How to put a dent in the Universe

Since the death of Steve Jobs and the release of his biography a lot of ‘geeks’ are thinking about how to make their own mark on the world. This is no bad thing but there are some serious dangers in this kind of thinking.

At the end of March I will turn 40. With this milestone approaching I have been spending time looking back at my life to date and also looking forward at what is to come.

In the words of Steve Job’s I am wondering if I have “put a dent in the universe” and what I can do over the second half of my life to make a real difference.

In the middle of this introspection I read Mike Arrington’s recent article “Startups are hard. So work more, cry less and quit all the whining.”

To be fair to Mike, I think the point he was trying to make is that nobody is forcing you to work for a startup so don’t complain, just move jobs.

However, there was also a more sinister message coming through his piece that disturbed me deeply. He seemed to be suggesting that if you want to “make a dent in the universe” you had no choice but to work in the Valley and work to the point of exhaustion. In other words if you want to change the world you have to kill yourself doing so and that right now there was only one spot in the world where that was possible.

I could not disagree with this philosophy more. With that in mind I want to share some of my thinking about how to impact the world in which we live. I hope it will be useful for those starting out in their careers but also for those like myself considering where to go next.

Let’s begin by asking what it means to put a dent in the universe.

What does it mean to put a dent in the universe?

We all want to change the world. We all want to leave a legacy and be remembered long after we are gone. Many of us also have a desire to leave this world a better place than when we entered it.

As ‘geeks’ we look to technology as the way to do this. That is perfectly understandable but I think it is important to put this in perspective. Technology does have the potential to change the world. As somebody who grew up without the internet that is blindingly obvious. However, with only one life to live and one chance to change things I wouldn’t look to Silicon Valley and their startup culture as the best place to make the world better.

If you want to use your skills to make the world better working for a startup is not the best use of your time. With the exception of startups like Kiva, few change the world for the better.

Kiva.org

Does working for a startup really bring glory?

Admittedly you maybe less concerned with changing the world for the better than just having an impact which leads to fame and glory. If you can’t get on the x-factor then maybe working for a trendy startup is the next best thing.

Setting aside the fact that promises of glory is a classic way to get young naive people to do all kinds of idiotic things, I am not sure that working for even the most well known of startups really brings much in the way of long term glory.

There is only the briefest of windows when working for a startup brings recognition. When it is too small nobody has heard of you and when it is too large you are just one of hundreds of employees. Unless you are a founder this is somewhat of a dead-end.

Lessons from the past

Looking back at the dot com boom of the late nineties is a good source of proof that startups bring little long term satisfaction. Like many I worked for a dot com that eventually floated on the NASDAQ for $26 million. I remember being told by a New York investor that I would be a millionaire by the end of the year. Even then I laughed in his face and I was right to do so. If I told you the name of the startup you would never have heard of it.

In fact you would have heard of very few of the startups which dominated then. Even the likes of Facebook ultimately come and go. It is the nature of technology to be superseded and replaced.

There is an argument to say there is something noble about working on a project that will impact potentially millions of lives even if you personally are unheard of. I would agree with that. However, what I object to is that it is not the only way.

Alternatives to the startup approach to making a dent

There is nothing wrong with wanting to change the world by working for a startup. However, it is not your only choice.

Even the most popular startup used by millions of people changes very little on the grand scheme of things. If you want to change the world for the better then go work on the website of a charity.

I have been privileged enough to work with charities who rehabilitate wounded soldiers, help victims of AIDS, relieve poverty and defeat legislation that would damage our environment. These charities do more good in the world than the vast majority of startups. I have been able to increase the funds available to them through increased online giving and that brings me immense satisfaction.

In fact there are lots of ways to make a dent as a web designer outside of startups. You could help promote best practice, get involved in formulating the future technologies that shape the web, take part in the open source movement. The list could go on.

Best of all none of these things require moving to the Silicon Valley or keeping venture capitalists happy by killing yourself to earn them money.

Look beyond the web

Of course there is also a lot you can do outside of the web to make your dent in the universe. Too many web designers have been sucked into the thinking that their chosen career is a ‘calling’ that demands all of their life rather than a job that enables them to do stuff outside of work.

Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do but it is not my life and certainly not what I build my self worth upon. I put a dent in this universe in lots of ways that have nothing to do with the web. For example I nurture, love and support my son so that he will have the best chance possible to change his world as he grows up. I do the same for my wife and those I meet in my life. I also ran a youth group for a number of years equipping the next generation to make a difference. Finally, I support numerous charities that are making a bigger difference to this world than any amount of coding on my part could ever achieve.

