Why Must Arts Workers Equate Long Hours with Success?

If your art cannot get done in the hours you have budgeted for it, you have lied. To everyone.

It's killing your art. And it's killing us all.

An S.A.T. analogy question kicks off this column. Long Hours : Hard Work ::

a) Plow : Bountiful harvest
b) Invest : Maximize ROI
c) Ingredients : A gourmet meal
d) 10,000 honeybees : A jar of honey

Maybe this is one of the reasons the S.A.T. removed analogy questions in 2005. They’re vague and one can find reasons to choose just about any answer. And, of course, these kinds of questions always unfairly favored monetarily-blessed sociological groups. In this case, there are a whole bunch of people who believe the answer is a). It takes a lot of effort to plow, and hard work is like the bountiful harvest, the happy result of a successful plow.

But that would be wrong.

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As we tackle #8 in the list of 15 fraught, flinch-worthy phrases from the nonprofit arts world — “Long Hours = Hard Work” — we have to uncover some biases of our own. First, what constitutes “long hours”? Here’s Albert Einstein:

Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.

There is a difference, then, between long hours and oodles of hours. Working a boatload of hours toward the successful completion of a project is either long or oodles depending on the joy you personally derive from it. If it’s your project and your joy, then it’s oodles. If you believe that reveals the answer to the analogy, you probably believe the answer is b).

But that, too, would be wrong.

To explain this, consider the following term: “Crunch.”

According to Kotaku, “Crunch is a widespread disease in the gaming industry, sometimes forcing developers to pull 16-hour workdays and 6-day workweeks to finish a game on an over-ambitious deadline.” In April, Polygon reported that at Epic Games — the creators of Fortnite, a game that is technically never finished — employees endure “months of intense crunch,” and that employees and contractors say they have felt “extreme pressure to work grueling hours to maintain Fortnite’s success and profitability, resulting in a toxic, stressful environment at the company.” Employees were consistently asked to work 70 to 100 hours per week, endlessly.

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Why did these contractors and employees work those hours? They feel no joy, other than receiving a nice paycheck and gleaning whatever technological prestige may be affixed to writing a popular game. The game itself is someone else’s joy — namely, Epic Games’ joy. For the creators of the game, it’s oodles of hours. For the developers, those hours are long.

They do the work because of the office culture. It’s no different from the office culture at sweatshops or factories. It assumes that workers are easily replaceable. If there were only a way to protect workers from the sickness and shortened life spans of chronic overwork. Maybe a group of workers could get together and share information, negotiate their hours as a group and stick by each other when a management structure that disproportionately rewards the one percent by bullying 99% of the people into a Stockholm Syndrome-like love of the system — oh, right. We did that. Now, even some union workers think it’s a bad idea. Go figure.

Jon Bois created the ultimate pro-con chart on the subject of unions. Photo: SB Nation.

If you’re working long hours in response to office culture – a nice way of saying you’re being bullied into neglecting your family — then the hours are “long.” If you’re a parent in an office chock-filled with SINKs, DINKs and folks who have no reason to go home, you’ve felt the bias. You may even have been shunned because you have something more important than work waiting for you when you get home. You might have felt compelled to work through lunch every day. You’ve come to work sick. Worse, you’ve come to work when your child is sick. You’ve left vacation days to rot. You’ve run at a constant, ineffable level of irritation. You’ve gained or lost weight and you don’t know why. You’ve even taken your frustrations home with you, causing a rift in your relationships with your children, partner and other family. There are things you can do, but they require a lot of work, too.

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All of this is especially thorny at nonprofit arts organizations, where dozens of people work toward a deadline of raising funds, marketing, building, financing, producing and engaging audiences. In these organizations, those experiencing joy are those for whom joy is most often fleeting. Perfecting that one thing on one’s own time is a prime example of experiencing the joy of the performer who, when the production or performance or concert is finished, will have plenty of time to take a break.

