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The tech industry is rampant with pressure to become a workaholic.

On-site food and laundry at big companies. The idolizing of people like Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey. The regular innuendos that people who don't code nights and weekends just aren't "passionate" enough to make it in the industry.

The message is that if you really want to Win™ you're going to have to outwork the competition.

Not making enough money? Work harder and longer hours. Not getting the recognition you want? Work harder and longer hours. Exhausted and burned out? Work harder and longer hours.

This message is bullshit.

Study after study have shown that long hours are not actually correlated with better work outcomes. Longer hours have a terrible toll on your health, and the resulting poor sleep craters your ability to make good decisions.

In the short term, working longer can accomplish more, and there will always be crunch times when it's worth trading long term pain for short term gain — that's not a problem. But chronic workaholism is rampant. With such well-documented downsides, why is this still held up as an ideal?

The Grain of Truth

Like all of the best bullshit, the industry's obsession with long hours takes something that is true - working long hours is a way to stand out - and blows it far out of proportion to reality.

The beauty of working longer hours is that almost anyone can do it, especially if you're young and healthy without many responsibilities. If you're willing to give up on hours of television and social life you can use long hours as a way to stand out, pretty much regardless of your other skills and inclinations.

This is the grain of truth: To have an exceptional career, you need to do something that sets you apart from your peers.

Working longer hours is just one way to do this.

Other Ways To Stand Out

There are hundreds of other ways to stand out. Each of us has traits that are unique to us. Rather than just working more, think about what those traits are and embrace them, focusing your efforts and using them to create unique value. That unique value is what will make you win.

What does that mean? Here are 13 possibilities.

  1. Creativity.

    Increasingly valued in business and technology, the ability to come up with creative solutions is both a talent and something that can be cultivated. Do you consider yourself to be naturally creative? You can leverage that by embracing that creativity and becoming the person who always has a clever or different approach. Given the negative impacts of sleep loss on creativity, this is something the workaholics will never be able to compete with you on!

  2. Stubbornness.

    One of my particular traits - you can stand apart with stubbornness by being unwilling to give up on what everyone else has given up on. I gained a reputation early in my career for being the debugger of last resort. When no one on the team could figure out a bug, but it absolutely had to be found, they would come to me. Why? Because I'd never give up. I might fail dozens of times and go down a hundred dead ends, but I'd keep going until I solved it.

  3. Curiosity.

    What would it mean to stand apart with curiosity? Many of us chose our careers due to curiosity - we wanted to know how machines worked, or software, or how to tell better stories. But so quickly we harden into our niches - we do one particular type of software - and we lament the necessity when we have to update our tools. Standing out with curiosity could mean constantly seeking out new possibilities, continually expanding your expertise, or even simply never settling for the easy answer and always looking for the whys behind the answers.

  4. Kindness.

    This is one of my personal favorite ways to stand out, not because I am good at it but because it fascinates me. It is so easy to be brusque, professional, to the point. Focus on the job at hand, be relentlessly professional. No one will criticize you for being business-first, for focusing on outcomes, or for executing your job effectively. But what if you were relentlessly kind, focused on people and how to help them? What if your decisions put the well-being of others in front of business or professional outcomes? What if you never missed an opportunity to show kindness to anyone you stumbled across? We all respond to kindness, and I doubt someone who stands out with kindness will ever lack for opportunity.

  5. Planning.

    I've always been weak at planning, but someone who truly excels in this dimension can achieve incredible things. The ability to create and execute on long-term plans is one of the traits that I envy most in some of my peers. A fundamental trait of human nature is that we tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in the short term and underestimate what is possible in the long term. Exceptional planners take advantage of this by keeping things focused on the long term, lining up prerequisites and taking care of them, moving inexorably towards big accomplishments.

  6. Improvisation.

    On the flip side of planning is the ability to improvise - to create, interact, and execute in the moment based on changing circumstances. While a planner may excel at driving a project to completion, an improviser can handle all of the twists and turns along the way. Throw a planner into unforseen circumstances and they may be adrift, while someone who excels at improvisation will adapt and thrive.

