Work and success

One last post for this decade.

There has been some discussion on tech twitter lately on the subject of whether it is possible to be “successful” in the programming business without working long hours. I won’t dignify the posts which started this conversation off — firmly in the “not possible” camp — with a link; you can find them easily enough I suspect.

My first thought upon seeing this discussion was “well that’s just dumb“. The whole thing struck me as basically illogical for two reasons. First, because it was vague; “success” is relative to goals, and everyone has different goals. Second, because any universal statement like “the only way to achieve success in programming is by working long hours” can be refuted by a single counterexample and I am one! My career has been a success so far; I’ve worked on interesting technology, mentored students, made friends along the way, and been well compensated. But I have always worked long hours very rarely; only a handful of times in 23 years.

Someone said something dumb on the internet, the false universal statement was directly refuted by me in a devastatingly logical manner just now, and we can all move on, right?

Well, no.

My refutation — my personal, anecdotal refutation — answers in the affirmative the question “Is it possible for any one computer programmer, anywhere in the world right now, to be successful without working long hours?” but that is not an interesting or relevant question. My first thought was also pretty dumb.

Can we come up with some better questions? Let’s give it a shot. I’ll start with the personal and move to the general.

We’ve seen that long hours were not a necessary precondition to my success. What were the sufficient preconditions?

I was born into a middle-class, educated family in Canada. I had an excellent public education with teachers who were experts in their fields and genuinely cared about their students. I used family connections to get good high school jobs with strong mentors. Scholarships, internships, a supportive family and some talent for math allowed me to graduate from university with in-demand skills and no debt, with a career waiting for me, not just a job. I’ve been in good health my whole life. When I had problems I had access to professionals who helped me, and who were largely paid by insurance.

Did I work throughout all of that? Sure! Was it always easy? No! But my privileged background enabled me to transform working reasonable hours at a desk into success.

Now it is perhaps more clear why my “refutation” was so dumb, and that brings us to our next better question:

If we subtract some of those privileges, does it become more and more likely that working long hours becomes a necessary precondition for success in our business?

If you’re starting on a harder difficulty level — starting from poverty, without industry or academic connections, if you’re self-taught, if you’re facing the headwinds of discrimination, prejudice or harassment, if you have legal or medical or financial or family problems to solve on top of work problems — there are not that many knobs you can turn that increase your chance of success. It seems reasonable that “work more hours” is one of those knobs you can turn much more easily than “get more industry contacts”.

The original statement is maybe a little too strong, but what if we weaken it a bit? Maybe to something like “working long hours is a good idea in this business because it greatly increases your chances of success, particularly if you’re facing a headwind.” What if we charitably read the original statement more like that?

This is a statement that might be true or it might be false. We could do research to find out — and indeed, there is some research to suggest that there is not a clear causation between working more hours and being more successful. But the point here is that the weakened statement is at least not immediately refutable. 

This then leads us from a question about how the world is to how it ought to be, but I’m going to come back to that one. Before that I want to dig in a bit more to the original statement, not from the point of view of correctness, or even plausibility, but from the point of view of who benefits by making the statement.

Suppose we all take to heart the advice that we should be working longer to achieve success. Who benefits?

I don’t know the people involved, and I don’t like to impute motives to people I don’t know. I encourage people to read charitably. But I am having a hard time believing the apologia I outlined in the preceding section was intended. The intended call to action here was not “let’s all think about how structural issues in our economy and society incent workers from less privileged backgrounds to work longer hours for the same pay.Should we think about that? Yes. But that was not the point. The point being made was a lot simpler.

The undeniable subtext to “you need to work crazy hours to succeed” is “anyone not achieving success has their laziness to blame; they should have worked harder, and you don’t want to be like them, do you?”

That is propaganda. When you say the quiet part out loud, it sounds more like “the income of the idle rich depends on capturing the value produced by the labours of everyone else, so make sure you are always producing value that they can capture. Maybe they will let you see some of that value, someday.” 

Why would anyone choose to produce value to be confiscated by billionaires? Incentives matter and the powerful control the incentives. Success is the carrot; poverty and/or crippling debt is the stick.

