Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Innovation, Stress, and the Bay Area

According to the Mayo Clinic, persistent stress puts an individual at higher risk for heart disease, sleep problems, digestive issues, depression, obesity, memory impairment, and worsening skin conditions. The American Institute of Stress (AIS) also states, "Numerous surveys and studies confirm that occupational pressures and fears are far and away the leading source of stress for American adults and that these have steadily increased over the past few decades." There is a plethora of research indicating that job stress contributes to higher prevalence of chronic diseases and negative health outcomes. (I would like to do more research on this in future.)

In addition, AIS reports that the financial cost of job stress in this country alone is estimated to be over $300 billion per year in accidents, absenteeism, employee turnover, diminished productivity, direct medical, legal, and insurance costs, workers compensation awards, etc.

Given this information, the San Francisco Bay Area ought to be on alert! We have job stress galore.

In order to give context to the major stressors here, I thought it would help to provide a little background on the vibe of the area. I have had several conversations with friends lately regarding the culture of the San Francisco Bay Area. And as it turns out, I am not the only one who has observed that this area has a very particular focus and pace of life. In just a year and a half here, I have come to understand the buzz words that make a person fit in and feel important. Innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and startup mentality are a few phrases that come to mind immediately. (Note: If anyone is looking to move here, these are must-have key terms for your resume.)

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, LinkedIn, HP, Sun Microsystems, Cisco, Oracle, Intel, Genentech, Apple, and Adobe all employ many Bay Area residents, just to name a handful of the myriad companies located in Silicon Valley. The area seems to be constantly abuzz with new ideas, computer engineers, and the constant promise of the “next big thing” in technology.

In the Wall Street Journal’s list of the top 50 venture backed companies (startups) of 2011, thirty of the fifty companies were located in the Bay Area, and seven of the top ten hailed from this region. The list did not even allow for the inclusion of such larger and well-known companies as Facebook and Twitter, as the ranking included only startups valued below $1 billion. I have no doubt our region would make the top of the list in larger startups, as well. The disproportionate number of new businesses in this area is indicative of the driving culture, which in my opinion, is mainly characterized by an obsession with new developments and innovation.

Although the spirit of innovation has driven many important technological advances, one cannot help but wonder about the immense pressure this culture puts on individuals who live and work here. Are we hurting our community more than helping it by contributing to so much stress? What sort of impact are the typical Bay Area mantras having on our emotional health and well being?

For one real life example, consider the Bay Area seminar about “branding yourself” that one of my friends recently attended. It was meant to teach individuals how to market themselves for networking, searching for a job, or starting a business. Her major takeaway was that if you want to market yourself in pretty much any way, you must be constantly on your toes, upbeat, and extremely enthusiastic about what you bring to the table, because every interaction is a marketing opportunity. If you want to market yourself as a fashionable person, for example, you must always leave the house dressed very fashionably. That seems like straightforward advice on the surface, but consider the sheer amount of energy it would take to be enthusiastic at all times, even among close friends, in order to market yourself to the fullest extent.

Her response was, “How about branding myself as honest? I am good at honesty.” In other words, Branding myself sounds exhausting and fake. Do I really have to pretend to be someone I am not in order to matter here?

This is not to say we should not be personable and enthusiastic when meeting new people or discussing our passions, but do we really need to pretend we have it all together all the time, when in reality, no person has it all figured out? This push to brand oneself in line with the particular culture of the area leaves a person convinced that her own interests and personality don't make the cut and stressed about how to conform to something that doesn't fit her core passions and values.

I also had a conversation with two female friends about women who want to work part time or stay at home. In some areas of the country, this is the norm, and women are even insulted for neglecting their families by taking a full time job. In the Bay Area, it seems that the choice to prioritize family in this manner is viewed as lazy or demonstrates a lack of drive to succeed. My one friend who is not employed feels like she has to hide the choice, even from family, as she is made to feel ashamed. The weight of this "shameful" burden is yet another stressor placed on many people in the Bay Area.

