Startup life wrecked my body

Car Crash

I have a lot of friends who are startup founders. Lately whenever we meet up, I find myself sharing the same story with them; it’s about a car accident.

I can’t remember where I originally heard this story, but it stuck with me as an important metaphor for startup life. It goes something like this:

A girl and her boyfriend are involved in a very serious car accident. The boyfriend is super messed up from the wreck: barely conscious, bleeding profusely, and bones shattered in several places. Remarkably, the girl seems to be fine.

As the boyfriend is rushed to the hospital via ambulance, the girl never leaves his side. She’s really rising to the occasion, soothing him, and making the entire environment feel relatively calm.

When they get to the hospital and the guy is rushed into surgery, the girl still plays the part of the hero and fills out all the medical forms, calls each of his family members, and relentlessly pursues doctors and nurses to make sure that her boyfriend is getting lots of attention. She’s pumping with adrenaline and has been a rockstar on her feet for several hours since the accident. Her boyfriend is one lucky dude.

When the situation starts to calm down, one of the doctors suggests to the girl that she should get examined as well. After all, she was in the same accident; it would be wise to get checked out just to be safe.

So the girl agrees to a CAT-scan. She lies on the bed that pulls her into the machine, and breathes a deep sigh of relief — it’s nice to be finally relaxing, even for just a moment.

While she’s lying in the bed, the scan images appear onto the screens, and the technician quickly realizes that the girl has massive internal bleeding.

Before the technician has a chance to hail a doctor, the girl is already dead.

What is the lesson from this bleak story?

Okay, so this story may be a bit dramatic. But I do see a parallel to startup life.

I think the key detail in this story is adrenaline. The adrenaline pumping through this girl was literally keeping her alive and holding her body together. The moment she was able to take her foot off the gas and relax a bit, nature took over and took her away.

When I meet with entrepreneurs, I often hear the same adrenaline-fueled stories: pulling superhuman hours, partying way too hard, drinking way too much — all the while ignoring healthy eating, exercise, and balance in general.

I empathize completely. Before I started my startup, I hardly drank alcohol or even coffee. After seven years of the life, in one day I could work eighteen hours, drink four cups of coffee, and slam down six shots of scotch with friends in the evening without breaking a sweat.

Here’s what my personal health philosophy looked like during that time:

  • I never exercised; didn’t feel like I had the time
  • I didn’t eat well; food was just calories to shove down my gullet as quickly as possible
  • I didn’t have work/life balance; time not working was opportunity cost to productivity

Startup life seems terrible for many outsiders, but it is actually a highly addictive way to live. You start to love the feeling of adrenaline pumping through you all the time. It’s like going skydiving every day you step into your office.

But there are consequences. I’m just two years into my founder recovery, and the adrenaline is wearing off. My body isn’t holding together well anymore.

I recently was diagnosed with a chronic illness (i.e., incurable), which will require me to take extremely expensive medicine for the rest of my life. I take eight pills per day. Thank goodness I have awesome insurance at the moment.

I have zero core strength or flexibility. To fix that, I now work with a personal trainer who kicks my ass two times per week. Slowly I am gaining strength and energy again.

My sleep quality is also messed up. Poor diet and lack of exercise have given me chronically terrible sleep. After a recent sleep study at a hospital, I was diagnosed with sleep apnea. I’m still assessing my options to treat that.

I calculate that maintaining my health will cost about $50K per year. I’m 33 years old and I want to live for 67 more years. That’s over $3 million in health costs for the rest of my life (not including catastrophic health episodes)! It’s a huge price to pay for my previous decade of debaucherous founder lifestyle.

Learn from me and treat yourself better

I am a victim of my own hubris. I thought I was invincible as a founder, but I’m not and neither are you.

For founders (or anyone in roles), in the new year I encourage you to pace yourself better. Good health and balance is the most important investment you can make. As someone going through the physical pain of post-startup life, I can tell you that your body will catch up with you once the adrenaline stops pumping.

29 thoughts on “Startup life wrecked my body

  1. Sam parr

    Woah, how did you come up with the number 50,000 for maintaining your health? Is that for gym, healthcare, and food??

    Most people undervalue the power of long distance running. It’s cheap and the most effective form of exercise not only for the body but (maybe more important) the mind. Humans are literally designed to run long distances . I truly believe running is the best anti-depressant on earth.

    One of my favorite books on running is Born To Run. Check out the description on Amazon. Good stuff.

    1. Eric Post author

      It was pretty easy to calculate, I just needed to look up the cost of my prescription drugs and personal trainer for one month and multiply by 12.

      Running is indeed great, if you have good form and are easy on your knees. Born to Run is awesome.

      1. chae

        Oh, sorry to hear that story. Still you have chance to recover because you are young enough to.
        I suggest these menu NEWSTART.
        N for nutrition
        E for exercise
        W for water
        S for sun
        T for temperature
        R for rest
        T for trust in God

        If you remember 7 key of health tip and do work, you will find your health recover.
        One of most important thing of life is health. If you lost this, nothing left. Please keep in mind you are not alone, you have family.

  2. athenarcarson9

    Thanks for the reminder! I’m doing my best to navigating the tradeoff between things I need vs. things my family needs. I need: to work out, to take my vitamins, to eat (reasonably) healthy, to stay employed. My family needs: me to stay employed, my time.

