I interviewed 23 successful entrepreneurs and asked them what their biggest health mistake was. I expected 23 different responses. Instead, I got the same one over and over. This never happens.
Many of the entrepreneurs I interviewed experienced life-threatening diseases (such as cancer or a heart attack), debilitating breakdowns, and other deadly health crises.
They all regret ignoring the symptoms of physical and mental exhaustion for so long that their bodies broke down.
Here are nine of those stories. Collectively, they serve as a wakeup call that health should always be our #1 priority. Without it, nothing else matters.
From these stories you won't learn HOW to have healthy habits. You'll be reminded of something far more important: WHY to be healthy TODAY even though you might be drowning in other obligations and commitments.
If you experience any of the symptoms below on a regular basis (as the entrepreneurs I interviewed did), then this article is especially for you:
What Can Happen When You Ignore A Pre-Existing Condition
Stress and overwork don't just make you more prone to new illnesses; they exacerbate pre-existing conditions. The following four stories show what can happen when you don't take a pre-existing condition seriously.
1) We slept on the office floor. We worked 90-100 hours a week. My coworker died.
For Jon Colgan, founder and CEO of CellBreaker.com, and his coworker Kevin*, it seemed like just another day at work, yet tragedy was around the corner.
Colgan had just talked to Kevin a few hours before; they were going to meet for coffee that morning, but Kevin had to reschedule because he wasn't feeling well. He had been having trouble walking, an effect from injuries he sustained while serving in the military.
When the time came for the rescheduled meeting, and Kevin didn't arrive, Colgan tried calling, but no one answered.
"A couple hours later, I got a call from another team member with the news of his death," Colgan said. "We were all shocked ... Looking back, yes, there were signs that something was awry, but none of us--including the team member who died and his doctor--realized that those signs signaled impending death."
The doctors attributed Kevin's death to stress catalyzing the injuries to his nervous system, and suddenly causing his heart to cease functioning, Colgan says. The whole team would often work 90- to 100-hour weeks, which meant team members often slept in offices, on the floor, sometimes even on the hard concrete of a parking garage, Colgan says.
"The legacy of that tragedy is that we are all more intentional about our time and health and maintaining a healthy work-life balance," Colgan says. "It was a terrible way to learn the lesson."
*Pseudonym to protect privacy of deceased
2) I was a jet-setting entrepreneur. Then I couldn't get out of bed.
For ten years, Jennifer Iannolo put aside her fibromyalgia diagnosis and thought she could "power through her disease." She turned a blind eye to fatigue, body aches, and brain fog, because "hey, I was a jet-setting entrepreneur up to big things!" she says.
Her body had something different in mind. One day, Iannolo was unable to get out of bed.
"My body was so wracked with pain I could barely move," Iannolo says.
The financial and physical impacts were substantial. Her condition was so compromised she had to significantly reduce her work schedule for several years, and relied on the help of friends and family to make up the financial gaps. The significant inflammation in her body began affecting her brain, slowing her thinking and slurring her speech.
The hardest part was giving up her life in the food industry (she was a digital pioneer and creator of the world's first food podcast channel). Iannolo says, "I needed a lot of time to grieve over the loss of that life, and it was quite dark for awhile."
While Iannolo, now founder and CEO of The Concordia Project, still has to cope with her medical condition, four years of a strict regimen and a great team of doctors have gotten her almost back to normal.
Now fanatical about taking care of her health and fitness, she has learned to be patient while managing it all. "I've accepted that it's here to stay, just like a freckle on my shoulder... It's just a part of me."
3) At 38, I was young and fit...I can't believe I had a heart attack.
Kris Duggan, founder and CEO of Betterworks, was a ticking time bomb. Although he was in good shape, his 7-day work weeks were putting undue stress on his body. This ultimately aggravated a pre-existing condition that led to him having a heart attack at 38.
On the day he had his heart attack, he started experiencing chest pains that grew more severe throughout the day. As the pains worsened, the first-time CEO excused himself from a meeting, and stepped outside to his car to catch his breath. That's when he realized something was really wrong. Duggan called his sister and asked her to drive him to the hospital. At first doctors didn't believe he could be having a heart attack, because he was so young and fit. He was later diagnosed with antiphospholipid syndrome, a blood clotting disorder that caused his heart attack. But it was stress that prompted it, he says.
