Long Work Hours: Perception and Consequences


I’m no stranger to long work hours. When I was a management consultant, my life was work. I was either working or resting to work. A day ended when I would physically collapse on my laptop. I left consulting because I knew that lifestyle was not only unsustainable but would also shorten my lifespan.

In an industry (aka. non-consulting) job, I struggle to strike the right balance. Am I working too little? Am I working too much? What time should I leave work? Should I take my laptop home?

In consulting, you had very tight deadlines, so you knew you had to finish a piece of work within a few weeks / months. When the project is finished, you’re done and on to the next one. However, in an industry job, you may have some projects and urgent deadlines, but for the most part the work is business as usual. At any given time, there is always work to do.

Sadly, determining the right amount of working hours is more than just about doing your job. It is about branding yourself. I sit next to a guy that I like to call the Hour Police. He comments on the comings and goings of our co-workers. “How is this guy identified as a high potential talent? He leaves work every day at 6:30pm.” or “She arrives at 9:30am and leaves at 6pm every day. She doesn’t seem very motivated.”. 

For the Hour Police and perhaps others, your work hours are a reflection of how diligent and ambitious you are and maybe even how good you are at your job. A 2010 research shows that many managers have this attitude. The more you work, the better you are perceived, and the more bragging rights you have. Yes. You’re a hero for working all those hours.

However, let’s examine the other side of the coin. The Hour Police himself works every from 8am to 9pm. I’ve heard others ponder: “Does he really need to work 13-hour days? Is he just working longer and not necessarily smarter?” or “Does he live in the office? When does he ever spend time with his wife?”.

Given his 65 to 70 hour work-weeks, the Hour Police is perceived as inefficient, unproductive, and even uncaring. This Economist article seems to suggest that working less may mean we’re more productive. After all, as the graph below demonstrates, the less hours worked per person, the higher their GDP per hours work, meaning the higher their productivity. Correlation? Causation? Unsure, but it does show that Germans work less than the Greeks, and we know which one has the more productive economy.


Also, from a longer-term perspective, longer hours may cause you to be perceived negatively in other ways. As research on white collar workers shows, working long hours can double your odds of depression, and of course being overworked leads to greater stress levels. When you’re stressed and / or depressed, you’re less likely to seem on top of your game. You may bark at your co-workers, dress sloppily, and even develop creepy-looking, stress-induced eye twitches (yup…been there).

Perceptions aside, studies also show that spending long hours at the office can actually kill you. You have a 40 to 80% greater chance of getting heart disease. If accelerated death is the cost, then you better make sure your work and its rewards would be worth it.

Therefore, it seems that the Goldilocks approach may be the most appropriate. Don’t work too much, don’t work too little. Work enough that’s just right.

3 conversations to re-energize yourself at work


I had been getting bogged down at work. It happens almost without you noticing. You attend one too many meetings (with questionable value add). You juggle more office politics than usual because someone’s ego issues (aka. insecurity). You have to work with negative people (with little rainy clouds over their heads). You spend hours on tedious work (also with some questionable value add and that could be outsourced to monkeys). It happens.

However, in the past 1-2 weeks, I engaged in 3 conversations that remarkably renewed my sense of purpose at work.

1. Talk to your customers

This could be the easiest way to lift you out of a work rut (unless you have really terrible customers or your organization provides a really terrible product or service). Since I work in agriculture, speaking to my customers (who are mostly smallholder farmers) reminds me how I am able to help them increase their incomes. With higher incomes, they are able to keep their children in school, provide them with more opportunities, and break the cycle of poverty.  For me, that is incredibly motivating.

For people without customer-facing jobs, this is particularly critical because it puts into context the purpose of your role which may not always be obvious. For example, if your job is packaging in supply chain, then visiting a customer’s warehouse makes you realize that good packaging could really make a difference as your company’s boxes would stand out next to those of competitors, or your products are easier to move because they have handles on the side, or different products are easily identifiable so the customer doesn’t pull the wrong box, etc.

For people with customer-facing roles, it’s meaningful to engage your customers on a more personal level. Shelf the normal business talk (e.g., sales next quarter) to truly listen and learn about the way they use your products / service and what they think about it. Negative feedback can also provide good motivation for you to do something about it.

