Imagine your life many years from now, when the time you have left is best measured in weeks or months instead of years and decades, and 2015 is a distant fading memory. What moments will stand out to you?
Do you really think it’s going to be that time, all those years ago, when your fairly frivolous app raised money so it could eventually be sold to some unnamed bigger company and shutdown? Or will you think back on your life and remember your wife, your husband, your children, and the friends you made and lost too soon?
Every day you hear stories of entrepreneurs breaking themselves in what they think is a life or death struggle. They couch their efforts in the language of good versus evil, depression versus happiness, and the crucible of what separates the worthy from the unworthy. Sacrifice is assumed — and those willing to forgo everything that makes life worth living are celebrated for their dedication.
Perhaps you’re even one of them. But what are you really breaking yourself for? What’s the payoff for your struggle?
Money? Passion? These are the reasons we give ourselves, but they’re not really true. Financial success is important of course, but everyone knows the startup game is a lottery and your odds of winning are low. Furthermore, most startup founders have valuable skills and can easily land a six figure job. The vast majority of entrepreneurs would be far better off financially with a solid gig at Google.
When it comes to claims of passion, this is the biggest and most prevalent lie of all. Do you really think all of these entrepreneurs are truly passionate about scheduling house cleaners, or optimizing landing pages, or sharing other people’s photos, or mailing monthly boxes of underwear? Of course they’re not, and you’re probably not that passionate about what you’re doing, either.
The real reason entrepreneurs put themselves through the struggle is for respect and identity. We want to be recognized for something. We want to be remembered. We want people to look at us and say, “That’s the guy who did such and such.” But in the end, it’s all fool’s gold. The adulation of strangers is fleeting and never as satisfying as we imagine it.
The problem is that our “experiencing self,” what we feel and think about things while we’re engaged in them, is very different from our “remembering self,” how we feel and think about things in hindsight. While we’re in the thick of the game, every decision, every score, every miss, everything, takes on the importance of a life turning event. This is why the success or failure of your startup carries the weight of the world. In the moment, it’s the only thing that matters.
But our remembering self sees the world differently. Hindsight brings a different perspective. For most people, the things that they assigned importance to while they were engaged in them fade into the background. How many people, even amongst the most successful, will tell you in the end they wished they worked more or spent more time trying to impress strangers? How many will tell you they should have spent less time with friends and family? I suspect the number is very small, and yet the startup community continues to celebrate the choice of work over life.
I’m sure it’s hard to see now. Some of you might even be thinking I’m trying to diminish what you’re doing, or that I’m just a critic who doesn’t understand what it takes to be an an entrepreneur (note: I’ve been bootstrapping businesses for 20 years).
On the contrary: I have the utmost respect for entrepreneurs, but I also know that looking back on your life you’ll see that it will have encompassed a whole lot more than the work you’re doing today.
In the end, will the startup you did way back in your 20s or 30s really matter? Unless it actually is the next Google — and if you’re being honest it probably isn’t — will anyone remember you for it? Will you even want people to remember you for it? In all likelihood, your startup and all of the significance you think it carries won’t matter that much.
And that’s a good thing, because that will mean you didn’t peak in 2015 and the entirety of your life meant much more than an app store ranking and a series A.