Broken Idols & Ideals

I stumbled onto a new Vanity Fair article by Randall Stross, in which he shares some behind-the-scenes insight into Y-Combinator after he followed the 2nd class of 2011 during their 3 months with the incubator. Whilst it was generally a fun read, one specific section left me appalled:

The most successful start-ups, Graham says, are the ones that completely remove distractions: “They just sleep, eat, exercise, and program.”

The Zenters were in Y.C.’s winter 2007 batch. “They got this apartment together a couple blocks from here,” says Graham, “and just got a bunch of Lean Cuisine and put it in the freezer, and they programmed and occasionally played tennis and ate Lean Cuisine.”

Standing to the side of the room, Jessica Livingston calls out, “They each lost 15 pounds!”

To distill the advice given to new Y-Combinator startups, Paul Graham & Jessica Livingston basically advised startups to spend most of their time working, exclusively eating frozen meals and occasionally going outside (probably just to confirm that the rest of the world is still turning). Reading between the lines, this is what I read:

  • Work-life balance isn't important and it's okay to pour everything you have (every day) into your work.
  • Frozen meals are a great way to allow you to work more, regardless of whether it is nicer / healthier to get a fresh meal.
  • Losing 15 pounds because of your new "work-as-much-possible" routine is fine and we can all chuckle about that afterwards.

I don't agree. I don't think it's okay to compromise on a balanced life in the pursuit of a startup; and even much less so when you could be jeopardizing your health (to whatever extent). The potential reward just isn't worth that compromise.

But what bugs the shit out of me though, is that this advice is coming from people whom we - the startup community - regard as idols. Heck - how many tech startups entrepreneurs are out there that don't know of or actively follow / read Paul Graham? And this is even more true for Y-Combinator who has become the holy grail for all tech startups to aspire to; their popularity perpetuating a broken and one-sided mindset.

Finding a better way

About a week ago, I saw a tweet (which I wished I saved, so that I can attribute it accordingly) that touched on a personal nerve. The tweet read:

"Entrepreneurs are the only people in the world that are willing to work 80 hour weeks in order to eventually - hopefully - work 40 hours a week."

This reminded me of one of the core characteristics of being an entrepreneur (and the one that's appealed most to me since I started out on my entrepreneurial journey): Entrepreneurs make their own rules. Put them inside a box and they'll just build a bigger, better, different box.

Whatever your goals as an entrepreneur and regardless of your reasons for wanting to be an entrepreneur, I will bet that no entrepreneur does a startup for the exclusive reason to work 80 hour weeks.

So why are we all agreeing that it is okay to compromise on our lives in the pursuit of a supposed holy grail? Are we just wrongly worshipping workaholics? Maybe a 4-day work week isn't something all of us can do, but surely there's a more balanced way to do things (compared to 80 hour work weeks)?

And from reading about the experiences of self-made millionaires, the pot of gold at the end of that 80 hour work week doesn't seem to be all that it's cut out to be.

Startups will always be hard work

One of the first things that I tell young entrepreneurs is that they need to work harder than anyone else. Because I'd lie if I said that I've never pulled 80 hour work weeks and that I didn't believe that this is one of the reasons why I've been successful. But maybe it's not about working harder and simply about working smarter?

Ultimately it comes down to going back to our entrepreneurial roots, which is to question everything and make our own rules. 80 hour work weeks, work-only lives and shitty Lean Cuisine is only one option and even though this is being endorsed by our idols, doesn't mean it's the only option available to us. We shouldn't be taking that option just because Y-Combinator has made it popular.

I don't have the perfect recipe for the alternative, but I do know that my ideal life looks a lot different to that: I want to work hard and I want to succeed professionally, but I don't want to compromise on the other important parts of my life (my family, my health, having fun, creating new memories, experiencing new things etc.). These ideals just seem less broken to me.

Just because something is being endorsed by our idols, doesn't make it ideal.