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Ben Nadel at CFUNITED 2010 (Landsdown, VA) with: Dee Sadler
Ben Nadel at CFUNITED 2010 (Landsdown, VA) with: Dee Sadler ( @DeeSadler )

It Doesn't Have To Be Crazy At Work By Jason Fried And David Heinemeier Hansson

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I'm a long-time fan of the project-management system, Basecamp. But, more so, I'm a fan of the strongly-opinionated and often controversial co-founders, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH). I've read and quite enjoyed their two earlier books, Remote and Rework. So, when I saw last week that they released a new book, It Doesn't Have to be Crazy at Work, I immediately picked it up. It's a quick listen - just over 3-hours on audiobook; but, it's absolutely jam-packed with brilliant insights and it clearly demonstrates a profound empathy for both customers and employees. I think it's by far their best book yet. And, one that I would highly recommend to people at all levels of an organization.


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It Doesn't Have To Be Crazy At Work is an easy-to-consume collection of philosophies and best practices that Basecamp has put into place over the last 15-years. The audiobook is organized into 68 tracks, each of which is concise and to-the-point. None of it feels superfluous, which makes the entire text feel compelling. In fact, it almost reads like a Zen manual in which each chapter serves to illustrate a single life lesson. A cheesier editor could just have easily titled the book something like, "Zen and the Art of Running a Tech Company."

The topics in the book seem to be, at times, both incredibly instinctive and yet somehow still counter-intuitive. This is because we've been raised in a tech world that has become a caricature of business-as-usual in which every idea "disrupts" an industry or "completely transforms" a paradigm.

There is a certain romantic appeal to it. The hustle; the passion; the vision; the calling; the sacrifice. It's hard to listen to people like Gary Vaynerchuk rant about drive without having the urge to yell, "Fuck yeah!" Which is why it's both difficult and delightful to hear Jason Fried and DHH assertively shout back, "Fuck no!"

Case in point:

Fuck that! How about something really audacious: No targets, no goals. You can absolutely run a great business without a single goal. You don't need something fake to do something real. And, if you must have a goal, how about just staying in business; or, serving your customers well; or, being a delightful place to work. Just because these goals are harder to quantify does not make them any less important. (Track 7)

NOTE: Since I have the audiobook version, all of the quotes in this post are the result of my transcribing what I heard. As such, all punctuation is a best-guess effort to recreate the book's cadence and organization.

Or, in response to leaders who feel like they need to burn the candle at both ends, working harder and longer than anyone else is able to:

No - not a hero! If the only way you can inspire the troops is by a regimen of exhaustion, it's time to look for some deeper substance. Because, what trickles down is less likely to be admiration, but dread and fear instead. A leader who sets an example of self-sacrifice can't help but ask self-sacrifice of others.... Maybe that's a valiant quality on the battlefield; but, it's hardly one in the office. (Track 23)

Is there anyone in the start-up world that has trouble relating to that sentiment at some level? I've worked under people that have boundless energy. I know what it's like to have to accept that you'll never be able to work as hard or love a business as much as your boss does. I've been on calls where I've been told in explicit terms that if "I'm not working 70-hours a week, I'm working at the wrong company."

For me, that kind of environment lead to anxiety; and tears; and to panic attacks; and to prescribed muscle-relaxants. It took something that I felt was a calling (programming) and sucked the passion and the joy out of it. And even though I know the situation was wrong, there's still part of me that will always wonder if I was at fault - if it was my short-coming and inability to cope.

Because, that's what the start-up world has become.

At least, in some places. But, contrast that with Basecamp's thoughts on what makes a good work ethic:

A great work ethic isn't about working whenever you're called upon, it's about doing what you say you're going to do; putting in a fair day's work; respecting the work; respecting the customer; respecting co-workers; not wasting time; not creating unnecessary work for other people; and, not being a bottleneck. Work ethic is about being a fundamentally good person that others can count on and enjoy working with. (Track 15)

And, their philosophies on how to manage time and priorities:

If you can't fit everything you want to do within 40 hours per week, you need to get better at picking what to do, not working longer hours.... when you cut out what's unnecessary, you're left with what you need. (Track 11)

These shouldn't have to be; but, I'm sure that for some people, these passages are a wake-up call - a reminder that the start-up world can have humanity. And, that we can do great things without having to lose ourselves in the process.

In an industry where the average company tenure is less than 2-years, more than half of the Basecamp staff has been with the company for more than 5-years. And, with 3-weeks paid vacation, fitness and continuing-education benefits, 30-day sabbaticals, long-weekends all Summer, automatic salary increases, a profit-sharing program, and a low-stress environment, it's not surprising. I think we should all be looking at Basecamp and taking notes. It's easy to write them off as an "exception to the rule"; but it would be more valuable to see what we can learn. Take a look at this book. I promise you, you'll get something out of it.