Those afforded less privilege get more and more of the stick. If hard work and long hours could be consistently transformed into “success”, then my friends and family who are teachers, nurses, social workers and factory workers would be far more successful than I am. They definitely work both longer and harder than I do, but they have far less ability to transform that work into success.

That to me is the real reason to push back on the notion that long hours and hard work are a necessary precondition of success: not because it is false but because it is propaganda in service of weakening further the less privileged. “It is proper and desirable to weaken the already-weak in order to further strengthen the already-strong” is as good a working definition of “evil” as you’re likely to find.

The original statement isn’t helpful advice. It isn’t a rueful commentary on disparity in the economy. It’s a call to produce more profit now in return for little more than a vague promise of possible future success. 

Should long hours be a precondition for success for anyone irrespective of their privileges?

First off, I would like to see a world where everyone started with a stable home, food on the table, a high quality education, and so on, and I believe we should be working towards that end as a society, and as a profession.

We’re not there, and I don’t know how to get there. Worse, there are powerful forces that prefer increasing disparities rather than reducing them.

Software is in many ways unique. It’s the reification of algorithmic thought. It has effectively zero marginal costs. The industry is broad and affords contributions from people at many skill levels and often irrespective of location. The tools that we build amplify other’s abilities. And we build better tools for the world when the builders reflect the diversity of that world.

I would much rather see a world in which anyone with the interest in this work could be as successful as I have been, than this world where the majority have to sacrifice extra time and energy in the service of profits they don’t share in.

Achieving that will be hard, and like I said, I don’t know how to effect a structural change of this magnitude. But we can at least start by recognizing propaganda when we see it, and calling it out.

I hate to end the decade on my blog on such a down note, but 2020 is going to be hard for a lot of people, and we are all going to hear a lot of propaganda. Watch out for it, and don’t be fooled by it.

If you’re successful, that’s great; I am very much in favour of success. See if you can use some of your success in 2020 to increase the chances for people who were not afforded all the privileges that turned your work into that success.

Happy New Year all; I hope we all do good work that leads to success in the coming year. We’ll pick up with some more fabulous adventures in coding in 2020.

Thanks to my friend @editorlisaquinn for her invaluable assistance in helping me clarify my thoughts for this post.

38 thoughts on “Work and success

  1. I very much agree with you except one small thing: the decade still has a bit more than a full year to go 🙂 (Just like the 20th century ended with the end of the year 2000)

    • Is your theory here that when someone says “the 1950s” they are (1) not referring to a “decade” at all, or (2) they are referring to the decade which began on January 1st, 1951 and ended December 31st, 1960? I would find either conclusion to be strange, but I do not see any alternative conclusions to reach.

      • What he’s trying to say is that if you consider consecutive decades since the start of our calendar (which starts with year 1), then the next consecutive decade begins Jan 1st 2021. Sure, Jan 1st 2020 is the end of a set of 10 years which started Jan 1st 2010, but with that logic, you can celebrate a new decade every second.

    • The 203rd decade doesn’t end for another year, but the 2010s are also a decade, which is not the same as the 203rd decade. The 2010s end tonight.

  2. > I hate to end the decade on my blog on such a down note

    This was actually a bit uplifting for me to read because this post means people are actually thinking about these things, and you are using your influence and success to stir that thought. Ideally, it will be accompanied by action, but it’s a better start than none. Thank you.

  3. Was not mentioning your abilities intentional or lack of self-awareness? 😂

    I’m sure many had your preconditions and didn’t achieve what you did.

    I put. at least, 4 hours of my own of “work” after the 8 hours of work every day. I do choose what to work on or study and I do it because I like it, but that doesn’t make it hard work. Sometimes harder than the “real job”.

    • I mentioned that I have some talent for math. I know enough professional working mathematicians to know that my talent is mediocre; I have a solid undergraduate math background and that’s about it. Enough for the work I do, though lately I am struggling to learn all the statistics I need for my current assignment.

