With all the "work vs. life balance" talk one hears from the executives and HR folks in large Silicon Valley corporations these days (thou shalt not burn out), it should (on the surface, at least) be surprising when folks leave with the intent of not working again for quite a while. I have three recent cases in mind.


First is a guy named Ken. He left Yahoo at the beginning of this year after 4 or 5 years with the company. I had lunch with him on one of his last days. During our discussion I learned that he's planning to spend the next 6-12 months not doing anything in particular. Maybe he'll travel a bit, get back into some hobbies, catch up with old friends, and so on. It turns out that he's done this a few times before. He's a big a fan of working at a company for 3-5 years, not taking much in the way of vacation time, and then taking 6-12 months off before his next job. He'll have no trouble getting another great job when he's ready to jump back in.


Second is Andy. He's leaving Yahoo in a couple weeks and plans to, quite literally, travel the world. He already has plane tickets to far-flung destinations, a small assortment of gear ready to pack (he's trying to travel light), and quite a list of other places he'd like to see. I'm a little jealous. I've been pretty lucky in that I've been able to travel in my job now and then, even internationally a bit. But I've barely scratched the surface of seeing our little planet. Like Ken, Andy will have little trouble getting back into the flow of things when the time comes.


Third is Nelson. He's on leave from Google as of now. It sounds like he's also gonna take some time to relax, travel, and just enjoy life. Nice. I have no doubt that he'll have his choice of work again someday too, should he need or want it.

On Balance

These three got me thinking a bit more about the notion whole work/life balance. It's partly because I've realized that work and non-work time blend together so much nowadays that it's really hard to feel like you're "on vacation" unless you go away for an extended time or forcibly disconnect yourself from the world.

For me it's the two or three weeks last year when I took time off to live in the Nevada desert (or a small town in Utah) with a bunch of glider pilots. We'd have breakfast together in the morning, fly in the afternoon, and enjoy a good dinner at night while discussing our triumphs and failures of the day. I almost never find myself thinking about work on those trips.

What I've concluded from my own experiences and observing others out here is that different people arrive at this balance in different ways. And that's more visible in Silicon Valley than anywhere. At one end of the spectrum are the startup guys who are following the gospel of Paul Graham, which says:

Economically, you can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Instead of working at a low intensity for forty years, you work as hard as you possibly can for four. This pays especially well in technology, where you earn a premium for working fast.

They're followed by people like Ken, who dig in for a few years and then take a nice long break.

Somewhere in the middle are those who try to use their vacation time in blocks no smaller than a week. During that time, they try to avoid work related email and discussion if at all possible.

At the other end are those working mostly 9-5 who manage to disconnect everyday when they leave the office.

And you know what? It's all just fine. :-)

This is the point at which all my European readers chime in about how they get 2-3 times the holiday/vacation time that we do and generally live at more leisurely pace...

Posted by jzawodn at January 17, 2006 08:07 PM

Reader Comments
# Jeffrey McManus said:

And don't create a lot of successful start-ups.

on January 17, 2006 08:56 PM
# Aaron said:

Yeah... I hear you. Startups aren't eveything, though, Jeffrey. They are needed to keep the flow of technology going, but the non-startups rock-solid company folk carry the day with the ebb of technology. For reference, see 1998-2000 (Flow), 2001-2003 (Ebb), 2004-present (Flow).

I think Jeremy hit the nail on the head with the whole "balance" thing, whether a leisure time balance or a life outside of the bubble balance.

For those of us that hold the fort in the Ebb, the Flow always looks incredible. For those of you who live the flow all the time, I'm sure you fantasize about the Ebb at times.


on January 17, 2006 09:26 PM
# Jeffrey Friedl said:

It can be that the work/life balance tilting so far to the "work" side has nothing to do with actually being employed. It depends on the type of person you are. In my case, I became much more busy after Yahoo! cut me loose a year ago, because I no longer had an excuse ("I'm busy with work")
to not peruse things I wanted to do (which, although not at the behest of Yahoo!, were surprisingly similar to the geeky-tech things I did while at Yahoo.