I say this not to boast but to encourage you to look beyond the bubble of the web world and get a more balanced perspective. The web isn’t the only way to make a dent, its not even the best and its certainly not the only one we should participate in.

Finally I want to turn my attention to the other common misconception of making a difference in the world; that you have to kill yourself to do it.

Working long hours is not a badge of honour

When you are young it can be fun to work through the night especially if you are working on something you love. However, be careful. There are two dangers in this approach.

First, there are many that take advantage of your enthusiasm. As Amy Hoy points out in her recent post:

And make no mistake, bartering away your “one and only youth” working 100-hour weeks on a web site for the promise of a big fat carrot on the end of a stick 80 million lines long, dangled by a fat venture capitalist, who will make 3x or 10x or 100x more than you, in the vanishingly unlikely scenario that you “succeed”… is clearly stupid.

It is in the interest of startup founders and investors to drive their employees long and hard to get the most money from you. Don’t fall for it.

Second, even if you are working on something truly worthy, working long hours is ultimately counter productive. The longer hours you work the less productive you become and in the longer term you will damage your health.

Working long hours is not a badge of honour, its a sign of stupidity. You are damaging your health, long term mental well being and undermining your ability to work smarter.

Working smarter

I have done the long hours thing. It doesn’t work. You put more in but proportionally you get less out. When you are young you can endure the extra hours for a while. However, as you age you discover its impossible to maintain the pace but don’t know how to work any other way. If this is allowed to continue it will destroy your relationships, happiness and health.

Instead of working longer hours learn to work smarter. I work less now than I have ever done in my life but I produce more. I am more efficient, organised and focused when I do work. That is because I am rested and healthy. I have learnt that my time not working is as important to my success as the hours in front of the computer.

So forget this crap about working long hours. It is simply not true. In fact see it as a challenge. See how much you can get done in as few hours as possible.

Wrapping it up

I realise this post has been a bit of a wandering rant. I apologise for that. However, the culture that has grown up in the web world of obsessive working practices that encompass almost religious fanaticism and unhealthy hours, disturbs me deeply.

I am concerned in particular for those starting out in their careers. I have seen too many of my friends burn out. I don’t want that to happen to the next generation. Ultimately that is bad for our industry and will prevent us from making that dent we all wish to see.

  • Anonymous

    Working long hours on a consistent basis is a sure fire sign you can’t manage a project or workload properly. 

  • Anonymous

    Great post Paul, as somebody pondering a Startup myself this does help put things in perspective. The long-hours culture endemic to Startup Culture is not healthy, and the feeling I get is that if you’re not sacrificing your health and social life you’re “doing it wrong”. While I’m not a “four hour workweek” proponent, there are ways to achieve goals and also avoid brute-force approach of burnout. It just takes a bit of thought. 

  • Phil Cole

    Great piece.  As you touch on in the article about your son, my dent in the universe is maximising the time I spend with my wife and 2 girls.  Time will disappear all too quickly and for the girls the ‘spending time with Dad’ period will be over all too quickly and deemed un-cool – at this point I can spend more of my time doing the other things that I would like to do.  I try and maximise the time with my family and friends because, to be honest, they are my Universe – or certainly the centre of it.

    I recently went freelance and, to be honest, probably end up doing more hours that I used to but the hours are arranged around the important elements of my life rather than the other way round – it’s a balance, certainly at the moment, that works for me.  I am sure I will get round to doing all the projects that I have spinning round in my head at some point but for now they are second fiddle – their time will come.

  • http://twitter.com/MarkSkinner_ Mark Skinner

    Worrying about money is more stressful than working longer hours. Working 8 hours at the main job then 4 hours freelance a day that I enjoy – to be able to eat, pay bills, and enjoy myself every so often sounds a good deal to me. Unless someone feels like subsidising my main job, I can’t see it stopping any time soon.

    • http://twitter.com/cliffseal Cliff Seal

      I work about the same schedule, too, but I don’t think that qualifies as ‘long hours’ in the context of this article. I think he’s talking “The Social Network”-style forget-about-your-life-and-code marathons that happen so often that you become nothing other than a ‘part of the team’. For instance, my defense against what he’s talking about is that I (with RARE exception) don’t work after 5pm. Ever. I usually wake up at 4 or 5am each day to work, but it’s family time after 5. And I don’t work at all on Sundays.

  • http://twitter.com/MarkSkinner_ Mark Skinner

    Worrying about money is more stressful than working longer hours. Working 8 hours at the main job then 4 hours freelance a day that I enjoy – to be able to eat, pay bills, and enjoy myself every so often sounds a good deal to me. Unless someone feels like subsidising my main job, I can’t see it stopping any time soon.

