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.