Of course, the kind of pressures changed. I no longer had to worry about getting paged in the middle of the night, and no longer had to deal with unfun administration crap like Focal Reviews, but at the same time I started to get into so many different things that it became quite a hassle to juggle them all.

In the end, I do get more family time, but in the end, whether I'm being paid by a company like Yahoo! or not, I spend much of my time doing techy geeky things. That is simply who I am.

Having known you for a while, Jeremy (I'll name drop for your readers that I am the one who hired you into Yahoo :-), I strongly suspect that you are the same. If Yahoo! dematerialized today and you were suddenly left without employment, sure, you might get into flying a bit more (you've still not left the fixed-wing arena), but your time would still be filled with more geeky-fun projects than you could possibly actually do. (Actually, your work/life balance might get worse, since you'd actually be doing real engineering again rather than meetings and such).

Anyway, to sum it up, for some people, work/life is a value that is very close to one, regardless of one's employment status.

on January 17, 2006 10:02 PM
# Aurélien said:

Even if we got more vacation in europe (at least 5 weeks here in France, and even more with the law on 35 hours of work per week) I believe that what you described just works the same here.

on January 18, 2006 12:08 AM
# Sumeet said:

I've discussed about this whole "getting a life" thing with my colleagues so many times, and at such length; it's funny.

on January 18, 2006 12:17 AM
# Matt said:

It's simply a new world out there. People are working from pre-cellphone models of balance, where the dividing line between work and non-work time was sharper, despite the fact that for a lot of people in the modern job market, turning off the cell phone is a firing offense.

I'm going the Paul Graham route, myself...I probably won't ever _not work_, but by this time next year I fully intend to have shoved off the world of "employment" (and its restrictions on where I can live, what phase my sleep schedule can be on, and how readily I can ignore the ringing of a telephone in the midst of conversations, meals, and/or sex) forever.

on January 18, 2006 02:36 AM
# Ben Metcalfe said:

This is the point at which all my European readers chime in about how they get 2-3 times the holiday/vacation time that we do and generally live at more leisurely pace...

lol - I wish I lived a leisurely pace. Yes, I did have 5 weeks holiday last year but regardless of whether I was at home with my parents, in Shanghai, in Sweden, or even taking time out in the idilic English countryside... I was still racing around trying to find bandwidth and making sure I was connected.

Sounds like I'm living my life as per the Start-up route... without any startup benefits :)

Maybe it's just because I'm at a different point in my career and life, but the thought of being disconnected for more than a day frustrates me big time.

Oh well.

on January 18, 2006 04:09 AM
# dan isaacs said:

I'm much more a believer in your everyday life being one where you can find pleasure and ease of mind. What you speak of is not balance. It is moving between states of extreme inbalance. A few years working very hard, and a few years not working at all. You spend all your time at the ends of the see-saw, never with it balanced.

on January 18, 2006 07:01 AM
# Marcus said:

I think you are spot on with "it's all just fine." People deal with these pressures differently, but everybody has to deal with them somehow.

Often it depends more on your personal circumstances more than a conscious choice of how to cope with things. Going off to travel is great for Ken, but he is single (if we are talking about the same Ken). Paul Graham advises people to move into a flat together during the early phases of a startup. That's a brilliant idea, but not if you have kids.

Does that mean I cannot work in a startup anymore? I hope not. There are ways to balance life and work, even if you are working full out. It is just much more difficult.

I think work should never be an excuse to loose out on life. It's everybody's own responsibility to make sure they keep the balance. Just say NO. You CAN turn off the cellphone. If it's a fireable offence, then quit. It's that simple.