To close, I just wanted to include a few more passages that struck a chord in me:

You're not very likely to find that key insight or breakthrough idea north of the 14th hour in the day. Creativity, progress, and impact does not yield to brute force. (Track 5)

This is especially true for me because I'm a morning person. I'm at my most creative from like 5AM to Noon. After that, the tasks I work on have to be progressively less challenging. In fact, I wonder what it would be like if all my meetings were in the afternoon, leaving me with a full morning of uninterrupted think time.

You can do big things with small teams. But, it's a whole hell of a lot harder to do small things with big teams. And small things are often all that's necessary. The occasional big thing is great. But, most improvements come as small, incremental steps. Big teams can step right over those small moves. (Track 53)

This hits me like a sock-full-of-quarters. And, the older and more experienced I get, the more this rings true.

Are there exceptions? Of course.... But, 1% occasions like that shouldn't drive policy 99% of the time. (Track 19)

To be honest, I don't even remember what this was referring to. But, it doesn't matter because I think this sentiment applies to all aspects of life. It's easy to let the most limiting factor become the defining factor. Which might make sense in high-stakes situations like flying planes and heart surgery. But, in the vast majority of cases, this reaction does nothing but add cruft and unnecessary "Best Company Practices" documentation.

Whenever executives talk about how their company is really like a big old family, beware. They're usually not referring to how the company is going to protect you no matter what, or love you unconditionally. You know, like healthy families would. Their motive is rather more likely to be a unidirectional form of sacrifice: Yours. Because, by invoking the image of the family, the valor of doing "whatever it takes," naturally follows.... Such a blunt emotional appeal is only needed if someone is trying to make you forget about your rational self-interest.

You don't have to pretend to be a family to be courteous or kind or protective. All those values can be expressed even better in principles, policies, and most important, actions. (Track 22)

I love this passage because it speaks to the importance of policy over ethos. And, that it reminds us that relationships are bidirectional. A few years ago, I considered something similar: we always hear about how "you are a representative of your company" when you are at conferences and trade-shows. But, what if we flipped-that: what if the company and its values were a representative of you? That aspect should be just as important.

If the boss really wants to know what's going on, the answer is embarrassingly obvious: they have to ask. Not vague, self-congratulatory, bullshit questions like, "What can we do even better?" But, the hard ones like, "What's something nobody dares to talk about?" Or, "Are you afraid of anything at work?" Or, "Is there anything you worked on recently that you wished you could do over?" Or, even more specific ones like, "What do you think we could have done differently to help Jane succeed?" Or, "What advice would you give before we start on the big website redesign project?"

Posing real, pointed questions is the only way to convey that it's safe to provide real answers. (Track 25)

100% yes yes yes! I want all of that! I can't stand it when we spend time talking about the things we did right - we all know that part already. I want to dig into the things we did wrong.

And, don't try to justify "Fakations" by saying, "but you can take as much as you want." In our industry, it's become common practice to offer unlimited vacation days. It sounds so appealing. But, peal back the label and it's a pretty rotten practice. Unlimited vacation is a stressful benefit because it's not truly unlimited.... Ambiguity breads anxiety. (Track 36)

For me, the highlight of this statement is that ambiguity breads anxiety. People need structure. People thrive in structure. Never confuse "ambiguity" with "freedom."

If you don't clearly communicate to everyone else why someone was let go, the people who remain at the company will come up with their own story to explain it. Those stories will almost certainly be worse than the real reason. A dismissal opens a vacuum. And, unless you fill that vacuum with facts, it'll quickly fill with rumors, conjecture, anxiety, and fear. If you want to avoid that, you simply have to be honest and clear with everyone about exactly what just happened, even if it's hard. (Track 37)

One of the most fascinating things that Basecamp does is that they clearly articulate - company-wide - why people left and why people were fired. I would love to try this out and see what it's like. I know at work, I often don't know that people were fired until I try to reach out to them on Slack and see that they've been deactivated. It all feels very cloak-and-dagger. I think being more transparent about the whole process would be very helpful.

And, there's so much more. Hopefully some of these passages have piqued your curiosity!

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I believe in love. I believe in compassion. I believe in human rights. I believe that we can afford to give more of these gifts to the world around us because it costs us nothing to be decent and kind and understanding. And, I want you to know that when you land on this site, you are accepted for who you are, no matter how you identify, what truths you live, or whatever kind of goofy shit makes you feel alive! Rock on with your bad self!
Ben Nadel