The Founder’s Paradox: How to Reject Work/Life Balance and Still Have a Happy Team
August 13, 2018

The Founder’s Paradox: How to Reject Work/Life Balance and Still Have a Happy Team

by Brian de Haaff

I reject work/life balance. I always have. But some people find this hard to understand at first, which is why I share my perspective on the topic fairly often. So, it bears repeating: Work is life and life is work. There is no meaningful separation between the two. Nor should there be.

We all have the opportunity to be great in everything we do. So why try to divide our life into discrete units?

All we can hope to find is harmony. And harmony means embracing all parts required to achieve a pleasing whole — not hard separation. Yet the idea of separating work and life gets a lot of attention, with books and blogs and entire consulting organizations dedicated to finding that so-called equilibrium.

I realize that some of this work/life balance talk is reactive. It is a natural response to an abusive cycle that many organizations succumb to, especially tech companies. The growth-at-all-costs mentality that assumes that more is always more.

I have personally seen what happens to those who buy into this mindset and end up broken by it. Specifically, I am thinking of my friends who were working around the clock and sleeping under their desks in the go-go days of the era of the late 1990s. There was precious little “life” to balance in those situations.

We all deserve to be happy. No one should work to exhaustion with no regard for their health or family. But the reality is that we are working more and that might just be okay. Data shows that we are all spending more time working and less time leisuring.

This is why I believe that we must strive for sustainable happiness. We must pursue happiness that comes from doing meaningful work — the opportunity to build something aligned with our values that is lasting. Something that we are proud of. It does not come from trying to split ourselves in half.

Searching for a false division of work and leisure is a simplistic solution to a complex problem. I just do not believe it is possible and suggest a better way.  

This was one of the reasons I co-founded Aha! with Dr. Chris Waters in 2013. The challenges also inspired The Responsive Method (TRM), our framework for personal and business success. TRM emphasizes being goal-first oriented, kind, and transparent. Chris and I codified the values that we hire for and continue to work hard to create a culture of integrity, ambition, and team spirit.

This philosophy works. Aha! is now one of the fastest-growing software companies in the U.S. and we were named one of Inc. magazine’s best places to work. We recently announced that we surpassed 5,000 paying customers and $40 million in annual recurring revenue. Not bad for a company with no venture funding, no office, and no salespeople.

But our early success does not mean that it is time to take a breather. Sure, we celebrate achievement. But then we double down and do more of what got us there. It is what we do best. Our team continues to work tremendously hard and perform at a very high level, even as we approach 100 team members.

How is it possible to encourage everyone to give enormous effort, reject the so-called work/life balance, and still be happy?

For founders, I believe it begins long before your first hire. It starts with knowing what you stand for and what you want to achieve. It starts with integrity and unwavering commitment. Chris and I started by writing down the values we would never compromise on and what we wanted to achieve.

Since then, Aha! has grown fast. We owe much of this to our teammates, who all work incredibly hard. Chris and I put the framework in place and made space for people to thrive.

Here is how we reject work/life balance and still have a happy team:

Set clear goals

It is natural to want to know that your work matters and that it is contributing to the company’s growth in an impactful way. This is how people derive meaning and keep pace when hurdles arise. We are exceptionally ambitious with our goals and expectations at Aha! But we are exceptionally clear as well. As a founder, it is your responsibility to set those goals, share them widely, and make it clear how each person’s effort is important to the collective achievement. Your fundamental job is to connect what people do to the company mission.

Freedom to get work done

One of the most common frustrations that people have at work is not feeling like they can get real work done. How can you find happiness when your ideas and effort is stymied? With clear goals in place, set people free to work hard and be happy. Remote work is one tool that we employ at Aha! Our global team is entirely distributed and can work from wherever they are happiest, within the country they live in.

Increase levels of responsibility

The concept of a “flow state” was first recognized by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. To achieve a flow state, he found that a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. In addition to having the freedom to get work done, people need the freedom to grow and take on increasing levels of responsibility. Ambitious people especially crave this kind of growth and gain satisfaction from each new challenge. So founders need to find ways to continuously challenge the team with new problems to be solved.

Honor and celebrate effort

Great work deserves to be recognized. But this recognition should not be reserved for a select few or for major milestones. To achieve at a high level, founders need to create opportunities for people to express gratitude for others and for themselves — big moments as well as everyday acts of kindness and teamwork. We do this at Aha! in two ways. We give each other “hatitude” when our co-workers give extra effort. And we recognize our own excellence by sharing perfect moments with the entire team.

Ground all parts of your life in meaning. Choose to pursue purpose and help others do the same.

Look, I am not naive. For many people, the happenings of life make it difficult to pursue that dream job or follow a passion. But no matter what we experience, we control our thoughts and actions. We can reframe negative situations. We can find joy every day and we can share thanks with those who care for us. And we can do this at work and in life.

If you are an aspiring founder with concrete plans to launch a company, you are among a fortunate few. You owe it to yourself and to your future team to lay out a path to sustainable happiness like the steps I shared above.

Because you will work harder than you have ever worked before and you will need to find that wholeness of work/life harmony — for yourself and for those who choose to join you on the journey. The reward will be a sustainable happiness which is infinitely more gratifying than any balance.

Read more of The Founder’s Paradox.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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