Why balance is the new hustle with Mai Ton

Tips for living a more well-rounded life.

Mai Ton headshot alongside New World of Work logo

Welcome to New World of Work: a podcast exploring the new frontier of the modern workforce. In each episode, we’ll hear from some of the world’s best and brightest people and culture experts on the cutting-edge topics HR professionals are most interested in today, explored through a global lens.

Episode description

Work hard, play hard. Rise and grind. Sleep is for the weak. Do any of these modern proverbs sound familiar? If so, you’ve likely been exposed to hustle culture: a mentality that prioritizes hard work at all costs, regardless of any harmful effects it may have on your health, happiness or personal life. In this episode, Rhys explores some of the reasons why so many people continue to romanticize hustle culture, despite its obvious negative consequences. He sits down with the former Chief People Officer at Kickstarter and current Chief People Officer at Fabric, Mai Ton, to discuss strategies for building a well-rounded identity outside of your career, and why this is important for overall mental health and peace of mind. Mai offers her perspective on why companies that recognize their employees have lives outside of work are the ones who will thrive in this new world of work. She also shares more about her own career backstory and why the end of hustle culture is a topic that’s close to her heart.

Episode transcript

Rhys: Welcome to New World of Work: a podcast exploring the new frontier of the modern workforce. 

I’m Rhys Black, Head of Workplace Design at Oyster, a global people operations platform making it easier than ever to build a brilliant team on an international scale.

On New World of Work, we’ll hear from some of the world’s best and brightest people and culture experts on cutting-edge topics that people ops professionals need to hear today, all through a global lens. 

Join us as we navigate this new world of work together and learn more about each other along the way. 

Work hard, play hard. Rise and grind. Sleep is for the weak.

Do any of these catchy modern proverbs sound familiar? If so, you’ve likely been exposed to hustle culture: a mentality that prioritizes hard work at all costs—regardless of any harmful effects it may have on your health, happiness or personal life.

In this episode, we’ll be exploring the reasons why so many people continue to romanticize hustle culture, despite its obvious negative consequences. 

With today’s guest, Mai Ton, former Chief People Officer at Kickstarter, we’ll discuss strategies for building a well-rounded identity outside of your career, and why this is important for overall mental health and peace of mind.  

Mai will offer her perspective on why companies that recognize their employees have lives outside of work are the ones who will thrive in this new world of work. 

To kick things off, Mai shared her own career backstory and why the end of hustle culture is a topic that’s close to her heart.

Mai: My name is Mai Ton, and I am an eight time people leader to a lot of high tech startup firms, and I've spent 20 years of my life in Silicon Valley and the last four here in New York City. And I was formerly chief people officer at Kickstarter most recently.

I ended up as the chief people leader at Kickstarter because I actually burnt myself out from startup number six, so I took some time off and in that time off I was able to focus and reset and think about what I wanted, and one of the things I had always wanted was to write a book. So during that time off, I wrote a book, and as I was consulting, I launched an independent consulting business doing H.R. Consulting, and I realized that this is in 2020 when COVID started to hit. But I realized that my days were going by and I wasn't talking to anybody, as in the barista was probably the only person that I was having a conversation with, because as a consultant, time is money. And so your clients want to generally hop on and hop off calls with you very quickly. And so I started to really miss having a team and being part of a company. And so I started to interview and luckily landed at Kickstarter, where I felt like the mission of helping to bring creative projects to life along with the executive team was a dream for me. So that's how I ended up there. And I was hired during COVID and we're still whatever almost two years trying to get through this pandemic. And there's still plenty of people that I've never met in person at Kickstarter, so very strange times that we were all living through. Yes, so Kickstarter, actually, the mission is to bring creative projects to life. And what we do is we offer a platform that allows artists to produce their greatest works of art, and sometimes they need crowdfunding so they will start a campaign and build it. And as a matter of fact, there's a new project. His name Brandon Sanderson and he has raised his goal was to raise a million dollars writing books. And he has raised twenty six million dollars. And so it is the biggest all time funded project on Kickstarter, and it's wonderful to see. And I think that's the pandemic. And it's the result of not only people wanting to bring creative projects to life, but of people feeling deprived and wanting others to create their great masterpieces. So it's a wonderful platform. If you've never used it, I highly encourage you to just go on there. It's amazing what people can create in the world.