Also, things go through cycles. During my 6.5 years at Yahoo! I have been incredibly busy for long stretches, but also gone through phases where not much was going at all. That is another way of coping with it (at least here in leisurely paced Europe).

on January 18, 2006 07:22 AM
# Todd Huss said:

Thinking of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years assumes your startup will be successful or that you'll be very well paid for your time, both of which are highly unlikely. I know more folks that have been chasing startup after startup in the silicon valley and working long hours year after year than I do folks who did it for a few years and cashed out. The startup failure rate is still extremely high. Of those that did cash out, many are back doing new startups and working long hours. I think in reality it's a tiny percentage of startup folks that in the end really manage to compress their work life into a few years, but that doesn't stop people from trying, which is a good thing for innovation!

on January 18, 2006 08:48 AM
# Joe Hunkins said:

A lot of thoughtful posts. When I gave up routine employment for my own biz I liked most of it but have been surprised by the challenges such as worries about whether I'm going things right, wrong, if biz will go south, if it will go big, etc.

Supervision and company accountability had advantages that I was not appreciating .... though I could not go back.

on January 18, 2006 10:29 AM
# Justin Mason said:

hey Jeremy --

Having done what Andy's doing, I can heartily recommend it.

A few years ago, my girlfriend and I left Ireland, lived in Australia for 9
months, then downed tools, got offline, and took a
leisurely 4 months travelling through Australia and SE Asia.

While the timing was rough -- it coincided almost exactly with SpamAssassin
suddenly taking off -- everything worked out great, and it's really paid off in
the long run. The perspective change that backpacking through Asia provokes
is massive, and very worthwhile in so many ways.

I must say, it was pretty tricky easing back into working life, though, at
first ;)

on January 18, 2006 01:13 PM
# jim winstead said:

i've done the 'ken' thing twice. it's always tempting to do it again.

at mysql, i've been quite happy to work a pretty reasonable schedule (close to 40 hours), from home, with the european-style five weeks of vacation. and i'm getting better at avoiding any contact with work on the weekends (and certainly while using that vacation time).

but as bart simpson once said, working is for chumps.

on January 18, 2006 03:24 PM
# Robert Oschler said:

I have the guaranteed cure for everyone!

Take one good solid Hurricane in the morning and in a week, when the power comes back on, you'll feel great!

on January 18, 2006 04:37 PM
# Thaths said:

Back in 2001 when my immigration situation finally worked out and I turned 30 I made a decision to travel to distant places for 5 months. I extensively travelled through 5 countries in SE Asia and learnt tons about the history and culture of these places. I realized that I liked doing this and wanted to do it for some more time.

I then took up a 1-year placement as a volunteer in Africa who used my IT skills to help improve people's lives through an organization like Peace Corps.

After 2 more years of working in far out places I have finally managed to exorcise my ghosts and return to the Bay Area rat race. I think I am a healthier person for having done that. I know when to turn off my work-worries brain and enjoy the simple pleasures of life.

on January 18, 2006 05:28 PM
# Billy the Kid said:

As someone who was in college during the first boom, grad-school during the bust and is in Sunnyvale working during here during the second boom, I have no intentions of trying to get rich and retire early or semi-retire for 6 months while I figure how why I don't like my 9-5 job. I've learned to love my job, love the small amount of life I get a chance to live while employed and find balance on a daily rather than yearly basis. The mini-generation that did not participate (get rich) during the first boom chuckle a bit at all the silly things the first boomers do with thier money.

on January 18, 2006 11:35 PM
# John said:

There are only a few companies in the Bay Area that I think seriously tackle work-life balance: Adobe, Intuit, Cisco, Genentech, etc from what I have read and experienced...

Yahoo, eBay, Google, etc... because of the average age is fairly young relative to more mature companies - they really have no sense of work-life balance. But as the average employee age ages, and the chances of retiring in 4 years once fully vested is evaporating, Yahoo and eBay will mature and strike more of a work-life balance - just like Microsoft which is a very mature and ageing average age. It'll take longer for Google since I am pretty sure the average age is still under 30. When I was at Yahoo!, the average age was my age, 33 (a few years back) and there continues to be a baby explosion as people naturally get married and have kids. You have to have some work-life balance once you start having kids - or find a new job.

Those who are lucky and can cash out of a start-up and take breaks are truly lucky.


on January 19, 2006 12:15 AM
# Matt said:

I have to wonder where these companies are where one can actually work only 40 hours per week and not get fired forthwith. IME, the working world is divided into jobs where you work 90 hours per week and get paid enough to justify that much work, jobs where you work 90 hours per week but only get paid for 40 of them, and jobs where you own the company, so you work 100+ hours per week but have a good chance of getting rich.

