Young and ambitious? Don’t devote nights and weekends to your employer—do this instead

You’re more likely to get ahead by saving nights and weekends for yourself.
You’re more likely to get ahead by saving nights and weekends for yourself.
Image: #WOCTech Chat/Creative Commons
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A life that’s free of work on nights and weekends shouldn’t be revolutionary. But in the era of overwork, it’s easy for people with jobs that are supposedly 9-to-5 to internalize the idea that they have to work long hours to get ahead.

This attitude is perpetuated by CEOs like Elon Musk, who famously invited people to come work for Tesla while noting that “no one ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” Cryptocurrency entrepreneur Ryan Selkis recently doubled down on this advice—for young people in particular—writing on Twitter, “If you don’t work nights and weekends in your 20s, you’re not going to have a successful career.”

It’s a convenient narrative for the founders and CEOs who count on employees to put in extra hours—often without extra compensation—in order to keep their companies afloat. Consider the recent tale of the outsized burden placed on customer-service workers at direct-to-consumer luggage brand Away, who were barred from taking paid time off, asked to cancel holiday travel plans, and urged to take photographs of themselves in bed with their laptops, all in order to keep pace with customer demand and shipping snafus. As Basecamp founder and CEO Jason Fried noted on Twitter, “If your company requires you to work nights and weekends, your company is broken. This is a managerial problem, not your problem.”

Employees who put in excess hours definitely help get their bosses out of tough spots, enriching the higher-ups in the process. But the evidence suggests that overwork doesn’t benefit employees themselves: Not only does the quality of their work suffer, they’re more susceptible to physical and mental health problems and at a higher risk of burnout. What’s more, managers can’t even tell the difference between people who are working superhuman hours and those who are just pretending to be.

Still, say you’re a young person with a lot of time and energy to devote to your career. You’re ambitious and focused; you don’t mind putting in longer hours. Should you go ahead and burn the midnight oil in the hopes of getting great work done and impressing your manager?

The answer may vary depending on the specifics of your job. But in general, you’re far more likely to get ahead by channeling your enthusiasm and ambition toward your own independent projects—not the company’s.

That is, after all, how many founders and CEOs achieved their own success. Musk himself launched his first startup when he was 24 years old; he’s not exactly the poster child for toiling in the service of others. Selkis graduated from Boston College in 2008 and spent a few years working in private equity, according to his LinkedIn; by 2011, he had founded his own company.

Other ambitious young people may find that the best way to advance their careers is to dedicate their free time not to the jobs they have, but to the jobs they want. A profile of comedian Tina Fey in the New Yorker notes that, after graduating college, she worked as a child-care registrar at the YMCA, but focused on improv and acting workshops. Author George Saunders spent years working as a technical writer and geophysical engineer, writing on the side all the while, before moving into creative writing and teaching full-time. (“This book was written in the Rochester, New York, offices of Radian Corporation between 1989 and 1996, at a computer strategically located to maximize the number of steps a curious person (a boss, for example) would have to take to see that what was on the screen was not a technical report about groundwater contamination but a short story,” he notes in the preface to his book CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.)

Hardworking 20-somethings who don’t dream of founding a startup or landing on Saturday Night Live may still find enormous value in making their own stuff during their off-time. An early-career graphic designer may not love the projects they’re assigned at their day job, but can work on projects of their own choosing in the evening—which allows them to develop into the kind of designer they want to be, controlling the direction of their career. An IT worker who signs off at 5pm sharp to go rehearse with his band may well be advancing his career even if the group never makes it big; perhaps he’ll develop an interest in audio equipment that puts him on the path to becoming a sound engineer, or build leadership and presentation skills as the band’s frontman that he’d never get a chance to learn at his day job.

All this is assuming a lot of privilege. Some young people juggle second jobs and side hustles out of financial necessity; others may work in toxic, abusive cultures that penalize them for trying to set work-life boundaries. And it’s also worth noting that it’s absolutely fine—in fact, more than fine, laudable and terrific and lovely—to worry less about advancing your career and simply devote your nights and weekends to rest, relaxation, and whatever else constitutes your idea of a good time. Just remember that unless you’re being compensated for them, your nights and weekends belong to you—not your employer.