My time at Kickstarter was wonderful. I have to say that it is a company that gets grouped in with a lot of C-backed tech startups, but in fact, it's actually a public benefit corporation, which means it doesn't maximize for profits. It's actually trying to show you that you can run a business and be good to humanity. And so there's a five percent pledge that goes back to underserved, underserviced, underserved communities. And then there is all sorts of investments that are made back into the platform in the company. That doesn't put a lot of money into wealthy people's pockets. So it's a wonderful place that I think is redefining the way we work. And so they like to disrupt the status quo. It is a company that has a union and these are knowledge workers that sit at the union table. So they want to make sure that we're doing the right things as a business and the right things for our people to show the way forward. It has an executive team that is diverse like no other that I've ever seen or been part of. And I think generally the people are very grounded in the mission, and their focus is always on helping creators create in the world. And so it's been a very unique privilege for me to serve there. And I look forward to rooting for them from the sidelines.

Rhys: Although Mai has recently moved on from Kickstarter, it’s not hard to feel her passion come through when she speaks about her work. 

As an experienced and award-winning people ops professional, Mai is mainly motivated by her desire to get to know people on a deeper level than just what they do for work.

Mai wants to understand what makes people tick. And this has led her to a career of continuous learning and exploration - so she can help others grow and succeed along their own career path.

Mai: I will say that I have a curiosity about people and really, that's why I love what I do. And I think I thrive in this space because I don't just try to understand you from the way of your work, as in I know you from work and we interact because of work, but there's much more deeper meaning in you than just what you do at work. And so that's really what's always driven me is understanding the story behind the one that you show up with at work. And so that's where I think maybe some of my secret sources is just trying to be very approachable. I am not the thought police.

And so I just really love understanding people's stories and people's motivations, and that's where I spend most of my time.

My philosophy on people in general and me as a people ops leader, I actually think that I believe that humans love to learn. And so when they feel like they're learning not only in their technical sphere, but they're learning, you know, leadership traits from their executive team or they're learning how to publicly speak in a town hall or an all hands forum. Those are learning moments, and I think those collection of moments are what allow people to grow. And so usually as a people leader, I try my best to insert nuggets of learning every day into whatever you might be doing. And so whether that's manager led trainings, whether that's me training specifically, but I think in general, employees stay and are attracted to companies where they feel their own growth. And so that's also why your story becomes important for me to understand because I'm actually trying to get you to articulate, what do you want to be and what do you want to grow in? Or where do you want to go in your career? And so those kind of questions allow me to kind of get to the underbelly of why you work so hard. I think once I start asking questions around, you know, why do you work so hard or what is it that motivates you? There's a thought for boldness, there's a reflection moment. And so if you don't ask those questions, you're right. People don't generally know off the top of their head what they want to do or how they want to grow. But I think after a series of asking questions like that over and over, not repetitively, but just in certain moments, I think people then can stop and slow down a little bit to say, You know what? Yes, I want to be a vice president of revenue in two years. Tell me how to do it. Mai, tell me how to do it. What do I need? What am I missing? And so those are the conversations that I love and I will tell you younger generations. I love working with younger generations because they have no fear and they will say, yes, I want to make the leap in a year and a half. And it's my job to say good for you that you know the course that you want to chart. And I'll let me help you and show you maybe why you're not ready in a year and a half, because these are the things that you might be missing, or these are the things you'll need to learn more about. So I love conversations like that. But yes, you have to ask the questions in order to get the people to start thinking a little bit more future forward.

I went to a place called the Human Performance Institute probably three or four years ago now, and this is an institute that helps you create your own mission statement because once you're once you set a path, you will not veer from it and it has to be grounded in something that's very particular to you. So my mission statement, personally, is that I wish to be an extraordinary person who's kind of optimistic and compassionate so that I can bring out the extraordinary in others. And so that's actually my role as a mother. I have a 13 year old daughter named Emma, and that's what I want for her. I want an extraordinary life for her. But I have to be that, and I have to do that and I can. I get the chance to do that at work where because I am a people leader, I can influence people's decisions as well as their career growth. And so I love the world of extraordinary people. When you meet extraordinary people, they are wonderful, they're inspirational, and I love being surrounded by people like that.

Rhys: Mai’s passion for leading and helping others grow is infectious. She clearly has a knack for empathizing with the experiences of others and getting to the root of their underlying motivations, which is half the battle in the world of people ops. 

At her core, Mai is a true people person. Her ability to bring a sense of humanity to her role has obviously been a major benefit during her own career.

In our modern capitalist society which often prioritizes a go-go-go mentality at all costs, the human element is often what’s missing from many workplaces today. However, Mai is here to remind us that getting to know our co-workers on a personal level isn’t just beneficial for our health and happiness, it can also benefit the business overall.