2. Talk to people that want to work at your organization

Through alumni networks, LinkedIn or other references, I get pinged by people that are interested in working at my company. I find it refreshing to talk to them because it reminds me what it was like when I was in that position — how excited I was to get an interview, how eager I was to get an offer letter, how I visualized myself walking around the office. Most importantly, it reminds me why I wanted this job in the first place.

Therefore, go ahead and chat with those eager beavers that want your job! They can help you take a step back, realize what you take for granted, and re-inject a sense of purpose.

3. Talk to a stranger about your job

2 weeks ago, I attended a networking event, where people inevitably trade name cards and ask about what you do. At first, I felt like a broken tape recorder saying, “My name is…. and I work at ….. as a …….”. However, I ran into a few people that were somehow genuinely curious about my work. I started explaining in more detail about the purpose of my company and my job as well as industry trends. Before long, I was really getting into it. I almost felt bad for taking up so much air time.

Talking to a stranger about your job forces you to strip out the monotonous work involving pointless reports or pre-pre-pre-meetings and forces you to focus on the important parts of your work.

Next time, when you find yourself in a deep dark rut, where you’re about to stab yourself in the eye. Go out and talk to people. They will help you re-focus and strip out the noise. If you’re still grumpy after these conversations, then perhaps it’s time for a new job. As Mother Teresa astutely once said:

Work without love is slavery.

Powerful life lessons from the movie Gravity

SPOILER ALERT: If you have yet to see Gravityplease drop whatever you are doing and go watch it now. Otherwise, please feel free to proceed reading.


Unexpectedly, this movie blew me away. I went in so skeptical as I couldn’t separate Sandra Bullock’s voice from something disastrously funny like the movie title: Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous. While the visual and 3D effects were arresting, my heart bleeds for this movie because of how it inspires and challenges me. Here, I would like to share with you the lessons I learned from Gravity applied to life and work.

1. Bad Things Happen: Bad things happen often and often for no reason. In the movie, the story is set into motion when a series of large debris hits Dr. Stone’s (Sandra Bullock) space shuttle and sends her tumbling through space. After this catastrophe, a series of unfortunate events continue to challenge our protagonist as she struggles to survive in the most inhospitable environment for humans.

Accept what you cannot control

While we’re not all astronauts spiraling through space, we’re all familiar with days or weeks or months when the little black rainy cloud keeps pouring on our heads. You get a bad performance review; the coffee machine breaks down; you get rejected from your dream grad school; you have to fire someone; the love of your life doesn’t love you. So much of this movie reminds me that we must recognize and accept that there are certain things we cannot control.

Put bad things in perspective

This movie also helps me put things in perspective. The next time I get a Monday morning deadline on a Friday evening, I should think: “Hey! At least, I am not tumbling uncontrollably into the deep dark space utterly alone. It could be worse…”

2. Mindset Shift is Powerful: My favorite scene was the pivot point, when Stone transforms from the victim to a fighter. One minute, she is in the darkest place in the movie where she has given up all hope and begins committing suicide. But she reaches deep within and garners the last bits of strength, giving her the motivation to survive and return to earth.

On the surface it seems that nothing changed. Stone is still Stone with the same body, environment, and equipment. However, everything had changed.

We’ve all been in situation when there’s nothing but you and despair. During the recent recession, many of my friends and colleagues were mercilessly laid off. While some were very depressed, others saw it as an opportunity to work on a start-up or travel the world.

I think this pivotal scene beautifully illustrates how we can pull ourselves out of dark situations with nothing but the power of our minds.

3. Rebuilding is painful: Whether it’s a death of a close one, career set back, or relationship break-up, rebuilding is hard. In the movie, we learn that prior to her space mission, Stone suffered the most painful experience a parent could have — the untimely death of her young daughter. Somehow, she never rebuilt her life on earth and spent years doing nothing but working and mourning. When she decided to fight for her survival in space, she had to go through hell and more to return to earth. (The fireball space shuttle seemed pretty hellish.)

