 hours) a week.
Job vs. Meaningful work
This is the personal side of things. You can see the kind of people who are outraged by Murthy Sir’s statement are the ones who work without meaning.
Many at Infosys. When I started my career, I had to design websites for SME owners (read Gujarati / Marwadi businessmen in Mumbai) and it was not fun. There was no meaning because they did not understand how powerful the internet was. But it was motivation for me to get out of working for clients. I did get burnt out, met with an accident and was hospitalised for months.
I don’t wish this on anyone. I know what it does. But the other end of the spectrum is soul killing. Many of my friends working at Infosys (irony!) and JPMorgan are the ones having a mid-life crisis in their thirties and forties. It seems to get worse every decade. They are losing their ability to fight for themselves and think independently because they chose soft work instead of hard work in their early twenties.
I understand that not everyone is privileged to move beyond necessity and work at something that provides meaning to them. But I think everyone should at least acknowledge the fact that they want to get out of the situation. It is highly unlikely to happen without hard work. Those shouting “give me more pay” are the ones who do not understand that if one’s job is meaningful, it will seem like play. I want to keep helping startups, just like my friend wants to play the Sitar, because the reward is intrinsic.
Ten years after my burn out I still work for more than 90 hours a week. I rarely shut down. But that is because I love what I do and I find it meaningful. I see my friends in some bar every weekend trying to distract themselves from the fact that they never got out to do something meaningful. Hard work is the most unglamorous chance at getting from survival to meaningful work.
Linear Growth vs. Exponential Growth
This is the career side of things. I also have friends who are happy with their work, find some meaning in it, and want to restrict work to a certain number of hours.
Yes, there is a way. But your learning, your career will grow linearly.
The reason you see founders almost unanimously advocating for more hours is not because they are going to get rich if their employees work harder. That is rarely the case. Small startups succeed with mission-aligned folks while large companies like Ola will have very little impact if employees work more hours.
Founders are supporting this because they are ‘exponential-growth people’. So if you want your career, life, and generally the work that you do to be in the top percentile, hard work isn’t really a choice. You have to do it. Show me a great person who has advocated against working hard.
How to work hard?
This is one thing that no commentator has addressed. I think most people haven’t been taught this. The way to work hard is not to do paperwork at Infosys. No amount of hard work at a soul-sucking job will make a difference.
Hard work is to be done at something you find interesting and meaningful.
- First find something you find irresistibly interesting. That is bitcoin and startups for me. I can read/talk/listen to anything about bitcoin or startups for as long as some folks can watch a test cricket match. This creates meaning and is satisfying for me. What has the same effect on you? Start learning and working on that.
- Second, learning is part of work. Reading and writing (not courses, definitely not university courses) is part of work. When I say I work more than 90 hours, more than 4 hours a day is just reading. My list is always overflowing. My desk is always messy. But I can do this and it doesn’t result in a burnout because I just love it. This kind of learning is just staying on the cutting edge.
- Third, look for asymmetric opportunities. You are already putting in more work than 99% people will ever do. You are interested in your subject matter which means you have to take shots that will make you, your network, and your career grow exponentially, not linearly. An example of such thinking would be to messaging a CEO to work with them instead of applying through the company’s job board.
High performance people recognise other high performance people. It is a small club.
India and hard work
This is about our nation. As I see it, we are at a historic moment.
We have just started digging ourselves out of the ditch that conquerors, colonisers and tech progress created in the last few centuries. Our systems were destroyed and we cannot find solid ground for our identity. This is the first time in my life’s decades that I am seeing positivity and the entire nation rallying to leapfrog at the global stage. As we start the process of rebuilding and negotiate with internal stakeholders on what our identity is for this century, we need to learn from the mistakes of “developed” countries and not repeat them.
The most important learning here is that we will have an ageing population when this young wave is over. Just like the Nordic countries, Japan and many other countries that grew fast with a young population, India is going to be ageing by the end of this century. So we’ve got 70 years of growth before our generations have to bear the burden of a large old population. My guess is much less. We don’t choose this but we can act according to the responsibility bestowed upon us.
It falls upon those born in the early part of the century to create infrastructure, systems, and resources that can sustain this massive population when it grows old. Although it is not a fair comparison, China has created a massive advantage for itself before its population grows old. We should not just be leapfrogging ahead of the “developed” countries, but also creating lasting value if we were to think in centuries and not decades. This is a trade-off that cannot be enforced, coaxed or incentivised. It can only be inspired. As a nation, if we do it shoulder by shoulder, we are well-positioned to achieve this.
For the first time, we will be talking about how great the future is going to be instead of just talking about the past
The price is hard work.