During the peak of Tesla Model 3’s production, in 2018, the automobile company’s CEO Elon Musk was reported to have told news outlets he was working so hard, he missed his own birthday. This, after months of 120-hour work weeks, staying in the factory for three days straight, and taking insomnia medication to battle sleeplessness.
Click start to play today’s Spell It, where we learn how a workaholic life can become a kind of ‘mania’, especially for tech bosses.
For a long time, the hamster-on-the-wheel work ethic of Silicon Valley’s top entrepreneurs had long been lauded. Musk was one of the prime examples. He was known for his gruelling work ethic – he would divide his day into five-minute increments, where every second was accounted for, according to an August 2018 report in UK-based news website, The Guardian. The mentality of optimising everything extended not just to work, but personal life, too.
In the tech world, according to the report, it’s common for engineers and entrepreneurs to wolf down all their meals at their desks, keep a sleeping bag under it for when they have to clock in a few hours of sleep at night, replace breakfast with bulletproof coffee (coffee with butter in it), and be available to take calls at any time of the day or night – even in check-in queues while catching a flight for a business trip.
And with big tech companies, like Google and Facebook, offering free breakfasts, lunches and dinners, on-campus gyms, rooms filled with games and recreational activities – the boundaries between work and life become even more blurry, until tech workers find themselves spending all their waking hours at work.
Some entrepreneurs, like American software engineer-turned-CEO Rob Rhinehart, who launched a meal-replacement kit called Soylent in 2013, took optimising efficiency to new limits. Rhinehart reportedly resented the idea that he had to take a break to eat food, so he created a 400-calorie slurry that he claimed would provide all the nutrients one needs to live. The product gained much acclaim, but the company later clarified to customers that Soylent could replace any meal, but was not intended to replace every single one.
Rhinehart is also known for his other unconventional methods to minimise work that doesn’t fit into his idea of productivity. For instance, he wrote about how he stopped doing laundry, in an August 2015 op-ed for the US-based technology magazine Ars Technica. Rhinehart described how getting clothes shipped to him from China, though slow, was a much more efficient and convenient process. He wrote: “Thanks to synthetic fabrics, it takes less water to make my clothes than it would to wash them, and I donate my used garments.”
Could that kind of work ethic hold up today? Post-COVID-19, people’s ideas about dedicating their whole lives to work has changed dramatically.
In November 2022, for instance, Musk brought over his Tesla work playbook to Twitter, when he gave employees an ultimatum: commit to working “extremely hardcore” or resign. Unfortunately for him, the plan backfired. It spurred a mass exodus of Twitter staffers – less than 50 per cent signed up for Musk’s new Twitter plan, and a large portion of the company’s financial organisation, including its payroll department, quit outright.