  7. Enthusiasm.

    In a social-media fed culture brimming with negativity, where a snarky takedown spreads virally and positivity is often ignored, it's easy to overlook the power of enthusiasm. Finding the exciting piece in every assignment, the opportunity in every setback, or the optimistic view of every situation is a true skill. A focus on enthusiasm can make you someone people want to work with over and over again. Optimists are consistently shown to be more resilient to setbacks, more likely to succeed, and more desirable to be around.

  8. Communication.

    The ability to communicate clearly to people of all different backgrounds is an often overlooked skill within the technology world, but in my opinion is one of the main keys to success. Whether you're working deep down in the guts of a database system or on the front lines talking to customers, in the end the problems you are solving are human problems. You may use technical tools to accomplish your solutions, but without the ability to communicate clearly you will neither be spending your time solving the right problems nor able to explain the value of your solutions. Communication skills are not only valuable in their own right, but a force multiplier that will allow you to massively leverage any other form of expertise.

  9. Presence.

    Mobile phones and their non-stop notifications have led to a state where constant partial attention is the norm. Periods of uninterrupted focus are sparser and sparser, and even in interpersonal interactions it is increasingly common for people to set their phones in front of them on the table during conversation, "Just in case" an urgent notification comes through. In this world, having the ability to focus and be present in the moment is fast becoming a differentiator. By cultivating your ability to be present in the moment, you can foster deeper relationships and the ability to connect instantly to new people and situations, and in this way set yourself apart from the crowd.

  10. Collaboration.

    Some people are really good at working on their own, but for the majority of us collaboration is where truly great things happen. The entire industry has shifted to open office plans in the hopes that serendipitous interactions will spark creativity. What if you could double down on the ability to create great collaborations? Learn to connect people, connect ideas, and deliberately spark those moments of joint creativity that create breakthroughs?

  11. Willingness.

    Willingness is a concept from psychology, and refers to an individual's capacity to do things that are uncomfortable in the service of something greater. In any job or industry, there are tasks and problems that are frustrating or uncomfortable. Most people shy away from these, not touching them, but in that there is a great opportunity. For those with the willingness to take on challenges no one else will take, they can carve out niches for themselves by solving those problems and taking on that pain.

  12. Patience.

    One of my most vivid memories of childhood is my father telling me over and over again: "Kevin, things take time." Almost everything of any consequence takes a long time to come to fruition, and one of the most common reasons for failure is simply giving up too soon. This is one of the reasons why skill at planning can have such a powerful impact on success. Fostering patience can have a similar effect. This is not to say give up urgency, but if you develop the patience to keep going and allow things to unfold in their own time, you will outlast almost everyone.

  13. Institutional Knowledge.

    In the millennial culture of job-hopping and rapid change, the idea of spending decades in a single job seems almost ludicrous. This is true even though just a few short decades ago lifetime employment was the norm. Despite the increase in speed, long-lived organizations still abound, and the longer an organization exists the more embedded knowledge it develops. While there are benefits to job-hopping, the increasingly short job tenure opens opportunities for people to set themselves apart by spending the time to get to know an organization. Becoming the "go to" person who knows how to get things done within a large organization is an extremely valuable niche, and another way to set yourself apart.

We Stand Apart In Our Uniqueness

The above 13 ideas are only a beginning, a thought experiment in alternatives to workaholism as a way to stand out from the crowd. The key idea here is not to be prescriptive, but rather to highlight that what sets us apart is deeply tied into our uniqueness as individuals. The oncoming tide of automation has lessons for us even in the technology industry - what can be automated, will be. Working harder is something machines are very good at.

What cannot be automated is our uniqueness.

Each of us has traits that make us unique. Some of mine are that I am stubborn, frequently over-optimistic, and deeply interested in communication. What is not always immediately clear is how those traits can benefit us in the workplace, but by identifying and embracing them is a far better way to stand out than working longer hours.

Changing your focus may change more about you than you expect. It may make you happer, make you feel more fulfilled, or make you more productive.

It may also change what you're looking for in your job and company. The more opinionated you become, the more choosy you will become about where you work, and you may find that the culture of your current company is no longer a good fit for you.

Being opinionated about where you work is a good thing. Great work rarely happens when you are unhappy.

As creatives, we create our own possibilities, and there are hundreds of companies out there with different value systems. If your workplace doesn't match your value system, it's worth the effort to find a new place to work.

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