BUSYNESS OR BUSINESS … THAT IS THE QUESTION

“Some people can look so busy doing nothing that they seem indispensable”.
American cartoonist and journalist Kin Hubbard (1868-1930)

I was interested to read recently that Goldman Sachs has announced that it will lessen the workload for its banking staff and in particular for its junior bankers in acknowledgement that interns can be asked to work 100+ hour weeks and under tremendous pressure. Goldman has sent a memo to its executives that all staff must not enter the office between 9.00pm on Friday and 9.00am on Sunday, declaring as well that “work should not shift from office to home”, and that staff are “strongly encouraged to take three weeks holiday a year”. However, the memo does go on to say that despite all this “… junior bankers are still expected to check their blackberries on a regular basis over the weekend”.

This may well have been driven by the death of a 21 year old London finance student who died after completing a highly competitive Bank of America summer internship. It is believed that Moritz Erhardt died of an epileptic seizure after working for 3 nights straight with no sleep. Following the Goldman Sachs lead, a number of other banks on Wall Street are now also considering similar changes to their entry level programs.

Author: Alex Proimos; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Alex Proimos; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


I found this all to be extremely fascinating.

At 100 hours, if one works a full 6 days per week, this translates to about 16 hours per day, leaving scant time even just for travel to and from the office, minimal sleep, some siphoning up of some fast food as nourishment, and the development of what appears to be the obligatory drug habit. Even at 7 days per week this needs about 14 hour work days, which still leaves little spare time to plan what one will be able to do with all that money that they will earn, and that will enable them to win the title of “The richest person in the cemetery”.

I have no real issue with hard work, nor with working extended hours, having had my own 60-80 hour work habits over my 40 year career. I also have no problem with the idea of pulling the occasional all-nighter, which happened to me even when I was a junior programmer in the 1960s and I became obsessed with a particularly fascinating problem that I was working on. In fact I am even a very vocal critic of the French obsession with the 35 hour work week.

However, even in the most demanding parts of my career, I still made sure that I had enough time available to shower and eat regularly, to pursue some interesting pastimes, to spend time with friends, and despite all the pressures, even found the time to woo and win my wife of now 34 years. I cannot see how one can do any of these things when working 100 hours per week when we only have available to us a total of 168 hours.

One key thing I did learn along the way was that “business” and “busyness” were not synonyms, and that one did not necessarily translate into the other.

In fact, I have regularly found that the busiest people were rarely the most effective, in the same way that the people who told me how hard they were working, usually were not. The most successful people were the ones who had built a plan to achieve their goals, and who worked steadily and systematically towards execution of the plan. This did not mean that they spent an inordinate amount of time developing a plan that was something beautiful to behold and to be worshipped by all who saw it. The best plans were the ones that could be well executed by the plan owner, with recognition of the support that s/he would need to ensure its successful outcome. The more complex and convoluted was the plan, the less likely was it to succeed, and I have never seen a plan that worked well where its success was predicated by the need to work 100+ hours per week.

Author: KVDP; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: KVDP; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


I have always believed that the whole work-life balance discussion has little real meaning if we are doing something we really love to do, as work needs to be an integral part of life, and the work we apply our passion and energy to is ultimately a part of the definition of who we are as a human being. However, I strongly believe that working 100+ hours per week over a protracted period of time, not only threatens our health, but also diminishes the richness of our humanity, even though it may grow our bank balance.

Over 100 years ago, before the banking industry took over the role of defining the meaning of life, American inventor and businessman Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) understood this when he said “Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.

How can anyone truly believe that working 100 hour weeks will generate the quality that is needed to do anything well ?

Sadly, I now have an image in my mind of the world financial system being brought to its knees in 2008, not just by the greed that we now understand drives much of the banking sector, but also by a horde of drug-addled, coffee-driven, sleep-deprived, un-showered, unshaven, fast food-poisoned bankers, who made decisions that affected us all when using the only handful of brain cells that were still able to function.

Author: Reginald gray; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Reginald gray; via Wikimedia Commons


Sadly, it appears that American athlete Vernon Law was right when he said “Some people are so busy learning the tricks of the trade that they never learn the trade”.

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