Taking Care of Business, Taking Care of Yourself

29 September 2015 by Mathias Meyer

About a year ago, while hanging out with people from a friendly company in San Francisco, one of their junior people asked me a seemingly simple question: “What do you do for fun?”

I was stunned, and I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t know what I did for fun, and I almost panicked from not being able to come up with something beyond hanging out and spending time with my friends and family outside of work.

Back in the real world and at home, I continued pondering this question, and happiness and the simple question of “What do I want?” have become regulars at coaching sessions, in podcasts I listen to, and in other articles.

While it took me a while to realize it initially, the biggest part of my job is now to make sure that everyone in our company is happy. I’ve been focusing so much on it that I rarely give myself a moment of happiness, or that I take any kind of appreciation for myself. All praise belongs to the team. I devoid from giving any credit to myself, simply because I think I don’t deserve it, other people do. For more on this topic see my previous post on the importance of appreciation.

While focusing so much on the company and other people, it’s easy to forget this most important thing in your own life: you.

You consider the question of what you want invalid, because you think your existence is to serve others and make them happy. Or you don’t think that you alone deserve anything, instead success and results need to be shared with the team. Claiming anything for yourself feels selfish.

All these things ring true for me, anyway.

As a founder, you’re not just financially invested in your own company. No, you want to see this thing succeed, and you want to do everything in your powers to help make it succeed, whatever it takes.

And it only takes this one more thing, right? If we can achieve X, then I can finally take a deep breath and take care of myself.

But what if after X, suddenly you want to achieve Y? What if X is never achieved, and other circumstances change the goal? What if X takes a lot longer than you thought it would (hint: it always does)?

When X doesn’t turn out the way you intended, your original goal is quickly forgotten. It’s just one more step towards taking care of yourself, isn’t it?

In the early days of Travis CI, my goal was to start looking after myself once Travis CI had reached a certain size. Then I’d finally be able to spend more time with my family and figure out what I can do for fun. That moment never really appeared, at least not in a reasonable time frame.

More growth meant new challenges, new things to learn, new goals to focus on for the company and for my own personal growth in my role. So there it went, moving the goal slightly further into the future.

This time, I set a fixed goal for myself. I had promised my daughter to take her to New Zealand before she goes to school, which is this year, and she’s now in her fourth week. We ended up planning for a seven week trip, which meant seven weeks away from the business. I vowed to be completely offline, to not read any email and avoid any contact with work, focusing on the here and now instead.

These constraints were harsh, and it posed a challenge to everyone while I was away. Everyone took some bruises, and we learned a lot along the way, we figured out where our company was still hurting and worked on improving these parts. I’m grateful for this experience, and I couldn’t ask for a greater team to handle these challenges.

The important lesson out of it, though, wasn’t that the business will be better off in the long term based on my being away. The important lesson is that taking time off and away from everything else isn’t selfish, even though it feels like that. It’s about taking care of yourself, which is more important than a lot of founders will be willing to admit.

Focusing on yourself means asking what you want, what makes you happy, what you can do for fun. In the early days of building out your business, they will feel like selfish questions, like you don’t deserve anything nice while you build up value for your employees, for your customers, and maybe for your investors.

It’s okay to think about yourself, as early on as possible. What you want is just as important as what everyone else wants, and if you don’t take care of yourself early on, you’ll look back at that time with appreciation for what you’ve built, and regret about the things you missed out on personally.

Remember that taking care of yourself can have positive impact on your company too. Everything you do sets an example, both good and bad. If you work and work and work, everyone else will too. If you find a happy medium between work and life (including personal happiness), everyone in your company will strive to follow your example.

As for myself, I’m still working on the question of what I do for fun. I’ll keep you posted.

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