You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
If you’re not first, you’re last.
It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.
There’s no traffic on the extra mile.
I’ve noticed lately that the narrative around tech is becoming more and more similar to the narrative around high-level athleticism. You have to optimize your sleep, your nutrition, and your life in order to perform your best. And more than anything, you have to sacrifice. If you’re not hurting, you’re not trying hard enough.
But, as many athletes will tell you, that’s not the whole story. Sometimes, being the best means taking naps seriously. Ask Lebron James.
It’s no secret that running a startup is hard work. For most of us, that’s part of the attraction, to take ownership of the highs and the lows and immerse ourselves in building something to be proud of. But the narrative that you have to sacrifice everything else in your life to run a successful company is unsustainable and can have negative consequences long term, both personally and professionally.
Sacrifice is honorable. Sacrifice shows you really care. Anything worth doing requires some level of sacrifice. The second layer to that is what I’m questioning: what level of suffering is necessary for growth and what’s just painful? Why take such an extreme approach when there’s a better way?
Learn the difference between sacrifice and suffering
There is a strong focus in tech around pushing yourself to the limit, whether you’re trying out fasting, waking up obscenely early, or growing at a supernatural rate. There’s the push to eat every meal at the office, to be available online 24/7, and to give up your personal life. If you’re doing anything less than that, you aren’t giving it your all. Of course, building a company isn’t easy, and it does require sacrifice. The trick is to determine what sacrifices are worth the return and what is in service to appearances or ego.
Rest is a great example of this. As I’ve written before, rest is a critical yet undervalued part of success. Sometimes, sacrificing rest will be necessary for the greater good (ask anyone with a newborn). But, for productivity’s sake, if you’re putting in long hours on a project, rest is something that will actually make you more productive, not less. By sacrificing sleep, you’re likely doing more harm than good.
But, when some sacrifice is necessary, how do you determine what’s “worth it?”
Let your values dictate your priorities
There are only a certain number of hours in a given day. You can’t do everything. So, you focus your time on where it matters most, where it will have the most impact. Think about the three biggest priorities in your life, not goals, which should be measurable, but the value-driven pillars in your life. Use these as guiding principles. If what you want to do doesn’t serve one of your pillars, put a pin in it.
I like to go by the template of one professional, one personal, and one self-improvement pillar. It forces a sense of balance. I know that I’m not happy unless I’m challenging myself at work, spending quality time with my family and friends, and keeping my body healthy.
What I like about framing priorities around principles over goals is that the execution can be flexible based on what my life looks like in a given month. For example, what keeping my body healthy during a particularly big push at work means is trying to eat better to keep my energy up. When I have more time, I focus on hitting the gym. In both circumstances, I’m prioritizing my health, focusing more on the priority than the sacrifice.
Be a team player, not a martyr
Your team will follow your lead. One of the most fulfilling parts of running a startup is the feeling of all being in it together. But, that sense of oneness can be a double-edged sword. If you’re edging towards burnout, it’s likely your team is, too. It’s critical to lead by example. You may never ask your team to stay through dinner time or to skip a wedding, but if they see you do it, they may understand that as the expectation.
Employee well-being affects performance and retention. A Gallup poll determined that employees who were strong in all five metrics of well-being (purpose, social, financial, community, and physical) were more adaptive, had better problem-solving skills, and missed less work than employees who only thrived in one metric. A company culture of sacrifice can have negative consequences. By focusing on your well-being in all areas of your life, you’re modeling positive behavior for your employees, which pays dividends on retention and productivity in the long term.
Remember, the grass is greener where you water it
Some days or weeks are just hard. Deadlines sneak up on you, unforeseen complications arise, or life just happens. During those tough periods, it’s easy to slip into the trap of lamenting what you’ve given up, whether it was a feature you couldn’t get into a release due to stability improvements or having to miss drinks with a friend in from out of town to prepare for an investor meeting.
But, dwelling on the sacrifice makes it seem more important than it really is. If you’re wondering if skipping happy hour to work on a presentation was the right choice, you’re placing too much emphasis on the short term and missing the bigger picture. The important thing is to stay focused on the long game, remembering why you’re doing what you are. Focusing on what you are doing rather than what you’re sacrificing keeps you engaged with what actually matters.
Among pressing deadlines and a seemingly endless to-do list, it can be difficult to see that bigger picture. Scheduling time to engage with materials that help you see the ten-thousand-foot view, whether it’s a forecasting spreadsheet or a regular check-in with your management team, can help maintain that focus.