The struggle is real
I used to have a very clear idea about how starting or running a business had to work.
The following, back then, seemed logical:
- I can make money when I work
- If I work more, I can make more
- I’m awake for 16 hours per day
- Therefore, I should work for 16 hours per day
Struggling through that amount of work was fine in my head, because business is hard, so a struggle should be required to succeed. I wasn’t alone in this thinking either. Most entrepreneurs I either know or read about did the same – it almost seemed like a game of one-up-person-ship, where the person who struggled the most would win some sort of badge of honour.
The fifth step in that logic process is burning out. And then, once you’re burned out, you’re supposed to suffer through it and push on even harder.
This way of thinking is both pervasive (Elon Musk famously sleeps on a couch in his office) and alluring (working more feels like progress). We brag about being so busy or achieving things only after we failed a whole bunch first. This is the stuff articles on business websites or instagram stories from famous entrepreneurs are made of.
The problem is that it’s all bullshit. It’s a keeping up with the business-Joneses comparison trap. It’s one I fell into in my 20’s and it could have easily ruined my business.
How do we avoid this propensity to move towards the acceptance that we have to struggle to succeed?
What can be made easier?
Business is hard, but it doesn’t mean you have to constantly struggle or that it should consume you and your entire life. It just means you should actively and constantly be looking for ways to make it and your life, much easier.
I like to figure out how to get more with less. Basically, the Pareto principle or 80/20 rule – if I can achieve 80% of something by putting in 20% of the work or effort, sign me up.
That’s why I launch products with just enough features to be super useful to a specific set of people (instead of spending another 80% of the time trying to cater to everyone). It’s also why I only start businesses that seem to have an easier adoption rate: by testing the market out with blog posts, landing pages, pre-orders, first. A final example is finding ways to keep selling to the same customers, because it’s both easier (they already trust you enough to give you money) and quicker (they already trust you enough to not have to go through a long sales cycle). That’s why a lot of my products cater to the same sorts of folks who buy my other products (and it works, because more than half the folks who buy one thing from me buy multiple things from me).
Instead of struggling because it seems necessary, perhaps instead we can think about what we can do to make easier for a similar, if even lower result. Because sometimes a bit of a lower result for a substantially less amount of work is all we actually need.
What can be done with less?
Productivity is funny because it always seems like work takes the amount of time we give it. For example, if we’re told we have to work from 9 to 5 each day, our work will take that long to get done. If we give ourselves 16 hours a day, that’s how long it’ll take. Yet when we’re strapped for time, we tend to get just as much done as we do when we have plenty.
What if we focused instead on being more efficient with our time, and working on getting more done in less time? Or, experimented with what’d happen to our productivity if we had much less time to get things done? And then, be more realistic with what can actually be accomplished in reasonable amounts of time with reasonable deadlines?
Also, is your business truly a success if it takes all the time, every day to make a profit?
What can be recharged?
A better (and more sustainable) logical progression than the one at the top would be something like this:
- Making money is great and useful
- If I take care of myself, I can make more money for longer
- Therefore, I should take care of myself
We can forget how important it is to take care of ourselves if we’re trying to out-grind every other entrepreneur out there. But really, just like putting on the oxygen mask on ourselves before our loved ones on planes is necessary, so too is taking care of ourselves so we can better take care of our customers and business for the long term. We do our customers no favours if we have to stop working because we pushed ourselves too hard.
Indeed it’s productive to work at ensuring that we’re taking care of our mental, physical and social health. In doing so, we can be more focused when we are working, and ensuring that our work is the most valuable and of the highest quality. Lack of sleep (which can be due to not taking care of our mental and physical needs) leads to a decrease in productivity and focus on work tasks by about one third.
What progress is good progress?
The belief that “winners never quit” is dangerous.
Entrepreneurial experts, motivational speakers and pro-sports coaches will tell you that you can’t give up—that giving up is the only sure way to failure. Isn’t it interesting though that most people who work for themselves “quit” their day job because it wasn’t what they wanted or wasn’t fulfilling. (And quitting in those cases is celebrated.) But then, when they start to work for themselves, the idea of quitting the job they created for themselves (even if it’s not what they want or unfulfilling) feels shameful or not a valid option.
So we soldier on, thinking we’re making the right choice, but by not quitting, we’re saying no to all other opportunities. We’re saying no to trying different routes or options, or doing something in a new way. We’re saying no to spending our time, money and effort elsewhere.
Maybe instead of just struggling through something, we should stop to think about whether or not it’s time to quit. Not shamefully, but because it’s the smartest course of action since what we’re doing isn’t actually working.
Honestly, there’s no way to truly tell when the right time is – unless you invent a time machine (and even then there are certain time travel paradoxes to consider!). But when whatever we’re doing isn’t improving even after substantial effort, then that’s a good sign quitting should be at least considered over struggling through forever.
What is success anyway?
The thing I keep realizing about success is how deeply personal and individual it is. We’re sold a bill of goods that it looks a certain way, or that we end up with a certain life if we have business success. But really, most of what we see or read only depicts one specific type of success that one specific type of person has achieved.
Why shouldn’t it be a success if our business makes enough money that we can spend more time with our family, or on a hiking trail? Why shouldn’t it be a success if our business isn’t a struggle to run (but instead fun or even boring)? Why shouldn’t it be considered a success if we take care of ourselves first, and our business second?
If we spend even a single second chasing someone else’s version of success, one of two things will happen. The first is that we’ll achieve it, and by it I mean their version of success. And in that case, we better hope it lines up with our own. Or, we’ll fail at achieving it and feel bad that we failed. Except we failed at achieving something we probably wouldn’t want in the first place, and is that even a failure?
There are no answers here
We are all works in progress and there are no givens with business. Anyone that tells you that business has to work a certain way is going to try to sell you their way with their next breath.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t work hard or that we should quit the moment something gets tough. Business is tough, hell, life is tough. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t laud struggling as necessary.
Instead of working hard (or too hard) to achieve success, maybe we should look to what we can achieve without breaking ourselves in the process. Sure, it might be less than what we read in the news or see on social media, but maybe it’d be enough. Maybe we should get a prize for doing that.