Creativity and the Dangerous Norm of the 100-Hour Workweek

Days with long hours are not anomalies in too many creative fields.

The 100-hour workweek has become a damaging point of pride in creative fields. Mark Cruz

Last week, an executive from Rockstar Games bragged about how the company’s employees were working 100-hour workweeks in advance of releasing their highly anticipated new game, Red Dead Redemption II. Naturally, this comment raised some eyebrows, adding fuel to the ongoing discussion about difficult working conditions within the gaming industry. It felt especially relevant coming hot on the heels of the closure of Telltale Games, where longtime employees were already working tireless hours of unpaid overtime right up until the moment they were fired with no notice or severance.

But these anecdotes are not anomalies. Working conditions in the game industry, particularly during the “crunch” phase of end development, have long been the subject of debate, precisely because of the abusive hour commitments expected coupled with the cut-and-run tactics of firing staff upon completion of a project. Reeling from the criticism, the developers of Rockstar tried to clarify in a PR push, saying it only applied to their team, but of course, more stories began to spill out to the contrary.

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But what’s really happening here goes straight to the inherent complications of working in creative industries—complications these industries abuse, and ultimately use to propagate the notion that “the 100-hour workweek” is not just important to such pursuits, but a point of pride. I would like to suggest to you that this is all horrible. But like many things, it’s not easy to parse.

It’s just complicated in ways that people often fail to talk about.

The Preciousness of Time

Every job has its complicated relationship with time. I’ve worked boring retail jobs where the slow, punishing crawl of seconds passing by felt like an eternity until you were miraculously set free. I’ve worked manual labor where activity keeps you busy, but the day-to-day grueling physicality and monotony breaks you down. I’ve stared at antsy, chaotic 11-year-olds while trying to teach them film or computer skills, leading to a state of panic as you just constantly react to questions without a single thought to yourself. I’ve helped run companies where you’re fighting for every second of the day just to keep things afloat and everything feels like it’s always on fire. I’ve been unemployed and felt the amorphous, existential dread of time as omnipresent nothingness. And, like a lot of people, I’ve sat in cubicles pretending to work as I fucked around on the internet. Point is, your job can radically affect the way “time” applies to your headspace.

But the first major roadblock in discussing “work hours” in creative pursuits is that measuring time itself is often incredibly tricky. Take writing, arguably one of the most intangible jobs possible. Sure, you can measure your progress by pages, new ideas and deadlines, but in the end, the only real measure of success is eventually having compelling ideas come together in a functional story. In a given day, you can write 10 worthless pages or one story beat that’s worth its weight in gold. It’s an often maddening process, full of futility and rewriting. But you really need that space of time because you’re mostly staring at the wall trying to come up with the right solution to your story’s current problem. And it’s a process made even more maddening by the fact that most people starting out don’t have a lot of time and are trying to fit writing in while they’re working other jobs.

But perhaps most maddening part of all is the inescapable way that people can’t help but look at this process from the outside in. People often imagine the endless perks to the writing lifestyle, some of which are of course true. You have flexibility and freedom, but that means you’re also required to have an insane amount of self-control and discipline. Especially because others will see these moments of “staring at the wall” and think you’re not doing much of anything. They will also see a job full of endlessly flexible time that they do not possess and not understand your invisible constraints. Put it this way, if you work in an office and tell people, “Sorry, I’m at work,” they understand that you have to be there. When you say, “Sorry, I’m writing,” they might understand, but it often hits against this secret subtext where every follow-up conversation amounts to, “Yeah, you can just write whenever and whatever I need you to do is more important.”

I understand that this is a privileged problem than many would kill to have, but it is still absolutely a problem for the process itself. When your time is theoretically endless, it can also be endlessly asked for, especially within competing assignments. And for the people who aspire to being writers, before you’ve done it, you really don’t understand what it’s like to live up to the brain-frying pressure to constantly deliver, nor what it feels like to be late on a massive project (it genuinely feels like you’re drowning). It is a completely abstract, but seemingly insurmountable pressure where your very well-being is on the line. I could go on and on about these sorts of issues, but what we’re essentially talking about is the disconnect between what people think the job is versus what it really is. And all creative industries deal with these same kinds of crippling misconceptions of time, often within their very ranks of collaboration.