    Pretty much the only intersection of things I need and things my family needs is me to stay employed. So guess what gets prioritized? 🙂

    I have figured out that I can at LEAST take my vitamins and eat better, which on it’s own has made an enormous difference. I would love to find time to work out but not much luck so far.

    1. Eric Post author

      Thanks for sharing your situation. I’d push back a bit and say that first and foremost, your family needs you to be alive and well. Employment is definitely important, but if you poll your family and ask whether they could choose one, your health or your job–I can almost guarantee that everyone will say your health.

      Eating well and taking vitamins is a great step. But exercise is important too.

      One change that I’ve made in the past year is how I frame things that I don’t think I have time for. I used to say:

      “I don’t have time to exercise.”

      Now I say:

      “Right now I don’t prioritize exercise.”

      When I frame things by prioritization, it reminds me how out of whack my priorities are and compels me to act. I didn’t used to think that there was time to exercise, but now I wake up a 6am to put in some exercise two times per week. Once I started that habit, I loved it and found that I still had time for everything else.

      Hope you don’t mind the tough love. Again, really appreciate your perspective. Wishing you lots of success in the coming year!

    1. Eric Post author

      Sleep is one that I haven’t quite figured out. It’s perhaps the most basic element of good health, but the easiest to cast aside in everyday life. I’m starting to get better about going to be earlier and putting in solid hours–for now–but I have no freaking clue how this is even possible when the baby comes out. Any tips Lesley?

    2. Chris Yeh

      As a busy guy with two kids, the key to getting enough sleep is learning to nap. I have trained myself to be able to fall asleep and wake up refreshed 10 minutes later. It’s my secret weapon to staying healthy. Good luck with the baby!

      1. Eric Post author

        Thanks Chris. I’ve never been a master of cat naps, but the exhaustion of babies will certainly make me one, I’m sure. Appreciate the note. Also–big fan of yours!

  3. Lucy

    The story is sad but I’ve heard about cases like this before. Unfortunately what happens on the inside isn’t always visible on the outside. I’m really sorry to hear about your illness, but it’s very nice to see you trying to make others aware about their own bad habits, so they don’t end up in the same situation. Stay strong and good luck with the treatment!

    1. Eric Post author

      Thanks Lucy! I’m very fortunate and I’ve got my health more or less under control now. Appreciate this kind message, wishing you good health.

  4. Miro Kazakoff

    You know I love you, so I truly pose this as a question for discussion, not the challenge I feel like it comes off as …

    I read these posts so often from founders, but inevitably it’s from founders after their first success, and so it always rings a bit hollow. Of course this is good advice. I don’t know any founders that actively want to destroy their bodies, but I know plenty of them who explicitly or secretly would trade their health for success. If “they” told me at the beginning of my start-up that I would be guaranteed success but it would mean destroying my marriage, taking a decade off my life, gaining 15 pounds, flirting with moderate depression and jeopardizing the careers of other people I cared about I would have agreed to that deal in less than a second (remember, guaranteed success here).

    So let’s try to be deeply honest, does start-up success require that kind of self-destruction? What if it does?

    1. Eric Post author

      Thanks Miro, appreciate this feedback. And I love you too.

      So I was hoping that someone was going to make this kind of a comment. I was very careful in my language in this post, in that I didn’t want to indicate any regret about the choices I made as a young founder. Despite the quiet destruction that was happening within me, I had an incredible time and I did what I thought was best for my life with the information that I had at the time. Do I have regrets then? Not really.

      But would I make the same choices if I had to do it over again, knowing what I know now? Well, I know a whole lot more now. In the past year I have been reflecting a lot about life as well as have been reading a ton of self-help books. I realized that while I was a founder, I was busy all the time but not necessarily effective. I think I have better skills for effectiveness now, and hopefully won’t have to pull superhuman hours at work and sacrifice attention to health and family.

      That said, I appreciate the fact that this article can come off as hollow (I’d probably think the same If I were on your end). It’s very easy for me to dole out wisdom from my virtual armchair after achieving some small success. The main intent for this article was to just post a warning or heads up. The tradeoffs you’re making might be right for you, but know that your body (or something else) will eventually catch up.

      1. Miro Kazakoff

        For what it’s worth, on my list of outcomes I would have said yes to devil about one is unprovable, two happened, one happened and I have since reversed it, and one I think I avoided, but came damn close.

    1. Eric Post author

      Thanks Charlie, really appreciate the comment and glad that you were able to recover. Unfortunately the cost of health care was simple to calculate: it’s the annual sum of my prescription meds (mainly), multiplied by the number of years I want to live. Unfortunately my condition is chronic. But maybe science will find a cure!

  5. Brian Mikesell

    Hi Eric,
    I just had a sleep study done last week and waiting for the results to come back. After 25 years of not having interrupted sleep I figured it was time. Having a few issues that I want to drill into fixing (low T, thyroid, a bit loss of motivation, etc). Have you tried out a CPAP? I heard that 80% of folks who use them stick with it.

    1. Eric Post author

      At this point my sleep apnea is minor enough that my doctor suggested I try sleeping on my side (I’m a back sleeper), which tends to help a bit. CPAP may be an option later, but it does take getting used to and I hear the machines are somewhat noisy. Thanks for the tips though! Great hearing from you Brian.


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