Stone’s extremely challenging journey back reminds me that it’s so much easier to fall into a dark place than to climb out of it. It also reminds me how strong we are as humans. Someone once told me that his grandmother, who survived the holocaust, had lost her eye sight because she lived underground in complete darkness for 7+ years. Since I heard that story, I’ve wondered what her first experiences were like when she stepped outside: Did the sunlight hurt her eyes? Did the open air irritate her skin?

Setbacks are inevitable in life, so we just need to remind ourselves that we need to fight so much harder to come back up.

I hope this beautiful and powerful movie can remind you how to approach challenges in work and life as much as it has reminded me.

Lessons I learned from HBS Alumni


Recently, I attended an alumni dinner, filled with alums that have been out of business school for a few months to 20+ years. I was half expecting this to be one of those hand-shaking, business card-swapping dinners, where you make spiffy small talk but not really get to know the person next to you: what’s your name, what do you do, where are you from, NEXT!

To my pleasant surprise, this dinner was much more than that. Many of these alums were astonishingly open and generous with their professional and personal experiences, lessons learned, challenges, and advice to others. 

I was inspired so much by them, so I’d like to share some of their wisdom here.

1. Move your goal post 

Since these are Harvard Business School alums, they were, of course, very driven and motivated, especially coming out of the business school gates. In a group of extreme type A’s who are all uber competitive, there is backbreaking pressure to snag a job with the most prestige, highest pay, and greatest promotion opportunities.

One alum shared her story about setting an aggressive goal to become Managing Director (MD) at her bank within 7 years after graduating. She worked night and day, even through social events and workouts. She even missed the first few years of her first born child’s life. Sacrificing all for work, she finally made it to MD within 7 years, but realized that she was utterly miserable.

The lesson she shared is that it’s so important to consistently evaluate your goal post and the cost of pursuing it. If the rewards of your goal and its pursuit cannot outweigh their costs, then it’s time to erect a new goal post.

2. Careers are jungle gyms and not ladders

I’ve heard this analogy before, but it’s refreshing to see alums actually climbing through the jungle gym. When companies recruit in business school, they tend to layout a nice and neat ladder heading to some prestigious sounding senior position, such as Managing Director or Partner or VP. Therefore, it’s great to see how many alums actively choose to jump off these ladders and climb elsewhere.

I sat next to an alum who had been climbing the investment banking ladder for five years or so. This alum became so frustrated and finally decided to switch to impact investing in a much smaller organization, with much less prestige, and probably a giant pay cut. However, it turned out that this was the dream job since “it doesn’t even feel like I’m even working”.

The lesson I learned is that it takes self reflection and courage to leave the ladder. It’s much easier to follow a carrot that’s always dangled in front of you than to leap into the unknown. But when the carrot is not appealing anymore, taking a risk is a necessary first step, even if it means you could be taking a step back.

3. Expand your opportunities with a portfolio career 

Before this dinner, I had never heard of the term “portfolio career”, which I believe is a collection of multiple careers. For example, a portfolio careerist may be a healthcare entrepreneur, education investor, and fiction writer at the same time.

One alum shared how she stumbled into a portfolio career. When she went to business school, her goal was to join a top consulting firm and become a Partner. During school, she fell madly in love with her current husband and followed him to Asia. At graduation, she made a choice between a consulting offer that required 90%+ travel and her life partner, and she decided to abandon her original goal. Instead, she became a media mogul in Asia…and then in Europe as well. Many years later, her husband was transferred to a tiny media market, so she decided to grow another interest – education! As a result, she successfully started and grew multiple business schools. Oh yes, between her career as in media and education, she also managed to work in a top tier consulting firm for some time. Amazing!

For me, portfolio career is such a mindset change. Since I was young, I was programmed to think what do you want to be when you grow up, what major do you want to choose, and what industry or function do you want to end up in. All these involve thinking in terms of a singular career (or at least highly related ones such as healthcare entrepreneur to healthcare investor). Thinking in terms of a portfolio career not only opens you to multiple opportunities but also stretches your development as a person and professional.

