Ambitious young people are flocking to San Francisco, London, and other startup hubs. Fueled by coffee, Red Bull, and other nootropic substances, they work 80-hour weeks at below-market wages while chasing “unicorns” and “rocket ships. If all goes well, they hope to get a piece of the insane amount of money that is getting thrown around.
This is not so different from the “dream” sold to investment bankers. New recruits work like crazy for their first two years in hopes of eventually becoming partner or finding a job at a hedge fund. If they can make it through the ringer, they are promised tremendous wealth and prestige.
A big part of why I got into startups was a reaction against this mentality. I hated the idea that you should defer what you care about in life, devoting yourself entirely to your career until you’ve reached success. I wanted to enjoy my work in the present, and I didn’t want to sacrifice my youth for a job.
Yet, that’s exactly what ended up happening. As I became more obsessed with getting to an exit, I started feeling guilty whenever I wasn’t working on the business. I began to neglect my health, hobbies, and personal relationships. I stopped working out, ate more fast food, and would cancel plans with friends if I felt I hadn’t been productive enough to warrant social time.
This went on for a period of 6–12 months. I lost any intrinsic joy I had in my work, and it got to the point where I had to drag myself out of the house every morning, dreading the day at the office. I remember lying on my back at the top of the stairs one day, staring at the ceiling and thinking to myself, “Why the hell am I doing this?”
I didn’t have a good answer. I never wanted to be someone who cared solely about amassing wealth and success, yet that was what ended up informing most of my decisions. That values conflict wore on me everyday, and eventually, I just couldn’t continue. I told my co-founder I needed to step back, and after some discussion, we decided to wind down the venture.
For a time afterward, I wasn’t sure what to do. I had some ideas for startups, but I was so burnt out that I couldn’t bring myself to actually begin working on any of them. At the same time, I felt guilty that I wasn’t working. I felt like my life and career were stagnating.
For awhile, I’d been feeling like everything I did had to be on the direct path to success, because I wanted to get there as fast as possible. Then, one day, it hit me — my approach to work was making me utterly miserable.
I realized that given the choice between reaching success in 5 years while hating the day-to-day and reaching success in 20 years while enjoying the journey, I’d rather take the slow road and have some time to smell the roses.
In some ways, this is a false dichotomy. Rarely is it the case that you need to explicitly choose between the fast and slow path, between being happy or being miserable at work. Yet, looking back, I could see that many times I had sacrificed my personal happiness to pursue what I thought was the shortest path to success. I had optimized for that over everything else, and all of those small decisions added up to me feeling incredibly unfulfilled.