In an interview last week with the New York Times, Elon Musk described the harrowing life of a Silicon Valley start-up employee. He mentioned, among other details, that he had almost missed his brother’s wedding, he had not taken a week off work since 2001 during a bout with malaria and he had spent all 24 hours of his 47th birthday at work without seeing family or friends.
Elon Musk is the CEO of both Tesla Motors and SpaceX, and he has seen both companies rise from humble startups to a competent auto manufacturer and a bold engineering group, respectively. He’s given a lot to both companies, and his personal effort — he claims that he’s recently adopted a 120-hour workweek — has clearly been a part of it.
It’s also terrible, the product of a toxic culture. I described Musk’s recent life as that of a start-up because, despite the fact that both Tesla and SpaceX are far beyond that, start-up founders living shitty lives while giving their all to nascent enterprises is a basic trope of the industry at this point.
Actually living that way, though, is not smart. The health problems that stem from a lack of sleep are well documented, as are those that come from overwork. People who don’t sleep properly have worse memories and executive functioning: Ironically, a lack of sleep from overworking can cause serious drops in productivity.
It’s clear both from Musk’s very poor recent decisions and his apparent emotional turmoil that working the way Musk does is a terrible idea. The bigger problem, though, is that he is only one of many working this way, convinced that’s how they should be working.
A pernicious idea out there says that if you’re not working hard enough to succeed, you’re not working hard enough. At least, that used to be the case. Now, with the rise of the gig economy and increasing impetus for everyone to make something of themselves as individuals, the impulse is more to give as much of yourself to your work as possible, even (or maybe definitely) at the cost of quality of life.
At times, it can almost seem like working yourself to death should be aspired to or emulated. Tech innovators get compared to artists, which ties them to the (already problematic) ideal of the “suffering artist” who turns their pain into art, only now pain becomes cold, hard cash. Suffering artist, meet suffering engineer.
One of the most telling quotes to pull from the Times interview is Musk’s response to if he would seek a replacement, or an assistant. Musk responded that he’d be perfectly willing to hand over the job, even immediately — if there was someone available able to do the job better. In other words, Musk would only stop ruining his life on the condition that his job is done to better than his specifications.
First of all, the easiest way to do that would probably be to just get an assistant to get a better handle on the workload. It’s a little ironic that Elon Musk can cause so many problems for Tesla Motors while running on fumes and still insist that anyone who does the job better can have it — the easiest way for his job to be done better is probably for him to do it on a proper night’s sleep.
What makes Musk’s problems worse, though, is how much of a public persona he is. Even more than other tech entrepreneurs, Musk has cultivated a cult of personality around his position as a technological innovator and futurist. It’s not unreasonable to look to him as a figurehead of how to succeed in business today.
That would be a mistake, though, because work-deifying behaviors like these harm Musk along with anyone trying to be like him. Killing yourself and your social life isn’t really worth whatever you want to accomplish, especially when (like Musk) you’ve already achieved something that will continue to work.