I have a list in my head.
Across the top, in fanciful calligraphy, the title reads “Things I Wish I Had Known Sooner.” It unfurls in my mind with the whimsy of a Warner Brothers cartoon every time I learn another lesson.
This living document includes the obvious things business owners always joke about wishing they knew earlier (the diminished returns of untangling and filing one’s own business taxes come to mind), but the line item most on my mind lately isn’t discussed as often, or with the brutal honesty it requires.
This item is: “you will be encouraged to lose yourself, constantly.”
There is a gregarious ecosystem around the topic of entrepreneurship and business management. The internet is carpet-bombed daily with rapid-fire videos and graphic tiles that treat running a business as a sport, with the “hustle and grind” language of athletes repurposed for business operators. From keynote speech excerpts to talking head videos, the sale of motivation is a thriving business.
And even though books from these personalities (you can probably name three offhand) aren’t devoid of helpful information, their surrounding rhetoric is dangerously scintillating. I fell under the spell for a while, taking the hype at face value, accepting it as necessary for my own success.
During that period, my commitment to my business was expressed in how many hours I worked and how many all-nighters I pulled in a week. I drank coffee to a teeth-rattling degree of hypertension. During the rare social outing, if anyone said they had a long week, I took perverse satisfaction in smirking into my drink. I didn’t even have to say anything, I just knew there was no chance in physics they worked more than me.
As sad as it was for me to write that just now, it’s even sadder when I remember that I graduated college ready to be a full-time missionary. I taught martial arts to kids. I spent a summer working in orphanages in India. I loved and wanted to protect people. I had gone freelance as a photographer hoping to have more time for people-based projects and volunteering.
But, several years older, with this newfound aggression at the wheel, I found myself willing to put anything and everything on the chopping block to reach perceived “success.” I worked harder, better and faster than anyone I knew. I sacrificed health, sleep and relationships in the process, hungry to go a step further and make a point to the people I didn’t know.
And, don’t get me wrong, it got results. But only to a point, and only in a material way.
On a Monday morning in the summer of 2020, recently divorced and forced to work substantially less due to that year’s viral load, I woke up to a painful hangover and a moment of clarity.
I had gone too far.
My worldview had become cynical, my relationships transactional. Even my work–which, as a photographer, should be an extension of myself–had lost the deeper influences of what I find beautiful in the world. Almost everything in my life had been made shallow in service of commercial appeal.
Thankfully, I experienced this realization soon enough to pull out of the dive and sort out my priorities. But, almost three years later, I still struggle against the negative patterns I reinforced for so long. What should be baseline, healthy habits, are still deliberate choices.
Days off still feel a little like cheating, and stopping an editing day at 6pm still feels like I’m leaving bankable hours on the table. Invite me over for dinner on a weeknight? I’m bringing a bottle of wine and a head full of suppressed neuroses.
Entrepreneurs, by nature, are individualists. Our independent temperaments drive us to take huge personal and financial risks to make something of our own. But independent humans are still human. Risks are intimidating, and, in the face of fear, we look outward for some kind of example to follow.
There is always value to be gained through case studies and good examples. But the modern path to knowledge is littered with distractions: talking heads pumping out short-form messages that you’re not doing enough, not loud enough, not marketing enough. Even the most confident business owners are prone to doubt their instincts in the face of so much noise.
We are encouraged, constantly, to lose ourselves. And this is why we need to ask ourselves deeper questions.
Our actions will always express our priorities. When I have to defend my actions too often, that is the signal that my priorities have drifted into an unhealthy place. That is a very hard pill to swallow when I look in the mirror, but unpleasant self-reflection is a necessary part of the process. You can’t sharpen a blade without the friction of the stone.
People love to discuss “work/life balance,” but they rarely discuss it the correct way. Balance isn’t about finding time on a calendar. There is no perfect divide between work tasks and personal tasks, there is only the difference between the things that are truly important, and those that aren’t.
It is easy to get lost in the process of building a business, to lose one’s self in running the business. But the returns are diminished if you lose sight of the first principles you brought to your business.
For a time, I was so focused on work and clients that I didn’t just forget about the friends and family in my life, I lost sight of myself. I forgot to show the people in my life that I still cared. I forgot to show myself any kindness along the way.
Our values determine where we place our focus, our time.
The ways we give time reflect the ways that we give love.
The ways we give love tell the world who we really are, both as people and as business operators.
These are a few things I wish I had learned sooner.
Steven Gray, Photographer
*Note from Local Pulse Editor: Steven Gray is a part of our Community Voices series. Community Voices is a group of Pensacola dwellers that are making a difference in our city by sharing best practices, experiences, their perspective on impactful subjects, and contributing expertise that leads to movement forward for a stronger community.