How Great Entrepreneurs Create Sustainable Success

Ten years, 11 months and 21 days ago, I walked away from my entrepreneurial addiction. It had been quite the ride.
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Stylish business owner sitting quietly in office
Stylish business owner sitting quietly in office

Very few entrepreneurs intend to sacrifice their family, health and happiness. Yet most do. Divorce, heart attacks, anxiety, burnout -- there are dozens of issues that just seem to come with the territory. In contrast, truly great entrepreneurs also have great lives. Not because they've magically created more success with less responsibility, but because they've managed to overcome the addiction that's at the root of their problems.

"Hello. My name is Brian, and I'm an addict." I've never actually joined a 12-step program for recovering entrepreneurs, but I've thought about it many times. Ten years, 11 months and 21 days ago, I walked away from my entrepreneurial addiction. It had been quite the ride. As my first job out of college, I raised $20 million for two Silicon Valley startups, was part of two acquisitions and a $400M IPO, made and lost millions three times before I turned 30, and burnt out twice.

After the second burnout, I quit cold turkey, and it was the closest thing to heroin withdrawal I hope I ever have to experience.

Luckily, I was young and single at the time. My body was healthy enough to recover from the damage I'd done, and I didn't have any relationships to ruin. But most fast-track entrepreneurs and executives aren't so lucky. For most of us, it takes a couple failed marriages or a stint in the hospital before the moment of clarity sets in, and we realize we're not in control of our need for success. As Cliff Oxford explains in a brilliant New York Times blog, brain science has now shown just how addictive entrepreneurial work can be.

I discovered that entrepreneurs listen and ask a lot of questions but continue to do even more of the work thing. I would say maybe 2 or 3 percent make some time adjustments between work and family. I have been told that this is about the same success rate for heroin users in rehab. I once engaged Dr. Dragana Bugarski, an M.D. with an M.B.A., to discuss the science of how our brain makes decisions and how the brain reacts to pleasures and failures at a conference of 35 chief executive entrepreneurs. Dr. Bugarski showed us brain scans of heroin addicts, people engaged in intimate acts, people with attention-deficit disorder and entrepreneurs. She demonstrated that entrepreneurs get their drive and capacity for work fulfillment from the same brain stimulants that drive heroin addicts to go back to the needle.

Most business leaders believe they can achieve work-life balance if they just try a little harder, or do a little more. "I just need to finish one more email before I put the kids to bed. But don't worry, I can quit at any time. Really!" The problem is that balance and addiction just don't mix. Instead, sustainable success is all about creating boundaries. Building a successful business, while also building a successful life and family, requires putting a cage around the beast. It requires enforcing limits on how much you work and learning how to turn off from work when you're not there.

Easier said than done.

For alcoholics, the path to sobriety is an all-or-nothing choice. It involves choosing not to have the first drink. One day at a time. Each and every day. But what do you do if you're addicted to sex or food? I'm not a big fan of either celibacy or starvation.

The answer is to set very clear boundaries and receive support in maintaining those boundaries. Recovery starts by defining three lists: healthy behaviors, borderline behaviors and addictive behaviors. Healthy behaviors are encouraged. Addictive behaviors are eliminated in the same way that an alcoholic stops drinking. Borderline behaviors are managed by setting firm boundaries, such as by limiting how many servings of high calorie food you eat each day.

Sustainable success requires a similar approach, where we define the line between work and over-work in terms of clear, measurable behaviors. It involves saying yes to only the things we can actually complete, instead of bingeing on the stress-based-adrenaline-rush that comes from always having too much to do. And it involves learning how to focus on one thing at a time, so that when we're with our families, they're truly getting all of us, instead of just the fragments of our brain we managed to drag home from the office.

As Cliff says,

Your dedication and outcomes of work, family and health are measured not by time but by consistency and commitment. For example, if you get home at 9 p.m., a couple of bedtime stories are better than being there all evening but checking your e-mail and making phone calls.

It often feels irresponsible to create these boundaries. We'll ask ourselves, "How can I stop working when there are so many people depending on me?" Yet the opposite is true. While stress can increase our level of activity, it destroys our creativity. At the physiological level, it sucks the blood from our brains. At the psychological level, it makes us much more likely to overlook opportunities and make catastrophic mistakes instead. As Arianna Huffington explained to a group of leaders on Saturday, "Our world is filled with brilliant leaders making terrible decisions because they're not connected to their own wisdom."

Now, it's the rare business leader who can admit they have a problem and ask for help, without first experiencing a major crisis. In our culture, leaders are supposed to be heroes -- to always have the answers, to always be in control, and to always rise to the challenge, no matter how tough. Yet buying into this story just makes our challenges that much more difficult.

Thankfully, there's hope. The key is to change our perspective on what it means to ask for help, from judging it as a sign of weakness to appreciating it as a sign of strength.

This shift changes everything.

Jim is a great example of this. When he first reached out for coaching, it looked to the world like he had it all -- the perfect degree, house, wife, kids, car, career -- he was managing thousands and making millions. Yet inside, he felt miserable. His wife was threatening to leave him, he hated the people he worked with, his blood pressure was through the roof, and he was headed off an emotional cliff. It took a lot for him to reach out for help. But once he did, we were able to help him get clear on what he most wanted and to start creating it in healthy ways.

With new tools and regular support, he stopped being a slave to his job and started creating clear boundaries. He shifted from always trying to be the hero, to learning what it means to be an authentic leader. He turned his marriage around, started loving life again, worked fewer hours, and improved his results, all at the same time.

Today, Jim would be the first person to tell you that there are no easy answers in the quest for sustainable success. But when dealing with entrepreneurial addiction, there is hope, and there are solutions, once we acknowledge our problem and reach out for help.

What are your thoughts on this topic? What's your experience? Please feel free to add your comments to the conversation below.

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