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Ask HN: What will you do when you're 40 and still unsuccessful?
41 points by bodegajed on Nov 28, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments
It was my second visit to the doctor this year due to stress-related illness (skin allergy before now ulcer)

I turned 31 this year and I have been thinking what will I do when I turn 40 and my business is still nowhere? What would I do when my body is not capable of the intense working hours of a startup?

I'll just probably go on trying but not at this rate anymore. I have been working 12hrs/day for the past 4 years. When I'm 40 i'll just probably work for 5hrs/day. What would be yours?

Speaking as a 45-year-old - your body will be just as capable 15 years from now. But I would hope that over the course of those 15 years you'd learn that if you've been working 12 hours a day for four years and haven't gotten done what you want to do, you're doing it wrong. (Sorry if that sounds too harsh.) At the risk of going cliché, sometimes you really do have to work smarter, not harder. Analyze what those 12 hours are, and eliminate or delegate whatever you can. And get some sleep.

Now excuse me, I have about 15 hours of work ahead of me today, so do as I say, not as I do.

How about you try doing just the most important 11 hours and letting the last one slide? Repeat until your life is livable.

Take it from a Japanese salaryman: overwork is a disease, akin to alcoholism in its destructive potential, and people extolling it do not have your best interests at heart.

I know the consequences. It's just that I don't want to get old without knowing the limits of my potential.

I'm reminded of the old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin asks his dad how they decide what number to put on those "Weight Limit" signs on bridges.

His dad tells him that they drive heavier and heavier trucks across each bridge until it falls down. Then they weigh the last truck and rebuild the bridge.

Perhaps you, unlike these imaginary bridge engineers, should settle for a well-informed estimate of the limits of your potential, with a generous margin of safety. It sounds like your health is giving you a lot of hints about where the margin of safety might lie.

I'm definitely going to quote you on that :-)

You're not going to reach your potential if you tire yourself out beyond repair.

Pace yourself. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

You just nailed the issue with this single phrase...

There are no limits to your potential, in that sense. There are limits to the stress that your body can take, and it sounds like you've already run up against them.

And you believe that the "limits of your potential" are in some bs business and getting a lot of money?

You're about the age I was when I broke-down (physically and mentally) from working the same way. I moved to an island and bought a boat (on credit. I never did get rich). Now I work about 4-6 hours per day on contracts that only barely pay the bills, and spend the rest of the time sailing and fishing with my new family. I'm having the time of my life and producing better work than ever. "The limits of my potential" doesn't always mean what you think it does.

Can't tell you how good it made me feel to read this comment.

I'm glad OP posted this. I'm actually a bit surprised this sentiment hasn't been expressed more often, but I guess it's part of the bubble a lot of Valley entrepeneurs live in. I am just a 25-year old guy working as a regular employee in a small consulting company with flexible hours and freedom to take unpaid leave pretty much whenever I feel like it, but I have some pretty strong opinions on parts of the startup culture.

To be frank, it seems like a lot of startup employees suffer from OCD (literally). Working really long hours and improving the product, changing the world etc. is what it's always about. Lots of people seem to lose sight of the ultimate goal in life, which is being happy. Or maybe they didn't have a goal in the first place, and working really hard is a substitute for something else which is missing in their lives.

Unhealthily hard work is a good idea _for a period of time_, if it _seems as if it's working_, as a means to an end: Making a lot of money in a few years instead of throughout a lifetime, creating something of your own and leaving your mark on the world, reaching your true potential, etc. But if you're working 12 hours a day for _years_ with nothing to show for it, you are on the wrong track and should take a step back.

I realized this after experiencing burnout at 19, spending two years where I was capable of doing absolutely nothing traditionlly productive. Therefore, it's really surprising to me that a lot of supposedly older and wiser do this rat race for years, losing sight of the goal along the way.

Pushing really hard to achieve something great is a huge risk to your mental well-being, and this is something you should go into with both eyes open. It's better to make a tactical retreat if things seem too hard.

You can be perfectly happy not being a Steve Jobs. In fact, if it doesn't come naturally, you're almost guaranteed to be happier by being a little easier on yourself.