Promotional imagery for Red Dead Redemption II. Rockstar Games

For instance, in the post-production of films or the video game industry, you frequently deal with people from other departments who need you to hit a deadline. But often the requester (particularly if it’s coming from a producer-type high up on the chain) doesn’t exactly understand the constraints of the work they are asking for. In the VFX industry, one day you could be asked to do a quick edit on an effect, no problem. But the next they might ask you to do something completely ridiculous like create an entirely new 3-D modeled object and they’ll assume you can have it done by tomorrow. Which is actually impossible, but the powerful person simply does not understand the “time” of the request they are asking for. This just adds to the incredible pressure of hitting constant, chaotic and confusing deadlines. My hilarious ex was an editor and she always use to joke with her coworkers, “Oh O.K., I’ll just hit the ‘edit faster’ button!”

The point is that creative fields don’t just require a certain amount of time to create, but also crucial time to fiddle to get the desired result. And so it’s doubly crippling when those chances get lost in the proverbial Tower of Babel, where so many departments wreak havoc on what they require from one another without understanding each other. Even with the most disciplined and understanding supervisors, we’re talking about departments that often have competing goals and want their work to be what ultimately shines through. The result is a chaos that sucks people’s time and leads to genuinely incredible levels of stress.

And boy oh boy does it suck you in. It’s like you disappear into the pocket dimension where you can’t see anything but this existing state of creative problems, along with the collaborators around you. Which is part of the reason most people in the creative grind are stressed the fuck out; the pressure keeps mounting with new deadlines always rapidly approaching. There will always be a chaotic, Calvinball-like influence on creative work. But it is precisely because of this chaos that it is all the more important that your job’s “time” is not only understood, but your way of dealing with it becomes normalized.

Essentially, the mental health of the worker (and the quality of the work) is directly governed by the real ability to zoom in and concentrate on the work one needs to do while simultaneously being able to disconnect from an industry dominated by invasive, time-sucking qualities.

For example, a friend of mine always put the problem of working from home brilliantly: “I don’t feel like I’m always at home. I feel like I’m always at work.” Going back to writing, it’s so easy to let every spark of an idea set you off so that you fall into the fits and starts of getting on a roll, but your life is infinitely more healthy when you treat it like a nine to five jobwhen you train your brain, focus and create routine. All so you can disconnect and have some kind of evening where you leave it in a place you can come back to. And to those who go to offices made up of high-pressure, chaotic environments, you know exact how important (and brave) it is to make a choice to leave a problem for the next day. Because in the end, we cannot let creative industries think they are somehow the exception to normal working standards.

Too bad the industry does not think the same in return…

Exceptionalism

It is an incredible mistake to think of creative industries as being “special.”

There’s so much glamorized allure and esteem in these industries that it’s hard not to see them that way. But I also think that a lot of the misconception also stems from the fact that we think of creativity as being this magical, ethereal process, where talented creators descend from on high to gift us all with THEIR ART.

Now, don’t let this sarcasm mislead you. I actually think creative work serves an incredibly important function. While many left-brain types would insist creative endeavors are not critical to the human experience, I always argue the counter-point: Go one month without TV, music, games, a book, movies or other products of creativity and then tell me how life feels.

Hint: It sucks. And the people who argue these pursuits don’t matter literally won’t be able to pull it off. So no, it’s not that art saves lives or anything so grandiose. It’s that entertainment is so incredibly important for people’s basic quality of life (and the fact it helps shape cultural norms is the neat bonus). So what we really have to do is “normalize” the role of creativity beyond this extreme reverence.

Especially because there is a dark side to that reverence. There are those who believe that creativity is so important to the world (or the success of their personal careers) that creators will let decency itself crash before the sanctity of the creation. And it often starts with the egomaniacal belief that your creative vision inherently deserves other people’s immense, selfless sacrifice. I can’t tell you how many directors get so wrapped up in achieving their vision that they completely disappear into a solipsistic state of being. Their very worth is on the line. And as a result, the crew barely exists; they become mere robotic extensions of the filmmaker’s god-like will.

In the studio system, this gets swept under the rug as part of the machine. In independent film, the basic abuses are equally common and financially unaccounted for. The hypocrisy of both is clear: the people up top will be making films about decency and yet treating their coworkers horribly. It’s a hypocrisy that even stretches into the most absurd cases; independent Christian films are notorious for their poor treatment of crews. I’m not talking outright cruelty; I’m talking about tone-deaf misunderstanding of purpose. One friend had an experience where they were never paid for their last few weeks of work and when pressed, the filmmakers just kept talking about how the movie was too important and basically acted like the crew should thank them that they got to be a part of something “morally good,” unlike Hollywood’s filth.

