There’s a powerful, short paragraph in Rolling Stone’s recent profile of Elon Musk that resonated deeply for me: “Going to sleep alone kills me. Being in a big empty house, and the footsteps echoing through the hallway, no one there – and no one on the pillow next to you. How do you make yourself happy in a situation like that?”
Like the scene in Wizard of Oz when the curtain is pulled back and the all-powerful wizard is revealed to be a frail, old man, these 44 words reveals the essential lie at the heart of Elon’s brand of entrepreneurship: that you cannot have it all.
Below, we will look at what you should always focus on even during the challenging part of scaling your business:
The (Obvious) Key to Happiness
Just about every major study has shown that the #1 contributor to happiness is our relationships. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, yet it’s shocking how easy it is for most people to forget that relationships, like plants, take nurturing in order to thrive and grow.
Musk’s work ethic has achieved legendary status – 100-hour work-weeks are his norm. Think about that. That’s 14+ hours a day, 7 days a week. Allowing 6-7 hours/day for sleep, and 2-3 hours/day for things like showers, commuting and eating. That leaves maybe an hour a day for spending quality time with the people in our lives or pursuing other passions.
Musk is held up as a role model because he’s been able to achieve financial success, massive impact, and perhaps most alluringly, fame. It’s a perfectly acceptable model – we need more people solving the world’s biggest problems – as long as you understand the cost.
Yet most people believe they can have it all ranging from massive impact, fame, a loving family, friends, travel, and adventure. This is not the truth, and it’s something I bought into for many years.
“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” – Thomas Merton
Believing The Myth
I’m the father of 3 young kids and married to the love of my life. Like most fathers and husbands, I said (and believed) my wife and kids mean the world to me, but my actions belied my words.
For years I poured myself into my businesses. I brought on investors to my adventure travel company, and we expanded into new regions all over the world. Last year, I launched a program that would see us scale into every country on Earth by 2021. I launched new projects and businesses every few months.
I wanted the awards. I wanted the magazine covers. I wanted to speak on stages around the world. I believed the myth. I believed these things would make me happy, and with each passing month, my relationships with my wife and kids – and the other important people in my life – became more strained.
Some Things Don’t Scale
From the networks I belong to, and events I attend, I’m connected to many successful entrepreneurs, some running $100MM+ companies. In these circles, scale is unquestioned: scale is what entrepreneurs do, and the faster we can scale, the better.
Yet, the most important things don’t scale easily. As almost any entrepreneur can attest, revenue and profit often scale very differently, and fast revenue growth can – and often does bring profit down. It’s put a lot of companies out of business. That same growth creates crises and challenges that are messy, stressful, and not easy to solve.
I’ve asked dozens of my friends if they’re happier running their businesses now than when they were much smaller. 90% of the time, the answer is a begrudging no. Their businesses aren’t as fun to run. They’re working harder than ever. They’re spending less time with loved ones and doing the things they love.
What’s driving this push for scale?
Almost always, it’s a hungry ego at the wheel. It’s a quest for significance and a need for validation.I recognize this because it’s the trap that I fell into. About 8 months ago, I read Ryan Holiday’s excellent book, Ego is the Enemy. I began to see how so much of what I was chasing was driven by my insatiable ego.
Since then, I’ve been on a quest to better understand and work with my ego. The goal is not to remove or ignore my ego, but to acknowledge it and work with it in healthy ways, rather than be controlled by it.
When I finally decided to stop feeding my ego, it was like lifting a huge weight from my shoulders. I no longer chase the vanity things I once chased, and I’ve been way happier as a result. I’ve designed my life to be less in service of ego and more in service of others.
I got rid of our office and made my team fully remote (and used many of the tips in this article as a guideline) so that I could work from home and spend more time with my wife and kids. I scaled back my main business so that we could focus on profit instead of revenue and work less. I carved out time in my schedule to connect with friends and the people I want to connect with.
My relationship with my wife has never been better. I’m spending more time with my kids, and when I do, I’m much more present. I’m spending time deepening my existing relationships and fostering many new ones. I’m a much happier person, and my company is more profitable (albeit smaller).
“At the end of the day, I just want to sit with someone I love and chat about what matters and even what doesn’t.” – Crystal Woods
Scale is great, but…
I don’t want to totally write off or demonize scale. You can achieve incredible things at scale that you can’t when you’re a small company. Pursuing massive scale is perfectly acceptable and worthwhile, as long as:
b) you’ve reflected deeply on the true motivations behind the goals you’re chasing.
Understand the price you’ll need to pay, exactly why you’re chasing massive scale, and you’re far less likely to achieve the wrong kind of success. You’ll be much happier along the way.
A friend recently posted the following words on his Facebook wall, after learning that his mom’s heart was only operating at 60% and he could be facing his last Christmas with her.
“She’s been through hell and I busted my ass every day to become something so I could provide for everyone around me. So I could give back and I finally “made it.” But money can’t buy a new heart, it can’t buy a couple more years, a couple more smiles, a couple more holidays, a couple more memories.”
Make sure your ladder of success is leaning against the right wall.