> I realized this after experiencing burnout at 19, spending two years where I was capable of doing absolutely nothing traditionlly productive. Therefore, it's really surprising to me that a lot of supposedly older and wiser do this rat race for years, losing sight of the goal along the way.

This hit especially close to home for me. I'm 19 years old, in my second year of university, and looking to get into the industry within the next couple years. Even just finishing high school I was left with this emptiness: I had worked my ass off doing all kinds of crazy stuff--academic and otherwise--to get into a college of my choice, often getting 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night for weeks on end, only to start the whole thing over again right after I graduated.

I still work my ass off, deprive myself of sleep, overwork, etc, but I definitely see it all in the same context as you. It's short-term craziness for a benefit I want to see slightly down the road. And if it doesn't work out, I'm not going to force it. If you're not where you wanted to be at 35 by the time you're 40, maybe your plan wasn't the right one for you.

So yes, thank you for reminding me the point of all of this.

Very well said.

Working hard is fine, sometimes. However, if you're working hard for years and seemingly getting nowhere, then you clearly what you're doing is wrong.

It's not easy to create and build a business or startup. But that's doesn't mean it's an unachievable goal that, despite working yourself into the ground, you'll never achieve.

If you are killing yourself for years and years, you're probably never going to make it. There's not that much of a difference between those who succeed and those who fail. It's about working smart, not hard.

Yes, you might have to work both smart AND hard at times, but if you are working hard becomes never-ending then you need to assess how smart you are working.

From the outside the answer is really obvious: if you're working for 12 hours a day and it isn't working then you're clearly working on the wrong things. Business is 90% about knowing what is important and what is a waste of your time. When you're working 12 hour days and your business isn't becoming insanely successful it's pretty obvious that most of the hours you work are wasted. Hours burned and sacrificed with nothing to show for it.

If you've been working on unsuccessful startups it's easy to get into a sort of rhythm where you keep doing the same things that didn't work in the past, but only with more vigor. It's complete and utter madness to try to brute-force your way to success. It can work, of course, but the odds are stacked against you, and as a business person you should only play when the odds are highly in your favor.

My guess is that you've probably lost a bit of perspective if you've been punishing yourself like this for the past 4 years. Stop punishing yourself. You don't get rewarded for punishing yourself, and you shouldn't feel good (reward yourself) for working harder than is sustainable or harm your (mental) health. Reward yourself when you make good decisions, and punish yourself (if you have to) if you waste time on shit that doesn't matter. Because working on the wrong things will kill your startup, working 8 hour days does not.

Just focus on doing what you love. I'm a FIRM believer in the notion that working on things you love will help you achieve greater success. If you're not waking up everyday excited to go to work...you need to switch careers.

If that notion scares you, frame it this way: 30 is young, you have 30 years to go before you even think of retirement! You have 3x more time ahead of you than you've worked to date...if you formed a career in the past 10 years, you could create 3 more careers before you're 60! (or one really really amazing one if you focus on what you love doing)

Doing what you love gives you the energy to work harder than your peers. Get up, switch into something that isn't killing you slowly.

I know first hand how internalising stress can and will do damage to your immune system & general health.

For me it was money issues after graduating Uni. To be honest I didn't even know I was "stressed" but my health told me other wise. I had 3 years of serious illnesses that most people my age (early 20's) would never have had (pneumonia, severe tonsilitis, kidney issues) especially after having a relatively illness free child-hood.

The only thing that helped me to feel like I was making progress (and healthier long term) was working on fixing the problem at the root. Trying to step away from the frantic scrabbling around & viewing the problem from above.

When you're frantic over a situation you don't just stop being stressed as soon as you leave work. You may have been working 12 hour days but your body remains stressed out for all of it, even during sleep. Perhaps your body has had zero down-time over the last 4 years!

I think you would benefit from some analysis of your working day. What ARE you working so hard on? Where are the bottlenecks. What can you delegate or eliminate?

Spend a few days/weeks working ON your business (streamlining) instead of IN it.

Aim to achieve more with less.

Maybe you could even use the HN community to improve some aspect for you!