Mai: I have a story to tell, which is I went to breakfast with employment lawyers that I used to work with in Germany, in London, and I was asking about just randomly when they go out and introduce themselves to others. How do they introduce themselves? And both Paul and Kristian told me that they talk about their families first or that they recently got married, or they talk about very personal things first. And I said, That's strange, because in America, we introduce ourselves as what we do at work, as in I am the chief people officer at Kickstarter. That's usually the introduction in America. And they said, Well, if you did that in our countries, you would be considered arrogant. And it got me thinking about hustle culture and the fact that we define ourselves through work so much here in the western world that sleep deprivation is rewarded. It's almost like, yeah, I pulled an all-nighter because we had to stay up and write code. And that seems to be. It comes with badges of honor a little bit, especially in Silicon Valley, where the tech startup culture is real. I mean, time is not on your side sometimes in these fast moving startups. And so I think I'm sure hustle culture was always part of the American working life. But I also will say it's been definitely magnified living through a pandemic where personal and professional lines are totally blurred as we're talking to each other from our living rooms because we're not back in the office yet. So I think I'm seeing a lot of like after effects of mental health issues and burnout, and I've had plenty of conversations with people who just are like, Why am I working like this? And we made an offer to a product manager who had four competing offers with other companies. And in the end, he said, You know what? Forget it. I just want to be a teacher. And so he turned down all four of the offers, and I don't know if he's a teacher yet, but he just needed a break. He was like, Why am I doing this? Why do I keep working like this? It's not really who I am, and so I'm starting to hear and witness stories like that more often. And I think that is a much better place to be is to kind of do what you love and not succumb to the pressures of working and defining yourself through just what you do at work.

And so I think over time, the folklore was like, this is what it takes to make it. So other examples that I have for perhaps the non hustle like culture where I think they do get it right is surprisingly some of these big consulting accounting firms like McKinsey, Bain and Company PwC, all of these big four accounting companies. They ground themselves in their values. And because these consulting firms sell time. That's what they sell is the consultant is selling you their time. And so what they do is they invest a lot into building leaders for the future. And so what I have seen is it's not like deliberately an anti hustle culture, but it is one that is more grounded in, you know what? Be innovative, be a team player, be respectful. Take ownership. Those are just general values that I feel like the world resonates with almost everybody that I know. And I believe that's the way to kind of get out of this like get rich quick exit strategy of tech startups.

Rhys: In a culture that idolizes entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who have spent their lives building some of the most successful companies in history, it’s easy to fall into the trap of glamourising sleepless nights and energy drinks.

But what if we could still achieve great things without sacrificing our mental health, family life and identity in the process? What if we accepted the idea that good things take time, and as Mai suggests, success rarely happens overnight?

From Mai’s perspective, this is an attainable reality. But we’ll need to make a few simple mindset shifts to get there.

Mai: I think that because I get the privilege of being a people leader, I've always wanted to build an environment where, yes, you can do really good work, but you can also have time and space to do other things. So I think the future looks something like, you know what? Yes, come in. Do really deep focused work, be the best engineer or be the best people leader or be the best person that you can, but also leave time for you know what? You're trying to paint your masterpiece or you're trying to author the book. Go do those things because I feel that if you have hobbies outside of work, I just feel like you're a better person all around. And then that allows you to enjoy and take and savor the moments at work where you do really great work and then savor the moments of personal life and time where you can be the parent that you wanted to be, or that you can spend time finally painting because you've been putting it off for so long.

I hope people are happy at work because we sure do spend a lot of time in our adult lives, just working and looking at screens and hopefully doing good work. But I want it to mean something because if you think about it, we sacrifice time away from the most important people, our family and friends, every day to go to work. And my job and my anchoring was always, I have to build the environments that make that sacrifice worth it for everybody. And so that's what I'm really trying to reinvent is I want to upend the mindset of hustle culture and these kind of weird badges of honor. And I want people to have more hobbies. I want them to pursue their lifelong goals and do it while they just happen to have a job. And I was inspired the other day. I don't know if you watch House Hunters International, but one of the couples they sold everything, they sold everything and they moved their family of five to live in a little village in Italy, where the kids walk to school. And it's because they just wanted a totally different chunk of life. They wanted their kids to live very differently than they had grown up. So, yeah, they sold their house. They liquidated their 401K plans and they just moved themselves. And I said, How wonderful is that to live in a little village in Italy? Walking to school? And I don't know. I get inspired by stories like that because I think that's what life is supposed to be like.

Rhys: In a lot of ways, the pandemic set into motion a major mindset shift around what it means to lead a full life.  

