Yearn for balance22nd February 2023
There’s a leadership quote that usually goes something like this -
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.
In the early stages of my career, I had what would kindly be described as a poor work-life balance. My employer at the time, Facebook, had me constantly yearning for the vast and endless sea.
It was an all-consuming place. We had shy of 400 million users when I joined and well over a billion when I left. It was easily one of the most popular software products on the planet, and as someone in tech, it was incredible to be part of that. We were working on things at a scale that few people ever would and it was honestly quite the high, so it was exciting to work on things no matter the hour or the day. Great for Facebook the company, but was it great for the individuals who made up that company?
Blurring lines between work and pleasure
My Facebook feed itself was a mix of social updates and work updates. Whereas most people used their Facebook accounts to connect with friends or play games, Facebook staff also used it to run the company. In the product, there was no distinction between Colm the person and Colm the employee. My account was my single sign-on for everything work related.
We had access to a special privacy setting that allowed us to publish content that was only visible to other employees, creating a kind of “alt-Facebook” where the engagement tools we worked on were driving us to focus on work1. And since it was a global company with employees around the world, no matter what time of the day I opened the app, my feed had work-related updates in it. “Eoghan has merged code” and “Ciara has created a task” intermingled with updates about FarmVille and photos of nights out.
Work information was ever present and it made it hard to disconnect. So much so that at one Hackathon, someone built a toggle that you could only access from the company network called “beach mode”, which would temporarily revoke your access to internal information. Think about the implication of that - we were so addicted to our work that we had to make it difficult for ourselves to access company data whilst on holiday.
Enjoy your work, but don’t let your job define you
I remember once, when I worked on a team that helped enforce some of our platform policies, I walked into a local shop to grab milk or something. In the window of this small grocery store was a poster advertising some innocent enough competition they were running on Facebook.
I read the details, noticed a handful of ways it violated some policy, and noted in my head that when I got home I should log it.
Like, this was a mom-and-pop store running some insignificant competition that was harming no one, and FB was such a core part of my identity that I felt that I needed to drop the hammer on them, in my off hours, without any public user report. That’s not any definition of boundaries.
To be clear - it’s fine to be excited about your work. It’s fine to be good friends with your colleagues. You should be, that’s healthy. But it’s important to separate who you are from where you work. The last few months have taught us that companies will spend years making you feel important and part of “the mission”, up to the point where you’re not. And they won’t feel any remorse about reminding you what you are to them. You’re not “Ohana” or “Googlers” or “Facebookers” - when push comes to shove, you’ll just be a number on a spreadsheet.
So yearn for the sea by all means, but make sure you’re ok with the possibility of being cast adrift when you get out there.
Be thoughtful about what you yearn for
It’s been almost nine years since I left Facebook, and I like to think that I’ve gotten better at work-life balance these days. I don’t for a moment regret my experience there, and I made many lifelong friends. In some ways, those years shaped how I view building products and the tech sector in general. It was truly a once-in-a-generation place to work. But I’ve given up chasing that high.
Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy my work anymore. I do. Every job I’ve had since Facebook has been fulfilling in one way or another. In my current role at Intercom, I get to have an amazing mix of interesting and business-critical problems, fantastic co-workers, and a fun place to work.
But it’s just that, it’s work. I no longer yearn for that sea like I once did. The seas I yearn for now are things like family time, time to read, or time to play tennis. And I think that’s for the best. Life is short and that means you should find a balance of interests, both personal and professional. For my part, I’m content working hard at building ships during the day and then disconnecting to spend time on other things in the evening. I hope you can find that balance too.