Have you heard the proverb?:

If I had 8 hours to cut down a tree, I would spend 6 hours sharpening my axe.

Cheers from a 43 year old that is still "unsuccessful".

I'm more than forty. I have a young family they get me up at 6:30, and I work full time, come home, do family stuff and then do another 4 hours on my project until later than 1 am almost every night.

The thing that keeps me going is actually not stressing about being successful. I've had plenty of good ideas turn up developed by other people (not connected in any way) and just said, "OK, they did good, move on".

No single business is so precious, that you have to die trying. For me the most important is to make sure that you can fight another day, because your next task might just be the one...

First, I would say take a break and get a little perspective.

What is the cause of your stress? Is it the work? Is it the lack of traction for your product or company? Is it cash flow? Is it physical exhaustion?

Assess the source of that stress and start figuring out why it stresses you out. Then do something about fixing the "being stressed out" part by changing your perspective on the problem.

Second, realize that number of hours work is not necessarily the best approach. Figure out if you are spending the time efficiently. Figure out what could be done by someone else. Compute the cost of doing some of those other tasks and if the task is non-essential to your business and the cost of the task is higher than what you would pay yourself on an hourly basis, then outsource the sucker.

Third, remember that YOU ARE NOT THE PRODUCT. The product is the product and it may need fixing but it's not you, as a person. Get that perspective and start looking at it as something that you put in customer hands, not something that you are. This should greatly alleviate the stress.

Now go on to 40 (and beyond) with those concepts in mind. It took me until a second stay in the hospital at age 39 to realize that I was doing it wrong. I had burned myself out a few times (12 hours? pfft... try 18!) and after a near-death experience, realized that I could do a better job by refocusing. My new company, as a result, is moving along nicely and I believe it will succeed but I also realize there will be bumps in the road along the way and those are part of the natural course of things when growing a business.

There's a great article in the October 17th, 2011, issue of Fortune entitled "Collins on Chaos" that is an excerpt of the book "Great by Choice". It seems quite relevant to this discussion.

The authors compare the leadership at companies that consistently outperformed their competitors during good times and bad, with the leadership at the nominally-performing companies.

The outperforming leaders set a benchmark defining "consistent progress", e.g. profitable every year (Southwest Airlines), 20% growth per year (Stryker), etc. They then fought to achieve that benchmark even during the toughest years (perhaps obvious), but they also restrained themselves so as to not exceed (by much) their benchmark during the "boom" years. Even though it might seem counter-intuitive, these "restrained" companies performed better over the long run than those companies which grew quickly during the good times.

The point is perhaps that you might achieve more by both committing to, and limiting yourself to, some more reasonable number of hours per week.

From someone who has actually been there and is getting close to 40, first define what success means to you.

I too burned myself out around when I was 30, got ulcers and Chrohns disease (still have it but it's manageable now), and kept on see-sawing between falling ill and working like crazy.

My experience is that too much stress makes the body susceptible to many ills, and is just not worth it.

What does success mean to you?

- Is is accumulation of wealth ? - Is it a social projection (people perceiving you as successful) ? - Is it the satisfaction of having lived a positive, constructive and happy life ?

I cannot say for everyone, but I feel that wealth is important to a certain extent, but beyond a threshold it does not matter a whole lot. Same goes for social projection, but to an even lesser degree. On the other hand if you figure out what truly makes you happy, and what gifts you have, which you can use to lead a positive and constructive life, then success and happiness is in the fact that you are doing what you really want to do.

Just my 2 cents...

Many a career has been started by folks well into their 50s and 60s... what you may lack in energy and agility then is made up by experience, insight, and skill. Try never thinking you have done the greatest thing you will ever do, that just cuts your opportunities short.

Dietrich Mateschitz (Red Bull Founder) has been age 39 and washed up when he started out on a venture that would become RB.

I guess he might feel all kind of issues when he was 45. But I guess he was too busy to rally think how he didn't accomplish anything.

Without any Red Bull at the time, where did he find the energy to create Red Bull?

Maybe you're not defining "success" the right way. It's not just about the money.

Unless for the OP, it truly is about the money. I know plenty of driven people that use that (money) as their only motivational force. As an opinion I disagree with that definition of success - though it is an opinion and I have been told many times that mine was 'wrong'.