      Your experience calls out yet another way I have been privileged: all of my employers encouraged me to learn on the job. In the last three years if I added up all the time I spent at work just reading and summarizing research papers, it would be multiple weeks. Microsoft paid me to blog, which built my personal brand and honed my writing skills.

      • And I know enough professional working software developers/architects to know that I’m above average but not close to the ones I aspire to be.

        And you should replace “employer” with “team”. At least, for one of your employers. 😂

      • It’s evident that you also have an above average level of intelligence (which is, of course, correlated with success in virtually all endeavors).

        • Though I see your point, it’s important to look for hidden biases. Let’s suppose that “potential intelligence” is an innate trait that is distributed around a mean, as you suggest. Surely there must have been millions of children born in the 1970s more intelligent than me who were not given the opportunity for success in their endeavours because they were subjected to disease, poverty, illiteracy and any number of other evils. My success is not just due to privilege; it is also due to survivor bias. This is yet another area that I considered exploring in this blog and cut for space.

          Anyone who tells you “I did X to achieve Y, so you should too” is possibly missing a needed correction for survivor bias. Imagine for instance a TED talk on the subject of “I got rich buying lottery tickets, so you can too; just buy more lottery tickets!”

  4. That’s a good article, and – similar to some of your posts on Stack Overflow – I had to re-read a few times.

    Maybe success could be defined slightly different: to better one’s condition – as in getting a better job, or up your game; getting to the “next” level. And in this context there’s always the aspect of natural ability and those whom destiny handed a not-so-good set of cards when it comes to the ability to reason quickly versus those who are closer to genius level.

    Working just work hours – and not in the way that one actually wastes them – hasn’t seem to got me anywhere in the past. Getting to the “next” level requires learning new concepts and tinkering around with technology – which is not something I can afford doing at a good enough level since there is simply no more time left in those working hours. So I have to extend those working hours to get anywhere. I started doing this a while ago. Has this paid off ever since I’ve started doing it ? Not yet – maybe it’ll never happen – but I certainly feel less unhappy and can actually grasp new concepts better.

    “But maybe you’re working hard, but not smart” could be an argument against this. Going back to the idea of learning a concept – say the background garbage collection in .NET at a low enough detail – one still has to study it, understand it, read through one or two or three books and write some code to test it. Until that concept “clicks” in one’s mind, I’m not sure there’s a way to be “smart” about it. Unless it’s fluent enough in one’s mind, it’s not really understood. For Eric Lippert, let’s assume that learning a new concept will take n units of time, but for me that will probably be around 8 (I’ve generously chosen a low enough number) times that. So while you get by with understanding this in-between 2 tasks at your work for a total duration of 1 hour, it would take me 8. However I can’t really break those 8h in too many “windows”, since switching contexts too often will burn any shred of understanding I could master. The solution – stay after hours or work at it at home or during the weekend.

    Is this approach of working longer hours sufficient to reach “success”, as defined in the beginning ? For me – currently not. There’s no guarantee it’ll do so in the future. Is this necessary ? For me, it appears that it is. I’m 100% sure I won’t get anywhere by sticking just to the regular 8h – at least for now. Unless I become complacent and say things like “well Eric Lippert is too smart, I can never be more like him” or “I’m really smart and know everything, but this current employer is paying me way behind my level, damn them”, and simply give up.

    Another argument would be “why take the trouble of working longer hours, since then you’ll have to keep up indefinitely in order to maintain the new ‘level’ achieved”. That may be, but there’s also a “compound interest” effect when learning. The more you learn, the more ability you’ll have to accelerate learning in the future. And at one point, perhaps one can simply dial it down and get back to normal working hours, while having achieved that “next” level. I’ll just have to see.

    And it wasn’t anything going against me growing up. Just as you, aside from a different country, the same “privileged” journey applies.

  5. Thanks for not only owning your privilege but making it public and then exploring the issues … great column!

    I myself had a successful and rewarding career in programming that did not require overwork … that I largely lucked into, first stumbling into a programming class at the local community college while I was a math major in HS (which itself was a result of privilege and good fortune), and then happening to be in the UCLA Computer Club when Steve Crocker wandered in and, due to some nearly miraculous coincidences, offered me a job working on the ARPANET project he was managing.