In truth, they’re just taking advantage of people. But so many creators cannot see this reality against the myopia of their vision. There’s a saying in Hollywood that “the movie is the boss,” but it’s supposed to mean that no person’s lone ego is above the well-being of the movie and therefore the audience should be listened to most of all. But so many people take that mantra too far and take the message to mean the reception is more important than the people who actually worked on it. They are therefore saying the object is more important. And you can imagine the troubling way this attitude manifests into larger industry mechanics of the corporate world.

It all starts with the fact that creative industries have a huge supply and demand problem. Day after day, desperate people come to Hollywood (or other creative industries) looking for a way to break into a small and exclusive industry. Which means there is someone always willing to work for incredibly low pay simply because it is the way into their dreams. But the high esteem of these positions actually has an inverse effect on the kinds of people who end up being able to take these low paying jobs. Often it’s wealthy kids who easily enter the industry because they are being supported during this period by their parents. (At one of my former workplaces, we used to play the game “guess what the interns drive?” The answers usually ranged from Mercedes to Bentley. I am not kidding.) It also directly affects the kind of people who can self-start their own creative endeavors. I often think of this of this amazing Onion article, “Independent film made by dependent 27-year-old,” which highlights the problem completely. These are the people who get the best opportunities, and through those opportunities, they get thrust into more positions of power and perpetuate the same system.

But the effect of this status quo goes beyond class. I was once talking to a friend about diversity and changing the Hollywood system and he surprisingly argued that hiring practice standards absolutely belonged in all industries “except the arts, because the arts have to be a free exchange of ideas.” But the effect is just as dire here as in any other industry. There are no regulations and standards for hiring when creative projects get made, and so the demographics of class absolutely affect who is selected, and within very narrow power structures. Couple this with existing racial and gender prejudices and that’s only part of how you get an industry where 88 percent of movies are directed by men. Simply put: In the vacuum of power, the powerful take over.

But if you ignore this obvious, crippling reality, you embrace a false meritocracy. One that infects this industry and radically affects the way we think about work itself. Everyone walks around in the state of delusion about how they got to their place. Even someone like Jason Reitman will deny the influence of nepotism, and has often commented that people in the room just assume he got to where he did because of his father. What this absolutely fails to recognize is how insanely difficult it is to get into the room. But all these realizations are forgotten when we keep the myth of the work alive.

Especially on the larger scale. Take VFX Companies, which I keep focusing on not just because their work is often misunderstood, and not just because it requires endless hours cramped in front of computers, but because it is one of the few areas of the high-budget film industry that is not unionized. And while I could write entire columns about the complications of unions, they are, ultimately, critical in an industry where studios make hundreds of millions of dollars. Which makes the abuses in VFX stand out all the more. Absurd 100-hour workweeks are the norm, as is cut-throat competition. VFX companies have to battle each other as well as outsourced labor to be the lowest bidder on a given project just to keep the damn lights on. No company in the VFX industry really “wins” the same way other companies can with one film’s major success. They just survive and tread water and require the abuse of the hourly commitment of their workers just to deliver on insane deadlines. They have a time suck that is absurd, ugly and punishing. But if you want to work in VFX, what’s the alternative? Not follow your dream? Instead you have to keep up.

This is the crux of power and making “exceptions” in regulation.

And I fully understand the inherent complication of complaining about this stuff. In comparison to so many other low-wage industries in this country, taking on this kind of lifestyle could seem like a dream. But rather than using this point to overhaul other industries, it just becomes part of the excuse to keep the existing imbalance and say “you have it fine!” Which is problematic when you can see the comparative waste of money on the development (studio or network) level. To be fair, I could write a whole essay about how studio and network development people are not only misunderstood, but can be incredible, positive shapers of the industry. But the difference between how people on that level and almost everyone else on a given project are treated is obvious. Especially if you look at a real Hollywood budget and realize how much of it gets put toward above-the-line talent. We’ve normalized it in the bad way, but the imbalance of power is stunning. The established actors behind a big movie are the ones who get paid and their time respected. Robert Downey Jr. reportedly made around 50 million off Avengers: Infinity War. But the 2,717 others who worked to bring it to life just as much and for far more? Well, they did not get paid that.