Exactly. Barry Schwartz has taught us that the secret to happiness is low expectations :)

It might sound like a joke but it's a serious point. Please watch the TED talk for more information http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_ch...

Try to imagine what you're going to be thinking on your deathbed some day. If it's "I wish I had put in more 12 hour days", then keep it up. Otherwise, figure out what actually makes you happy - and do it.

When I am 40, if I'm in no good spot to be running a business, my plan is simple:

Immigrate to Nicaragua, grow vegetables and herbs, and start a bakery. Live on American tourists' dollars and spend the rest of my life surrounded by happy people.

Of course, most people aren't so ready to pick up and leave. In that case, find something you love. If you truly love running a startup — REALLY — you'll get somewhere. Make sure it's your passion above everything else before declaring the limits of your potential, though.

"Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life" or so they say. As a mid-40's veteran of multiple startups, I say do what you have a passion to do. If that's fishing, live to fish and do what you want to support that passion. If it's whatever you're working on, then you're good.

In your case, perhaps your drive and your passion are not aligned at this time. Once that's fixed, life becomes much better.

I've wanted more than anything to get a business going, live the startup life, and be my own boss. But I try to put it all in to perspective: I work to live, not live to work. For me, success is being able to provide for my family and enjoy the work that I do. YMMV.

Very well put and at the 'wrong' side of 40 years of age, your statement describes were I am at as well. I had not defined that for me as of yet and you just sped that process up. For that, I thank you.

Note that most ulcers are caused by a bacterial infection, not stress (read up on the 2005 Nobel prize for medicine: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2006/mar2006/nobe-m06.shtml)

Edit: the point I was going for was not to blame stress on everything, which itself can be stressful. Sometimes, finding a simple cause to an otherwise stressful problem can lead to big reductions in stress levels (and thus, the other symptoms others have pointed out). The most likely cause of an ulcer is a bacterial infection, not the only cause.

Stress increases cortisol levels which increases infections (when elevated for long periods of time).

"Chronic subtle hypercortisolism" is one term for the bevy of effects longterm stress can cause.,

maybe the 4hour work week (tim ferris) is the right thing for you. (i'm not related to him, nor get provisions :)

working harder and longer does not necessarily make you achieve more. try to stop investing time in actions that make you very little money or have very little benefits for you. focus on the top customers.

maybe you can start by evaluating what consumes so much of your time.

hope that helps a bit, martin

"You pick up your GD leg and keep running..." that is what you do. (reference to a great ted video with Aimee Mullins)

Two words "Colonel Sanders". Look him up if the name doesn't get to you. See when he figured out success.

How can stress induce a skin allergy?

Stress increases cortisol levels. Cortisol levels influence immune response. Allergies are an immune response.

Thanks for the response - also to the other commentors, it`s not like I have not heard that stress induces other problems-diseases, it is just that it is something that I find very hard to prove that an illness can be directly attributed to stress, considering that many of us have stress in our daily lives.

That usually requires a bit of experience - if your allergies go away when you take a few days off work then they're either stress related or there's something in your office that triggers them...

A reasonable question, and the answer is that enough stress can create many physical symptoms. Eczema (a skin condition) is frequently attributable to stress.

stress can do a lot of things you would never expect. And no matter how invincible you feel now, stress builds up in the background, drip-drip kind of build up over years. Then one day, you find you have an ulcer or a panic attack or some other physical manifestation http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stress_(physiology)

WTF? This is medicine 101.

Why not work 5/day now?

I find I do more in 3 30 hour weeks than I do in 3 60 hour weeks.

success is doing what you love, unless its partying in ibiza with the most expensive sluts, you can be succesful right now.

Prostitutes are expensive. Sluts are free spirited.

Find something you enjoy doing (love), and do it. Take a step back and asses - Do you really really love working 12 hours a day? If not, then stop doing it.

If you're working 12 hours a day in the hope that some day it'll all pay off and you'll then be able to do things you love, then that's utter bullshit and you're probably deluding yourself.

Find things you love doing, and do them. Now.

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