It's an easy trap to fall into: We have two choices and must absolutely go full throttle into one while leaving the other choice behind. We either stay in a job we hate or quit it to start our own business. We either get married and start a family or dedicate our lives to our careers. There is no flexibility. You're either all in or you give up. You must choose now.
I call it the fallacy of extremes.
There are many, many reasons why we default to extreme thinking--I know, because I'm often guilty of it, too. It's on my mind right now after reading serial entrepreneur Penelope Trunk's recent essay on choosing between startup life and family life. Here's an excerpt:
This is a picture from eight years ago, when my oldest son was five years old. I have very few pictures of him at this age. Maybe twenty. Because I was never home. I worked almost 100% of my waking hours. And often I slept only four hours a night...
Do you want to launch a startup and have kids? That's what it looks like. And you know what? It's fair. Because I had someone else's money, and they made an investment expecting that I'd move as fast and work as hard as I possibly could to increase the value of that investment...
We have known for years that there's no such thing as work-life balance. You can do both at a mediocre level. You can do one poorly and one well. Or you can do an outstanding job at one and not do the other at all.
Trunk writes a powerful, honest piece that touches on the very issues that keep family-oriented entrepreneurs up at night. My problem is the essay makes assumptions that Trunk's value system is equal to every entrepreneur's value system and, worse, that making black-and-white choices as she has is the only way for us to make decisions. No one told her company to take startup funding, as that isn't the only road to startup success, nor did anyone make her be away from her family, since, as she shares in the essay, there were actual opportunities to spend time with them. It's not a judgment on the choices made, but on the reasons why.
We all want to believe in the fallacy of extremes. Here's why:
Myth 1: It forces us to take action
The belief: We fear that we will never make a move, so we create an extreme situation ("It's do or die!" "It's now or never!") to motivate us.
The reality: We actually may be delaying our actions for reasons other than procrastination. Do you need more time to develop your next startup idea? Perhaps staying at your day job for another few months and working on the startup in your spare time would be the best route. Or, perhaps, you know deep in your heart that you don't really want to do the startup in the first place. And that's OK, too.
The real problem is that the sensible approach is infinitely less romantic. Skydiving out of a plane is the most exciting proposition, but sometimes you'll see that the plane itself is heading towards the runway and you don't need to skydive at all.
Myth 2: It makes you more dedicated
The belief: We want to show everyone--our colleagues, our social circles, ourselves--just how dedicated we are to a particular belief or concept, as that is our measure of success.
The reality: We want the glory of saying, "Yes, I ignored my family for years because I knew how important this startup would be to the world", or "I got up at 3 am every morning to launch my successful business" (again, I'm guilty as charged). As we discussed recently, extreme sacrifices are often confused with "crushing it".
Trunk mentions, "For example, the company paid for two full-time nannies so I could travel with no notice. But it felt unfair to the employees who didn't have kids." She felt like her dedication was being questioned, so she made a choice. I'm assuming she felt pressure from her family, too, but choose a different route.
As entrepreneurs we all have lots of pressure, from creating financial stability to growing personal relationships. "Pressure" itself isn't enough reason to say we have to make a particular choice. We should own our own decisions.
Myth 3: It absolves us of the burden
The belief: We had to make an extreme choice and there was no middle ground. We won't carry the burden of the choice we make because we absolutely had to pick one of two routes.
The reality: We constantly face tough choices as entrepreneurs, but that is the cost of being the boss. As Trunk emphasizes in her essay, she has to constantly choose between meaningful entrepreneurial work and being present for her family or be mediocre at both--and you do, too. The problem with this argument is that it falls prey to extremes: You can't just be a decent or pretty good parent, but you have to be an excellent parent, and if you can't be an excellent parent, then you will be mediocre, which means you should just focus on what's most important to you--the business. The reverse applies here as well.
In reality, we could take five minutes to eat a meal for health, ten minutes for a quick nap for rest or fifteen minutes to spend with our family to build relationships. But we choose not to. It's not because that is just how entrepreneurship is. It's because we choose to be that kind of entrepreneur.
What kind of entrepreneur are you?