The benefits of working internationally


Whenever someone asks me the question: “Should I work abroad?”, it’s a no brainer answer for me. Of course, YES!!! I’m tempted to just buy the inquirer a plane ticket on the next flight out of his / her country.

Understandably, some people can be quite hesitant about working abroad for many reasons, including:

  • My work network is strong and established in XYZ city. If I move outside, I will have to start all over again, and that would set my career trajectory back.
  • My family and friends are all here. I won’t have a personal support network abroad.
  • I don’t speak the language. How will I even operate there?
  • The industries there are under-developed, and I want to learn industry best practices.

Working and living abroad (especially for long periods of time) may not be for everyone. However, gaining international experience even for a few short months can be tremendously beneficial for anyone from a professional and personal development perspective. Here are some reasons why you should do it:

1. Adopt a different perspective

I think the key to connecting with others and working well with them is to understand their perspective. Spending time in another country and in another culture forces you to develop a new perspective. For example, when I was living in Kenya, I realized how simple money transfer can be using M-PESA, which sends money to anyone through your mobile phone. In the US, people were still heavily dependent on writing checks or wiring money through bank tellers.

2. Become more adaptable and resourceful

This is a particular benefit you could gain from living in a developing country. In developed countries, you take many simple things for granted, such as good roads, reliable transportation system, or electricity. In a developing country, you learn to adapt when there are deficiencies, and I think that is an incredibly valuable skill. For example, in Northeastern Tanzania, there were frequent electricity outages, especially at night time. To adapt, keeping a solar mobile phone charger around was quite handy.

3. Develop patience

The other hidden gem from these experiences is that you learn to be more patient. I remember in India I was rushing to attend a meeting. However, there was a cow in the middle of the road that refused to move for 20 minutes. At this point, you realize that there are some things in life you have control over and others you simply don’t. There, in the middle of traffic under the hot sun, you develop patience.

4. Learn a new language 

If you’re really motivated and dedicated, then you could take the opportunity to learn a completely new skill, such as language. However, learning a new language is usually much easier if you are surrounded by people that don’t speak languages you already know. Even if you don’t become fluent in a certain language, I think there is still alot of value in acquiring basic local language skills: (1) you have basic survival skills, (2) you develop rapport with locals as people tend to appreciate the time / effort you put into learning their language, (3) you can better understand their culture (For example, I always wondered why our Indonesian colleagues would refer to a female as “he” until I learned that in Bahasa he or she is the same word!).

5. Gain interesting experiences

I believe you are the product of your experiences. Spending time in different countries forces you outside of your comfort zone and normal routine. As a result, you appreciate the varying wonders that this world has, and I think that  in turn makes you into a more interesting person.

6. Expand your network

A wonderful perk in living internationally is meeting people that have a completely different background and upbringing as you. These people also have a different social network compared to you, and connecting with them thus also significantly expands your network. At home, you would most likely mingle with people that you already know, so making new acquaintances would be more challenging. Abroad, you will need to make new connections to form friends and colleagues.

7. Enhance your employability 

We all know that we operate in a highly globalized economy. Companies big and small now operate across multiple countries in pursuit of growth opportunities. Having international work experiences and especially a language skill can open your career up to many more opportunities than someone who is more insulated. Additionally, if you’ve worked in a different country before, you have a higher chance of succeeding if your company decides to parachute you into Uzbekistan because you understand the nuances of working within a different culture and environment.

So stop thinking about it. Do it now (or soon). It could be interning abroad, taking a sabbatical, requesting an office rotation, or just applying for a new job abroad. It’s really a no regrets move! It also doesn’t have to require a ton of money to live and travel abroad. The key is to find a company that will pay for you to do so.

Management: a noble profession?


When you hear people complain about their bosses or watch movies like Office Space, you think: Wow. Managers are really the bane of everyone’s existence. As someone who currently has the word “Manager” in her title, that’s a scary thought. Would it be better to become a doctor (although I can’t stand blood) or a teacher (although I can’t stand snot)? Is becoming a manager a truly worthy profession or just a pain in the neck?

What is a manager? 

