A friend of mine had a problem.
He’s the founder of a tech company and by every metric we use to determine success, he’s killing it.
But he just wasn’t “feeling” it anymore.
Where he once was energized and enthusiastic, he now struggled to muster the motivation and joy that had been so prominent in the launch and early growth phases. The hustle of startup life didn’t hold the same appeal as it used to, and he found himself at a crossroads.
What was going on? Was he depressed or facing burnout? Well no, not at this point, but he certainly was on a road that could lead in those directions. What he was experiencing, it turned out, was a disconnect between what was important to him and the tasks that took up his days.
His work no longer aligned with his values…
Founders and values
The founding of a business is a moment of hope. It can also be wrapped in idealism – there’s a big problem and we’re going to be the best solution to solve it. We’ll build a tribe of loyal followers on our way to building amazing software.
Of course there are the moments of uncertainty – can I afford to take this risk? Then there are the moments where you think “this could set me / my family up for life.”
There are steep learning curves and there are moments where you realize that you’re learning or taking on more critical tasks than you initially realized would be necessary. Sometimes, there are the “oh s**t” moments where you question your own sanity in jumping into the murky, uncharted waters of entpreprenuarship.
For many founders this is all part of the enjoyment – we are unconventional trailblazers, risk-takers, and hustling burners of midnight oil.
One thing that tends to keep us going through the slog of starting a businesses is our desire to succeed on our own terms and the connection between what we choose to do for work and the values that are most core to who we are. Being a founder fulfills something that exists fundamentally at our core. It isn’t worth it otherwise – there is too much involved in birthing a business, and devoting a large chunk of your life to making it a success if being a founder isn’t personally fulfilling.
It’s what gets you up in the morning – until it doesn’t…
When work (or values) pivot
What happened to my friend, the tech founder? He started out with passion, insight for the business and a keen sense for what would drive it forward.
But then he started to find himself wrapped up in the things that didn’t ignite his enthusiasm. My friend is a creative genius, an innovator, someone for whom “creating value” is a core value. He loves nothing better than to put his skills to work coding a new feature that will deliver results for his customers or reworking his marketing funnel to better personalize his message to prospective customers. The most successful his venture became, the more he found himself pulled further and further away from the hands-on creative process.
Success meant that he was going from meeting, to cocktail hour, to conference, to networking group. He was managing a large team and found that he now spent more time managing and less time creating. Now, he likes people, but not that much! His role in the company had gone from being a core creator to an administrator, chief schmoozer, HR manager, and occasional counselor. The company itself was doing well and on-track exactly as he had envisioned, only his role wasn’t fulfilling his values anymore.
He was exhausted. With a new, young family whom he often missed, he was also questioning – why am I doing this?
This brings up an important point – our values help to give us purpose, but those values can also pivot during your lifetime. Was being there for his family a value a few years ago? No. But now that he’s in a different phase of his life, his values have shifted.
As our work changes or our life situation shifts, and the old tasks may no longer fulfill us. We experience a disconnect at work and question where we’re headed. We can feel like we’re losing our mojo. As author Ayn Rand once said:
“Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.”
Researchers back this notion, with studies finding that our perception of living our values tends to play a major role in our overall sense of achievement, fulfillment, and yes, happiness.
Studies such as this one from University of Chicago examine connections between our values, motivations to complete projects, and our overall goals or aspirations. The right combination tends to inform whether we feel that our lives are well-lived or our work worth pursuing.Had a “why am I doing this” moment? It might be time to check in with your values Click To Tweet
The “big why”
Simon Sinek’s work made the “big why” something that gets talked about frequently (you can see his hugely popular TED Talk here). Your “big why” is what gets you out of bed in the morning. It delivers purpose to your work and ensures that you are working on something meaningful.
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” Sinek repeats. In the race to powered flight, the Wright brothers had no money and no college degrees, but a huge “why” of changing the course of powered transportation. People around them bought into their dream and offered support. Conversely, Samuel Pierpont Langley had money, education, connections, a will to be first, and a desire to be rich. When he wasn’t first to powered flight, he quit. The flight wasn’t really his dream, the fame and fortune were.
By living what you believe, you attract people who also share those beliefs. There’s something inherently uplifting about living your values and as Sinek says; “when you think, act and communicate starting with why, you can inspire others.” Of course, there’s also the matter of taking care of ourselves – “fulfillment comes when we live our lives on purpose,” he says.
How to keep values at the forefront
So, what can people like my friend do, when their work no longer meets their core values, or when they have a shift in core values which don’t match up with the day-to-day or the big picture of what they’re doing?
Sometimes we’re not even aware yet that the values-disconnect is the problem. We’re aware of that kind of “meh” feeling when we’re not being fulfilled, but often, we’re so busy that actually taking the time to check in with ourselves doesn’t happen.
Here are a few thoughts on what you can do:
Seek clarity about yourself
We’re often the last person on our to-do list. When you’re busy in your company, you put your head down and get on with it. Taking the time for self-reflection and seeking personal clarity is an important step. How else will you recognize what really matters to you?
There are a few ways you can go about this – one thing I personally use is to collect “data” about myself. It’s a simple exercise of journaling for each day, writing down the high point as well as the low point. Over time, you establish your personal patterns and start to really notice what brings you up and what takes you down. For me, this exercise helped me to realize that a job I had which I’d always considered to be a “dream job” really wasn’t for me.
You might choose other forms of journaling, you might talk to a therapist, or you might simply take the time to talk to a trusted confidante about what makes you tick. The important thing is taking the time to seek that clarity.
Hypothesize and test
If a lot of your low points are work-related, what can you do to alleviate that pain? You don’t necessarily need an extreme shift like giving up your job, but you might need to incorporate different activities or delegate other things.
Test out your hypothesis over a couple of weeks and check back in. Has the change helped to improve your data? Reach a conclusion and repeat testing if necessary.
You’ve probably come across some of the stories from founders who were the CEO of their own company, but stepped aside at some point to take on a different role. Being a CEO isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine. Sometimes it just doesn’t allow you to meet your personal values! You might serve both yourself and the company better in a different role, or with some changes made to the duties you are serving.
Revisit your values
The process of seeking clarity helps to define your core values. As mentioned earlier, those core values usually don’t remain static over your whole life (although of course some may).
Do you hold the same values now that you did 20 years ago? The chances are your values have shifted as your personal circumstances and experiences have created shifts in your outlook on life.
Revisit your values periodically to ensure that you remain clear about exactly what they are. Common life changes impact our values – certainly events like having kids cause us to rethink! I like to take a personal retreat twice each year where I consider the data I’ve gathered about myself and what fuels me. Those regular check-ins are important for keeping my head in the game and ensuring that I live my life on purpose.
If you’re losing the zest for your work that you once had, and conditions such as burnout or depression aren’t a factor, then look closely at whether you are keeping your core values at the forefront of your work life.
Humans change – we aren’t static beings, so it’s common to have a shift in values over time which might create a mismatch with what you’re doing. Check in with yourself and do so regularly. Are work-related worries a consistent source of your low points? It might be time to make some changes to bring your values back into focus.
My new book is out! The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Sh*t Together is about ensuring you and your business keep thriving for years. Check it out here.