Entrepreneurs Don’t Need Work-Life Balance

I was always encouraged from an early age to be balanced in everything that I do. Generally speaking, I’d say that’s pretty reasonable advice — but it’s not always right. Sure, achieving a perfect work-life balance should be a top priority for most professionals, but the same advice just doesn’t apply to entrepreneurs — we’re a different lot.

As entrepreneurs, we have zero sense of balance. We’re all in, all the time. It doesn’t matter if it’s day or night, weekday or weekend — each of us focuses on our vision with a single-minded passion. I even know an entrepreneur nearing retirement age who plans on working 80 hours a week until he dies, at which point he says he’ll cut his hours in half. He’s not alone. Many of us skip meals, showers, and social gatherings, meaning we avoid anything that diverts our attention from turning our visions and passions into reality. We’d probably work in our sleep if we could. In fact, I bet some of my more creative colleagues actually do.

If you’ve ever seen Thomas Edison’s laboratory in Fort Myers, Florida, you may have noticed the little cot he kept next to his desk. Edison worked long hours, took small catnaps, and then went right back to work. I wouldn’t be surprised if Edison kept a basin under his desk, and used it for something other than garbage.

Edison, of course, isn’t alone in his persistence. We’ve all heard the stories about Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg during the early days of their respective companies. And it’s no coincidence that both Gates and Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to pursue their passions. Clearly, the more “balanced” decision for both of them would have been to stay in school and to pursue their projects after graduation. But that’s not the entrepreneur’s way.

I’m not saying entrepreneurs should give up the other important aspects of their lives. If family, friends, and hobbies are important to you, then by all means you should pursue those things. But the key is to make the most important things a priority and to get rid of the rest. Sure, there are only 24 hours in a day, but think about the hours you’ve wasted on social networking, television, unimportant meetings, and other trivial pursuits. As entrepreneurs, we often give up those things, but since we spend less time on the things that don’t interest us, we can devote more time to the things that we’re truly passionate about. If used efficiently, 24 can be an awful lot of hours.

I may be an entrepreneur, but in my family our kids come first. I don’t leave the house before they wake up and I am home every night to put them to bed — without exception. I have been in board meetings and walked out to tuck my kids into bed. I make this clear from the beginning and people respect my family time.

On the flip side, just about everything else falls by the wayside. I don’t really watch sports, play games, or have hobbies. I don’t do anything, really. Except of course, work — which I truly love with a zeal that is as sincere as my love for my kids. My work is my passion; my kids are my passion; everything else be damned.

Yes, we entrepreneurs lack balance… but it works!

Jeffrey Stibel is Chairman and CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. and author of Wired for Thought. Follow him on Twitter at @stibel. This post first appeared at Harvard Business Review.

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4 replies »

  1. Jeffrey,
    There is no doubt that finding a meaningful “balance” for an entrepreneur is a tough act. When “balance” is defined by a clock..”did I spend 6 hours here for every 6 that I spent there?”…entrepreneurs are going to lose that game. In my own experience, entrepreneurs are what they are because being anything else would kill them. There is a qualitative physical and psychological difference between working 40 hours a week at something you hate, and working innumerable hours at something you love (and are creating from your own gifts)…it is closer to art than work. However, history is littered with passionate artists left mad, drunk, penniless, or dead by their inability to ground themselves in real life and real connections. The point IS to make a life doing what really nourishes us. And doing nothing but work, no matter how fulfilling, leaves us “hungry” in other areas and “starves” the people that can help us the most.

  2. I think that entrepreneurs think differently. They are relying solely on themselves for their success and profit and that will push you to work all hours of the day if necessary. I think that having balance is relative to the path in life you take; for some its necessary, for others it isn’t as important.

  3. I respect your thoughts and admire the verve and zeal with which you pursue your dreams. But, if kids only required staying home till they wake up and being back home before they sleep, it might be easier for a lot more of us to juggle our responsibilities and jiggle (but hold) on our balance bars. What happens when kids are kids, when they take a tumble, break a tooth, have the flu, act in a play, play in a game that they want you to watch, have an emotional crisis at school – the balance struggle becomes stark, real and wrenching at these times. What happens when parents age and you want to be there for them too.

    In my humble opinion, the multi-tasking pressures (both real and self-imposed) on women entrepreneurs and women workers of any sort, are greater than on men. The challenges are different. The balance bar is placed on a pole scaled in different metrics. The losses are more acute. The gains are more rewarding.

    In my humble opinion. 🙂