The Founder’s Paradox: How to Always Work and Avoid Burnout

founders paradox burnout

Burned out on burnout. No, that is not a typo. You read it right. Although it can seem like the flames are inescapable. This person is smoldering, that person is about to flare up, and over there Sam took a 6-month sabbatical. Spontaneous combustion — narrowly avoided.

Everywhere you look, there is another article about job burnout. Consider these recent headlines from CNN, Fortune magazine, and Harvard Business Review:

“How a Burnout Culture Led to Record Attrition”
“A Psychotherapist Shares 7 Signs You Are Suffering Job Burnout”
“To Reduce Burnout on Your Team, Give People a Sense of Control”
How Product Managers Avoid Burnout

(That last one I wrote myself a few years ago.)

We all know that the concept of burnout is not exactly new. The b-word was first used in the 1970s by researchers to describe the effects of long-term, unresolvable job stress. Usually, this stress is a result of an inverse relationship between the demands of the job and the joy it is delivering. Overworked and unfulfilled — more kindling for the fire.

Too much to do? Check. Distractions and interruptions? Check. Pressure to succeed, right now? Check, check, check.

I can empathize with people who are stuck in this simmering place. But here is the thing — if you want to be wildly successful, you cannot stop working. As I wrote in my book Lovability, “the idea that you can work less and build greatness is fool’s gold.”

And by greatness, I am referring to big accomplishments. This could be building a lasting company that delivers real value or starting an international non-profit that improves youth education programs.

For me, it was the former. I co-founded Aha! five years ago with Dr. Chris Waters. We both worked 12-hour days in the beginning. And guess what? We frequently work 12-hour days now too. I am working on this post on a Saturday. This is not a coincidence — I work a few hours most weekends.

So, how do you work all the time and avoid burnout? Quite the paradox.

This paradox is especially difficult today because of the founder’s fiction you see — the four-day work week, for example, or unlimited vacation policies. But I honor reality, not fiction. See, I believe that there is no such thing as work-life balance. You cannot divide your life into discrete pieces. The best we can do is pursue sustainable happiness as a whole.

What you are working on should define you. It should shape you. And for successful founders, it does. It has to. Bold ideas demand changing the status quo and disregard for even your most trusted advisors who tell you it cannot be done. Turning those bold ideas into reality takes a lot of work too.

So how do you work all the time, consistently put in the hours, and still make space for what is fresh and new?

Admit it
The reality is that you will need to do less of something else — sleep, time with friends, ongoing education, hobbies, etc. Lots of other time commitments will need to go. Be honest with yourself. And then make the cuts. When you do, accept the fact that it was your decision and be present in everything you do. No one wants to hear your victim storylines or martyr status.

See it
Here I am talking about the future. Our team at Aha! is working towards a world of better software — where companies build better products and enjoy doing it. You need to clearly see the future you are working towards. This kind of clarity inspires you to keep working even when it is not obvious you will get there.

Love it
Whatever it is, the future needs to be deeply important to you. I might even call it an obsession. This level of passion will sustain you and help you attract others with the same dedication and focus.

Share it
Vision and passion are important. But you need a team that sees the future too. This is why great founders share. You set clear goals and initiatives. Then you give the team space to make the work their own.

Refresh it
Superhumans we can be — but robots we are not. The journey to sustainable happiness requires small breaks. I said I do not believe in work-life balance. But I also believe we need to see ourselves clearly and be responsible for our health. You cannot cut out every commitment in favor of work. You just need to choose wisely, which requires knowing what is truly important to you. For example, I schedule exercise and family time into my daily routine. I ride my bike or work out six days a week and eat dinner with my wife and kids almost every day.   

Leave it
The hardest part of being a company founder or leader is knowing when to vacate your vision or responsibilities. These are the types of realizations that warrant sadness and tears. If you have had to make that type of decision in the past, you know what I mean. Sometimes it means that you gave everything and it still was not enough. Or maybe you gave everything and it was time to let someone else drive towards the vision. There is honor in knowing when it is time to gracefully step aside. Yes, it can be excruciating. But do not mistake it for burnout.

Work is not always play — though we wish it could be. This is true even for those of us who find great joy in what we do.

Thousands of people have the same skills you do, hundreds have similar ideas and more money. But not everyone can make the best decisions and work the hardest.

Building something meaningful requires effort. Lots of effort. This type of effort is ongoing — think ultra-marathon. It is not a 5K fun run.

So you need to ask yourself: Is this the type of effort I want to commit to an idea that I think will change everything?

The answer will determine if you can always work and avoid burnout.

Read more of The Founder’s Paradox.

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap software — and the author of Lovability. His two previous startups were acquired by well-known public companies. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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