    Happy New Year!

    • I considered exploring the role of luck but cut it; the post was already long. Indeed, sheer luck is also a factor; I was very lucky to get an internship working for Visual Basic. That early experience let me understand the power and reach of improving a developer tool, and set the course for my career.

      I said that privilege is the ability to turn work into success, but that is of course not the whole story. The ability to turn temporary good luck into lasting benefit, while turning temporary bad luck into temporary downturns is also an aspect of privilege.

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  7. Good point about success meaning different things to different people that’s super pertinent. Probably on the contrary to others – for the privilege aspect, or more the lack there of has been a better motivating factor for me to become more ‘successful’. Personally I wouldn’t like to associate ‘luck’ with successful software teams, especially working in this space and being through some tough projects – there might have been some drops of luck sprinkled here and there, but the recipe required a lot of effort when looking back. Please note I reference ‘effort’ here not in the context of working long hours, though is some cases we might of but that was more the exception!

    Reading through the comments its clear that everyone’s views on ‘luck’ and ‘privilege’ are not exactly the same as mine, and I think this is a good thing – the literal definitions though are constant, but our views or experience may (and probably should) be different.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I considered exploring the role of luck as it relates to privilege but decided the post was already too long.

      I noted above that turning luck into success is also a form of privilege. But you bring up an interesting point in the role of the team. A well-managed team takes actions that reduce the role of luck in success; you want to achieve success regardless of good or bad luck, and there are things you can do in the structure of a team to implement that mitigation.

      I believe we should be implementing those mitigations in society at large. The whole point of a safety net is to mitigate the negative consequences of taking a chance that could lead to success.

      • my fallback on luck is this great anecdote from Gary Player (a South African golfer):

        I was practicing in a bunker down in Texas and this good old boy with a big hat stopped to watch. The first shot he saw me hit went in the hole. He said, “You got 50 bucks if you knock the next one in.” I holed the next one. Then he says, “You got $100 if you hole the next one.” In it went for three in a row. As he peeled off the bills he said, “I’ve never seen anyone so lucky in my life.” And I shot back, “Well, the harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

          • Or Oprah’s version: ““I believe luck is preparation meeting opportunity. If you hadn’t been prepared when the opportunity came along, you wouldn’t have been lucky.”

  8. I am not aware of anyone who is idle rich and not working for the government or a company closely connected to the government. It is my impression that people who are rich due to unrestricted market capitalism work a lot. Obviously working hard is not enough, you need a bunch of other qualities and luck. I also don’t know anyone who is naturally intelligent, not ill (mentally or otherwise) and doing bad in life (which I define as not being able to feed a family with two kids and send them to school). I know people who lived in very small towns in Bulgaria had to travel to go to school and now run a successful business (which they own) with a couple of employees because they worked hard and took the initiative. Sure they are not millionaires but their kids might be. They earned this privilege for their kids.

    • How would you expect to learn about people who are idle rich? If your interests are in politics and business, then it would make sense that you would see the most rich people in those fields, and not others.

      There are plenty of retired actors and producers who have more money than I could spend. There are people like Bill Gates, who made their money working hard but now can’t give it away faster than they make it. There are private investors, who “work” in the sense of choosing who to give loans to, but don’t actually produce anything themselves.

      You also simultaneously acknowledge the role of inter-generational wealth (people earning the chance for their kids to be millionaires), but not the many children of rich parents who will never have to work. You acknowledge that illness can get in the way of success, but not the way that poverty can cause illness (lack of preventive care, stress from overwork, etc).

      • OK you are correct there are idle rich (for a generation or two) but in the context of this article it is presumed that the rich somehow cheat the others to work for them i.e. they are their bosses, business owners. Retired actors do not have programmers working for them and couldn’t care less if programmers worked overtime. Let alone that I disagree with the notion that retiring qualifies you as “idle”, you simply produced value in advance.

        • The idle rich make their money from return on investments. All returns on investments that go to the idle rich are by definition not going to the people who actually produced that value.

