Everyone is just winging it. That’s one of the most valuable things I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older, but not particularly wiser: it doesn’t matter how successful or grown-up someone appears on the surface, deep down they are desperately winging it and hoping nobody notices.
Some of us, of course, are winging it rather more than others. Exhibit one being Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of the health tech company Theranos, who is on trial for fraud in California. Everyone is now well aware that Holmes wasn’t the visionary she pretended to be, but the gap between Holmes-the-human and Holmes-the-brand can still be jarring. During her testimony last week, for example, Holmes presented a set of note cards on which she had scribbled a daily schedule, written during her early days at Theranos, that is disturbingly reminiscent of Patrick Bateman’s opening monologue in American Psycho. You remember that?
“My name is Patrick Bateman … I believe in taking care of myself, in a balanced diet, in a rigorous exercise routine … There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman. Some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me.”
Like many CEOs, Holmes’s day started at 4am: “Rise & thank God. Most things are not logical,” she wrote on her schedule. From 4.14 to 4.45am, she meditated and cleared her mind. At 5.20, she gave herself an hour to “change, shower, shave, perfect”. From 6.30 to 6.45, she had breakfast (bannanna [sic] whey). Apart from the spelling of banana, none of that is particularly disturbing; it’s bog standard high-powered executive stuff. What really stand out, however, are the instructions on how she should handle herself scrawled underneath her schedule. “My hands are always in my pockets or gesturing,” she writes. “I know the outcome of every encounter … I show no excitement. Calm directed, pointed, non-emotional. ALL ABOUT BUSINESS … I speak rarely. When I do – CRISP AND CONCISE.” There was an idea of an Elizabeth Holmes. Some kind of abstraction. But there was no real her.
I’ll be as crisp and concise as I can about the legal bits. Holmes’s lawyers have presented these note cards because they are arguing that Sunny Balwani, Holmes’s ex-boyfriend and former president of Theranos, was controlling her life. I have no idea how true that is, but what I can observe is that Holmes was a product of her environment. Until the pandemic hit, society encouraged people to act like Holmes. Silicon Valley told you to “fake it until you make it” and there was an obsession with “hustle culture” and productivity porn. For a while, it seemed like every single successful person was competing to get up earliest and have the weirdest schedule. Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, jumps out of bed at 3.45am, endless articles told us; Mark Wahlberg gets up at 2.30am! It was an age of affluent asceticism: the rich and the famous were constantly boasting about how disciplined they were. The subtext to all these schedules, of course, being that they deserved their obscene wealth.
The pandemic, I think, put an end to our obsession with toxic productivity by making it uncomfortably clear what hard work actually looks like – and how little it is rewarded. I would like to say that we have replaced toxic productivity with something more positive, but I don’t think that is the case. Instead, we have entered what the New York Times has called the yolo (you only live once) economy. Instead of boasting about getting up at 4am, privileged workers are boasting about taking time out. Meanwhile, get-rich-quick schemes are all the rage as people make money from non-fungible tokens, meme stocks and cryptocurrencies. Instead of productivity porn, a form of “unproductivity porn” has become popular. Which makes sense really. It is a lot harder to applaud rich CEOs for waking up at 4am to meditate when it has become so obvious that it is the low-paid essential workers, working all hours, who keep the world running.
• Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist