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Modern entrepreneurs would have us believe we need to wake up at 5 AM and work 80-hours a week for success. But is there something we could learn from their predecessors?

Utah Business

Modern entrepreneurs would have us believe we need to wake up at 5 AM and work 80-hours a week for success. But is there something we could learn from their predecessors?

The New Rules Of Success

Last year, Inc. Magazine―notorious for their clickbait―sent out a tweet that said: “The world’s most successful people start their day at 4 AM.”

To which J.K. Rowling, the author of the acclaimed Harry Potter series responded: “Oh, piss off.”

There was a ripple effect. The debate between early and late risers rekindled in our hearts and minds. One Twitter user even found another Inc. article entitled “Why You Should Avoid Waking Up At 5 AM Every Day” and asked the magazine politely, “which is it?”

Yes, which is it? If we are to be successful, are we to get up early? Or wake up late? Should we work four-hour work weeks or eighty-hour work weeks? For if we are to believe the literature, success is surely derived from one of those things. Unless of course, success isn’t as formulaic as it seems.

The book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,  records the daily habits of more than 150 people, among them Sigmund Freud, Anne Rice, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Jane Austen. And yet no two days are structured alike. Perhaps then, I wonder, if it’s not the method that’s the reason for an individual’s success, but merely the fact that an individual created one, so they could do the far more important thing and work.

Yes, the work must get done. That is essential. But how it gets done seems to vary considerably from person to person. As J.K. Rowling says, “I haven’t got ten rules that guarantee success… the truth is that I found success by stumbling off alone in a direction most people thought was a dead end, breaking all the 1990s shibboleths about children’s books in the process. Male protagonists are unfashionable. Boarding schools are anathema. No kids book should be longer than 45,000 words.”

Indeed. And as Harry Potter became a smashing success in spite of the shibboleths, perhaps there are rules we should break in the name of becoming successful.

“You Have To Get Up At 5 AM”

Some people do. There are early risers for sure, and I am one of them. So was Ernest Hemingway. Both of us wake between 5 AM and 6 AM to get to the important work of writing. The architect, Frank Lloyd Wright did all of his drafting between 4 and 7 AM. Stephen King gets his start around 8 or 8:30.

But then there are those who don’t. Gustave Flaubert woke at 10 AM each morning. F. Scott Fitzgerald woke at 11 AM. Both accomplished their best work in the evenings, typically after dinner. Anne Rice even had a habit of working through the night until child rearing got in the way.

In more recent history, one very opinionated writer for The New York Times wrote an ode to the night owl citing, “What if they are wrong? What if night owls are actually the unsung geniuses? What if we are the ultimate disrupters and rule changers, the ones who are better suited to a modern, postindustrial society ruled by late-night coders, digital nomads, freelance moguls, and coworking entrepreneurs?”

Yes, what if? In fact, there are a number of organizations―most notably in the tech space―who have started offering flex hours, giving the employee the option to determine which eight hours of the day they’d prefer to work depending on their commute, childcare routines, and even their sleep schedules. My sister, for one, is a video game designer at EA, where developers typically don’t get in until 10 AM or leave until after 7 PM. HireVue, for another, allows employees to operate on the schedule of their choosing.

But if success isn’t dependent, as Inc. says, on when one wakes up in the morning, could it still depend on the number of hours one spends working?

“You Have To Work 80 Hours A Week”

There were a wide variety of retorts when media outlets got wind of the fact that Elon Musk thinks his employees should work 80 hours per week. And when I first set out to write this article, it was my intent to find an alternative to it. I wanted to believe that a person could work a reasonable number of hours, and still have plenty of time to live a full and vibrant life.

In the past, that was definitely a thing. Many of the world’s great masterpieces―Les Miserables, Swan Lake, every Jackson Pollock―were created by people who devoted only 20-hour work weeks to the creation of them. Many believed that was the nature of art itself: that it must be lived first if it is to be written, composed, painted, or otherwise encapsulated later. For this reason, many of our historical contemporaries completed three or four hours of work in the morning and spent the vast majority of their days socializing and entertaining.

(I was curious though, how those artists earned a living despite their abbreviated schedules. The answer, it turns out is patronage, part-time jobs, starving, or rare cases making a living from the work itself―dash it all.)

In business, however, those outliers are few and far between. I tried, very diligently, to find one person who ascribed more to the “Four-Hour Workweek” end of the spectrum than Elon Musk’s 80-Hour workweek end of the spectrum. I failed. Even in history, the more analytically minded folk were known for their long work hours. Nikola Tesla, the inventor whose work inspired Elon’ Musk’s company of the same name, often worked from 10:30 AM until 5 AM the following morning. Alexander Graham Bell was known to work 20 hours straight when the right idea struck him. Apprently in the tech world, long hours were always de rigeur.

Curt Roberts, a partner on the investment team at Kickstart Seed Fund says that for the modern entrepreneur, it is much the same. “Almost everyone I work with leans more towards the Musk end of the spectrum rather than the other (including myself),” he says. “My experience has been that for motivated, driven people that are smart about how they use their time, the right number for work hours still tends to end up at 50-60 hours per week.

“I’ve struggled with this my entire professional career, and I just don’t think there is any magic formula for making that easier… I’ve spent years trying to figure out how to hit a 40-hour week and still meet my professional goals while serving responsibly in the organizations I choose to commit my time to. I’ve never figured it out and have accepted that I probably never will.”

The True Recipe For Success

That’s not to say there aren’t downsides to the work. Charles Darwin was a classic over-worker, and he suffered poor health as a result. Alexander Graham Bell’s wife once wrote him saying: “I wonder do you think of me in the midst of that work of yours of which I am so proud and yet so jealous, for I know it has stolen from me part of my husband’s heart, for where his thoughts and interests lie, there must his heart be.”

Indeed for many, extended work hours come with a cost, especially when it comes to one’s health or family. Curtis Calder, for instance, regularly works 80-hour weeks despite the fact that he’s reached burn-out in the past, having to take a medical leave from his job at J.P. Morgan due to a rare muscle illness exacerbated by his strenuous work schedule.

Though he spent time away from work to improve his physical wellbeing, he also used that time to start Anson Calder, a retail startup, and has since returned to his former work schedule. “I do not want to continually be working 80-hour weeks,” he says. “I’m trying to bring in the right resources and the right team, because I would be more efficient if I was working less than I am. But it could all unravel if I don’t keep juggling the balls I’m juggling.”

Underworking can have downsides for the work as well. As Mr. Roberts says: “One can certainly choose to work sub-40 hours per week, but that never comes without a professional price. It’s all about figuring out what you want to optimize for and then living with the consequences of that choice.”

What you want to optimize for. I like that. It means in the end, we all have a choice. We can optimize for living, and so create art from it. Or we can optimize for work, and so advance technology from it. Or we can optimize for another discipline entirely. In the end, success is not attained by getting up early or getting up late, working 20-hours a week or working 80, it’s attained by having a goal, and then optimizing for it. Which leads me to my next question: how does one go about achieving patronage these days?

Elle is the editor-in-chief of Utah Business and a freelance writer for Forbes, The Muse, and The Startup. She is also a literary novelist and the author of a weekly newsletter called The Novelleist. Learn more at ellegriffin.com.