The creative case for work-life balance

A while back I read an interesting NYT piece on how entrepreneurs often exhibit manic tendencies.  Most extreme was Scvngr CEO Seth Priebatsch:

To keep the pace of his thoughts and conversation at manageable levels, he runs on a track every morning until he literally collapses. He can work 96 hours in a row. He plans to live in his office, crashing in a sleeping bag. He describes anything that distracts him and his future colleagues, even for minutes, as “evil.”

Intense.  After reading this, I began to wonder about how crucial this sort of intensity and stamina is to success.  Is it possible to compete with this personality type while getting 8 hours of sleep every night?  While having a life?

I was reminded of this by a post by Matt Douglas, himself a startup CEO.  Douglas zeroes in on a number of Priebatsch quotes from various sources and argues the merits of work-life balance.  It’s well worth a read.

As I reconsidered Priebatsch’s case, I recalled a line from Steven Johnson’s latest book: Where Good Ideas Come From.

I’ll be posting more about the book – and on topics more relevant to this blog’s core focus – but I wanted to share a bit that I count as an argument against the Priebatsch model.

Writing about the importance of “exapting” ideas from one field to another, Johnson relates the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, including this bit:

It is a fitting footnote to the story that Watson and Crick were notorious for taking long, rambling coffee breaks, where they tossed around ideas in a more playful setting outside the lab –a practice that was generally scorned by their more fastidious colleagues.  With their weak-tie connections to disparate fields, and their exaptative intelligence, Watson and Crick worked their way to a Nobel Prize in their own private coffeehouse.

An anecdote like that is hardly compelling evidence on its own, but the lesson here is consistent with the book’s larger thesis.

On the one hand, work-life balance recommends itself and doesn’t need to lean on arguments about fostering innovation.  On the other, I’d sure love to be able to work effectively on 3 or 4 hours of sleep every night.

But just in case other mere mortals are discouraged by stories of the Priebatsch’s of the world, they ought to take heart: a coffee break, a bit of pleasure reading, perhaps even a bit of day-dreaming can foster creativity. It seems at least possible that the very same focus that is helping Priebatsch succeed could also be holding him back.

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  1. How does a “lifeless” CEO treat his employees that have lives?
    Might these CEO’s attitudes be why so many of us start our own companies?
    Are big companies always talking about “thinking out of the box” because being “lifeless” stifles creativity so they try to force it?
    The answers, from my experience, are 1. poorly, 2. yes, and 3. yes. The best managers understand and encourage people, their lives, and their thought processes.

  2. Beth – Matt Douglas’s post echoes much of those sentiments. It will be interesting to see how things go at Scvngr in particular. Thanks for the comment.

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