At Thrive Global, our mission is to give people the tools to change the way they work and live. We also know however that change on the individual level is especially hard — not impossible, but definitely more difficult — when it goes against the prevailing culture. That’s why a large part of our message since day one has also been about accelerating the culture shift away from one that celebrates and incentivizes burnout. That’s what’s going to allow change on the scale we need. And I was struck this week by how quickly the zeitgeist is changing. Our culture of burnout is deeply rooted, but it now has few public defenders. We’re still in a time of transition, but we might actually — finally — be turning the corner.
Let’s start with this New York Times op-ed by Bonnie Tsui — a cri de cœur on the value of rest, renewal and recovery, which she calls “the invisible labor that makes creative life possible.” But as she notes, “it can make us feel out of step with what the prevailing culture tells us. The 24/7 hamster wheel of work, the constant accessibility and the impatient press of social media all hasten the anxiety over someone else’s judgment. If you aren’t visibly producing, you aren’t worthy.” As she concludes, and as the science makes clear, if we want “periods of furious output,” we have to give ourselves “periods of faithful input.”
Burnout has, of course, been around a long time, but it’s the tech world that created the mythic hero narrative around it and exported it to the rest of our culture. And yet, even here, there are signs of change. Co-founder of Reddit (and husband of Serena Williams and father of Olympia) Alexis Ohanian has become one of the most outspoken voices of change. “You have this culture of posturing,” he said at The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival, “this culture that glorifies the most absurd things and ignores things like self-care, and ignores things like therapy, and ignores things like actually taking care of yourself as a physical being for the sake of work at all costs. It’s a toxic problem.”
Then there’s Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and one of the gurus of what it means to be a successful entrepreneur. In fact, that’s the entire subject of his “Masters of Scale” podcast, which I loved doing. Usually when I do these things I come prepared to debate, ready to parry with my mountain of scientific studies that show, as Ohanian put it, what a toxic problem burnout culture really is. But instead, this is how Hoffman opened:
The real peril lies in believing the myth of the infallible founder. The pervasive tale that you can — and that you must — work inhumanly long hours. Put yourself under enormous stress. Forego sleep, meals, relationships and life’s other pleasures. And that doing so is a fundamental part of the founder’s journey. Taking too many gulps of this particularly popular flavour of Kool-Aid is a path paved with peril. I believe that to survive your entrepreneurial journey, you have to learn how to recharge yourself. Call it “balance,” call it “wellness,” call it “Yin Yang.” Your business and your life depends on it.
I was shocked. It was like we mixed up the script and he was reading my part. And, I’m happy to say, that’s happening more and more. Every day brings more headlines like, “The Harm of Hustle Culture,” and “Workism Is Making America Miserable.” And last month the World Health Organization categorized burnout a workplace syndrome.
To borrow from Hemingway, change has gone from happening slowly to all at once. That doesn’t mean our work is over — far from it. But it’s great that we increasingly don’t have to argue over the basic premise that burnout culture is toxic. Awareness is only the beginning. Turning that awareness into action is the real goal.
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