Losing Yourself to Your Business
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Most of us start businesses because we want to be happier. We’re certain that when we are our own boss, we’ll finally have the creative freedom, autonomy, challenge, and meaning that we’ve been craving. We imagine our future selves working on our own terms, for something that we believe in (or at the very least are excited about). We dream about how this new professional reality will improve our personal lives, too—we’ll have the time and flexibility to exercise, to eat right, and to see our kids, friends, and spouses.
But the truth is, it’s astonishingly easy to be unsatisfied as an entrepreneur. Despite our best intentions, we endure a lot of stress, we get burned out, and most importantly, we stop having fun. We question our ventures and ourselves, and we may sometimes begin to think that entrepreneurship isn’t all it’s made out to be.
And this is where many of us give up trying. We don’t throw in the towel—we settle. We tell ourselves that we’d still be less happy working for someone else, and that this is as good as it’s going to get.
But this is where we’re wrong. Life should not be about debating which of two lesser options you’d prefer, it should be about creating the circumstances that allow you to get what you want. And entrepreneurship is the perfect opportunity to do just that—provided you don’t lose track of your vision along the way.
It may sound simple, but the secret to being a happy entrepreneur is keeping yourself in the driver’s seat. I’ve found that the happiest entrepreneurs never lose sight of four key things: sustainability, satisfaction, success, and a sense of enough.
Running a business is a marathon, not a sprint, and that’s why it’s imperative to maintain your stamina and long-term perspective. Sure, you can work around the clock and sacrifice everything else in your life for the sake of your business, but is that sustainable? No. Plus, you’ll soon come to resent your business and all the time, energy, and money it takes.
Instead, your daily and weekly habits should not only reflect your overall life goals but support your long-term vision, too. Ask yourself, “What does my ideal week, month, and year look like?” With these pictures in mind, take the time to identify your non-negotiable items (for example, a certain amount of quiet time to design, particular learning opportunities, or time at home) and adjust your business schedule accordingly.
Then, consider your own down time. To be clear, this is not time on your commute spent checking email on your phone—this is time you’re not working at all. Like any endurance sport, in entrepreneurship there are bound to be periods of intensity, but peak performance demands that there are times of rest, too. Decide, specifically, when and how you will give yourself a break. Then do it.
No one wants to work in a job that fails to leverage her talents and skills. Yet many of us get into the bad habit of hoarding unfulfilling tasks that “we have to do,” leaving very little time for what we love. We even go so far as to hire others to do what we consider to be the best parts of the job, while we toil away with things we’d never dream of doing for someone else. Of course, even the perfect job won’t be life’s elixir, but if you’re going to go to all the trouble to start your own business, you better give yourself a rewarding job.
The happiest entrepreneurs prioritize their satisfaction. They pay attention to how they spend their time and take their own job descriptions seriously. Make the time to write your job description, outlining your most important and essential responsibilities. Then, consider how well this reflects your actual time spent and your skills and talents. Does your job currently maximize the value you deliver to your company? Does it leverage what you do best and love most? If not, fire and rehire yourself in a different role. Remember, you can’t be all things to your business. There are thousands of un-and under-employed people who excel where you don’t. Not only will be you be happier focusing on the tasks you enjoy most, but your business will excel even more if it’s given the talent it needs and deserves.
Our culture tends to glorify size and fixate on numbers—revenue, number of employees, market share—and so entrepreneurs often pursue these metrics at the expense of their own satisfaction.
But success is not about big for big’s sake, nor is it about being the fastest, first, or best. It depends on the goals you have for yourself. A surprising number of entrepreneurs, though, can’t describe the success they’re seeking. They are simply waiting for someone else to declare their business a success, and as a result they are stuck using other people’s measuring sticks.
Take the time to think about what your benchmark is. Is it a revenue goal? Affording a particular lifestyle? Being recognized for your specific knowledge or ideas? Changing the way that things are done in your industry or community? There are endless possibilities and no wrong answers. It’s impossible to effectively steer the ship if you have no idea where you are going.
Sense of “Enough”
This may be the most important ingredient—knowing when to stop. Entrepreneurs are predisposed to always keep doing more. Many of us are natural overachievers and all of us are working to protect our own investment, so we aren’t inclined to do anything less than 150%. Yet, this “always more” mindset also causes us to needlessly waste our own time, grow larger than we need to achieve our goals, and poorly marshal our resources.
Instead of pushing yourself to see how much you can do at once, start evaluating opportunities with your goals in mind. Ask yourself “Am I at least 75% sure this will help me get where I want to go?” and “What am I willing to give up to make this happen?” The worst mistake we can make is assuming that adding a particular initiative to our plate doesn’t detract from another. Something always has to give. Recognizing this truth makes us much better at saying no, and in turn, allows us to recognize when we already have enough work, priorities, or success.
It’s easy to get caught up in the momentum of your business. We all do. However, if happiness is what you’re after, it’s important to remember why you started in the first place. After all, it’s one thing to have a business that works; it’s another to have one that works for you.
Adelaide Lancaster is an entrepreneur, consultant, speaker, and co-author of The Big Enough Company: How Women Can Build Great Businesses and Happier Lives (Portfolio/Penguin). She is also the co-founder of In Good Company Workplaces, a first-of-its-kind community, learning center, and co-working space for women entrepreneurs in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @ingoodcmpny and @adelaidenyc.