Clicking through the most-read stories of any business or entrepreneurship site, you’ll find a few common thematic elements: business ideas, growth strategies, and, inevitably, strategies for achieving work-life balance as an entrepreneur. We’ve all read these staples of business advice: “30 low-capital business ideas,” “9 ways to grow your business,” “6 reasons why work-life balance is important.” My intent in pointing this out is not to be patronizing. In fact, there’s very sound reasoning behind why these themes recur so often. These themes arguably encapsulate the three most crucial elements of entrepreneurial success: After all, you need to find a very strong starting point for your business; you need to figure out how to grow that business effectively, and you’d ideally like to run a successful business without losing your mind completely.
Entrepreneurs and potential entrepreneurs have no choice but to focus on the first two themes: developing sound business ideas and growth strategies. The success of their business depends on their ability to achieve strength in these areas. However, while I completely understand the desire for work-life balance, I fear that time spent on achieving this is time misspent. In my personal experience, work-life balance for entrepreneurs is nothing but a myth (and a dangerous one at that).
Is it possible to start a business and have a work-life balance? Conceptually, I suppose it’s possible. We need to be open to the population of theoretical possibilities. It may indeed be possible to have a work-life balance as an entrepreneur if you have an idea that will succeed on its own. We’re always seeking these ideas as entrepreneurs, and for good reason, because it forces you to eliminate ideas with very little draw or pull. In theory, the perfect business idea does exist somewhere, but I’ve never actually seen one personally. I’ve seen colleagues, peers, and friends develop incredibly sophisticated products that found customer validation. However, in every case, the entrepreneur worked with a level of focus and dedication that bordered on obsession. It’s not just that what I consider to be a work-life balance is unlikely for entrepreneurs. Rather, in my experience, working obsessive hours is nearly a requirement for success.
My theory about work-life balance is based on three elements: my personal entrepreneurial experience, the experience of entrepreneurs around or directly connected to me, and finally, some conjecture. On my personal experience and observations of other entrepreneurs, I’ll keep it short: it simply has never been possible for me or any entrepreneurs that I know personally. Now, let’s address the whole entrepreneurial population.
To understand the toll that running a business takes on the entrepreneur, I think the first thing we have to do is to separate working hours from what I will refer to as obsessive hours. Here is where conjecture, based on my experience and the experience of others, comes into play: taking into account the distinction between working hours and obsessive hours, I feel confident that most successful entrepreneurs work significantly more hours than most people. If I had to guess even further, I doubt these entrepreneurs count their hours. At a minimum, they’re not paid by the hour, but more likely, they’re so invested in what they do that they’re not mentally “punching the clock.”
There’s also the crucial distinction between hours that you put in at the office and the amount of work that you take home with you. If you graphed the number of hours in the office for all workers (entrepreneurs and others), you might see that they’re relatively comparable. Entrepreneurs aren’t necessarily putting more hours in at the office. However, if you created that same graph for number of hours obsessively thinking about work, you’d see a significant difference between entrepreneurs and others. In other words, entrepreneurs may not be physically at work all of the time, but they’re never really leaving work. They’re ultimately responsible for all elements of the business, from risk management to customer acquisition. For that reason, they are always thinking about one element of the business or another. They must. The consequences ultimately fall on them.
Finally, to understand the fallacy of a work-life balance, I think you have to consider how entrepreneurs who are successful view themselves in relation to their business and work. If you dissect the phrase “work-life balance,” you’ll find that it relies on two assumptions: 1) Work and life are distinct entities, and 2) The non-work elements of your existence (“life”) are equally, if not more, important than the work elements. If these two points are true for you, then you’re probably not built for entrepreneurship. A true entrepreneur is its work; there is no line dividing work and life, because the entrepreneur doesn’t consider the business as a separate entity from itself. Wherever they go, they’re bringing that work with them. And if you can tune out your business, you’re probably not going to be successful.
I say this with absolutely zero judgment or disdain for those who can separate themselves from their work. In fact, the ability to compartmentalize and separate work and life is a very valuable trait. It probably leads, in many ways, to a much more content and happy existence. However, for those who feel possessed by entrepreneurship and who want to get their idea or product out to the world, I’m hoping this article may help adjust expectations: You can have work-life balance, as long as the two are one in the same.