It’s a nebulous term, but I’ll give it a go any way. For me, a manager coordinates people, budget, and other resources to achieve certain business objectives. To do so, a manager needs diverse skill sets, but some key ones include:

  • Influence others: Motivate and move others to action. This requires not only good communication skills but also superb listening skills and high emotional intelligence. It’s not enough to tell people what to do. You have to convince them that it’s the right thing to do.
  • Problem solving: Address problems quickly and effectively by engaging the necessary stakeholders while keeping others focused on moving ahead.
  • Looking ahead: Identifying potential obstacles or opportunities in the short and long-term. Plan and act proactively upon them to either mitigate risks or capitalize on opportunities.
  • Maximizing team’s potential: Identifying strengths, weaknesses, and passions of team members and assigning them to roles that optimizes their chances of success.

Why managers matter?


Managers matter because they all impact our lives in profound ways (as anyone who has ever had a bad manager knows). The above infographic (albeit an advertisement and US-focused) is stuffed with interesting facts. To highlight a few…

  • 71% of employees aren’t fully engaged due to strained relationships with their superior!
  • Only 35% of people prefer a raise over a better boss, meaning most people value a better manager over more money.

If bad managers can make our lives so miserable, imagine how a good manager could not only improve your life but also our society by inspiring motivated and happy people to achieve great things.

Why have they become such a pain?

If managers could be so important, then why does the profession have such a bad reputation? I think a big issue is how managers become managers. We all start off as grunts in some function (IT, Design, Supply Chain, etc.). We spend hours getting good at doing really detailed work related to the function, whether it’s running Excel models, programming, or designing advertisements. We also get really good at managing up (since we’re grunts at this point and there’s no one to manage down). When we get good enough at our functional skill and when enough time passes, we eventually get promoted to managers. Now, as managers, we are expected to manage people below and budget, which are completely new skillsets that we need to learn.

Therefore, organizations tend to promote managers not for their management ability, but for their functional skills and expertise.

At this point, I think a manager’s success also depends largely upon a company’s performance management process. If a manager’s promotion depends on only his / her boss, then this problem will perpetuate. As this newly promoted manager has had plenty of experience managing up, then the company will continue to promote him / her even if the minions under the newbie manager hates him / her.

How can management become a noble profession? 

I think there are a zillion things to make this profession more (positively) impactful, but to (over)simplify here are so key ones:

  1. Attract more managers that could be good at managing others: They display EQ skills such as listening, compassion, and adaptability and not just high IQ.
  2. Conduct 360 Reviews: Evaluate managers based on feedback from people above and below.
  3. Don’t be a pain in the neck: Enough said.

Does the perfect job exist?


A few weeks back over pancakes, a friend was telling me about her career switching ambitions. She wanted a job in a different industry and function, but with similar pay, status, prestige, and geography as well as an opportunity for a significant leadership role within 5 years. Already with almost 10 years of work experience in the same industry under her belt, she felt tremendous pressure that her next career move had to be the right one.

That begs the question…does the perfect job exist?

Setting Priorities

I think the answer rests on the expectations and priorities we set for ourselves. Like a letter to Santa, we may want a huge list of items in our dream job – high visibility, senior exec, direct reports, a trillion-dollar budget, big pay check, high impact, and great work life balance, exciting industry, etc. However, what is truly important?

When I was looking for my next job in business school, I had a long list as well, but what was really helpful was distinguishing the “must have’s” from the “nice to have’s”. This classification, of course, will vary as your interests and life evolves, and I think it is important to revisit these priorities periodically.

In my situation, I wanted a job that gave me the opportunity to learn more about agriculture (an industry I find fascinating), to have a more operational role (as I was in consulting beforehand), and to make an impact to poor communities in the developing world. Other items, such as work hours, travel requirements, and even pay, were more flexible for me.

Are there aspects of my job that I dislike? Of course! I think it’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll be on clouds all the time. The important questions are: Are there aspects of my job that I love and how important are those to me? Do they outweigh what I dislike about the job? If the answer continues to be “Yes”, then I think I will stay. However, if your priorities shift, then it’s important to identify those and ask the same questions. If the answer is “No”, then perhaps it’s time to move on.

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