Duggan now makes sure to keep his stress in check by using goal setting and spending quality time with those he cares about. He has a weekly lunch date with his wife, and spends one week a year fishing with his father and his sons.
"I'd argue that I'm stronger--both mentally and physically--from going through the experience and understanding that life is short," Duggan says. He makes sure to keep his stress level low now and is living a healthier life than before his heart attack.
4) My stress at work may have caused my colon cancer relapse.
As soon as he thought he had put his cancer behind him, Jeff Sirlin, then president and founder of School-Fundraisers.com, rushed back to work, determined to pick up where he had left off. The problem was that his body wasn't ready. Instead of listening, he kept pushing himself.
"It was an uphill battle to get back to previous revenue targets and revenue was off more than 30 percent that year...I wanted to help get our company to where it was," says Sirlin, who had originally been diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer.
"I was failing to grasp the bigger picture: if I wasn't healthy (or even alive), what good would I be to my business?" Sirlin says.
That year, the company did hit its revenue target, but Sirlin's cancer returned. This time he had stage 4 colon cancer.
"I believe the stress of rushing back to the office too soon lead to my cancer recurrence," Sirlin says.
He ended up selling that business to focus on his health. He's now recovering from his second cancer fight, and is learning to take better care of himself as he focuses on a new venture, Cancer Wellness TV.
"My energy level and mental focus is not where it was prior to me getting sick. And the truth is this may be my new baseline," Sirlin says. "I just need to adjust and focus on the aspects of my life that I can control."
5) I held off seeing a doctor. Months later, I woke up in ICU with cancer.
Kimberly Fink was living life with very little margin to take care of herself. She was working 12 hours a day, six days a week. When she started to get symptoms like feeling a lack of energy and fatigue, she figured she would make a doctor's appointment when things slowed down. But life only sped up, so she let the symptoms persist, intensifying her stress.
Eventually, her ailments got to the point where she had several emergency room visits for abnormal bleeding, pelvic pain, and shortness of breath.
On her last emergency room visit, she was admitted to the hospital and tests revealed she had endometrial/uterine cancer as well as two blood clots to her lungs.
"It was quite scary!" Fink says. "I woke up in ICU to the voice of my business partner (who lived across the country) in the hallway. Not a good way to wake up!"
Her drive for success had caused a major delay in being diagnosed, Fink believes, and put her at a later stage in her aggressive form of cancer.
She had to undergo a radical hysterectomy followed by 8 months of chemotherapy and radiation. She was 32.
"The consequences were huge," says Fink, now founder of TREATMiNT Box, a subscription-based gift box service for people with cancer. "I still work hard, but not at the cost of my health. I no longer think that success comes before everything else."
6) I worked 12 hours a day. I was on track to get diabetes.
Rohit Anabheri, founder of the firm Circa Ventures($10M+ revenue), made one mistake, and it cost him dearly. He dramatically over-promised on a timeline to a major client who made up a significant portion of his business.
Instead of readjusting expectations as soon as he realized that his initial estimate was completely unrealistic, he pushed himself and his team into a 6-month period of working 7 days a week for 12 hours a day.
"To meet the expectations of the client, I literally had to give up my personal life," Anabheri says. "I started binging on junk food, and started sleeping in the office."
The rest of his team was also feeling overworked. By the end of the project, morale plummeted, productivity slipped, and 7 of his 27 employees quit.
He truly hit rock bottom when he had his annual checkup. He had put on 20 pounds and the doctor said he was on track to get Type II diabetes and have a heart attack.
"I realized that if I didn't change something, there was a real possibility of losing both my life and the company. It just didn't make sense."
From that point forward, "I put health above everything and made a commitment to myself to never, ever, sacrifice it again... not for anything... no exceptions."
Anabheri now makes sure that healthy habits, like stretching and exercise, are a core part of his life and company culture.
7) I worked too hard and had a metallic taste in the back of my mouth. One day, I collapsed.
Cameron Herold--author of Double Double, CEO coach and renowned speaker--remembers the metallic taste in the back of his throat from extreme fatigue and stress. He had been working too hard, drinking too much and sleeping too little. His wife was pregnant and his mother was ill. He had just bought a new house and was moving back to his native Canada. Life had gotten overwhelmingly busy.