But I’m not here to argue about the influence of movie stardom. Nor am I here to sow discord or start getting into the micro-game of saying people don’t deserve X or Y. I’m saying this is a system of comical imbalance that you see replicated in a lot of other creative fields. All because they take direct advantage of people’s misunderstanding of creative time and their willingness to work for their dreams. But I don’t know how to overhaul this industry because I obviously don’t have the power to change entire systems. Right now, all I can do is call a duck a duck. I can reaffirm the basic, earnest notion that everyone’s fucking contributions are critical and should be valued. And push the idea that these notions should not be mere lip service. At the center of all of this, all I’m really trying to do is dispel one of the most damaging notions in our normalization of an overworked, often insane industry:

The law of acceptance.

Grin and Bear It

When I retweeted criticism of the Rockstar exec’s 100-hour workweek comment, someone flippantly responded, “The Old West was known to be very inclusive, respectful and mindful of people’s feelings.” It’s a weird joke to make, not only because it somehow confuses the subject matter of the game with treatment of the creatives who made it, but because it is just so nakedly callous. When pressed as to the intention of the comment the same someone responded, “As an indie filmmaker, I have no sympathy for anyone who bitches about working 100 hour weeks [on] massive creative endeavors which have never been done before in all of human history.” It’s something that strikes deep into the myopia and over-valuing of vision that I talked about earlier. But most of all, it strikes at the mantra that helps propagate all of it: Grin and bear it.

Promotional imagery for Red Dead Redemption II. Rockstar Games

The absurdity of the work itself becomes the philosophical goal and the proverbial carrot. Work hard, work hard, work hard! Put up with everything! Show that you won’t be stopped! And we buy into it. Of course we do. Mostly because it works sometimes. To “make it,” you have to want it more than anything. You have to work harder than you ever have. But all that work is worthless if you drive yourself nuts in the process. It’s worthless if you bend over backwards and contort yourself to fit in. It’s worthless if you end up damaging others, even if you mean well. It’s worthless if you keep having to push yourself and lie to yourself to get to some mythical place where it’s all great. To paraphrase David Foster Wallace, “Whatever you worship will never be enough.” The great is now. And you have to care for the now so that you can take care of both yourself and others. Especially because all the chasing, abuse and endless work can create a toxic cycle. Even now at agencies, the mantra of “I was shit on, so I’ll shit on you,” goes on in perpetuity. It gets normalized by depictions of Ari Gold in Entourage. In short, it all gets accepted as part of the process.

And for what? The crushing truth is that so many people on set are never going to get credit for their artistry. Most moviegoers don’t know the director of a film, let alone DPs, PDs and the host of incredible artists who bring things to life. For thousands of creative artists and workers on a given film, the joy is the process of the art itself. It’s the collaboration with peers, kinship and the common pursuit of something that you all really believe in. Which means that cynicism and cherishing the abusive system is the effective death knell of the act of collaborative creation. In short, there’s literally nothing to be proud of in bragging about 100-hour workweeks.

If you going to be proud of your work? Be proud of your efficiency, kindness, love and respect for the crew. Be proud you did great work and got people out on time. Be proud when you didn’t risk a more dangerous stunt and kept everyone safe. Be proud of your crew’s artistic growth, not their glorified sacrifice. And while it’s so easy to look at big systemic issues like how the VFX industry needs a radical overhaul, just start with your own orbit, especially when it comes to your own personhood. Because I believed in the 100-hour workweek more than anyone and it was just one of the many reasons I lost myself to it. So I had to radically change my habits, outlook, and selfhood and realize I was just coming at everything wrong. The second we accept terrible things as the norm is the second we help perpetuate that which just shouldn’t be.

I know the system itself will help foster these problems. I know there are always going to be insane moments, especially in something as chaotic as collaborative creation. Days will go long. Incidents will delay. Things will mess up. I know there are always going to be moments where everyone suddenly becomes overworked to achieve the creative goal. But that’s the most important time to ground yourself in the realization that it’s not normal. To remind yourself that you’re asking something extraordinary of people. To remember that no matter the industry, working 100 hours should be asked of precisely no one. And that goes double for work situations with outrageous power imbalance and common abuse. And at the very least, don’t fucking pride yourself on making people miserable.

We have a word for people like that.

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Creativity and the Dangerous Norm of the 100-Hour Workweek