Where Is Wall Street’s Four-Hour Workweek?

Illustration by Sam Island

Illustration by Sam Island

Financiers work more than ever — and still want a way out.

During his first two auditing projects at Ernst & Young, Amit Hezi, a 22-year-old from Westchester, New York, found himself working 80 hours a week, like everyone else on
his team.

He started work at 9:00 a.m. and shut his laptop down most nights at 2:00 a.m. To meet deadlines he traipsed into the office at 11:00 a.m. on Sundays and stayed until 5:00. From his perspective, the long hours are necessary to get the job done and keep pace with his team. “You need follow-up with your clients during the day to review all your work papers,” he explains. After most clients left at 5:00, he revised and updated the audit papers.

Despite his zeal for learning the banking business, Hezi admits that after about six months on the job, he started burning out. But his attitude is one of grudging acceptance.

“Working for a Big Four accounting firm is the best place to start. It’s good for my résumé, and in many ways, it sets you up for life,” he says.

But not everyone in the business game finds this trade-off worthwhile. Timothy Ferriss was a Princeton University grad who racked up 12-hour days at a data storage company before launching and selling a dietary supplement company. Then he wrote The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. Published in 2007, the book targets people who toil for long hours and touts a way out of their morass.

No wonder financiers gobbled it up. The book was a smash hit in many circles, and resonated with financial folks in particular — those looking to break the grind of putting in 60-hour-plus workweeks.

Ferriss’s book has become a cultural phenomenon. It spent more than four years on The New York Times best-seller list, sold more than 1.3 million copies, and has been translated into 35 languages.

Ferriss bemoans the weariness of “working 12-hour-plus days seven days a week.” At one point he was making $70,000 a month — more money than he knew what to do with — but was morose and miserable.

Who could resist his goal of trying to create “freedom of time and place and use both however you want”? Rather than being anchored to his cubicle, Ferriss prefers “racing motorcycles in Europe, scuba diving off the coast of Panama, and resting under a palm tree in Thailand.” To attain that freedom he opted to “achieve 90 percent of the results in one tenth the time.”

In the book, Ferriss carves out a new category of workers — the “New Rich” — which he describes as people who “abandon the deferred-life plan and create luxury lifestyles in the present.”

These are the creative professionals who manage to telecommute from the beach, the porch, the Caribbean, or a Starbucks as they sip lattes. They’re still earning money, but control where they live, how they work, and if they play as hard as — if not harder than — they toil. Free time, not face time at the office, drives them.

Ferriss calls these periods “mini-retirements.” For example, he visited seven countries in a three-month span while telecommuting. It’s not a one-time sabbatical; it’s a lifestyle choice. His message: You can maintain your career, find satisfying work, and travel the world. And you can do it in your 30s or 40s, without waiting for Social Security and annuity checks to arrive. What you gain is emotional freedom.

But to do so requires disengaging from much of the universe. Right after the book was published, The New York Times noted that Ferriss’s methods included “selective ignorance — tuning out pointless communiqués, random Twitters, and even world affairs. Work crisis. Pay someone to worry about it — ideally in Bangalore.”

What Ferriss never confronts is the mass of humanity who have jobs where they must be present every day, if only because professional norms demand it: currency traders, hedge funders, bank managers and tellers, and auditors, not to mention nurses and cable repair people.

Ferriss is no longer just an author, but has turned into a full-fledged brand. He offers online workshops, does podcasts, has been interviewed on late-night news and comedy shows, and has written a series of sequels including The 4-Hour Chef and The 4-Hour Body. But this summer, true to his own beliefs, Ferriss was living “off the grid,” according to his personal assistant, and wasn’t granting any interviews.

After his first book took hold, a backlash ensued. For example, Daniel Tawfik — the founder of start-ups Vonjour and Zen Patient — praised it in a TechCrunch article in April but noted, “What is objectionable, however, is the hack-your-way-to-success mentality it has spawned in entrepreneurial circles.” He said Ferriss encourages a mind-set that “entrepreneurship is a series of networking events and fundraising meetings, or even some silver-bullet business connection they have, in lieu of a real distribution strategy.”

In a follow-up interview, Tawfik said that Ferriss is urging his readers to “optimize their time. Make the most of the limited resources you have.” But the four-hour workweek itself has limited applicability, he added. “You’re not going to further your career and be the best version of yourself if you’re on a beach with your laptop.”

