A few weeks ago I found myself getting overly excited. Gruntwork had been growing at a steady clip each month, and at our last in-person meet up in March we came up with our vision for the next month, the next year, and the next 5 years. I don’t remember my exact inner monologue, but it was something along the lines of:
“If we can achieve our vision, we’ll make such a huge impact! It will be awesome!”
But then I couldn’t sleep that night. Not because I was seized with any brilliant vision or insight, but just because I was still emotionally charged. The feeling continued into the next day, when we got a customer inquiry to build a module that would help us make our product more competitive but not in a major way. Still, I found myself strongly advocating to the team that we pursue it. I communicated something along the lines of:
“If we can add this new module, it will make our offering even more complete!”
Then the weekend came, and since I never work on Saturdays I had some time to catch my breath and introspect. I still felt “excited” but I also felt tired. My wife was annoyed that I was focusing on business outcomes instead of enjoying a nice day as a family. I wasn’t as tuned in to playing with my son. Finally my wife just called it out with an understandable level of annoyance:
“Would you just stop thinking about business and start enjoying your day already? Whatever it is you’re so excited about, I don’t care.”
Yuck, what was I doing? Thinking about business outcomes in the distant future instead of spending quality time with my family today? Finally, it dawned on me. I was getting emotionally revved up not about events happening in my actual reality, but on my perceived ability to achieve some future outcome I desired. I felt happy and excited when I sensed that success was at hand, and demoralized when it seemed to fade away. In short, I was emotionally attached to business outcomes.
I began reading online about how other entrepreneurs and professionals deal with this. I found my way to the podcast Below the Line with James Beshara, which interviewed highly successful entrepreneurs who first introduce themselves “above the line” by sharing their most impressive accomplishments and then go on to discuss what their real, unvarnished “below the line” experience was.
The interviews are fantastic and I’ve picked up several insights that have come to help me realize that emotional attachment to business outcomes is emotionally unhealthy, leads to a lower quality day-to-day life, and probably leads to worse business outcomes anyway! Here were some of my favorites:
You have way less control than you think (Justin Kan). We often believe that we can mastermind our lives and drive the outcomes we want in life if only we try hard or think hard enough. But there are always parts of our lives that are within our control, and parts that are outside our control. No matter how brilliant my contributions to the team or how diligently I work, I can’t control market dynamics, competitors, new tech being developed, and a range of other factors. Justin Kan estimated that our efforts control just 10 - 40% of our desired outcomes. As pessimistic as that sounds, I think it’s about right.
We don’t know which outcomes are truly good or bad until months or sometimes years later (Eric Ries). Maybe you’re raising capital and you get the high valuation you wanted, but oops, that high valuation makes it harder to raise your next round and you have to do a down round. Or maybe you lose a major client but lo and behold it frees you up to focus on a better direction. Maybe you lose a valued employee, but lo and behold you’re able to recruit someone even more impactful. Or maybe you hire someone you perceive to be a star, but oops their brilliance makes them hard to work with. The point is that the outcomes we think we want may not even be positive in the end.
More money won’t move your happiness needle (Justin Kan). Justin Kan is apparently worth $100+ million and acknowledged that after the initial buzz of wealth wore off, he didn’t feel any happier. Indeed, nearly 1⁄3 of lottery winners eventually declare bankruptcy, and while more money equals more happiness to a point, highly wealthy people seem to trade one set of problems for another. Funny enough, Justin claims that spending 5 minutes a day on a gratitude journal will make you happier than being a millionaire. I’ve experienced the positive effect myself.
So, I’ve been getting all worked up…about outcomes I can’t control…which may not actually be positive outcomes…which, even if they were, probably wouldn’t move my happiness dial? That’s insane!
In the end, the only real way to navigate business and life in general is to take inspiration from the goal you’re pursuing, but to focus most of all on the enjoyability of the day-to-day. I still have much to learn, but I feel I’ve done a better job lately of cultivating a sense of non-attachment. The big opportunities may not matter, and the losses may not either. So why stress? Just enjoy each day one day at a time.