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Don't Fall Asleep at the Wheel: Successful Entrepreneurs Have Lives

If you think that the best entrepreneurs work day and night, it's time to think again. For the sake of your startup, go to sleep.

When I moved to Silicon Valley, I was told it was the best time in my life to make a risky decision, work insane hours, and do something stupid like start a tech company. Among tech entrepreneurs, there is a strong bias toward the single lifestyle for the sake of focus and an obsession pride in working 80 hours a week. But the data suggests this bias makes companies worse, not better.

Last year, venture capitalists and the tech media began to debate whether there is an optimal age for an entrepreneur to start a company, similar to an athlete's prime before he begins to plateau (let's pretend Michael Jordan and Jason Kidd don't exist). The pundits proposed the mid-20s as the optimal age to start a company: At 25, entrepreneurs can give “everything to their company,” one pundit opined, suggesting that founders should not be “hamstrung” by families and non-business related commitments. Younger business owners can take as much risk as possible and work insane hours for the sake of the company, which most consider an unqualified good thing. But while this may feel true inside the Silicon Valley bubble, convincing evidence points toward the opposite conclusion.


The Kauffman Foundation surveyed 550 successful entrepreneurs across multiple sectors, determined by profitability and being named a “high-valued” business by their peers. Their data suggests that most successful founders are in their mid-30s and married with children: "Founders tended to be middle-aged—40 years old on average—when they started their first companies. Nearly 70 percent were married when they became entrepreneurs, and nearly 60 percent had at least one child, challenging the stereotype of the entrepreneurial workaholic with no time for a family."

Jason Fried and David Hasson provide a good rebuttal to this mentality in their book Rework: “Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up," they write. "The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done.” In other words, the goal should never be more hours but quality output.

Anders Ericsson studied the best violinists in the world to figure out how they became the best. He determined that the pathway to success in any field is dedication over a significant time period. His work inspired Gladwell’s book Outliers, which famously identified the 10,000-hours principle—the amount of time you need to practice to become the top 1 percent in your field. What the story left out was how much time these violists spent not playing the violin. On average, these masters practiced in 90-minute spurts, three times a week, and slept 8.6 hours a day. That doesn't sound anything like the average entrepreneur’s schedule, but maybe it should, because both entrepreneurs and violinists need to be competitive and creative.

Sleep is often the first thing to go when working long hours, but sleeping less has damaging effects on productivity. Between 1 percent to 3 percent of people can effectively and consistently operate at full capacity with 5 or 6 hours a sleep a night. But though only a select few can manage this, approximately one-third of all Americans use that kind of sleeping pattern. Sleep experts call these Americans the “sleep-deprived.” The typical side effects of sleep deprivation are slower reactions, a lack of patience, inability to quickly solve problems, and attending hackathons.

Being an entrepreneur requires you to constantly be on your toes and creatively solve problems every day. Two books that change the way I looked at innovation and creativity, The Power of Pull and Imagine, encourage entrepreneurs to step outside their “worldview” and challenge their assumptions on a consistent basis, which is also known as “taking a break." Ideas come to us in the shower and while driving precisely because we aren’t focusing on the problem. For me, ideas come when I am reading, driving, or just about to fall asleep. New ideas and the ability to find a solution typically comes when we are unwinding because our mind is subconsciously solving the problem. It pays off to take breaks and remove yourself from your company.

There is little evidence that factors like marital status, age, and the number of hours worked translate to business success. There are hundreds of factors that determine success: execution, competition, external market forces, etc. Boiling success to life stage and number of hours worked is a reduction to the point of absurdity.

My advice, then, is to understand that your business will not die and fall off a cliff if you take a break. It is okay to spend people you love. Don’t feel guilty about hanging out with friends. “Balance” is determined by your work style and your needs outside of work; don't fall into the trap of working 80 hours a week—whether out of compulsion or fear of failure—and ignoring life. I hope this article sets you free.

Enjoy your summer.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user sfllaw

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