Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Continental Divide

Being both an aspiring Parisian and neophyte techgirl, I was thrilled to be able to watch the Ustream Live feed of LeWeb '08, a web conference held in my favorite city, yes the City of Lights.  Not that I was able to catch much of the live streaming panel discussions considering the nine hour time change but I did catch the last bit of the incomparable Gary Vanderchuck and his mainstage interview and the closing night panel of the Gillmor Gang.  I won't bore you with the topics and inevitable arguments that ensued during this latter panel, but one topic caught my ear and I wanted to reflect on it:  the European vs. Silicon Valley (ie. American) work ethic and subsequent quality of life.  Loic Le Meur, founder of LeWeb event and his American guests (Steve Gillmor, Michael Arrington, Robert Scoble, to name a few) became ironic metaphors for the difference between the New and the Old World regimes, in a digital age.

One of the things that I love about my visits to Paris is how 'in the now' I become.  I savor the moments, whether it's just walking the streets, sitting in a cafe reading my book while nursing a beer (strange how much beer is consumed in the country considering its reputation for wine), enjoying a long lunch and an even longer dinner, or simply riding the metro.  Perhaps you can argue, it's only because I'm on holiday hence I give myself over to a slower pace, but this historic European city, and many others that I have visited, embrace a certain joie de vivre that seems sadly devoid in American life.  We super-achievers here in the States embrace our work weeks as long as they exceed 40 hours, rarely take full lunch hours, let alone 2 week vacations and race back to work after a few months of maternity leave.  Especially in this bleak economic time, the news wires are filled with stories of people taking pay-cuts, working double time, accepting an extra heaping of responsibility as opposed to a fat bonus, just to hold on to their job.  That 'nose to the grindstone' mentality has been alive and well in Silicon Valley for years, especially considering the do or die nature of the Tech 'start-up' (and especially considering that IPOs are so late 90's).    

I'm not sure which one of the Silicon Valley speakers it was that stated it, but he sees the Silicon Valley tech set as the most efficient and powerful group of its kind worldwide because they live, sleep and eat their job.  They work 24/7.  And the world knows the corporations that resulted, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, even Facebook, the giants in the industry.  And to prove his point, he asked what Chinese or French tech or social media company were we, the general populous, aware of?  Ummm, none.  But as Loic explained in response, he is happy with that.  He breaks even with his company and his blog, and that is enough for him.  And his work is all about love (yes, he really said that), his love of being a digital entrepreneur and of loving life.  (One of the other guys laughed and said 'well I do it more for the sex' a perfect metaphor for the comparison). Loic then continued to illustrate the differences between him and his panelists by recounting how a US business acquaintance had wanted to know why Loic wanted to go for lunch, for what purpose?  And Loic responded, "well just to enjoy lunch?".  

When is the last time you have enjoyed lunch?  Well, besides the fact that I don't like to think of food as my friend because of the pesky calories involved and my chosen field of on-camera work, the last time was in New York, after a long, brisk walk around Central Park on Thanksgiving (one of the three days of the year where it is OK not to work), at a French bistro. We even sampled the new Beaujolais that had just come out- an hour and a half of relaxed french dining.  The time before that was probably at a restaurant in Paris, Chez Janou, that I feature in the photo at the top of this post.   

So how do we merge this over zealous work ethic, or obsession I would argue, with this 'joy of life' mentality that the European espouse, and still be successful?   The digital age and the growth of the industry that supports it proves that you need to be a viable working and thinking entity 24 hours of the day, the Internet never sleeps.  And as the moderator, TechCrunch co-founder Michael Arrington, stated, 'winning is a great feeling too' (when responding to the whole love issue.)  Why don't we want that balance though?  I know I find it hard to put energy towards something that doesn't have to do with the numerous projects I'm working on.  Planning a dinner, just to have dinner, seems counter-productive.  Perhaps we live in such a disposable society where, if you don't work hard enough or complain that you are under compensated or unhappy, you are told there are 20 people waiting in the wings to snatch your job (I was told that when I was an assistant at William Morris just like every other new Wall Street analyst), thus there is a sub-conscious feeling of guilt associated with not working.  You're only as good as how hard you work.  Eek- that's not valuing the human component of the job very much, no wonder we fear that artificial intelligence will take over one day.  But I don't think that the American entrepreneurial work ethic will suddenly soften because a few TechCrunch guys were made to realize that they work too hard and don't take the time to smell the roses.  Exponential growth, especially in the technology realm, dicates that we have to revolve our life around our work.  So you better enjoy what you do.  Do what you love so that you don't mind doing it all the time.  Who knows if this economic downturn and the resulting massive job loss will force those out of work to reevaluate their lives and what they want.  I know it did for me.  I don't mind always being in a work frame of mind because I love what I do and am endeavoring to do.  It's what keeps me going.  But I do hope to spend a year, in the near future, becoming a temporary Parisian, smelling the roses.  And I will go to the beauty of the web is that you can work from anywhere!  A plus tard!

All Things T

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