A female colleague I deeply respect asked my opinion about an opportunity she was considering. My response offended her so much that she said . . .
You would never say that to me if I was a man.
After that she looked away in disgust and disappointment. She wanted my opinion but clearly felt she’d received a sexist, demeaning response instead.
What else could explain what I’d said to her?
I Run Heavy
I’ve been an effective small business owner – not perfect, but hard-working, engaged, open to input and genuinely interested in meeting the needs of my clients and employees. I take the job seriously, and my approach to ownership has produced good results for my businesses over the years.
The problem is that I don’t carry ownership well. I tend to “run heavy”.
When I was a long-distance runner in high school, I had a coach who told me “you run heavy”. I was a skinny kid, but my running always had a plodding, pounding feel to it. Although I could run a long way, moderately fast, I always looked like I was working really hard while I did it. He would say . . .
You’ll never reach your potential unless you learn how to run light.
I understood what the coach was saying, but I never learned how to be light in my running, or in the management of my first business.
Running Heavy Almost Killed Me
I started my first business in the mid-90’s, and I ran it heavy.
I would arrive to work by 6:00 a.m. (had to be the first one there) and leave around 7:00 p.m. (had to be the last one there). Then home, for less than an hour, before my brain started obsessing about what was on my desk at the office. Body often followed brain and I’d find myself back at the office for an ineffective second shift from 8:00-10:00 p.m.
Exhausted, I’d come home again. Pass-out, only to wake up around 3:00 a.m. Too tired to get out of bed, I’d lay there with the worries of work pinging around my head. Finally, the frustration of flopping for hours would overcome the fatigue, and I’d bumble out of bed to start it all over again.
I did that for years, and while I did, we grew the business. 20, 30, 40, 50 employees. Double digit revenue growth every year. Good results, but running heavy came with a cost. The way I carried that unwieldy sack of stress was destroying my health and my life.
Then, One Day, this Happened
After 7 years of small business ownership my life changed because of her.
Nothing has ever impacted me as organically or as essentially as holding my infant daughter. In an instant I knew deeply that my purpose had changed.
I’ve described this part quickly, because it felt quick. I felt her arrival profoundly, but that feeling came under immediate assault from the screaming of the voice in my head.
That voice is the one that woke me with the worries of work at 3 a.m. The voice constantly reminded me that I had “more important” things to do, regardless of what I was doing. That voice tore apart my confidence, and focus, and peace. The voice wasn’t going to let the arrival of my daughter change how I carried ownership – it wanted me to run heavy.
It also perversely turned her arrival into an additional burden.
Terrified and Running Heavier
Now as I grew the business, I dealt with an overwhelming, silent, panicked fear that I was “missing it”. That’s how I remember the first three years of my daughter’s life. Long, mentally consuming hours at the office, followed by brief periods of guilt ridden domestic engagement.
I’d come home knowing I’d missed her day, and most of her evening. We’d have 30 minutes to read a quick book, share a butterfly kiss . . . and she was asleep.
I can remember sitting next to her bed late at night watching her sleep and wondering what the hell I was doing. I was missing out on something that felt fundamental to who I was, and who I wanted to be. And I was missing it to work my ass off in a way that was killing me.
It was fear of missing out, combined with exhaustion, with occasional touches of pure parental joy. That recipe created a deep ache in me.
I always felt this picture my wife took of my daughter and I walking together during a rare weekend get-away captured that period.
Me slumped shouldered with a shuffling walk; my daughter lightly pattering alongside. I was dragging my business behind me, while she was just happy to be able to hold my hand for more than three minutes (the painful truth in that last sentence makes my eyes water every time I re-read it).
- When I was at the office – I was missing her at home.
- When I was at home – I was stressed about the office.
- I was never present, anywhere.
Daddy’s always busy.
And then one day . . . that’s it. I decide I can’t do it anymore.
I’m Ready to Go, but I Can’t Leave
I write about this part frequently – the part where I want to sell my business but can’t because I hadn’t created my business with a potential buyer in mind. My business wasn’t ready to sell, and I lost another 5 years of full engagement with my daughter because of that.
I was obligated to stay and dig my way out of the deceptively attractive trap I had created. It was hard, and it could have been avoided if I’d known better. But miraculously, it worked.
Finally, a Sale
I sold my first business in 2010 after 15 years of ownership.
My daughter was eight.
The day after the sale (and the blizzard).
We closed the deal on a cold December day under the threat of a blizzard warning. The snow was already falling when we finished signing the documents. I watched in numb disbelief as the agent handed me a check and a folder with my copy of the documents.
Holding those items, I felt 80 pounds lighter.
Given the changes I had made in the business, I could have gotten more for it if I had stayed longer. It wasn’t enough money to stop working, but the sale price was enough for me, because in addition to the money I got . . .
- Some time
- A little perspective
- And my first chance to interact with my daughter without that voice of heavy obligation screaming in my head. The space the sale created silenced that voice.
I’d already missed a lot, but thankfully not everything.
Run Light, and Hold Her (or His) Hand
Let’s recognize the obvious: this was my personal journey, defined by my own weakness and strength. A lot of business owners (and busy employees) have great relationships with their children. They can do both owner and parent well. They’ve learned how to be present with their kids despite what’s going on back at the office. You could say they know how to run light. I didn’t know how to do that in my first business. I needed to learn how.
Selling my first business gave me a chance to learn.
I found I was able to engage in a relationship with my daughter at a level of simplicity I hadn’t before. I could just be. With her. Not half there. I got to experience what it meant to be fully present with my daughter, and once I actually did that, and felt that, I knew I was never going to let it go. I would never again take on an opportunity that required me to run heavy.
I remain an obsessive owner (I’ve owned four other businesses in the last 9 years), but it’s nothing like it was with the first one. It is lighter now. I’m less fanatical, and more able to turn it off. I now know the best offerings of my professional life are dust compared to my relationship with my daughter. I learned that . . .
Nothing you do professionally will substitute for an authentic, fully present relationship with your kids. Put that first. Always.
So that’s what I told my colleague when she asked what factors were most important as she considered whether to take the really big, new, all-consuming, “never see the kids” job she had been offered.
Basically, she asked what I thought about her running heavy. I told her to run light and make sure she could always hold her kid’s hands for longer than three minutes.
By The Way
I give the same advice to men who ask me the same question.
Mom or dad, a professional opportunity that denies you an authentic, fully present relationship with your kids is poison. Outwardly attractive, sometimes sweet at first, but eventually, ultimately, always poison. Eight years of drinking from that bottle made this an unassailable truth in my life, so that’s what I tell others who ask.
If the truth in your life is different, so be it. Maybe you like the taste of poison. Perhaps you enjoy how it feels to run heavy. Maybe you can do it without killing yourself, or your relationship with your kids.
Me, I learned the hard way – but thankfully without having to regret the consequences forever.