That realization will lead some to re-evaluate their careers, Tawfik says. “They may decide to create a small business and reject the Wall Street life or working long hours at a law firm.”

Wall Street has faced a series of wake-up calls about overworking its employees. In June 2015, Moritz Erhardt, a Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern in London, was found dead in his shower of an epileptic seizure, having worked 72 hours straight, The Guardian reported. Responding to his death, the bank launched a global review of working hours and curtailed the number of days in a row an intern could work.

The notion of cutting back hours or working from home attracts huge interest on Wall Street Oasis — a thriving online community for finance professionals — says founder Patrick Curtis. “The idea of the four-hour workweek grabs your attention. Given the amount of hours most analysts and associates work, [the idea that] you need to work four hours and you’ll be fine makes them pick up their heads and take notice.”

The book encourages “working smarter rather than harder,” Curtis says. It promotes saving time and reducing repetitive tasks such as formatting and organizing PowerPoint demonstrations.

But ultimately, Curtis notes, Ferriss’s book encourages financiers to extricate themselves from the industry and become more entrepreneurial. Most Wall Streeters are type A — high achievers — but are risk-averse. “The book helps reframe their thinking. Maybe there’s a way to gradually build a foundation to allow myself to quit,” he explains.

Curtis sees the dominant impact of Ferriss’s book as reducing retention at most finance firms. “It opens people’s eyes to different options outside of the corporate run. It shows them they can gain more freedom by working remotely,” he says.

Workaholics are part of the American culture and ethos, explains Malissa Clark, an assistant professor of psychology and director of the University of Georgia’s Work and Family Experience Research Lab. That drive stems in part from “social expectations of putting in a hard day of work.” But, she adds, “workaholism is also driven by your own internal compunction; it’s not all societal.”

The financial industry, more than others, encourages workaholism. “You need to be there 24-7 and be on call all the time. These jobs amplify the tendencies that people have internally. Other industries embrace work-life balance and encourage people not to work on weekends,” Clark notes.

Despite books like The 4-Hour Workweek and Juliet Schor’s The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, and corporate rhetoric about work-life balance, “our average hours of work haven’t decreased in the last few years,” according to Clark. Most people are “creatures of habit. If you’re accustomed to checking emails at night and working on weekends, it’s a habit you’ve formed, and changing it isn’t easy.”

Ferriss’s book resonates with people, especially those on Wall Street, which doesn’t surprise Clark. “A lot of people would love it. It sounds great, but for various people it might not be possible.”

For a finance employee who opts to stay on the job, Clark recommends incremental adjustments to slow down the pace. Consult with your supervisor, then take corrective actions. If you usually leave the office at 9:00 p.m., try departing at 8:00 some nights. On certain days take a break at lunch and go to a fitness center, walk through a park, or read a book — do something that will relax you and take your mind off of work. Set boundaries. Don’t check email on Saturdays.

Taking a mental break from work, even for an hour a day, can be beneficial. “What wears people down is the constant thinking about work,” notes Clark.

Jeremy Greenberg, the founder of Avenue Group, a New York–based advisory firm for executives, pictures Wall Streeters running on a forever revolving wheel. Finance is steeped in metrics. “It’s easy to measure how many hours we’re in the office, how much time we’re devoting to a project, and people brag about how little sleep they get,” Greenberg says. And there are practical reasons for the long days, including coordinating with Asia and its often 12-hour time differences. To accommodate different time zones, “you either have very early or very late meetings,” he notes.

But keeping up with the wheel is ultimately self-defeating. “It makes us feel like we’re actually doing something, but results aren’t getting done,” Greenberg says.

People who overwork “miss the big picture and can easily fall victim to a variety of health ailments, including poor eating, reduced exercise, and skipping sleep,” he explains.

Although Wall Streeters are attracted to the image on the cover of Ferriss’s book of a guy relaxing on a hammock, the message is not viable for most. “It’s not realistic for a guy at a hedge fund to work from home four days a week. One must be very careful about adjusting hours in the office. It should be done slowly and openly, with support from management,” Greenberg cautions.

Still, he gives Ferriss credit for creating “a logical blueprint for people who are overwhelmed by their work to take more control over their life.” Greenberg sees the book as helping financial staff make incremental improvements. “Ultimately, it’s a book about being more efficient.” And that’s a takeaway Wall Street employers can love.