For many of us, it freed up more time to focus on our passions and hobbies. And as we’ve seen with the great resignation, the pandemic caused people everywhere to take a long, hard look at our lives and say goodbye to situations that weren’t serving us.

In terms of the people operations world, Mai noted that the pandemic changed what it means to be a people ops leader today. Although the industry still has somewhat of a branding problem, the past two years have given us all an opportunity to shift gears and step into our roles in a new light.

Mai: I think actually the people leader's job has totally evolved in this global pandemic. I think we became the nurse, we became a principal. We became sort of still all of the standard people ops things. But then we became workplace experts in some way. And I think in the end, what I will say is that the people leader's job is to make everybody successful, because when you make everybody successful within a company, the company will do well. And I've always said, when you take care of your people, they will take care of your business and it's shown it's been proven. You can see it in the great place to work institute studies. You can see it in McKinsey studies, but I do believe that not everybody wants to have such a personal relationship with a person with a people leader at their company. But in the end, I think because we sit in a very nice macro place in a company where I can see I don't play favorites, I service everybody. And so when you come to me and ask for help, I will, of course, help you. And I think that's the start of people realizing that, you know what, H.R. isn't your enemy. They're actually. And they can be your best friend, but you don't have to be awkward or scared of them because in the end, what we want is to be able to take care of all of the people that end up working so hard for a company. We see it. We know it. We've lived the life. And I think in the end, when you can drive meaning outside of work, I think it's wonderful because it defines you beyond just what you do for a living. But it's also then it makes you a little bit more curious around like, Oh, where do I want to go? What do I want to do? Where do I want to be and who can help me along the way? And so sometimes I feel that the best relationships are the ones where you can just ask anybody for help. And the great people and the great leaders are the ones that actually are very empathetic to say, Yes, you know what? I may not know this, but let me figure out how to help you. And I think that is the new buzzword for this new reality is that empathy has entered workplaces like never before, and it's partly because we have windows into everybody's life now. You know, I've met partners and spouses and brothers and sisters and pets and babies, all in these last two years over screens because it was the first time we were able to show up like that. And so I think it's an opportunity for all of us to redefine H.R., and I love that. Right now, we're in the spotlight because now the trope used to be why is H.R. here and now? The new question is, where is H.R.? Why aren't they here?

H.R. was traditionally like the principal of your getting called, you're getting in trouble, you're getting laid off or whatever. So it was scary. And I can understand that brand. I don't know if it's an identity crisis, but I think times have changed. Technology has changed. Employees are demanding a lot more from their employers. So when I think of people ops, I actually think of, do you have an iPhone or an Android phone? I thought, OK, so when you opened it up, you just hit the buttons and it just works right when you want to tap on the app. It actually just works. That operating system is actually the job of people jobs is that you go to work and things just happen things or you know, your email, your slack, your plug ins, everything works. And that is the role of people jobs is that it is the infrastructure. It's how you get your expenses in approved. It's how you take business class flights. It's how you submit your performance reviews and those operations in the background. I've always said it is similar to making sure the trains run every day that they run on time and they make every stop. That is the job of people operations. But when you talk about the whole umbrella of whether it's H.R. people ops or just, you know, human capital is another term. It is actually that we have to take care of employees in order for the businesses to succeed. And I think that that does require feedback. It requires a learning culture. It requires the infrastructure to do all of these things and all of the operations. But it's generally about getting people to where they want to be. And I think that's why I stay grounded in making sure that you're learning what you want to learn and that you're growing in the areas you want to grow so that I can be part of your success too. I've had the privilege of watching people get promoted or even retooling their careers. I've seen people just like, stop being a marketer and become an engineer. It's a remarkable journey. And I think nowadays, because the information is online and you can go to boot camps for various different things. I have found that people are actually much more dynamic and they get bored easily. And so I love the stories where people are just reinventing themselves time over time or time after time. And I think the role of people leadership in all of these teams is to stabilize the infrastructure and make sure that the people are growing and propelling themselves to their future.

I just want to pave the way for the future because Emma, my 13 year old, has about 10 or 12 years to go before she enters the world of work. And so I hope that she enters a totally different way of working that's more sustainable and healthier.

Rhys: Paving a healthier and more sustainable road ahead for future generations sounds like motivation enough to change our habits and adopt a different attitude when it comes to work.  

As for what’s next on Mai’s path, she’s practicing what she preaches by taking some much-needed time off to reset and spend time with her daughter.

Mai: I need a break, so I'm just going to take a little bit of time and reset and think about what I want for the future, but I love what I do so I can see myself going back into, you know, ABC backed tech start up firm and building. I love to build. And so some of the infrastructure that we talked about in people, ops teams, in a lot of companies, they're not built out yet. And so I love that work and I love the ability to help people get further in their career.

