Career Advice Mar 28 2012

How Google's Marissa Mayer Manages Burnout

By joseph walker

Burnout isn't the result of too much work. It's the result of not getting what you want.

So says Google Vice President Marissa Mayer, 36, the company's first female software engineer and its 20th employee when she joined the company in 1999. In her first five years at Google, she pulled at least one all-nighter a week. "It wasn't just me, it was everyone," she told an audience at the 92nd Street Y in New York last night. She also discussed her status as a woman in a male-dominated industry.

"Part of Google was it was the right time and we had a great technology, but the other part was we worked really, really hard," she said. "It was 130 hour weeks. People say, 'there's only 168 hours in a week, how can you do it?' Well, if you're strategic about when you shower and sleeping under your desk, it can be done."

Asked whether she still maintained such a crazy commitment to work, Mayer said that she did, and declined to pay lip service to the notion of work-life balance.

"I don't really believe in burnout. A lot of people work really hard for decades and decades, like Winston Churchill and Einstein," she said.

Avoiding burnout has nothing to do with making sure you eat three square meals a day or get eight hours of sleep a night. "Burnout is about resentment," she said. "It's about knowing what matters to you so much that if you don't get it that you're resentful."

A lot of people work hard for decades, like Winston Churchill and Einstein

When she has sensed that an employee was becoming fatigued or annoyed with long hours, Mayer has taken the person aside and asked them what really mattered to them outside of work. For one employee, making nightly 1 a.m. phone calls to her team in Bangalore, India didn't bother her. What did was missing her children's soccer games and dance recitals because she was stuck at work. "So, we say you're never going to miss another soccer game or be late for a recital."

"You can't have everything you want, but you can have the things that are really important to you and that empower you to work really hard for a really long time on things that you're passionate about," she said.

Mayer also talked about her decision to join Google after earning a masters from Stanford University. She turned down 13 offers, including those from consultant McKinsey and Carnegie Mellon University. Google was far from a sure bet.

"There were already twelve search engines [on the Internet] and it was unclear why the world needed another one," she recalled. "I could see this being the joke of family reunions for years. Even the name of the company is a punchline...Google!"

Mayer has long been one of Silicon Valley's most visible technical women, but she seemed conflicted about playing up her minority status as a female geek. Asked if she was the only the only woman in her Stanford computer science courses, she said that she didn't remember.

"Asking the question, I worry, sometimes can handicap progress," she said. "I lived in a bubble. I was really good at chemistry and biology [growing up]. No one ever said, 'Wow, you're really good at this for a girl."

"If I felt more self-conscious about being a woman it would have stifled me more," she added.

Write to Joseph Walker at

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