The Cult of the Hardcore Worker
Working productively is not necessarily the same thing as working long hours.
On the day before Thanksgiving, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts would like to discuss exactly what it means to work hard.
Last weekend the New York Times’ James Stewart had a must-read breakdown of AT&T’s disastrous merger with Time Warner. Stewart is a stellar nonfiction writer and his story reads like the business equivalent of a fifty-car pileup on the Dan Ryan during rush hour in Chicago. No one at AT&T comes out of it looking good — possibly because Stewart’s sources came more from the Time Warner side of the takeover.
Sourcing questions aside, there is no doubt that the merger was a clusterf**k of global proportions. “Few corporate mergers have stirred up the passions, seething resentments and finger-pointing as AT&T’s short-lived ownership of Time Warner did,” Stewart writes. “By The Times’s calculation, between the Time Warner and DirecTV deals AT&T has squandered close to $100 billion.” It went so badly that months after AT&T offloaded Time Warner to Discovery it shelled out an additional $1.2 billion — probably to avoid litigation.
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Stewart asks, “How could so much shareholder value have evaporated in so short a time?” The answer he offers is a clash of corporate cultures. The buttoned-down types at AT&T were willing to appease Donald Trump and hire Michael Cohen as the World’s Worst Fixer. In contrast, the creative types at Time Warner were warier (and won that particular round of corporate infighting). Stewart concludes, “the contrast in the companies’ cultures was already evident: AT&T was formal and hierarchical, Time Warner freewheeling.”
The hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World does not fundamentally disagree with Stewart’s assessment. And yet, something gnawed at me as I read his opening anecdote. It discusses the first time John Stankey, AT&T’s chief operating officer at the time, met with his new subordinates at Warner Media, including the heads of CNN, HBO, and Warner Brothers studio:
Mr. Stankey handed them a typed document titled “Operating Cadence and Style,” and sat there while they read it. The memo was two pages, single-spaced, and the silence stretched for what seemed an excruciating length.
The document, which was reviewed by The New York Times, told them how to approach and interact with their new boss. Accustomed as they were to emailing, texting or calling Time Warner’s previous chief executive, Jeff Bewkes, pretty much any time of the day or night, such a directive had never proved necessary. Now their dismay mounted.
Among Mr. Stankey’s dictates: 30 minutes was the “default” length for meetings, Saturdays were reserved for “quality time” with his family, and he expected to be home for dinner by 6:30 or 7. “My routine is important to me,” Mr. Stankey wrote….
When everyone finished reading, Mr. Stankey asked if he had made himself clear. No one said anything. But afterward, there was a flurry of profanity-laced texts.
Stewart’s framing is intended to portray Stankey’s demands as ludicrous. And yet what I kept thinking was “this guy is my new hero.” Obviously, a corporate CEO should be available to handle emergencies at all hours. But is it insane that the guy wants meetings to have a point and himself to have a personal life? How blinkered is U.S. corporate culture that the New York Times presents such requests as so beyond the pale as to invite ridicule?
There are an awful lot of folks who seem to confuse long hours with productive hours. A week ago Elon Musk told his remaining Twitter employees that they had to work harder and longer to thrive in “Twitter 2.0.” According to the Washington Post’s Faiz Siddiqui and Jeremy B. Merrill:
Elon Musk issued an ultimatum to Twitter employees Wednesday morning: Commit to a new “hardcore” Twitter or leave the company with severance pay.
Twitter is shifting to an engineer-driven operation — one that “will need to be extremely hardcore” going forward, according to the midnight email, which was obtained by The Washington Post. Employees were asked to click an icon and respond by Thursday if they wanted to stay.
“This will mean working long hours at high intensity,” he said. “Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”
The result? Approximately a thousand Twitter employees taking the severance pay and leaving. Maybe Musk’s Twitter 2.0 will be as engineer-driven as he wants while still attracting hundreds of millions of users. Or maybe Musk doesn’t comprehend the firm’s primary sources of revenue and consumer utility.
The valorization of hard work is at least as old as Max Weber. It’s a staple of Americana. In some quarters, however, the measurement of labor is reduced to the amount of hours put in rather than the value-added produced. And that seems nuts to me. Such an ethos rewards the performativity of work rather than work itself.
I could prattle on for at least another thousand words on this topic to show you, the reader, that I have exerted effort to articulate my thesis. Having a Substack indulges that tendency.
You know what, though? I think I’ve already made my point. More verbiage would be redundant. I’ll conclude by suggesting that America’s work culture should focus more on productivity than it does on hard work qua hard work.