          The idle rich do not have to be “the bosses”; the idle rich are “rent seekers”. A “rent seeker” is someone who seeks to make a profit without producing a thing of value themselves. For example, the idle rich who profit from the sale of arms in the United States have successfully bribed enough politicians that legislation has passed which makes it impossible to sue the manufacturers of firearms. That massively lowers the risk of this investment and increases the returns, but there is no valuable thing produced by this legislation.

          There are many ways that the idle rich seek rents, but a lot of them involve changing regulations. When you see politicians saying that they must decrease regulations in order to “help businesses”, now you know what is happening; those politicians have been bribed by rent seekers who are trying to more efficiently move profits from the people who produce the value to the people who do not.

          Similarly, you can now see why so many of the idle rich are advancing the propaganda that socialized medicine is bad for America. When employers control health care, workers are scared to change jobs and therefore are in a worse bargaining position when it comes to allocating how much of the value they produce goes home with them. This is rent seeking. The idle rich like workers to be in a bad bargaining position; they like workers to be healthy enough to work, but desperately afraid of getting sick, and they like being able to deny any claim once the worker is sick enough to be a drain on their profits. Again, this is so that value continues to flow from the people who produce it to the powerful people who do not.

    • “I am not aware of anyone who is idle rich and not working for the government or a company closely connected to the government. ”

      This is like a racist saying “I’m not aware of any black who isn’t inferior to all whites.”

      There’s something seriously wrong with someone whose perceptions are wholly determined by their ideology rather than the facts.

      The facts in this case are that the idle rich aren’t working at all, by definition. And very few of them got that way by working for the government.

  9. Thanks for this post, I reached the same conclusions as you. I used to believe hard work and intelligence were all that were required, but doing short terms missions taught me that it doesn’t matter about any of that if you’re born in the wrong place or at the wrong time. I’ve come to realize that QM is right and everything is probabilistic. Work, intelligence, diligence can all push the probabilities around, but they are rarely the truly major factors that decide your success. It is critically important to recognize the things that pushed our probabilities more positive and work to help others have those sames probabilities or better. It’s also critically important to speak out about this and to push back against those who try to keep probabilities low for others.

  10. Your thought process has some flaws in it. It starts out fine with ‘ “success” is relative to goals, and everyone has different goals’. But you end up with ‘If hard work and long hours could be consistently transformed into “success”, then my friends and family who are teachers, nurses, social workers and factory workers would be far more successful than I am.’ You need a more formally definition of what success means to make the later statement. The later statement is implying you are using money as the score tracking mechanism which counters where you started. I think you should formally define success as a measurement of ones happiness. There was a documentary I saw not long ago that showed two peoples lives. Both started out with very little money and help from their environment. One person went into playing in the stock market and the other went into delivering for grub-hub. If we used your implication of money being the means of measurement then the first person was more successful since they made more money. The interesting part of the documentary was they did not judge the peoples level of success but they were comparing their level of happiness. Yes the second person (the delivery driver) was more happy with their life. Using the proposed definition of success being determined by ones level of happiness, the person with less income was more successful than the person with lots of money. My point is that the level of effort you put in nor what your starting environment is does not effect ones success but rather your choices and your ability to be happy with the results do.

  11. This whole conversation is absurdist, it’s like a Monty Python sketch. “Success” has nothing to do with how hard you work, your intelligence or how diligent you are. Success is relational. Success is about people.

  12. I have never really thought of working long hours as being a precursor to success. As you say, my success is defined by whatever my goals are. I have a day job. I write software for a company from 8 am to 5 pm. After work, I get to do the stuff that’s fun. Not that writing code at my day job isn’t fun, but I would much rather be writing code on my own pet projects, or tinkering around with new C# features than working for the boss. (I love my job by the way)

    And that’s my point. I love coding. Whether I do it at work or at home, it’s a passion. I think that a successful person is someone that loves what they do, irrespective of the worldly measure of success attributed to their career. I have been writing code for 14 years now, and it just gets more and more exciting.

    I guess I’m just a geek 🙂

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