“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” — Lewis Carroll
Last week, Exponential Impact’s latest cohort visited the GAN office. XI is a GAN Accelerator located in Colorado Springs and this cohort of founders is an amazing group, just starting the program. When thinking about what I should say to them, I remembered something that Steve Blank shared with a bunch of the Techstars founders we brought together in Las Vegas back in 2012.
Steve got in front of the room and asked everyone, “Who here comes from a broken or chaotic family? Just a quick show of hands.”
About 80% of the room raised their hands. He said that’s pretty normal for a room full of founders. One of the main reasons founders do what they do—start and run incredible companies—is because they’re used to chaos and they know how to live (and thrive) in it.
Unfortunately, he also shared that the flip side of this can be dangerous. When founders actually experience calm, they don’t know what to do. Founders can be addicted to craziness. When things are calm, things feel terrifying. They don’t seem to be “right” or “okay.” So, when they experience calm, they want to mess things up because all they really know is chaos.
Getting Sucked In
For most of the founders I know (including myself), we get sucked into the vortex of our jobs. We believe that this is important work (which it is!). We believe that we have to succeed (or else!). We believe that we must do everything in our power to make this company work (because what will happen if it doesn’t work out?!).
Getting sucked in in this way leads to working way too hard. We live chaotic lives. We push it too much. We don’t sleep. We don’t eat well. We feel incredibly stressed out. Our friends miss us, and we miss them. Our families want more of us, and we want to be around them. And then we start living like shells of ourselves.
As I’ve reflected on this over the past few weeks, there’s a quick question I see very few founders ask themselves. And I came to this question after talking with Nick on our team.
When Nick and I spoke, I shared everything that’s going on with me—I told him what I’m working on, what my rhythms are for exercise and work, and how much I’m sleeping. I had the perfect plan.
Yet, he asked me a very important question that I will never forget:
What do you want your (work) life to look like?
To which I realized I didn’t have an answer. I was so focused on how much I wanted to sleep and how much I wanted to exercise and what I wanted to eat that I missed one important thing: The goal of working out consistently, eating better, and getting more sleep isn’t so that I can be more productive. It also isn’t so I can recover from an overly stressful existence in the rest of my life. I hadn’t even considered that I might be missing the core problem: That my daily life looks like spending too many hours on work, and that those hours seem to be too packed. Some would even say chaotic.
Why This Matters for Founders Everywhere
Nick was astute enough to realize that, as much as we can have good rhythms and systems set up for ourselves, there may be a core issue going on with our work itself. While it’s great to sleep eight hours a night and workout three times a week, if we’re still working 60 hours a week, we don’t have much margin for our friends and family. We’ll be waking up at 6am and staying until 6pm to get work done—which means that we’ll be fried and have nothing to give to others. And, we’ll be burning out our own minds and bodies in the process.
Which is why, when I was with the founders at Exponential Impact last week, I asked them one question:
What do you want your (work) life to look like—over the next three months?
I told them that their time in-program, at XI, can be chaotic. Or, it can be balanced. It can actually be calm.
But I told them one important addition: You have to define what “calm” looks like to you. If you want to work 35 hours a week, great. Just realize that might mean making sacrifices. You won’t get as much done as someone who works 60+ hours. Or, maybe 60+ hours is still “balance” for you; maybe you truly love the chaos. Great. Just know that you might impose a cost on your body and your relationships. Either way, make sure that you define what you want your (work) life to look like and don’t just get sucked into the vortex of work—because if you don’t, other things (your team, your investors, your spouse, your children, your culture’s expectations of “success”) will define it for you.
This isn’t only true for startup founders when you start an accelerator. It’s also true when you yo work with a big partner, a new investor, start a new job, or do anything else in your life that’s big. You need to define what you want it to look like, for yourself, or else the world will gladly define it for you.
So, what do you want your life to look like?