So I'm going to probably take some time and then find something new. Good news is I get to spend a little bit of time with Emma before she really grows out of wanting to spend any time with me.

Rhys: And finally, Mai answered our favorite question here on New World of Work: what’s the best mistake you’ve ever made?

Mai: Best mistake I've ever made is when I joined the wrong company and I knew it about six months into it and I still stuck to it because I felt like I needed to. But it's a really painful lesson for me, but probably the best lesson, because now I know what to look for and what to not settle on and what to not compromise. Because in the end, when you compromise a little bit of your own values, it actually never works out in the end. So it's, uh, you don't know sometimes when you're joining the wrong company. But along the way, once you start working because we spend so much time at work, you find out, Oh, I didn't see that coming or, oh, I didn't know that's what they meant. And so, yeah, worst mistake. But like everything you know, sometimes you learn and you have to learn the hard way. But it's very humbling. And now I know what and what not to look for and, you know, sort of like to how to be more selective as I'm eventually going to go out and find a new company to join me. How abou t if you're listening and perhaps you're wondering whether or not this is the right company for you? I will try to nudge you to say time is not on your side. I have no idea why everybody thinks that they have plenty of time. I don't believe we have plenty of time. So when you look at your life, you have to do the things that bring you joy. And so when you're in a company, do the people bring you joy when you're in a company and doing some really good work? Is it bringing you joy? Just keep asking. The question does, is this bringing me joy? And if you keep saying, No, I don't like the people know this work sucks or no, this team is terrible or whatever it is. If you keep saying no, then I would encourage you to really think about taking a leap and investing in yourself to say, You know what? You're not going to let yourself fail. You won't. I don't think that's the human species at all. It's almost like survival. You won't let yourself fail. So it's OK. Sometimes you have to cut your losses and think about time.

Think about the time that you will gain back. That's what I'm most upset about is that I wasted my own time in this company. And that's what I can't have back. I can't have that time back. And so, yeah, if that nudges any of your listeners to think about, Oh yeah, my is right. Time isn't on my side, then yeah, do it. Do it, take the leap because you're going to find something else. You're good and you have plenty of skills and you will be fine because you're not going to let anything terrible happen to yourself.

Failure is not defined by you leaving a situation that isn't good for you. I would like to emphasize that, you know what, when you take the leap and you leave a job that's not serving you, you're going to be more astute about what you need moving forward and you're not going to make the same mistake twice or three times, hopefully.

Failure is not that you will exit and do a mic drop where you burn all bridges. No, that's not. That's not what I encourage you to do. And it's not what I mean to tell you to do. It is that you exit gracefully and you say that this isn't for me anymore and you go find your joy. And there is no failure in that that you I just mean to say, you're not going to let yourself down. You're not, you're not. You're just going to protect yourself and your interest. And I hope that you can find a place that brings out the best in you because that's the hunt. That's the hunt everybody's on. And it's been actually very elusive for a lot of people to find the right balance between doing really good work among great people that you're learning things. And so it's hard to find. But I think that, yeah, failure does not mean that you are quitting. That is not what failure is. So you're finding something better for you.

Rhys: What an inspiring episode with Mai. Here are a few key highlights I’ll be taking away following our chat:

  • As a collective, we’re in need of a mindset shift to move away from hustle culture and towards a more balanced lifestyle. Although many of us have been conditioned to glamourize the grind at all costs, there’s no denying that this kind of thinking will catch up with you sooner or later and potentially have negative consequences on your health, and personal life.
  • In North America, it’s common to define yourself by your job title or what company you work for. But in other parts of the world, this can actually be considered rude. It’s time we get to know our colleagues on a personal level, not only because it’s a more human way of doing business, but also because it can be more beneficial for the company in the long run.  
  • And finally, don’t be afraid to leave a job that isn’t working for you. Of course, we all have bills to pay, but sacrificing your mental health in the name of a title, a salary, or some arbitrary achievement is never worth it. If this rings true to you, consider this your sign to take a leap of faith and move on to your next adventure. Just don’t tell your boss you heard it here…

Rhys: Thank you for listening to New World of Work, the podcast exploring the new frontier of the modern workforce through an international lens. We hope this episode served to expand your horizons and open your mind to a new perspective.

Be sure to subscribe, rate and review the podcast so we can reach more listeners.

I’m your host, Rhys Black. See you next time.

If you liked this podcast, make sure to subscribe so you don't miss an episode!

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