"If turning off your cellphone is a firing offense, quit"? Why? To be broke until I find another job where turning off my cellphone will also be a firing offense? What good would _that_ do me? Oh yeah...having my girlfriend dump me because I didn't have any money, being afraid to answer the phone because it was usually bill collectors, and having all my family and friends think I was a hopeless loser failure was _terrific_ for my work/life balance.

Thanks for the offer, but I prefer the plan where I get to be _happy_ one day.

on January 19, 2006 02:56 AM
# Zohar Melamed said:

"Compress your whole working life into a few years"

And then what? Join the Krishna?
Go on holiday? Make Jam?

Like quite a few Grahamisims this is badly thought out bravado.

Work is not some painful burden to try and get finished in as short a time as possible - certainly not if you enjoy what you do as most readers of this blog probably do. It is an important and rewarding part of life.

PG's analogy might work for married sex - get it out of the way in an intensive 4 years or keep it on low intensity for 40.

on January 19, 2006 07:46 AM
# KenH said:

I'm honored to be a case study for your article Jeremy. Perhaps if I frame out some aspects of my personal philosophy on work-life balance it'll help your readers form their own strategies.

I subscribe to a set of key tenants:

1) It's only work if there's some place you'd rather be. (George Halas said this to Bernie Siegel.) I.e., if you love what you do for work because it's your creative release, passion, high or whateva, then good on you and stick with it. I've been in this zone a few times while at Netscape and Yahoo, but it didn't last (usually because of the influx of bureaucracy).

2) Company loyalty is dead. I.e., they'll throw you away in a heartbeat during downtimes, restructuring, etc. if it makes sense to the bottom line (or you annoy them).

3) You only live once on this planet. Spending 5 out of 7 days working is a bogus use of time unless you got #1 above on your side.

4) Money is liberty. The more you have, the more options you have in life. And while it's true that money can't buy love, it can help you rent it for a time (heh). Joke aside, look at BillG's ability to use his wealth to positively affect the lives of millions of people by donating billions to global health initiatives. Bet that feels pretty darn good.

So, given the above, I think of my time as an investment and have adopted a hit & run approach to my work career. I work for Internet companies because they offer stock option lotteries with a high probability of great payouts. I also diversify by staying at each company for no more than my vesting schedule. I call this my "standard tour of duty." And, as Jeremy mentioned, I mitigate risk of missing out on life by taking breaks between each job to catch up on it - see the world, spend time with friends & family, expand my mind & skills, exercise my body, and reset.

Yahoo is my 4th company, and so far, my strategy seems to be working (for me).

BTW - Tuesday was the 300th anniversary of the birth date of a man that all techies should consider as a model for life: Ben Franklin. He built a publishing empire from the dirt poor up, and, at age 42, set it aside to "retire," saying that there was more to life than work, and that he wanted to spend the rest of his life on scientific research, public service and travel. He did that for another 42 years, and the list of his contributions would overwhelm Jeremy's blog. :)

on January 19, 2006 11:15 AM
# Robert Oschler said:

>> 4) Money is liberty.

John Lennon once said, "Life is a {poop} sandwich. The more bread you have, the less {poop} you eat."


on January 19, 2006 12:50 PM
# grumpY! said:

>> I have to wonder where these companies are where one can actually work only 40 hours per week and not get fired forthwith

you have to be freaking kidding me. how about yahoo? my observations are that in reality most (meaning almost all) people amble in well after nine and leave near five.

oh but lets not just leave it at that. two+ hours wasted on cruising blogs, the gym, smoke breaks, off-campus lunch. my estimate for yahoo employees is less than three hours of WORK per weekday. just being in the office is not work.

i would love for people in tech to spend a week working on a factory line where you WORK eight hours a day, no flexibility, you start working when the little bell goes off and you stop working when it goes off again.

and now everyone is going to tell me i am clearly not talking about them. wrong! look at the traffic stats for most major sites - they PEAK during the workday.

i really wonder why most offices allow arbitrary outbound connections for employees. why not just put cable tv and xbox on their desks?

on January 19, 2006 01:05 PM
# Matt said:

Wouldn't know about Yahoo. I've never worked there.

As for "Work is not some painful burden to try and get finished in as short a time as possible - certainly not if you enjoy what you do as most readers of this blog probably do. It is an important and rewarding part of life"...well, I do enjoy what I do. I don't so much enjoy the fact that doing it for money prevents me from having time to do anything else.

I doubt I'll ever not work...but no longer being chained to somebody else's schedules, no longer being afraid to turn off my phone during meals, movies, and sex, no longer being constrained to living only in places within reasonable commuting distance of people willing to pay me for what I do...well, those changes will be marked improvements.

on January 19, 2006 11:30 PM
# Kevin Burton said:

Right before I left Rojo I took two weeks off and went to Thailand. Amazingly fun.

Then I spent two months after that working on my health... eating well.. working out... running. Well worth while.

I need to prioritize that again actually :)

It's super important to unwind and get perspective. Sometimes your brain just needs time away to figure everything out.

on January 20, 2006 11:41 AM
# Justin Mason said:


'i would love for people in tech to spend a week working on a factory line where you WORK eight hours a day, no flexibility, you start working when the little bell goes off and you stop working when it goes off again.'

You'd love it, but I'll bet you wouldn't love to do it yourself ;)

The fact that we don't have to put up with that level of dehumanization and "cog in a machine" mentality is a good thing. It may maximise employer profit, at the expense of employee health, sanity, etc., but I for one am no longer willing to sacrifice myself on that altar without good reason.

on January 20, 2006 03:02 PM
# grumpY! said:

justin mason:

my point was not that dehumanization would be educational, it was that tech workers have it very good all things considered. we take for granted the incredible flexibility we are provided, the perks, the great pay (compare your salary to the avg total family in the US last year), the relatively simple work, the ability to blog, play fantasy football, go to the free gym, shop online, foosball tourneys, etc etc all on company time (and once again, web stats clearly indicate most people doing these things do them during the work day)...basically we have nothing to complain about. and don't tell me yahoo is alone in allowing this type of casual behavior.

now you may respond that these perks are the reality given the supply and demand in the labor market for tech talent. perhaps. in ten years will that be the case? enjoy it while you can, commoditization and deflation have already hit the hardware sector hard, software and services can't be far behind.

on January 20, 2006 03:49 PM
# Dir/w said:

Great comments and perspectives here. To the factory comment, sometimes I wish I worked in a factory like my brother. At least HE gets coffee and lunch breaks. I don't even have tme to pee.

I think there's something very broken with the high tech culture where it's expected that we'll work 80 - 90 hours a week. The kind of work we do has a very different level of stress than factory work. My brother and his friends, for example, have a great amount of prediction in their work. I never know what will hit me in the morning, and am expected to bring creativity, problem solving, ambition, and a cheery smile to the job.

I feel like we have to choose between "family values" vs "working your ass off" every single day; there's no room to compromise in this industry.

I just think there has to be a way, as a mass of knowlege workers, to rally against the new norm and set our own standards. Maybe we need to unionize.

on February 20, 2006 05:05 PM
# Jen @ Alterpreneurs said:

I think that it's a sad indictment of our modern day workplace that it squeezes so much out of you that you need months, not weeks to recover.

on May 14, 2006 11:10 PM
# cywong said:

I am foreign engineer from Singapore. it is interesting to read all the review about rat race life in silicon valley. I was surprise that there is almost no difference to work in anywhere in the world if we still work under a boss.

I would said the quality of life and opportunity exist in silicon valley is far more better than anywhere in the world.

if you are lucky enough, may be you can make a fortune in this area. But if you are not lucky, then you will continue your loop of rat race day by day, month by month and year by year.

BTW, I have a question. What make the difference between the entreprenuership in silicon valley than other region in the world.

on January 12, 2010 11:42 PM
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