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Bursting the bubble: the pleasure and pain of life in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley. Two words that conjure up a mix of enthusiasm and envy among New Zealanders when I tell them that’s where I have been working and living for the past few years.

For the most part, New Zealanders – particularly those in the business or tech world – seem to have developed an obsession with the place and have a romantic notion of what life is like in San Francisco and the Bay Area. As evidence of this, we need only look at the plethora of technology-focused startup hubs sprouting all over New Zealand, with almost every town and city proclaiming to be – or aiming to be – the next Silicon Valley of something. “Could Christchurch become New Zealand’s Silicon Valley?” “Business group sees Nelson’s potential to become New Zealand’s Silicon Valley” and “Techapuna: New Zealand’s Silicon Valley?” are just some of the stories making headlines here in the last several years.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s easy to see why. The Bay Area attracts some of the world’s most talented people and brightest thinkers. Silicon Valley garage startups have morphed into billion-dollar global companies, such as Facebook, Google, Apple, Uber, Netflix and Tesla. Many of these have changed our lives irrevocably. Then there are the endless perks those working in the Valley get to enjoy on a daily basis: trendy headquarters that make the average outdoor kid’s playground look lame, free gourmet cafeterias (organic, grass-fed only), massage rooms, nap pods, haircuts and onsite doctors, family wide medical insurance, ‘unlimited’ annual leave. The list goes on.

I know all too well what it’s like to get caught up in the hype around Silicon Valley and the life it promises. For years, I dreamed of living it and working for the next big tech startup that could change the world. No matter how great my life was back home in New Zealand and the work-life balance I enjoyed, something was missing. I really thought that for me to really thrive and be happy and fulfilled in my career and life, Silicon Valley was where I needed to be.

After several years this alluring vision got too much for me to resist, so off I went. With no job lined up, I packed up my belongings, booked an open-ended flight, took the plunge and moved to San Francisco. I soon found out it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

After much networking, endless cover letters and self-doubt, I was offered a great role within a transformative startup company, which I still believe will go on to transform the lives of many while saving the planet (cliché, but true).

I met some of the most amazing and inspiring people I have ever encountered, some of whom have gone on to become lifelong friends. I was living in some of the hippest parts of the Bay Area and San Francisco and drinking Napa Valley wine in the weekends with a handsome American man who stole my heart. I was living the dream, on paper at least.

There were times where I was utterly miserable, lonely and unhealthy, yearning for home, craving balance, and wondering why the hell I believed in such a fallacy.

But here’s the bit people in New Zealand don’t hear when we’re busy romanticising Silicon Valley: it’s a hard slog. There were times when I was utterly miserable, lonely and unhealthy, yearning for home, craving balance, and wondering why the hell I believed in such a fallacy.

To start with, the job market in Silicon Valley is both insanely competitive and relentless – and rightly so. Those putting in a mere few hours work here and there don’t usually go on to start billion dollar companies that transform the world. Finding the right job if you’re not already in the Silicon Valley inner circle can be as hard as finding a house in Auckland for less than $1 million and equally as soul destroying. Then, when you are hired, you’re expected to work – and not the cushy 40-hour working week New Zealand and most of the West has become accustomed to, but morning, day, night, weekends and holidays.

My work day routinely involved waking at the break of dawn to take conference calls in multiple time zones then cracking into the actual working day, only to do it all again in the evening. Making time for workouts, yoga, dinner with friends or even meditation – all essential elements of my mental and physical sanity – was a near impossibility at times.

Silicon Valley doesn’t stop when you’re sleeping, or for the weekends, either. Before you’ve even had a chance to open your eyes in the morning, a barrage of emails and work requests will be in your inbox, which you’re somehow supposed to have responded to in your sleep. I wish I could count the number of times that I didn’t have to work some or all of the weekend, answering emails from clients or the big boss, but I can’t, because there weren’t any.

While intense workloads may seem like a reasonable trade-off if you’re working for a company that has offered you some skin in the game (like shares or equity), or if you’re pulling in a handsome income, it’s not. The reality is a lot people in the Valley (including me) aren’t. We were doing it purely for the sake of living in the Valley.

Those free organic meals and discounted Apple products are really nothing more than golden handcuffs beautifully disguised by Silicon Valley’s savvy tech behemoths.

One close friend wakes at 4.45am every day to drive to the Marin bus station to make the 6am Apple Shuttle so he can get to work at 8.30am, only to do it all again in the evenings. He justifies sitting through two to three hours of heavier-than-Auckland traffic every morning by saying he meditates and plans his day ahead while on the bus, but I can think of better uses of my time and less stressful places to find my zen. Those free organic meals and discounted Apple products are really nothing more than golden handcuffs beautifully disguised by Silicon Valley’s savvy tech behemoths.   

The stress of not delivering and that constant “on edge” feeling like I was never on top of things led to burn out. And without the weekends to fully relax, my body rebelled in protest.

I was frequently sick, bloated and gained weight due to the stress levels, sleepless nights worrying about work and sub-optimal levels of exercise. Despite my best efforts of maintaining some semblance of balance, each time I returned home to New Zealand, my doctor would remark how much worse-off my hormone imbalance had become. The infertile, middle class corporate woman syndrome ringing alarm bells in my ears.

One friend joked to me that Americans think they are having a holiday when they take a three-day weekend. She might be right. Aside from a few token days off tacked onto work-related trips, most people I knew hadn’t taken a proper holiday in years. I certainly didn’t while living there. While some companies like Netflix, Dropbox and LinkedIn pride themselves on their unlimited annual leave policies, in reality very few of their employees take these simply because they have too much work to do. They also fear that if they are gone too long, they won’t have a job to come back to. In New Zealand, this lack of balance really doesn’t seem to exist.

To top it off, the Bay Area’s out of control housing market, which has recently been dubbed the “rental apocalypse”, means even if you are lucky enough to live and work in Silicon Valley, a perversely disproportionate percentage of your income is spent on renting a home you barely get to spend any time in. Thanks to the tech boom, the median rental price of a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is now around NZ$5,000 a month. Even a basic room in a flat share with around ten others will cost upwards of NZ$2,800 a month. An independent, multi-bedroom dwelling will cost you up to $10,000 to $12,000, a single figured income (pre-tax) to cover rent alone.

Even well-paid senior engineers, who earn on average close to US$200,000 annually, spend between 40 percent and 50 percent of their salary renting an apartment close to their work. Last year, Facebook’s engineers reportedly asked founder Mark Zuckerberg if the company could provide rent subsidies to make living more affordable.

Despite all this, there is still a lot to love about Silicon Valley. But being so blinded by the beauty of the Golden Gate and the lure of the Valley, I didn’t quite realise just how fundamental my New Zealand support networks and more balanced lifestyle were to my happiness and health. Sure, we might not earn as much money as in other countries, it can seem stuffy and small at times, some of us have to work insane hours at times, and Auckland’s housing market is beyond crisis point. But as a whole, New Zealand has managed to achieve an envious work-life balance that most of the world – especially Silicon Valley – could only dream of.

Next time you’re thinking New Zealand doesn’t quite cut it, perhaps stop for a moment and think about the mere two weeks off over Christmas you’d be getting in the States while working like a dog for the remaining 50. Then just think about what a great place New Zealand is to work, live and be happy.

That said, would I go back? Yes, in a heartbeat. The pull of Silicon Valley is getting to me already.

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