I would not condemn a woman for working full time, working part time, or staying at home, as I believe different individuals are called to different lifestyles at various stages of their lives. But even as a woman who already works full time, I have felt the pressure to constantly regurgitate the mentality that “my career is everything” in order to prove that I am driven. “My goal is to be CEO one day!” In reality, I do have the desire to gain increasing levels of responsibility, but I have no intention of working eighty hours a week as a high level executive. Yet that’s what the culture says I should project in order to be taken seriously, so I must engage in the stressful pursuit of maintaining that image through constant vigilance and masquerading.

Many Bay Area companies attempt to mask the pressures they place on employees by dressing up the workplace with food and games. This is an innovative way to disguise the obsession with long working hours and well, innovation itself. But let’s face it – Google offers free breakfast, lunch, and dinner to employees, because the higher-ups want workers to be there for all three meals. Anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves. While it is easy for many to condemn the "workaholic" attitudes of individuals whose jobs are part of the typical corporate rate race (read: Wall Street), we somehow cast the pursuit of innovation as a much nobler undertaking. Nevermind that technology companies are still out to make money; they are seeking a greater glory, and this type of bondage to one's job is different. This "superior work ethic" is all considered part and parcel with innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and the startup mentality of this region.

I work to make changes to inefficient processes at my job. I identify extra projects that will make our company better. I pay attention to details and try to anticipate the needs of those for whom I consult. I stay late to support my colleagues when the work load requires (as evidenced by my 11pm evenings during some of our negotiations last year). But I will go home at a reasonable hour when I am able, because I care more about investing in my marriage than I do about investing in my company. There, I said it. (And now I feel as though I have committed a Bay Area crime of words that precludes me from all future job opportunities.)

In my heart of hearts, I know that it cannot be true that everyone I meet has an “entrepreneurial spirit,” yet that’s what we’re all selling.

Is it so wrong to say that I am smart, I work hard, and I am passionate about something, but I have no intention of starting my own business in the near future? If I were to start a business, it would be because I saw a great need in the community and felt compelled to fill it, not because I have a wild heart that can only be fulfilled by making my own rules and dedicating my life to my work. On the other hand, so many people in this area seem to decide they want to be a leader of a startup and then begin scraping around for an idea. This mentality has been called “the startup bug,” and those who catch it have high hopes of achieving the glory that comes with founding the next big money-maker, whether or not their vision would really better the world around them. (This is not to say every startup is conceived in this manner, but this concept appears to be much more pervasive in the Bay Area, as supported by the sheer number of startups here, including those on the Wall Street Journal’s list of top 50 startups.)

Ultimately, I think we are often peddling innovation for the sake of innovation itself, rather than seeking unique solutions to important problems that really matter to society. The cost of this push on individual stress levels, personal relationships, and general quality of life is secondary to the business results achieved.

I believe this mentality is ultimately devastating to the long-term health of individuals and the health of the community. It measures everyone against a standard that only make sense for some and suggests that the particular “standard” is the end-all-be-all of personal worth. This leads to a constant competition for each individual to appear the most enthusiastic about the concept of innovation or the startup mentality. It inherently undervalues individuals who view success in different terms than the norm of the technological culture or who contribute through means other than entrepreneurship (such as volunteerism or supporting a family in the home).

For individuals, this means added personal stress and the increased risk of chronic illness or declining relationships. For a community, it may mean belittling critical members who fill crucial, but under-recognized roles.

I believe that innovation is critical to societal progress. One just has to look at all of the life-saving medicines that have been produced in the past century to see a prime example of innovation changing the world. Likewise, I think those who feel the innate desire to start a company should go for it!

But I do not believe that every person should be brainwashed or boxed into thinking that technological or entrepreneurial achievement is the only way to matter or to stand out.

I believe that God created each person uniquely, loves us individually, and has a plan and a purpose for our lives.

Psalm 139:13-16

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

I believe a healthy community is one that recognizes the inherent worth of every person.

Now that is an innovative idea worth fighting for!

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