  • http://twitter.com/mediaburst Gary Bury

    Just one question:
    What”s a “startup” i.e. at what age does a company lose this bizzare badge of honour?

    • http://definitionfour.com Alex Magill

      And on a related note: why are ‘startups’ such aspirational things?

      • http://twitter.com/JasonAGross Jason Gross

        From a designers perspective I would say the appeal of a startup is the opportunity to get in on the ground floor and have creative control of the product/service. The opposite of that is joining an established company where you would likely be improving upon or maintaining an existing design. From this perspective you may take less pride in the work that ultimately is not yours. 

  • Anonymous

    Great post Paul, and nice to see you do things in the real world too. My freelance work is confined to the evenings but in preparation for the full-time jump, I handle customer expectation that I don’t work weekends – my intention is strictly 8 hours, 5 days a week max. I’m 42 but almost didn’t make it to 41 (or my 1st wedding anniversary) so health and happiness first. I recently wrote about how web designers could help their local communities through permaculture design. Starts with a semi-rant too to try and shock people into a reaction, but without retweets etc it’s a call to action no-one’s hearing… 

    Regards, Karl

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=563432230 Faisal Ansari

    Great post! I was thinking about these ideas just last night. I just quit a very decent paying wall street job this week to start a company and have been fretting about how much stress the new workload and responsibilities will have on my personal life. Though its very tempting, I have resolved to work hard but not to the point where I adversely affect my relationships and health – to take a kinder, more holistic road to entreprenueristan. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/kyleracki Kyle Racki

    At first I wasn’t sure why Paul was upset about the article, but this clearly articulates why and I now understand. Thanks for the post!

  • http://twitter.com/JasonAGross Jason Gross

    I like this post but I think a lot of these thoughts can be interpreted in different ways. 

    For example, when we talking about ‘working hard’ what does that mean? For some people working hard may mean throwing a lot of time at a project. For others it might mean being as productive as possible within a time span. As Paul points out on this article he favors the idea of being productive within a time span. I think an additional factor here is passion. If you spend a lot of extra hours on a project because you love it then it’s another story. If extra time directly correlates to extra stress then I would agree it’s time re-consider your work process. 

    My other thought is on the idea of ‘putting a dent in the universe’. I love how Paul describes that we can dent the universe in myriad ways, including projects outside of the web and simply supporting or family and friends. To me it’s important to keep in mind that making a dent in the universe is a part of the overall human goal. People who think that ‘their dent’ will make a mark forever are disillusioned. The point of making a dent is so that other people can come along and make more. The overall goal being enhancing the world we live in as a group :). 

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Sharper/100000807088310 Matt Sharper

      “I think an additional factor here is passion. If you spend a lot of extra
      hours on a project because you love it then it’s another story”

      Not really putting 80 hours in to something because you “love” it is also a fallacy and is just a stupid and you will burn out just as fast….

  • http://8gramgorilla.com/ Gordon McLachlan

    Working long hours is definitely counter productive and, personally, I think it’s often driven out of fear rather than anything else. Fear that the product isn’t being developed fast enough, fear that the market is moving on, fear that employees just aren’t capable or trustworthy enough etc. It also shows a distinct lack of planning and management – if something can’t be accomplished within a 40 hour week, then something is wrong.

    Not to say that I begrudge hard work and, if anything, I really take Mike’s point about shutting up and getting on with things. Life can be tough and sometimes you just need to buckle down and get on with it. However, having said that, I think the start-up model is often flawed in that investors are enticed to pump obscene amounts of money into a company (often spent on massive unnecessary overheads like expensive offices) and then, of course, they want a large return back within a set amount of time, putting huge pressure on everyone who works there.

    At the end of the day I suppose we all just need to exert a little common sense and decency.

    • Anonymous

      First to make a real dent in the universe you need to be someone like Einstein (sort of pun intended there!).

      Next level down is in engineering, but most efforts are diluted down, so that individuals really don’t count. Same applies to politics, unless you are really nasty reaching to the likes of Hitler or Stalin here, then you might get a note in
      history. But even these guys hardly dented the universe. The good guys get forgotten even quicker – unless you have divine connections!

      As for X-factor winners – well their  dent factor on the Universe has about as much value as a single snow flake in a desert.

      So let’s face it unless you are born with divine connections (bit tricky that one) or intend to be extraordinarily bad (easier and probably more fun) you will not be remembered, you will not dent
      the universe – as they say dust to dust ashes to …

      Enjoy your 40th – and go on prove me wrong!

