The American Work Ethic: A Perspective on Personal Truth

by Phillip Bogdanovich

I Love Confirmation Bias.

I love confirmation bias. Seriously. The human tendency to formulate arguments to support one’s own beliefs and desires is overwhelmingly common. It is also easily recognizable in other people, which can make it simple to leverage your desired outcome from whomever happens to be sitting across the table.

Learning to capitalize on a person’s failure to understand how their biases affect their position can be critical to business growth. But nothing is ever that simple. While a growing number of business leaders would have us believe otherwise, running a company is not simply a series of negotiations. That simplistic view bears little relevance to anyone steeped in the details of operations and strategy—and that’s especially true with startups, which are more analogous to stepping in the ring every day to get pummeled by a far larger opponent than to a marathon sales call.

This brings me back to confirmation bias, startups, and the perceived number of hours a CEO should commit to a new company—or, how I realized my perspectives on work were completely skewed.

The Fallacy of the American Work Ethic

Being an American means not avoiding long hours and hard work. It’s part of who we are, and it has gotten us where we are. Our work ethic was dogma before the birth of the American cowboy and widespread recognition of American innovation. There is simply no other way to operate. Right?

This is especially true for CEOs of startups. During Hyperion’s formative era, there was a two-year period of time when I worked seven days a week, eighteen to twenty hours a day. There were two-, three-, and occasionally four-day stretches when I didn’t sleep at all and then crashed for forty-eight hours. I got married during this time, and to congratulate me a former advisor called me to say, “This is your honeymoon. That means you only need to work eight hours a day.” That was what my life had become. By proxy, it was my family’s life too. I never assumed I should think of my relationship to work any differently. Why would I have? These are the conditions required to successfully stand up a company.

My Turning Point

At some point, and I can’t exactly say when, my world started caving in. I was distant in my marriage, and I was becoming less productive—even if it was only noticeable to me. My brain was grinding to a halt and I was battling a kind of exhaustion that I’d never experienced before. A crushing sort of tired. Projects I’d felt passionate about suddenly became tedious. Although we were on the verge of real innovation, nothing felt compelling. New endeavors began to feel months or years old, even when we were barely into them. The vacations I had been looking forward to all year became nothing but a distraction. I didn’t care about them at all. They became work from another location. I was losing a battle for control with my business and my work-life balance. Worse, I had no idea how to begin attempting a resolution.

In the midst of this, I decided to enter a graduate program. I didn’t throw in the towel with the company, or admit defeat and move on to other pursuits; I simply stacked pursuing executive education on to an already unmanageable workload. I reflect on this period in my life as a pointed example of me not knowing how to quit or even throttle back. It is also one of the rare occasions I have put myself in a terrifically tense and volatile situation only to have it prove fruitful, albeit in unexpected ways.

In school, I was immersed in an environment where a large number of my cohorts were successful executives and entrepreneurs. Most of them were also from countries other than the United States. Through networking and academic interaction, I learned that most of my classmates felt Americans, and specifically American entrepreneurs, had no real concept of work-life balance or time management. I’m familiar with this perception; however, like most American businessmen I scoffed at the notion. I assumed this foreign view of American business was heavily biased as a result of professional jealousy. After all, the United States alone has as many billionaires as all of the countries in Asia combined.

But, then I started thinking. And reading. And listening.

I opened a dialogue with a few classmates whom I trusted and who had experienced successful exits from the companies they’d built. I listened to their stories of selling businesses for tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars—the type of success to which most people involved in early-stage startups aspire. They told me they’d also felt overworked during critical growth times, when they found themselves working fifteen to sixteen hours a day, five days a week. The occasional day working eighteen hours became a wake-up call for some. There were some stark differences between what I’d experienced during my company’s early stages and what my international peers were detailing.

So, to make sense of it, I read some more. There is a staggering number of studies that clearly indicate America’s modern corporate system is nothing less than free-market slavery. There had to be more to the issue than something so reductionist. There were plenty of differences between what my classmates and I were recounting as our entrepreneurial experiences, but there were also many similarities. I recognized myself and my company in their stories of a startup progressing from barely-standing endeavor to borderline nuclear disaster, and sought clarity on what helped them make the transition to a successful and profitable end result.

I pride myself on making decisions based on data. It’s not as if data can’t be wrong. We all know data can be skewed, especially if it is gathered to confirm an opinion. After weeks of assessing the issue, I concluded that my own perspectives about what it means to be a CEO were hampering my company. I’d let a group of biases form my approach to work, without looking for any type of substantiation to support its merits.

The Aftermath

Maybe I’m wrong. It’s possible. But, after evaluating the situation for three weeks, I began to implement changes. Not slow progressive changes, but rather sweeping, jarring changes that were painful at times. I limited the company work schedule to thirteen hours a day (6 a.m.-7 p.m.), five days a week. No work on Saturdays, and work on Sunday was restricted to three to four hours in preparation for the week ahead. Initially there was resistance, and at times even resentment. For years we had been working, or at least on-call and available, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Suddenly I was arguing for a schedule with fewer hours and a more productive workday. The obvious question was, why now? Why not three years ago? Frankly, the answer was that—at the time—I hadn’t known any better.

A strange thing happened. We became more streamlined. Fewer hours were painful at first. We weren’t used to working under the constraints of limited time. After a couple of weeks we began to notice areas in our process that needed improvement. It’s not that we’d made any procedural changes, but rather that the change in our work hours led to a defined schedule, and that began to redefine how we needed to work.

It became immediately obvious that we weren’t able to complete necessary tasks in the time allotted by our new approach. Before the change, discovering a bottleneck in the process just meant we immediately allocated more time to determine a resolution. We corrected issues, but never really solved problems. That’s begun to change.

We remain a work in progress. Clearly, we still aren’t running a perfect system. However, what I know without a doubt is that the business is currently running more efficiently, and the team and I are spending more time with our respective families. Morale is higher. We are excited again. Through the evolution of this change, I have discovered what is definitively true about confirmation bias. We find what we are looking for. What we search for finds us. American entrepreneurs look for reasons to validate our ridiculous work hours and commitment to the grind. When I opened my mind and began to look for a better method, I eventually found it. The results have been far more desirable.

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