Work vs. Life Balance in the Extreme

    January 17, 2006

With all the “work vs. life balance” talk one hears from the executives and HR folks in large Silicon Valley corporations these days (thou shalt not burn out), it should (on the surface, at least) be surprising when folks leave with the intent of not working again for quite a while.

I have three recent cases in mind.


First is a guy named Ken. He left Yahoo at the beginning of this year after 4 or 5 years with the company. I had lunch with him on one of his last days. During our discussion I learned that he’s planning to spend the next 6-12 months not doing anything in particular. Maybe he’ll travel a bit, get back into some hobbies, catch up with old friends, and so on. It turns out that he’s done this a few times before. He’s a big a fan of working at a company for 3-5 years, not taking much in the way of vacation time, and then taking 6-12 months off before his next job. He’ll have no trouble getting another great job when he’s ready to jump back in.


Second is Andy. He’s leaving Yahoo in a couple weeks and plans to, quite literally, travel the world. He already has plane tickets to far-flung destinations, a small assortment of gear ready to pack (he’s trying to travel light), and quite a list of other places he’d like to see. I’m a little jealous. I’ve been pretty lucky in that I’ve been able to travel in my job now and then, even internationally a bit. But I’ve barely scratched the surface of seeing our little planet. Like Ken, Andy will have little trouble getting back into the flow of things when the time comes.


Third is Nelson. He’s on leave from Google as of now. It sounds like he’s also gonna take some time to relax, travel, and just enjoy life. Nice. I have no doubt that he’ll have his choice of work again someday too, should he need or want it.

On Balance

These three got me thinking a bit more about the notion whole work/life balance. It’s partly because I’ve realized that work and non-work time blend together so much nowadays that it’s really hard to feel like you’re “on vacation” unless you go away for an extended time or forcibly disconnect yourself from the world.

For me it’s the two or three weeks last year when I took time off to live in the Nevada desert (or a small town in Utah) with a bunch of glider pilots. We’d have breakfast together in the morning, fly in the afternoon, and enjoy a good dinner at night while discussing our triumphs and failures of the day. I almost never find myself thinking about work on those trips.

What I’ve concluded from my own experiences and observing others out here is that different people arrive at this balance in different ways. And that’s more visible in Silicon Valley than anywhere. At one end of the spectrum are the startup guys who are following the gospel of Paul Graham, which says:

Economically, you can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Instead of working at a low intensity for forty years, you work as hard as you possibly can for four. This pays especially well in technology, where you earn a premium for working fast.

They’re followed by people like Ken, who dig in for a few years and then take a nice long break.

Somewhere in the middle are those who try to use their vacation time in blocks no smaller than a week. During that time, they try to avoid work related email and discussion if at all possible.

At the other end are those working mostly 9-5 who manage to disconnect everyday when they leave the office.

And you know what? It’s all just fine. :-)

This is the point at which all my European readers chime in about how they get 2-3 times the holiday/vacation time that we do and generally live at more leisurely pace…

Jeremy Zawodny is the author of the popular Jeremy Zawodny’s blog. Jeremy is part of the Yahoo search team and frequently posts in the Yahoo! Search blog as well.

Visit Jeremy’s blog: Jeremy Zawodny’s blog.