Alignment

February 2019

Should you work hard? Depending on your definition of “hard,” it’s a controversial question. Let’s assume a baseline level of hardness is roughly 40 hours per week of mostly focused work. In other words, this is your typical “good employee” at a 9-to-5: they do their time and they do good work, then they go home and focus on other things. This is very respectable.

What about going above and beyond? There are two sides to this. Bronnie Ware says that one of the top five regrets of the dying is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard”:

This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

On the other hand, we can probably all think of several highly successful people who worked more than 40 hours per week. My favorite example is Henry Eyring, the chemist. His biography is one of the few books I’ve read twice, and he’s one of my personal role models. He was ambitious, worked extremely hard and achieved a lot — but he did this without compromising on anything more important. He was a good husband, father, teacher and leader. He touched the lives of many.

There are additional arguments for both sides of the debate. But what’s the resolution to this paradox? I think it’s something that I’ve started calling “alignment.” Alignment is the situation in which there’s a high correlation between the effort you put into life and the good that comes out. In other words, it’s when your work is aligned with what’s most important.

I hypothesize that the real problem with many of Bonnie Ware’s patients wasn’t that they worked too hard — the problem is that they worked too hard on things that, at the end of the day, weren’t as important to them as they thought. Notice that the #1 regret was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Perhaps the regret of working too hard was really just a symptom of this deeper regret.

If you want to spend your life working really hard, it’s critical to mould yourself and your situation until working hard is actually worth it. Otherwise you have two bad choices:

I really like Sam Altman’s advice on “how to achieve outlier success.” I think it describes well this idea of alignment:

Almost everyone I’ve ever met would be well-served by spending more time thinking about what to focus on. It is much more important to work on the right thing than it is to work many hours. Most people waste most of their time on stuff that doesn’t matter.

Once you have figured out what to do, be unstoppable about getting your small handful of priorities accomplished quickly. I have yet to meet a slow-moving person who is very successful. …

You can get to about the 90th percentile in your field by working either smart or hard, which is still a great accomplishment. But getting to the 99th percentile requires both…. Working a lot comes with huge life trade-offs, and it’s perfectly rational to decide not to do it. But it has a lot of advantages. … And it’s often really fun. One of the great joys in life is finding your purpose, excelling at it, and discovering that your impact matters to something larger than yourself.

It’s not entirely clear to me why working hard has become a Bad Thing in certain parts of the US…. I think people who pretend you can be super successful professionally without working most of the time (for some period of your life) are doing a disservice.

One more thought about working hard: do it at the beginning of your career. Hard work compounds like interest, and the earlier you do it, the more time you have for the benefits to pay off.

I’ve had several different experiences with alignment over the past six years:

For me, having alignment means being a startup founder because I’m ambitious and there are specific things I want to build — I’m not satisfied by working on whatever the company that hired me happens to be building. But all that being said, alignment is important for everyone, regardless of what your individual goals and desires are. As with most hard things, there’s no formula for alignment. You have to figure out what it means for you and how to get it. But being aware of the concept is at least the first step.

I write this all as a reminder to myself. I hope my life never falls out of alignment.


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Clojure coder, half-hearted consultant, wannabe startup founder. Learn more.

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