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The Case for Being a Workaholic

Mustafa Sultan
Mustafa Sultan
I think there’s a very interesting divide between what we expect from sports stars — and the rest of us.
The Last Dance, Baddest Man On the Planet and Drive to Survive all show (and glorify) athletes with insane work ethics.
But when entrepreneurs, academics or people doing more normal careers talk about the same — it’s really unpopular (my favourite: Fuck You Gary Vaynerchuk).

On Working Hard
I think a very good entrepreneur, academic, surgeon, lawyer, engineer or writer is just as impressive as any athlete — and similar work ethics should be applauded, not seen as pathologic.
This is quite a common Twitter debate—
I really enjoyed the below snippet from Keith Rabois: “If you allow people to outwork you, they’ll outperform you”.
Probably controversially (?), I think this is a healthy mindset: It sets your locus of control internally (I am the master of my destiny) vs externally (stuff just happens to me).
If You Allow People To Outwork You, They'll Outperform You
If You Allow People To Outwork You, They'll Outperform You
There are problems with this belief — we know that it’s not as simple as amount of hard work = results. People are born with all sorts of challenges. Hardcore meritocracy is a lie. We are not really masters of our own destiny.
The meritocratic ideal is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality.
Being good at making money measures neither our merit nor the value of our contribution.
The Tyranny of Merit, Michael Sandel
In a world with so many uncontrollable variables: race, gender, family connections — working hard is the only lever we control.
Top 1%ers
I got in trouble in a recent interview I did. The guest was a doctor and then became partner at a very large company.
We were discussing work/life balance and I hinted at an unpopular belief I have: That she is a top 1%er and that I couldn’t believe that she had worked sensible hours — particularly in her 20s and 30s. She told me off for implying that people like her are not ‘normal people’ but conceded that she had worked ridiculous hours.
I think people find me referring to people as ‘top 1%ers’ (or similar) problematic. I kind of get it, but not really. To me the people I interview really are like sports stars.
I think, and maybe it’s painfully obvious — but there has to be some divide between what makes up a ‘normal’ balanced life and what top 1%ers do.
Or as Naval Ravikant puts it:
Keith is talking about the Olympics of startups. He’s talking about the person going for the gold medal and trying to build a multi-billion dollar public company. That person has to get everything right. They have to have great judgment. They have to pick the right thing to work on. They have to recruit the right team. They have to work crazy hard. They’re engaged in a competitive sprint.
In fact, I think accomplished people working crazy hours is the most ethical state of affairs.
If working M–F 9–5 sits square in the middle of the normal distribution, then to achieve outlier status — your work ethic must be in the outlier of the graph too. Anything else would be unfair.
If partners, executives, professors didn’t work crazy amounts — then why exactly are they there? Inborn talent? Family connection? Pure chance? All of these seem more problematic than working hard.
Blue Zones
A common debate with my dad is around retirement. I don’t understand why he would want to retire. I like the concept of mini-retirements throughout your life.
There are pockets across the world with a disproportionate number of centenarians (people living to ≥100) — dubbed ‘blue zones’.
A lesson from these communities: Older people continue to have a role in society, not socially isolated — but as wise elders and caregivers in multigenerational homes, or within their religious communities.
I don’t think this ‘wise elder’ role exists f0r most people in the UK — and career is probably a source of meaning, fulfilment and community [citation needed].
I tell my dad that retirement looks like a catalyst for death. If work is stressful — can’t you cut out all the stressful parts and just do what you love part time? ‘Good stress’ is good for you.
People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.
The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal
Some Caveats
1) I do absolutely think that people should have the option to work hours that are conducive to a balanced happy life.
2) I do think some work cultures are silly. Particularly in consulting and finance. It’s not always clear what an analyst achieves working 14 hours days vs 8 hour days. Pure speculation, but this looks like some kind of ‘rite of passage’ to signal that you work hard vs any tangible benefit (?).
Related: Imemuri (the Japanese art of falling asleep at work as a show of dedication).
Molly Mae
Funnily enough it was Molly Mae that triggered this, with her now infamous “the world is literally our oyster … and we can do whatever we want with the twenty four hours that we are given” interview.
I got in a lot of heated debates as a Mae-backer — basically believing that this was well intentioned motivational advice. Some bits are problematic when taken ad absurdum. But really she was channeling the Protestant Work Ethic; credited for the rise (and falls) of Europe and North America.
To put it bluntly, we are witnessing the decline and fall of the Protestant work ethic in Europe. This represents the stunning triumph of secularization in Western Europe – the simultaneous decline of both Protestantism and its unique work ethic.
The World; Why America Outpaces Europe (Clue: The God Factor) — The New York Times, 2003
In sum total, I don’t think anyone really believes in sleep when you’re dead hustle — and no one really believes that hard work is a bad thing.
But I do think that the pendulum has swung too far against the virtue of hard work.
Interesting Links
📈 Are You Sure You’re Working Enough? — Bloomberg [podcast].
👶 20 Minute VC: Chris Sacca — How as a tech billionaire do you stop your kid from becoming an asshole? [YouTube].
👹 Being Confidently Wrong [YouTube]. Interesting idea that I try and subscribe to. Basically that people use phrases like “It could be the case that…” or “In certain circumstances…” when giving their opinion (I do this a lot in podcast interviews).
This hedging and diluting means that no one can disagree with what you’re saying — and basically, that you’re saying nothing at all. Much better to make bold claims so you can be challenged and say “I’m wrong”.
#079 Chief Medical Officer, Uber Health
With warmest wishes,
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Mustafa Sultan
Mustafa Sultan @mustafasultan

Thoughts on healthcare, human optimisation and productivity. A little taste of what I'm thinking and reading about.

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