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Stress and Balance

January 16, 2006

When I started this blog, I did so with the understanding that one of the topics I was going to write about was how the process of starting a company has affected my life. I wanted to write briefly about two effects of starting a company.

It really is liberating taking your destiny in your own hands, success or failure, it becomes a manifestation of your own will. Everyone's destiny really is, for the most part, in their own hands but few actually exercise this power. I can't express in words the high that comes from reflecting on the fact that you're actually taking steps to make your dreams a reality.

If the feeling of being out on your own is so great, why don't more people decide to start their own businesses / create startups? My recent experiences have maybe helped me understand why people are so quick to surrender their own fortunes to others.

Although we all have the power to control our fates, there is a price to pay to exercise that power. With power comes responsibility. While people frequently say they want the responsibility, I think most people deep down would rather someone else worry about the big stuff. Instead of worrying about the minutia of everyday life, once you take steps to take full control you must worry about the macro level things as well. This feeling of being Atlas, with the world on your shoulders, takes a toll. I think this is why Paul Graham talks about there being a tremendous 'moral weight' to being a sole founder.

Since starting my company my level of stress has, understandably, gone up significantly. Although I left myself a reasonable runway with my self-funding, every tick of the clock affects me on a visceral level. Time has taken on a level of conscious thought like never before. Simple life tasks represent a double whammy with respect to time. Not only does the time to complete these errands take time away from my startup activities, frequently these errands break the 'flow'. Any person engaged in a creative endeavor knows the feeling of flow and stopping to go to the bank, do the dishes, pay bills, even if it only takes 15 minutes has the potential to break flow. Paul Graham once again has an essay that nails this issue pretty well where he talks about 'good procrastination'.

The other effect this startup has had on my life is my obsession with it. I freely admit it. I'm constantly making trade-offs with my startup as the counterweight to everything else in my life. Of course I'm not the only one wrestling with these issues. I recommend reading a great article by Brad Feld regarding startups, work obsession and balance on his blog, one of my regular reads. Achieving balance is important but it takes a conscious effort, it takes work, and it's not easy.

I'm a big fan of 'big picture' thinking, but being obsessed can cause you to lose the broader view. When you try to squeeze all of the things in your life to pour all of the resulting time into something (especially creative work) I think the efficiency of your returns diminishes. When you sacrifice everything else, the value of that time in terms of your startup actually goes down. You might have a net gain of productivity, but I would argue that net gain is not as large as the additional time would seemingly merit, and all at a very high cost.

That's not to say I'm not still devoting a huge amount of time to my startup, it just means I've come to realize that certain things need to be prioritized for my (and my startup's) own well being. Early on, 'quality time' with my girlfriend was one of the first things I realized I needed to concentrate on. She's very understanding about all the things I'm going through, but I still make a conscious effort not to let my startup obsession go too far in interfering with our relationship. Her support during this time is extremely important to me and worth way more than the minutes spent away from development.

Another more recent realization regarding balance involves sacrificing the few hours a day I usually go to the gym. A few years ago I got into a groove of going to the gym all the time. I'd never felt better in my life. I'd realized I had stopped going trying to recoup those couple of hours. Once again, taking a broader view, my lapse in going to the gym was actually harmful to my overall progress in my startup. I started feeling awful. It seems that going to the gym helps me eliminate stress, and by not going I was allowing the resulting increased stress to reduce my overall productivity. The few hours I'd gained by skipping my gym time were greatly offset by the negative impact of the additional stress on all the other time I was devoting to my startup.

Does the high of being on your own counteract the weight of the world on your shoulders? Is the 'out-of-whack' life balance worth it? In my case I really do think it is, but I would also say it's not for everyone. Whenever I feel like I'm being crushed under the weight of all the stress, and all the tradeoffs, I just focus on one thought "I'm actually doing it". That simple thought, for me, has the power to instantly make me feel better.

The blog has been a little quiet recently because I've been working on creating a demo-able version of one of my technologies. I'm thinking about attending a "Boston Web Innovators Group", a meeting put on by David Beisel, a VC with Masthead Ventures but I haven't decided if I have enough to demo there or not.