John Coltrane was the greatest saxophone player of all time. His friends recount him practicing the sax for 12 hours a day. His wife often found him asleep with the horn still in his mouth. Coltrane wasn’t a prodigy, but his obsession carried him all the way to greatness.
Coltrane would have laughed at the notion of work-life balance. Playing the saxophone wasn’t work, and becoming the best was his only priority.
Like it or not, startups and work-life balance are incompatible.
Work-life balance has many vague definitions, but in practice means keeping work in a guarded cage. Giving it adequate time, attention, and energy, and drawing the line there.
Adequate implies average, and average doesn’t fare well in startup statistics.
When 99% of startups don’t make it big, you want to be in the top 1%. To do that you can’t be average, good, or very good, you must be exceptional. You need to be moving as fast as possible and deal with a never-ending stream of increasingly complex and business-threatening problems. This kind of pursuit is by nature imbalanced and requires that you do work when you don’t want to. It requires you to be the John Coltrane of your field.
Forgoing work-life balance doesn’t imply forgoing a good life, but it does require a different framework. I call it life-prioritization and it works like this:
Write your current life priorities in order of importance
Put all your focus on priorities 1, 2, and 3
Throw away the remaining priorities
Take my current life priorities as an example:
Having meaningful relationships with my wife, family, and closest friends
Maintaining excellent physical and mental health
Becoming a top entrepreneur by building a world-class company
Travel? (I honestly don’t know what my 4th priority is)
The word prioritization means that priority N always comes before priority N+1. I.e:
I spend quality time with my wife every day even when it means skipping my daily workout
I do my daily exercise and meditation even when it means leaving a work task for tomorrow
I spend all my remaining energy focusing on my startup and career
If travel happens to work out then great, if not then whatever
Simple and focused as that.
Forgoing work-life balance is not for everyone. In fact, work-life balance is the safest, healthiest, and perhaps the smartest path to happiness.
But when you aim for the improbable, something has to give.