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I don’t think ‘hardcore’ means what Elon Musk thinks it does

Working until all hours — presumably at the expense of sleep, friends and family — is a retrograde way to think about employees and their value

Twitter's corporate headquarters in downtown San Francisco. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Last week, in an immediately classic internal memo, new Twitter owner Elon Musk warned his employees that they should immediately resign unless they were prepared to be “extremely hardcore.” As he explained: “This will mean working long hours at high intensity. Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.” Hundreds of employees reportedly resigned.

Over the weekend, we got a glimpse into what this new hardcore extremity looked like, via a photograph of Musk at Twitter offices. Reclining in a desk chair, Musk held court with a group of his remaining employees, appearing to explain something to nine of them while another dozen or so milled in the background.

“Show me another CEO that has more skin in the game at 1 AM in the office,” tweeted Vala Afshar, the businessman and tech columnist who shared the image. “These young engineers are learning from the most innovative person of the twenty-first century.”

I’ll take Afshar’s word that the photograph was taken at 1 in the morning. But as for innovation? Please.

Do certain business realities sometimes require working at odd hours? Of course. Nobody would deny that. And if employees have to be in the office in the middle of the night, you’d prefer a CEO who was there, too.

But Twitter is not a scrappy start-up operating out of someone’s mom’s garage with three employees and a minifridge of Red Bull. It is a well-established, 16-year-old tech company. It does not need to be functioning in a state of emergency. Musk’s presence at 1 a.m. was rather like a limousine passenger helping his chauffeurs push the incapacitated vehicle to a service station when he’s the one who punctured the tires.

Let’s look again at the photograph. I count 24 workers in the frame. Of them, 22 appear to be men. The faces of the remaining two are obscured, but based on a few superficial context clues — longer hair, shorter stature — these workers might be women. Let’s go ahead and assume that they are women, which would make the gender ratio of the pictured employees not an appalling 24 to 0 but rather an appalling 11 to 1. Everyone in the photo, save Musk himself, skews young; it would be shocking if any of them were older than 30.

This isn’t extremely hardcore. This is extremely expected: a CEO who sees long hours as a prime measure of professional dedication, who prizes performative intensity over strategic intentionality and young stamina over old wisdom.

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Did the engineering team Musk was pictured with ever have a more equitable ratio of men to women, pre-Musk’s takeover and pre-hardcore? I have no idea. Engineering isn’t historically a woman-friendly profession. But I can surmise that if there had been any working mothers on the team, the tone-deafness of Musk’s memo would easily have driven them off. Not because they dislike hard work, but because they could not vanish their family obligations at the drop of a hat just to fit Musk’s particular vision of employee loyalty.

Presumably Musk himself could be at the office at 1 in the morning only because his children — he has three under a year old by two women — were being cared for by either their mothers or by full-time nannies that the average non-billionaire could not afford.

If this photograph is meant to illustrate dedication, then what is it telling us about who gets to be perceived as dedicated?

Working mothers wouldn’t be the only demographic to be too soft-core for Elon Musk. What about any parent who wanted to be home for bedtime? Female employees who feel unsafe taking public transportation home in the wee hours of the morning? Experienced employees who have learned to be efficient with their time and who are not inclined to make Musk’s mess into their own problems?

By inviting all of these people to leave, Musk deprives himself of what would truly be innovative: a team with diverse experiences and problem-solving skills. Instead, he will end up surrounding himself with a cadre of workers who either see the world exactly as he does and put the “bro” in “brown-nosing,” or simply don’t have any other options.

“Extremely hardcore” is slippery language. It sounds like the verbiage of a winner. But looking at this photograph — a bunch of workers held captive to the work ideology of a man who spent billions to buy their company only to rip out its guts and command them to stop the bleeding — the phrase seems more like the word vomit of a wealthy tech bro who believes that creating a product can only be achieved by breaking a human.