  • http://8gramgorilla.com/ Gordon McLachlan

    Working long hours is definitely counter productive and, personally, I think it’s often driven out of fear rather than anything else. Fear that the product isn’t being developed fast enough, fear that the market is moving on, fear that employees just aren’t capable or trustworthy enough etc. It also shows a distinct lack of planning and management – if something can’t be accomplished within a 40 hour week, then something is wrong.

    Not to say that I begrudge hard work and, if anything, I really take Mike’s point about shutting up and getting on with things. Life can be tough and sometimes you just need to buckle down and get on with it. However, having said that, I think the start-up model is often flawed in that investors are enticed to pump obscene amounts of money into a company (often spent on massive unnecessary overheads like expensive offices) and then, of course, they want a large return back within a set amount of time, putting huge pressure on everyone who works there.

    At the end of the day I suppose we all just need to exert a little common sense and decency.

  • brianm101

    First to make a real dent in the universe you need to be someone like Einstein (sort of pun intended there!).

    Next level down is in engineering, but most efforts are diluted down, so that individuals really don’t count. Same applies to politics, unless you are really nasty reaching to the likes of Hitler or Stalin here, then you might get a note in
    history. But even these guys hardly dented the universe. The good guys get forgotten even quicker – unless you have divine connections!

    As for X-factor winners – well their  dent factor on the Universe has about as much value as a single snow flake in a desert.

    So let’s face it unless you are born with divine connections (bit tricky that one) or intend to be extraordinarily bad (easier and probably more fun) you will not be remembered, you will not dent
    the universe – as they say dust to dust ashes to …

    Enjoy your 40th – and go on prove me wrong!

  • Howard Lee Harkness

    “Working long hours is not a badge of honour, its a sign of stupidity. You are damaging your health, long term mental well being and undermining your ability to work smarter.” —

    That’s the best statement on the subject I have seen so far. —

    I once had an interview with a small startup. It seemed to be going ok until I faced the question, “In your opinion, what is the cause of ‘crunch’ time?” —

    My reply was “Crunch time is prima facie evidence of management incompetence.” —

    I didn’t get the job. I was glad of that.

  • Anonymous

    I think one of the implications that upsets me most is that to be ‘successful’ (however your chose to define that) you need to be willing to give up your life.

    I like to consider myself reasonably success and I have certainly not done that. I look at other people I consider successful like @hicksdesign:twitter or @mikekus:twitter and they too have managed to find a balance between family life and their professional careers.

    Could we have been more ‘successful’ in our careers if we had thrown more hours into it? To be honest I am doubtful. I think the lack of balance that would have brought would have probably done more harm than good.

    At least that is my opinion.

  • http://twitter.com/JonKruger Jon Kruger

    Good stuff.  It’s funny, I wrote pretty much the same thing last week.  I particularly liked how you called out long hours.  I’ve seen a lot of people fall for the “my work is my calling” fallacy.

    http://jonkruger.com/blog/2011/12/02/making-a-dent-in-the-universe/

  • http://twitter.com/ecmClint Clint Lewis

    I’m still programming strong at 58, 6 hours a day, I love it and the money is good. The ability to work from home as a programmer is becoming mainstream now and that helps us who have the privilege to do so find balance.

    On 4/11/2001 I wrote about this very topic and said in my article: “Think of all the dot.coms that are now gone. Vanished. How many beautifully
    crafted, but now useless applications sit in storage boxes at U-Store-Its around
    the country? Are you working on one of those projects right now? Is that OK with
    you? ” as a piece for AngryCoder. So, it’s nice to see you younger guys are still working this out.

  • http://twitter.com/dev_Gabriel Gabriel Oliveira

    Totally agree with you.
    I try to improve my productivity every day. This way, I do not get burned out.
    I just cant be productive for more than 8 hours(less than that, most of the time.

    Thank you.

    (:

  • John Atten

    Very nicely put. I had a job I loved. I loved it so much I put in all my free time, weekends, evenings, etc. I was on a career path and I knew it. But after seven years and a goodly number of promotions, I was burnt out, and while the love of the work was still there, I needed a break so bad I took an offer from a recruiter in a different part  of the country.

    I mourn the loss of the old job, but if I hadn;t let it go, I would likely end up hating it. You are correct, I didn’t know how to work any other way at that place, and it was slowly killing the joy.

    You are correct. There are plenty of over-worked, under-funded non-profits out there where the “IT depatment” consists of the guy who knows how to use the query designer in MS Access and can create large, flat tables many columns wide, and which strongly resemble spreadsheets. If you want to make your mark, so to speak, find one of these places.

    Thanks for the straight talk. Great post.

