The surprising thing that happened when I put my life before my company

Photo by Justin Luebke on Unsplash

Last year I had one goal: I wanted to complete my first marathon. And having an A-type personality, I wanted to complete it in under 4 hours.

At about the same time that I started my marathon training, I also stumbled (literally, as a result of other challenges in my life) into mindfulness. The combination of these two things soon had an interesting impact on the way I ran our company and lead our team.

Since my primary goal was not about work, it meant that the first priority that I scheduled for every day and every week was the times I needed to run. Work thus had to fill the spaces around these more-rigid blocks. The natural consequence to this was that I worked less than ever before. Even catching up on work in the evening wasn’t an option after a 3-hour long run; I was just too tired to work.

Working less — in favour of running a marathon — wasn’t part of my plan or intention. But as I shifted my focus towards running this marathon, it had a few other unexpected effects on our business too.

1. The Rollercoaster Eased Off

The entrepreneurial journey is often referred to as a mental and emotional rollercoaster; especially in early-stage startups where everything seems uncertain, except for the inevitable death awaiting around the corner. I had experienced these ups and downs greatly across multiple startups for the past 10 years and at my lowest point, my therapist cautioned that I might be suffering from a mild form of bipolar disorder (which ironically enhances some psychological characteristics that are beneficial to entrepreneurship according to some studies).

With my marathon in sight though, the entrepreneurial rollercoaster felt different. I still experienced ups and downs, but neither of those were as extreme as before. This greatly decreased my own anxiety (disguised as ambition) and meant that I had a calmer approach to leading the team.

Then 1 January 2017 came around and I changed my focus and primary goal for the year. 2017 was the year that I was going to really push hard to grow our business. I started exploring new ideas, partnerships, mergers and acquisitions. I was really pushing the team and trying to force our progress.

My team’s feedback after weeks of my frantic behaviour was clear: I seemed incredibly stressed, our team-wide communication had suffered and nobody felt certain of where we were heading. Suffice to say, as soon as I regulated my own emotions and focus (beyond “work”), we returned to a better space where we started making consistent progress once again (like we did in the calm of 2016).

2. Patience and longer-term thinking came easier

In Phil Knight’s book, Shoe Dog, he tells a story where he is sitting in a hot tub with Masuro Hayami, the former CEO of Nike’s biggest financial partner at the time. Phil is complaining that he sees so much opportunity, but regardless of their execution, they’re not making progress. The conversation continues:

Mr. Hayami nodded. “See those bamboo trees up there?” he asked.
“Yes.”
“Next year . . . when you come [to visit] . . . they will be one foot higher.”

This is a lovely anecdote from a time in our history where instant gratification rarely existed in the business world. It was impossible to hack one’s growth, and patience — whether it was an easy experience — was forced onto you via society’s technological or logistical limitations.

When I was focusing on something else other than the business, it helped us see the forest from the trees. The focus was less about seeing our progress today or this week or even what our month-on-month growth would. Instead we started adopting a longer-term approach, where we planned only to do good work today that was aligned with our long-term goals.

3. We got to know ourselves

It requires a lot of courage to truly get to know oneself. And even more courage to then live that truth. This is especially hard in a society that — whilst it encourages individuality — is mostly set up for the efficiency that conformity brings.

This is true in the world of business too. We have long accepted the idea that building a business is about perpetual growth and a pursuit of more. Contentment is not a prevalent part of our work vocabulary, which is why terms like growth hacking, pivots, hockeystick growth and unicorn have become very popular.

Marcus Aurelius writes “How much trouble he avoids who does not look to see what his neighbour says or does … but only to what he does himself … look not round at the depraved morals of others, but run straight along the line without deviating from it.”

I was happy, and maybe even content, when I was training for my marathon. This perspective shifted our team’s focus from work-life balance to a family- and life-first culture. This has become our North Star for the decisions we make and actions we take. We have clarity about who we are, what we value and how that contributes to our business.

In his recent book, Jonathan Siegel says “Tech companies — particularly startups — are allowing their herd instincts to blunt their business sense.”

As a team, we believe that we are unique and sticking to our truth is the very thing that will bring us long-term success.

The Unexpected Road

Many (successful) entrepreneurs would tell you that the majority of things they’ve learnt is not about what works, but instead the things that didn’t work. Survivorship bias — and overnight tech unicorns — encourage the idea that business and life has a silver bullet. But improving over time is a process of trial-and-error and eliminating things that didn’t work.

I don’t pretend to have everything figured out, but I am curious about the surprises that we will uncover on this route of building a life-first company. This journey will be about finding many more marathon-like goals in our lives as we move towards our North Star.

Ryan Holiday says this beautifully in his book, The Obstacle is The Way: “We will not be rushed or distracted by external noise. We will chisel and peg away at the obstacle until it is gone. Resistance is futile.”

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