"Everything was happening and I just thought if I just worked harder I'd get through it," Herold says.
One day, he collapsed in an elevator, and found himself sobbing on the floor.
He was told by his doctor that he was clinically redlining for stress with a 99 percent chance of a heart attack in the near future. That changed everything.
For Cameron, that meant he had to stop listening to his own excuses and lies that he would eat better, get more rest and work out tomorrow.
Herold now takes time to recharge and he stops working at a certain time each day.
"Since then, I haven't had any trouble falling asleep, because my mind isn't processing the day anymore, and it's not worrying about everything that I didn't finish," Herold says.
8) I fainted on the hood of my car and woke up to my dad reviving me.
For Vanessa Nicole Delmotte, owner and CEO of Vanessa Nicole Jewels, 2014 and 2015 were years when life began to speed up to a dizzying pace. She had twin baby boys, published a bestselling book, and was running a successful engagement ring business.
Going from healthy and fit to acquiring poor health habits during the launch of her book led to Delmotte getting dizzy spells, headaches, and an upset stomach. She pushed through on little sleep, sometimes forgetting to eat lunch or drink enough water. One day while picking up her children from her parents' house, she fainted. Her body simply could not keep up with her pace of work anymore, she notes in retrospect. The next thing she knew, she was laying on the hood of her car and her father was reviving her.
After getting a medical evaluation to make sure she had not done any permanent damage to her health, Delmotte made some important changes to her habits to help get back in balance. It was bad, but it could have been worse. "This could have happened during an important client meeting or while driving my kids home," Delmotte says.
"I know that if I'm going to keep up the momentum of a seven-figure business, it's going to require strategic time coordination," Delmotte says. "When you're going through seasons where you know you'll need to push yourself--such as publishing a bestselling book or a busy season at work--it's important to plan ahead for how you are going to get through that season with your health intact."
9) I drank 6 cans of soda every day to stay energized.
When Jason Duff, founder and CEO of multimillion-dollar company COMSTOR Outdoor, was in his mid-20s, he worked up to 15 hours a day, slept less than 5 hours a night and drank a six pack of soda a day to stay energized. His businesses were booming, but his health started to fail him. His occasional headaches became daily headaches and then near constant migraines. The same thing happened with his fatigue.
After months of ignoring the signals, things took another turn for the worse. He ended up with debilitating acid reflux. This led to him needing tonsil removal surgery and a daily prescription medication. "My voice was impacted to the point where it was so painful to speak that I could only whisper," Duff says.
The surgery and medication got his physical symptoms under control. However, after six months of taking the medication, Duff started thinking about how he could solve the root issue. "I didn't want to be taking a prescription medication and experience the side effects for the rest of my life. When I took a step back, I realized that all of my physical problems were a result of my psychology," Duff says.
"I always felt behind despite the fact that I was working really hard and my businesses were successful and growing. I realized that more work and more success would never make me feel fully fulfilled. The cost of not investing time with friends and family was a cost I no longer wanted to bear."
Today, Duff still works very hard, but takes off most weekends, save for several hours on Saturday. Every evening, he takes time to cook a meal with his partner. He also focuses more time on doing activities that make him feel fulfilled outside of the business world, such as speaking at local high schools and grade schools.
We all know health is important. We generally all know how to be healthy. Very few people would consciously decide to put aside their health in favor of their business or career. Yet that's what many of us do when we repeatedly ignore symptoms, large and small, because we just don't have time or energy to think about them.
Frankly, my team and I worked over the weekend to complete this article, because we were behind on it. The irony didn't escape us.
Finding balance is easy on paper, but hard in real life.
What we did repeatedly is to take a step back to get perspective, take a break, and enjoy the process. We all have time for that!
In our next article, we'll look at the important lessons many of the people highlighted in this article have learned, including simple, powerful changes they made in balancing life and work.
Special thanks to Rachel Zohn, Sheena Lindahl, Amber Tucker and Ian Chew who volunteered their time to edit this article and do research.
Also thank you to Austin Epperson, Jessica Newfield, Antonia Donato, and Jeehan Jawed for reviewing the article and providing insightful feedback.
Disclosure: Some of the contributors featured in this article are members of Seminal, a selective council that distills research-backed, actionable insights from world-class entrepreneurs and leaders.