Office culture bleeds into all aspects of the workday. Artists often feel slighted, creating a chasm between them and the perceived non-artists in administration. Bad managers take advantage of this chasm, creating an environment where working endless hours becomes the norm for all employees. For some, it’s joy; for others, it’s enervating.

If you are a leader who has created a situation where art cannot get done in the hours you budgeted for it, then you lied to a whole bunch of your stakeholders, your board and staff, your donors and your audience. Truthfully, you behaved no better than a sweatshop boss.

Perhaps you believe that artistic success is the result of a certain, large number of hours of work. After all, if everyone works that hard on one project, the project will surely be of exquisite quality. Extra hours worked might even mean a chance for trial and error, of risk-taking, of changing direction on an unknown artistic course. If that is what you believe, you probably think the answer is c).

That would be wrong. For so many reasons.

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No correlation exists between the number of hours put into a project and the success of that project. Millions of hours have been spent rehearsing thousands of flop shows across America and beyond.

Boards and donors reject failure or trial and error as a necessary aspect of good art. “Managed risk” in the insurance world recognizes failure, loss and bad things happening. In the nonprofit arts world, the phrase furtively morphs into “never risk failing” — an idea that has killed more art than Republicans.

As reported recently in Arts Professional, stories of failure — even when they contribute to the public good — are discouraged by arts organizations for fear of funding retribution:

While many policy-makers and funders said they were eager to have an honest discussion about failure, most practitioners and participants felt discouraged from talking honestly about this, especially with their funders. Artists and managers expressed a feeling that they are always being judged, and said the precarious nature of their work means they are focused on protecting their reputation.

Let’s say that your company chooses to impact society by using contemporary art to promote issues of current import to your youthful, African-American audience. Let’s say the issues are not enough for your mission’s impact. You require funding to assist in creating programs to lower homelessness among African Americans in your region.

Let’s say you receive that funding. First time out of the box, you force your employees to create and implement a program. Unfortunately, your company’s program has strained the human resources of your company. Despite all those hundreds of extra hours with skilled leaders designing and executing, the funder’s program leads to a higher rate of homelessness among African Americans. Your program made sense to every expert in the field, but it just didn’t work. Notwithstanding best intentions and data, it failed.

Today’s arts funders don’t want to know why. They don’t want to hear failure stories. And you know this. So, rather than risk never receiving funding again, you lie to the funder about your results. The funder doesn’t pry: they, after all, now have good news to share with their supporters, as do your board members and artists. Depending on your ability to self-deceive, so might you.

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Here’s the point: despite all the money in the world, all the best minds on the project, all the hundreds of extra hours, all the best intentions, sometimes art fails. Increasingly, funders ask evaluators to remove stories of failure from funded projects because they might appear negative.

So what’s the answer to Long Hours : Hard Work :: ? It’s d) — 10,000 honeybees : A jar of honey. Working for long hours results in a thing. Not a good thing, not a bad thing, but a thing — 10,000 honeybees can likely result in a jar of some size of some quality of honey. That’s all. The long hours you feel bullied into completing will certainly result in something, the quality of which is non-correlative to the number of extra hours put in.

Don’t feel alone: all of America is at risk of burning out. As Peter Fleming pointed out last year in The Guardian,

Overwork has become the norm in many companies — something expected and even admired. Everything we do outside the office — no matter how rewarding — is quietly denigrated. Relaxation, hobbies, raising children or reading a book are dismissed as laziness. That’s how powerful the mythology of work is.

Many experienced fundraising professionals describe the development process not as begging for money, but as sharing joy. Just as you gain nothing monetarily from recommending that other people see Hamilton, you must look at development as sharing joy with others for their sake, not for yours. As you plan your next season, your next exhibition, your next performance or your next project, remember that others may not share your joy. Develop them, but do not abuse them. Assume they have home lives — home lives that can help spread the word of your organization in a positive way. Assume that your best workers might be those who work with you in context of outside interests, not those who have no reason to go home. Be a person, not an autocrat.