My particular unit of the Chicago Sun-Times, the Neil Steinberg column division, keeps long hours.
Most days, I’ll wake shortly after 4 a.m. and stare into the darkness, puzzling out some wrinkle in whatever I’m working on. Then toss back the covers and pad up to the office to iron it out. That shifts into polishing it in earnest in the morning after the coffee’s brewed. Hunting around for the next column in the afternoon. And it’s not unknown to get a far-away expression at dinner — oops, it’s “separate,” not “seperate” — and bolt back to make a change.
Still, I don’t consider myself overworked, because a) it’s my choice, b) I really like doing it and c) if you counted up the scattered minutes, I don’t think it would exceed the 37.5 hours a week I officially work. It’d be impossible to tally.
Everyone’s job is different, of course, and I’m in something of a unique position. Still, COVID-19 has taught many employees to value flexibility. They’re more interested in having a life outside work, not less. Nobody wants the boss hovering over their shoulder, and many professionals are trusted to do what they need to do, where and when they need to do it. “Get ready to put in a lot more hours!” is not a diktat that anybody, columnist or carpenter or cop, will greet with much enthusiasm.
So while the ongoing public tantrum that Elon Musk has been throwing since he paid too much for Twitter last month grew extra boring of late, Wednesday’s twist of the knife caught my attention.
Musk ordered his remaining employees — he has already fired half of Twitter’s staff — to commit to “long hours at high intensity” or quit. Why? Basically because he spent too much and now wants to squeeze more return on investment out of his employees’ lives. Working for Twitter, Musk wrote, will become “extremely hardcore,” a term with an apt connection to pornography since both forms of grinding are obscene.
Overwork is simply bad business. I’m not an entrepreneurial genius like Elon Musk. So I can’t see how success comes from immediately alienating your advertisers by turning Twitter into even more of a masked ball for haters than it already is; then insulting your customers for not leaping to pay $8 a month for a meaningless blue checkmark; while decimating your staff and bullying your remaining workers. I see why some suspect Musk is trying to destroy Twitter; were that his intent, he could hardly set about it in a more methodical way.
Long hours aren’t the only path to success. Years ago, I had the pleasure of trailing another vastly accomplished man, Garry Marshall, the TV legend — creator of “Happy Days”— and movie director of hit films such as “Pretty Woman,” when he visited his alma mater, Northwestern.
We stopped backstage where NU theater majors were preparing the Waa-Mu Show, the school’s big gotta sing, gotta dance musical. One kid, trying to impress Marshall, told him they had been up all night working on the sets. Marshall was unimpressed.
“If you were professionals,” Marshall replied, “you could go home at night.”
I love that and have always taken it to heart. Not that I’m unwilling to work hard when the situation calls for it. Go to Christ Hospital and spend 24 hours in their trauma unit? Yes sir. Fly to Japan for the birthday party of a teddy bear? If necessary.
But working hard and working smart are two different things. The media is a results-based business. I don’t want to speak for my editors, but in my view, a sharp, effective column that took 45 minutes to write — shhh, I don’t like people to know it’s even possible — is preferable to a dull, off-point column that I struggled over for two days (not that it happens, much).
As someone who works a lot — the column, freelance magazine articles, a book every three or four years for the past three decades — I know that long hours will sap you. If Elon Musk is any example — he’s supposedly CEO of three major companies — gerbil-on-a-wheel effort is crazy-making, not redemptive. Greatness doesn’t ensue. Burnout does, followed by mistakes, frustration and failure. A fate that is coming down the road for Elon Musk and Twitter. What he is doing now not only won’t work; it can’t.