  • http://twitter.com/amberweinberg Amber Weinberg

    I don’t think Mike was particularly saying the only ay to put a dent in the universe was through startups – I think he was mainly saying people should stop whining about their jobs. If you don’t like your job – quit. And he’s right when he says it takes a lot of hard work and long hours at the beginning if you want to be successful in the web world. Ask any major business owner and they’ll tell you the same thing – and this includes Steve Jobs as well.

    Working for startups isn’t for everyone and that wasn’t Mike’s message…his message was if you wanted to follow that route, you had better be prepared to put in that time and work.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Sharper/100000807088310 Matt Sharper

      “and long hours”

      no it doesn’t reread the post.

  • http://twitter.com/douglasmabreu Douglas Abreu

    Great post. I just wanted to learn more about working smarter. Could you explain us how you do this? I am only 26 and I want to work less and produce more.

  • http://gwynethllewelyn.net/ Gwyneth Llewelyn

    The dot-com bubble was a “revelation” for me, too. From utter anonymity into fortune beyond my wildest dreams, it took me just a few years; sure, I had to forfeit a personal relationship and adapt my body to deal with ever-diminishing sleeping hours and no routine whatsoever.

    Then the bubble burst. While the company I had started with some friends is still around, I not only lost all my money (banks went wild in the aftermath of 9/11, and not even so-called “secure investments” were worth the ink written on the contract), but attracted all sorts of frauds, con men, and greedy “business partners”. Due to my lack of experience in dealing with those, they not only managed to cheat me out of whatever money I still had on the bank, but they piled up huge debts in my name, then swiftly went underground and suddenly there was just me to bear the burden of dealing with all the mess. Five years after coming into possession of all that wealth, I was living in a hot 2×2 m room in the middle of nowhere with little else but the clothes on my body and a battered old laptop which was my gateway to the world — definitely way worse off before the dot-com bubble started — and still debts to pay for the remaining of my natural life.

    That certainly gave me a perspective on what really matters in this life. Money, glory, fame come and go at just a moment’s notice; if you’re unable to deal with that, you can only get depressed or insane. It’s not that all those are “bad” in itself; I did enjoy being rich for a while, it was actually quite fun. But to make it as the only goal in life will just lead to disappointment. Of course some people are more lucky than others. But then I open the pages of a tabloid magazine and just see what the lives of the rich, powerful, and famous are: divorces, stress, frustrations, depression, disease, and all their lives fully opened to public scrutiny, to the most intimate details. Is that the kind of thing that truly brings ever-lasting happiness?

    There surely has to be more than that. But the alternative wasn’t fun, either: being poor, destitute, and living under dire conditions definitely didn’t make me happy, either, and I would be hard pressed to believe otherwise :)

    So there has to be a “middle way”. And the trick seems to be actually very simple from the intellectual point of view: we just need to focus our work and activity to make others happy. If that means going through volunteer work, helping a charity to set up their website, or simply to create something which is fun and draws people to it to have fun together, then that’s all that’s needed to make a “dent in the Universe”. Practically everywhere around us we see people who just want to make life for others more difficult by cheating them, expecting that this will lead them to a degree of happiness — there is this momentary thrill when you feel you’re superior to others you’ve cheated, but this quickly subsides, and you have to do it over and over again. At the end of the day, those people never seem satisfied. Still, all our society is built around this principle: learn how to be competitive, learn how to outsmart others, if you’re not able to cheat to struggle for your career you’re a weakling and worth of contempt. What happens? Sooner or later, all these people get frustrated (even if they don’t actually admit it) or even depressed (even if it remains undiagnosed) and turn to all sorts of stimulants (even if it’s over-the-counter “happy pills” prescribed by doctors and not necessarily alcohol or other entertainment drugs) to “forget” about the horrible lives they lead. We have millions of examples like that. Is it worth following them?

    I think not. Instead, simple deeds that make others happy — specially if you’re definitely not looking for anything in return — is enough to bring satisfaction. Incidentally, they might bring much more; so long as you’re not expecting nothing, anything that comes from that act is a bonus: usually it might just be a smile, a thank you, and some minor recognition of your work. But don’t even count on that: be content in helping others and see them happy. And there are so many little things we can do for that. Sometimes it’s just sending a nice email or a comment on a blog :)

  • bgrggfe

    Beijing policy makers say they’re eager to encourage greater domestic consumption. Chinese shoppers are famously luxury-happy, flying to Hong Kong and further afield in droves to stock up on Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel and more. All of which means the stage is set for the next great innovation to hit China: 
    Louis Vuitton Outlet malls.

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