The Strain of Starting Up and Having it All

Scott Francis
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Author’s note:  I wrote this a while ago and put it on the back burner.  But in light of the recent articles about “having it all” – Why Women Still Can’t Have it All , and why there is no such thing as having it all – I felt like posting this after all. Because you can’t “have it all” but you can sure make decisions that *support* your lifestyle choices.

Because my wife and I are both “entrepreneurs” – or if you prefer, business owners – I found myself reading carefully a couple of posts about burnout and lack of personal life balance from a few hard-driven techies. First is Jeff Atwood’s post from February 6th, “Farewell Stack Exchange” and second was Bryan Snyder’s February 5th post on Pando Daily, “Good Dad, Good Entrepreneur, Good Husband.”

In the first, Jeff is signing off from Stack Exchange after an incredible run.  Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange have made a huge difference in the lives of many techies.  But recently Jeff added two members to the family and he quotes several people who are really re-examining their work-life balance. Part of this is normal – you get to a certain age, in combination with certain family lifestyle changes, and your priorities change. At least for most people they do.

But the other interesting theme in Jeff’s post is how many people re-examined their lives in the wake of Steve Jobs’ death.  For a slightly older group of people, a similar introspection – more jarring-  went on after 9-11.  If it could all end tomorrow, did I spend today the way I would have wished to? Blogging wasn’t quite as common back then so I didn’t pick up on this as a blogging meme, but it definitely showed up in marriage and birth rates among my colleagues.

In the second article, the basic question is whether you can be a good dad, a good entrepreneur, and a good husband (spouse) at the same time.  There’s no doubt that running businesses is stressful.  The best advice I can give is to get help. Accept help. Pay for it. Be thankful for it. But most of all, get help. What kind of help?  Help with watching the kids, even if you work from home.  Hire more help for the company or startup than you otherwise would – treat your lack of time as a cost on either personal or business side. Be willing to run your “business of you” or “startup of you” with a little less profit margin – in order to have a bigger family time margin.

The extra help watching the kids will mean you’re more productive when you ARE working.  The extra help at the office can mean that you spend less time working – and more time with your family. The other thing that works is to find common activities.  Pick a sport and get the whole family involved in it.  Or gardening, or board games. Whatever it is – get activities and interests going that involve everyone. Finally, since you own a business… don’t forget to extend these courtesies to the people who work for you.  Understand when they need a sick day to take care of their kids.  Give them time off to see the baseball game or take a field trip.

You’ll know you have the balance right when your spouse and family feel like your support network – lifting you up- rather than being a source of stress or guilt.  When my wife and I feel the stress levels rising because of strains of running two businesses, we know the balance is off and we make sure to get our date night in, or our fun time with the kiddos. But I do find that since we both run businesses we can relate to each others’ stresses and hopes and dreams – and help each other.  I love talking with her about her business.  I’m proud of her.  But I’m even more proud of how she’s shepherding our kids through their early years and opening opportunities for them.

So can we “have it all?”

I feel like we almost have it all, right now.  But like most Americans, I always see one more thing to accomplish.  One more home improvement, one more vacation, one more life event with the children, one more business goal.  My wife has much the same drive.  I think a basic truth I took away from the “have it all” debate just recently is that the beauty of life is that you make choices – and you decide what matters to you most.  I love the way this is captured here:

Rather than accept the very basic childhood lesson that choosing one option might impact the feasibility of another, Slaughter blames the government, men, society, feminism, cultural attitudes, the workplace and other externals. If you choose Harvard because you like Cambridge better than New Haven, you have to give up Yale and your love of its drama department. If you order the salmon entrée at your favorite restaurant, you have to forgo ordering the steak entrée that night. If you choose to have kids, you have to give up a certain amount of your freedom for the next 18 years. Not just career freedom, but marital, economic and social freedom as well. Order up what you want — Harvard, the wild salmon, the kids — but know that there’s no such option out there called “having it both ways.”

Sometimes choices really are just that – choices.

For another take, from a fellow business owner in Austin, check out Mimiran’s blog. Reuben made explicit business choices based on his decisions about family.  In fact, you could argue he is pursuing a different business in order to allow for his family lifestyle.  And some other friends of mine have taken the opposite approach in a sense-  taking family with them to the job in remote corners of the world.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with either choice- but it does help to recognize that it is a choice.  And choices have consequences – both good and bad (as Reuben points out):

Those of us lucky enough to have choices (a demographic Slaughter notes she is lucky enough to be in) also have the burden of making those choices. While the article looks at the woman’s perspective and highlights the barriers to mothers achieving in the workplace, there is another side to the coin. Men could “have it all” by removing active parenthood from the definition of having it all. While all parents have moments that they would wholeheartedly agree with this contracted notion, many men woke up late in life and realized that they had not had it all, despite career success, and they could never have that time back. They had been spared the choice, which seemed easier at the time, only to realize they had missed something important.

Well said.

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