Startups and singledom: do we have to choose?

Startups take work – that’s no lie. But do they take so much work you need to stay single forever? Sentiments in the startup-verse tend to come with a ‘sacrifice it all’ mentality. Founders put 100% into their business and then try to find another 50% to give to their personal lives. But those numbers just don’t add up.

Former COO of Coca-Cola Brian Dyson is famous for his five balls speech. 

Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends, and spirit…. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls are made of glass.

He was undeniably right about health being a glass ball. Probably the same for spirit, presuming he meant something along the lines of energy, happiness, and mental wellbeing. Friendships and family ties can certainly be damaged beyond repair if neglected for too long.

But there are two question marks that bookend this famous speech. 

One, Dyson didn’t refer specifically to romantic relationships. Does your boyfriend, girlfriend, or live-in partner count as a glass ball? If not, when do they become one? Once you get married? And does that mean you shouldn’t worry about them breaking until that point? Or does it perhaps mean you should reconsider your startup ambitions when the glass starts to crack?

The second question mark is: what’s changed? Dyson made the speech in 1991. Over 30 years later, modern relationships are in another (glass) ballpark altogether. We’re less rigid, less conventional, and considerably less reliant on traditional nuclear structures. 

Many people have just had enough of modern dating, focusing on themselves and their personal goals instead.

Is it still relevant to say relationships are more important than life goals? Or is it a little old-fashioned? 

Is it selfish to work hard?

In 2014, Harvard Business School students cross analysed interviews with 4,000 male and female-identifying business executives. Despite all the interviews taking place 20 years after Dyson’s speech, they saw an old cultural narrative emerging in men’s responses. 

Men saw their absenteeism in their personal lives as “worth” the financial rewards they provided for their families. 

Some even viewed the breakdowns of their marriages as being worth the professional success they enjoyed, and financial success their children benefited from. They saw their work (and resulting absence from their families) as a means to provide.

Female execs reported their own reasons for time away from home: they were acting as role models. One said,

Work is such a big part of who I am. I want my kids to understand what I do. I am a whole being. 

Aside from the fairness of women wanting to maintain their identities, they were still hugely underrepresented in C-suite positions.

From the traditional, family-oriented perspective, these perspectives might sound controversial – even selfish or cold . 

But society still places nuclear families on a pedestal. Even in 2023, “breaking up” the family is seen as the worst thing you can do, with disproportionate criticism being placed on women who choose to prioritise their careers. 

But parents are still people. They have their own ambitions. We sacrifice many things at the altar of parenthood and relationships – our identity shouldn’t be one of them.  

The Wheel of Life

When life gets hectic, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees.

That old cliche of a businessman on his deathbed, wondering where the years went and wishing he spent them with family, might not be that far from reality. Startups are particularly all-consuming, and you might not realise how much you’re neglecting other areas of your life until it’s too late.

The Wheel of Life is a psychological tool for getting a holistic view. Like Dyson’s balls, you choose your categories. Are you spending enough time with your loved ones? Home enough for your pets? Are you staying on top of your training program or personal chores? 

You plot 6 to 8 dimensions on a wheel, labelling each with something that’s important to you. You then rate each area out of 10 on how positively you feel about it. A rating of 1 would be right near the centre of the wheel, 10 would be on the outer ring. 

Once you’ve plotted your scores, join them up with a line. If the line is zigzagging all over the place, you might need to bring in more balance.

How do you do it all?

You’ll find tons of articles online on how to balance your work and personal life, maximise your time, and keep your partner happy.

But there’s another element that’s much less explored. And it’s a question of want.

Do you really want a better work/life balance? A solution that works for both you and your partner? Or do you want to devote yourself wholeheartedly to your business baby? 

Sometimes, we stay late in the office because we want to. Because that’s where our true passion lies. On the other end, maybe we’re losing ourselves in work as an escape from a relationship we’re not sure how to end. 

A healthy relationship shouldn’t pull you away from your passions. Abandoning a business for the sake of someone else is a recipe for regret. This is no time for snap decisions – spend time considering carefully whether you want to be devoting time to a partnership, and if you’re capable of doing that.

If the answer to both of those questions is yes, thankfully, there are some pretty simple solutions.

Be present when you’re present

This principle is as essential for work as it is for your personal life. There’s nothing more dismaying than getting long-awaited time with a loved one and being interrupted by their phone every 5 minutes. Time with your partner should be phone-off time with quality conversation and questions about what’s going on with them. 

If you can’t be present, the odd gesture goes a long way, whether it’s a “thinking of you” text or a surprise babysitter booking so your partner can take a night off. 

Founders should come with fair warning 

It sounds obvious, and a little preachy, but the key to it all relationships is honesty. 

It’s 100% okay to be the kind of person who works a lot. Just be upfront about this. 

If you’re already in a relationship, give your partner ample warning that you’re starting a business, you’re going to be absent a lot, and you don’t know when it’ll end. Consider their work schedule, and how you might be able to squeeze in quality time.

But steer clear of false promises of “it’s only going to last a few months” or “I probably won’t have to work weekends” (spoiler: you will). 

And, if you’re not yet dating someone but would like to…

Find someone like minded 

It’s perhaps weird and a little cultish to suggest you should find someone whose vision aligns with yours. 

But we don’t mean recruiting someone into your business strategy. If you can find a partner who’s either a fellow founder or who shares your lifestyle ambitions, you’ll always understand each other. Quality time together might be difficult to find, but you won’t have to torture yourself trying to explain your unique brand of entrepreneurial madness to someone with a 9-5 mindset (not a bad thing, by the way).

Goals don’t have to be the same, but they should be compatible. 

This is where Dyson’s five balls come back into focus. Some people’s work balls are rubber. If they “drop” them by slacking, taking time off, or changing careers, it’s no big deal. But some people’s work balls are precious glass. Dropping them brings a unique pain that only someone else with glass work balls will understand.

The answer to the question “do I need to choose between work and relationships?” is actually pretty simple: no, you just need to find someone with the same balls as yours…

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