This guest post was written as part of our FounderTalk series by Adii Pienaar. He is currently working on PublicBeta, his new startup that aims to help other entrepreneurs. He previously co-founded WooThemes, where he also served as CEO before he decided to start things up again.
Startups are hard. Entrepreneurship is a rollercoaster. We’re more likely to fail than we are to succeed. Everyone suffers from e-mail overload and it’s not going away. But we apparently love what we do and that makes this okay. Right?
About a year ago, I noticed that whenever anyone asked me, “How are you?” or “How have you been?” I’d respond with the same line: “I’m very busy.”
Startups are hard, but I’ve realized because of my son that there’s more to just being busy.
At first, “I’m very busy” seemed to be the most obvious and honest response to the question. The truth was that I was working hard and by anyone’s definition I was busy. It wasn’t a way to be glib or avoid the kind of human contact that comes with real conversation either. It was just the natural response I had every time that I heard the question.
What I realized eventually was that there was a much deeper meaning lurking just beneath the surface of my response.
I was spending pretty much every waking minute of my life and every drop of mental energy thinking about my business and what it meant being an entrepreneur. I had even developed this canny ability to use any conversation as a segue to talk about business instead. And what was worse, I even treated being with my son as being on the job, drawing comparisons between diapers and business on a whim.
I simply didn’t have the ability or capacity to just be in whatever moment I was at the time.
I had no present tense.
It eventually took a heated argument with my wife about how I wasn’t really present at home and how I was merely managing our one-year-old son, that made me realize that the phrase “I’m busy” had become an addiction and a crutch. In a very bad way.
That argument with my wife was the ultimate tipping point for me. Not only did I realize that I was suffering from a mild case of depression, but this disease had spread to so many parts of my life:
- I didn’t want to spend extended periods of time with friends or family, because I didn’t really enjoy doing so.
- I hadn’t developed any real hobbies, because my work was my hobby.
- I couldn’t spend too much time away from some kind of connected device, before I became really anxious.
- I’d force myself to work – even when I knew I was being unproductive – because it was my comfort zone.
All of this came back to the fact that I couldn’t just be in any given moment. Except when that moment was work. That I did and I did really well. But any kind of scenario or experience outside of work was hard for me to commit to in my head, my heart and my mental presence.
The thing about this was that I was just doing what so many other startup entrepreneurs and employees do. I worked hard in the pursuit of the dream of freedom / money / fame / self-fulfillment (make your pick).
I understood the risk vs. reward ratios for pretty much every decision I made and I wasn’t afraid to make compromises. Because these things are part of the startup game.
What I didn’t understand at the time though, was that my perception and understanding of my (own) life had so many holes. Like Swiss cheese.
These were some of the lies that I was telling myself:
1. Just Push Through The (Pain) Barrier.
“I can work 18 hours a day and I only need 4 hours of sleep. I only feel tired first thing in the morning, but nothing that coffee can’t fix. Just keeping pushing.”
I’m no super-human. I’m almost 30 years old and I need my sleep. Yes, I can cope with a little less sleep in the short-term, but 2 or 3 consecutive days of bad sleep and my system is taking severe strain. Sleep debt is real.
2. I choose to work. And I love my job.
“I love my job. When I love my job, it doesn’t feel like I’m actually “working”. And I choose to do this, instead of spending time at home or with friends.”
The truth was that I was hiding from the real world. Working was indeed easy and it is something I loved. It was, however, also my way of avoiding taking risks elsewhere and experiencing new things.
My work had become a way for me to avoid pretty much everything that was outside of that comfort zone.
3. I’m incredibly productive.
“I need to get this done today, because it’s super important and super urgent. If I don’t do this today, the world will end and my startup will definitely die.”
I now find it incredibly funny that I ever thought that I could actually be 100% productive at any time, much less when working 12 hours straight. In hindsight, I now know that spending time in front of the computer might look like work, but if I’m just doing it for the sake of “working”, I’m wasting time.
4. It’ll all be worth it in the end.
“*It’s not going to be like this forever. The hard work and all these sacrifices will pay off in the long term. And then I can make up for lost time.”*
This was something I told myself often. It was all about short-term sacrifices for long-term gains. And every single sacrifice involved something other than my work or business: my home life, my health, my relationships.
It didn’t matter how much damage I did in those spheres of my life; the eventual reward and success I would generate (as a result of my hard work), would make it worthwhile. Plus I seemed to think that all damage is miraculously repairable.
5. This is the only way to do it.
“Everyone else is also working 80-hour weeks. If I want to sell my company to Facebook for $1bn then I totally need to work this way. This is the only way to be successful.”
Just because everyone else was telling the same lies, it didn’t turn this into the truth. I obviously gravitated to hearing the things that I wanted to hear.
The reality is that it’s incredibly easy to make an excuse (to do or not do anything). It’s much harder to actually own the truth and be real about it.
Life is really short and it’s easy to develop regrets about the things we did. It’s also much easier to regret the things we didn’t do.
Never being in the moment means that my Instagram feed might be filled with images of my son’s first year, but the truth is I never fully experienced it. While I think I tried to be there, I know that I was always thinking about how I could slip away and get back to work.
I can never repeat my son’s first year. I didn’t miss out on everything and I still shared some experiences with him and my wife. Many of those experiences are, however, tainted by my inability to just be in that moment exclusively and independently from what’s happening at work.
Today I know that no amount of success I had within my business during that year could ever compare to the moments I should’ve shared with my son instead.