The False Virtue of Intensity

There's been a lot written about Amazon and their work culture.

One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that Amazon is an "intense" place to work, with long hours and total dedication, but that this is the cost of "being great".

I don't agree.

I don't agree with the idea that full-bore intensity all the time leads to better work. Maybe there are industries where that's the case, but a lot of people have said that this kind of total dedication & obliteration of personal life is what's required to make great games, and I know from experience that's a load of garbage.

For five years, I ran a company that made one of the most successful iOS games ever. We were in an intensely competitive environment, and to stay ahead of our competition we had to do things better than they did. And yet in five years, we almost never had any crunch at all, we had almost zero turnover, and people loved coming to work every day, excited about what they'd do next.

The idea that working more leads to better work is just not true.

1.) People need rest. Have you ever had a moment where you're out walking the dog, or lying in a bathtub, or sitting on a beach where you have this "Aha!" moment, and suddenly you've solved the problem that's been haunting you for the last few weeks? You don't have those revelations while you're in the midst of intense work, and there's a reason why. When you're working "hard", you're engaging your conscious brain. It's great at doing certain things, but really not great at other stuff. 

The reason you have these revelations in moments of relative quiet are that your subconscious brain gets a chance to be heard. Instead of constantly barraging you with information you need to immediately convert into "work", if you give yourself some time to relax, or think, or just slow down, then your subconscious brain gets a chance to give you some feedback, and it's often where the most interesting ideas come from, because your subconscious mind knows a lot of stuff that your conscious brain simply can't remember.

2.) Well-rounded people make better things. There was a period a few years ago (2006-08) where every other game was a bald space marine hiding behind stuff in a vageuly Alien-inspired environment. Why? Because the people making games had played Gears of War, thought it was awesome, and wanted to make "the next Gears of War". So they took the influences they had and made some minor, inconsequential variation on the theme, none of which are memorable today.

This happened because an entire industry was "heads-down" and 100% devoted to work for years. They had no external influences, so the only things they could draw from were other games. If you're 100% consumed by your work, the only thing you know is work. The only way to get better at that work is to derive, from first principles, some sort of evolution of what you're doing. That happens sometimes, but it's incredibly rare.

On the other hand, if you take something like Uncharted, it was a rollicking bit of high-adventure that was a huge break from the trends of the time (a "normal" human avatar wearing a t-shirt & jeans was HUGELY INNOVATIVE at the time), and influenced a lot more by movies and books than the other games on the market. That kind of break from the norm happens when you've got time to consume other things. When you can live a life that isn't just 100% work.

Many of the things that I'm most proud of in the games I've made came from outside of games. The "emotional avatars" in Word Ace came from playing a bunch of boardgames & knowing the value of trash talking after a big play. The things I built in the Sims were directly inspired by my love and exploration of cooking. Innovation is almost always a process of synthesis - taking existing ideas and combining them in new ways. Not just in games, but in almost everything. Remove the input of "new ideas", and what are you left to synthesize? You become the work equivalent of Taco Bell, recombining the same five ingredients over and over.

3.) Shit happens. If you're operating at 100%, and something catastrophic happens, you cannot work harder, because you're already operating at 100%. At least, theoretically. But in reality, you often end up giving 110% (or more) to fix the crisis. Something gives. Your kid's baseball game or music performance? The family vacation? Crisis eats anything you give it.

So you operate at 110% for some period of time, until the crisis is averted. And you go back to working at your theoretical 100%. But now you've accumulated a few days, weeks, or months of 10% debt. And you have to pay it back with interest. But you're already at 100%, and you've got no way to pay back the debt. So it gets heavier and heavier, and eventually crushes you.

It seems like a simplistic way to look at it, but in my experience, it's completely true. You have to create some space for crises if you want to create a sustainable work environment, and that can't happen if you're constantly demanding everything from your people.

None of this is to say that we don't expect maximum productivity from our team. Just that we know that maximum work doesn't necessarily lead to maximum productivity. And in the end, I don't care that you're working late hours. I care that you're doing the best job you're capable of doing, and that you're energized and excited to create new stuff, every day, forever.

Work-Life balance isn't a compromise you make with your employees so that they get a chance to live their life at the cost of your productivity. Work-Life balance is something you do to maximize productivity, innovation, excitement and love. There's no compromise to be made.