100% time

Perhaps you’ve heard of “20% time”. In many ways, it or something like it are table stakes for many software folk, and perhaps other creative specialists as well; i.e. if a company doesn’t offer something like 20% time, it may have a hard time attracting top talent, and could end up suffering by not profiting from the results of the outside-the-box sorts of ideas and work that emerge from people’s 20% time.  Some organizations — Valve comes to mind as the most prominent — even make it policy that staff are to use the “law of two feet” to self-organize, with the theory that more impactful work will emerge from the resulting economics.

I relate to this insofar as I’ve been lucky to have wandered into having what I call, tongue-in-cheek, “100% time”.  Most discussions of 20% time seem to characterize the mix as being 80% slog, 20% “freedom”. In contrast, “100% time” is a mix of near-complete professional and personal freedom where I can be available to every opportunity that comes my way.  Whether related to new business, following new creative inspirations (in programming, web or graphic design, or writing), pursuing scholarly interests, keeping myself healthy, traveling at length, enjoying the company of and taking care of family, volunteering for causes I believe in, or slacking to recharge, 100% time means that I choose what to care about, and then dedicate all my energy to making that choice have impact.  Having had the opportunity to live like this and becoming acutely aware of it, I’m nearly certain I won’t be able to “go back” without a fight.

I don’t write this to brag.  More than anything else, if 100% time seems out of your reach, I hope to be some proof that it’s not.

There’s nothing in my past to suggest that I should be where I am, doing what I am doing: no family money, no name-brand school (or diploma, for that matter), no powerful connections.  In fact, I came very, very close to getting stuck in a “regular” job ten or eleven years ago, after sinking $140K in debt trying to start the first incarnation of Snowtide.  I thought that had been my one “shot”: after failing dismally and being forced to take any work I could get (initially landing in a hyper-dysfunctional office run by maniacal Russians…), I figured that my life’s trajectory was fixed.  I know I shouldn’t lament a “professional” career with stable companies — it was far more than I had any right to expect — but, perhaps irrationally, I wanted to be king, with direct control over my life and my future.

Thankfully, I’m either too stubborn or too stupid to give up.  I extracted PDFTextStream from the smoldering ashes of my wayward startup, and managed to build a small but reliable business serving fabulous customers in a technically-challenging niche.  Somewhere along the way, I discovered that the biggest benefit of entrepreneurship was not money (as many have said, far safer routes to much larger piles of cash exist elsewhere; go be a banker or management consultant if that’s where your objectives lie), but time, and the freedom that comes with it.  Once my livelihood and income were decoupled from the time I had to dedicate to earn it, I felt like I finally understood the concept of opportunity cost and the aphorism of spending time: you will exist for only a finite duration, and you’d best ensure that that precious capital is used wisely to build the most value possible.

How you personally define “value” is where all the fun and challenge comes from.  Build bigger, better, more beautiful things; learn to make music and art and drama; inspire an empire and then go save the world; love friends and family and neighbors and strangers.  Do what you can to have the opportunity to make those choices yourself, so you can be the best person you can be, and make the most of the time you’ve been allotted.

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12 Responses to 100% time

  1. Tim says:

    Wow, great post. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve been working on such a programme, describing it as “hacking my own economics”. This entails letting your own projects or passive income secure yourself financially. Chomsky even discusses it, quoting Wilhelm von Humboldt who described the salaried labourer as having “… the most imperious of masters: that is, need”. I encourage everyone to the 100% time, way of thinking. Kudos to you for making it happen.

    • Chas Emerick says:

      Thanks for the kind words. :-)

      An incredibly minor point: I don’t really like the term ‘passive income’…it explicitly prescribes that the end result should be inactivity. AFAICT, this is only possible at scale with sometimes-shady activities like affiliate schemes and such.

      On the other hand, assets (e.g. a software product, a meaningful brand, trust relationships with customers and clients, etc.) are things that sometimes can throw off income, but must nevertheless be maintained regularly. How much work that requires is highly variable, but I’d be surprised to hear a steward of a nontrivial asset describe it as “passive” in nature.

      Finally, just a note re: Snowtide itself: while it is overwhelmingly the result of my own effort, I have employed others in the past (and probably will in the future, too). That the business isn’t larger now is probably due to:

      1. poor management decisions on my part circa 2007 – 2009 when I decided to burn cash pursuing a completely different market rather than properly extending into comfortably adjacent ones that would have required far less effort and risk, and
      2. The natural size of the PDF content extraction software library market. Like I said in the piece, it’s definitely a niche. ;-)
      • pepijndevos says:

        100% agreed on passive income. The idea of decoupling your time from income is good though. As is 100% time. Now to find a way to do the money making part of it.

      • Christiaan says:

        So in summary one needs a passive source of income which is also an asset?

        Passive to give the time and freedom to create “value” elsewhere when it’s needed (i.e. “Build bigger, better, more beautiful things; learn to make music and art and drama; inspire an empire and then go save the world; love friends and family and neighbors and strangers.” Can probably be done by taking a more hands-off role in a meaningful company you’ve created, to pursue other meaningful activities that create value though (fun) work)

        An Asset because, well, since “value” is the end goal it would be a bit of a contradiction to start our journey by creating a company which works “at scale with sometimes-shady activities”?

  2. Slog says:

    Congrats to you man. This certainly hit home for me, and I’m completely jealous. I’m one of the slogs you mentioned, except I think my share is more like -20%. The feeling of drowning comes to mind. My biggest frustration is when you’re in those “hyper-dysfunctional” places, the sense of never being heard. When you have the drive, will, and knowhow to help make some small (or even big) changes that will help the organization in so many ways, and to never be taken up on ANY suggestion or idea is disheartening at best. So it’s good to hear when someone makes the dream. Best of luck.

  3. A very good book about this subject is Domenico De Masi’s L’ozio creativo (which is surprisingly not very well known in the english-speaking world). It discusses how the three main “thirds” of the human day – eight hours of work, eight hours of leisure and eight ours of rest – are getting mixed together in the post-industrial world, making up the 100% time you talk about.

  4. thiagoarrais says:

    A very good book about this subject is Domenico De Masi’s L’ozio creativo (which is surprisingly not very well known in the english-speaking world). It discusses how the three main “thirds” of the human day defined throught the industrial age – eight hours of work, eight hours of leisure and eight ours of rest – are getting mixed together in the post-industrial world, making up the 100% time you talk about.

  5. bowmanb says:

    My most valuable takeaway from my Econ classes was opportunity cost. I often think of how it applies to real life, so it was cool to see you mention it. Thanks for the inspiring post.

  6. giridharvc7 says:

    Very inspiring :) Great post and you made it to top page of HN !

  7. Jose says:

    “There’s nothing in my past to suggest that I should be where I am, doing what I am doing: no family money, no name-brand school (or diploma, for that matter), no powerful connections.”

    Well, you have something you don’t talk about: you have experience.
    1-Rational experience.With the intellectual knowledge to do things on your own.
    2-Emotional experience. You have already done things on your own at least once, so you don’t fear them.

    When you enter a company they isolate you from those experiences , specially 2. And is very hard from this people to do anything about it.

  8. My name is Devin Walters, and I approve this message.

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