Disappearing into the Fire

His anxiety was high. So high, in fact, that—at first—he wasn’t even aware of it. But I could hear it in his voice, feel it in my chest, as he spoke to me over the phone.

“What’s going on with your breathing?” I asked, “I can hardly breathe listening to you. Even more, your voice is way up in the back of your throat. Slow down and tell me what’s going on.”

He assured me that everything was great. The meeting he’d just come from was very promising—the potential client—a large consumer products company—was going to make a large ad buy and his company, my client’s company, was going to land the deal.

“Okay,” I said probing, “but what if you don’t land the deal.”

The balloon burst.

“Well then we’re fucked. If we don’t get this deal, then there’s no way we’re going to make our numbers.”

“But you’d nailed the last quarter. Doesn’t that count?” I said.


“What happened?”

Turns out they hadn’t made the fourth quarter numbers. Both the top and bottom lines were off; expenses were up 10% over where they expected but, even worse, revenues were off by 40%. Forty percent.

He took a breath—maybe his first during the whole call—and he told me that the board had told him that if the company doesn’t make the first quarter numbers, his job was on the line.

“So?” I asked in my annoying coach-like way.

“So?!? So I’ll be out of work?”

“You get job offers all the time—is that what you’re really worried about?”

He paused again. “No. I guess I’m worried our business model is wrong.”

Again, the annoying, “So?”

“And if our business model is wrong, then I’ll have wasted the last three years of my life.” He was nearly shouting.

He paused again. His voice deepening as his breath steadied and the emotions rose.

“And worse than that,” he said, “I’ll be tagged with this failure for the rest of my life.”

The rest of his life defined by a missed quarter?

Few people understand just how difficult it is to be an entrepreneur.

I’ll often ask a client who’s struggling to deal with the burdens if they can really afford to be an entrepreneur. And by that, I’m not necessarily referring to the financial costs of living with a diminished salary—or even going without altogether. I’m referring to the emotional highs and lows of fundraising.

One day, for example, the investor returns your email, inviting you in to present to the full partnership. You leave that meeting feeling great. You call your coach: “I nailed it.” You tell your spouse, “Don’t worry, honey, the funding’s coming through.” But then the investor stops responding to emails. Doesn’t answer their phone. Nothing. Not a word. Silence.

And the killer-developer you hired on a wing, a prayer, and a slug of equity starts worrying about paying his rent and says that the job with that new iPhone app company is looking better and better.

Or you’re funded and one of your investor/directors starts making noises about doubting the business model, about doubting your head of sales, about doubting you…but you know that these doubts have less to do with your company than they do with the fact that the investor is having troubling closing his new fund and so to him, everything looks like crap. But, of course, you can’t say that, because well, he’s sort of your boss.

And you come home and it’s your daughter’s dance recital—“Geez, already?!? Didn’t she just start classes?”

No, your wife says, she started classes nine months ago. “Oh right,” you say to yourself, “that was version 1.2.” And you catch yourself and laugh a little thinking that you now tell time by counting versions of the software.

David Whyte—a brilliant poet who, among others things, speaks to and consults with large corporations, describes well an aspect of why the burden is so keenly felt:

There is an ancient Chinese story of an old master potter who attempted to develop a new glaze for his porcelain vases. It became the central focus of his life. Everyday he tended the flames of his kilns to a white heat, controlling the temperature to an exact degree. Every day he experimented with the chemistry of the glazes he applied, but still he could not achieve the beauty he desired and imagined was possible in a glaze. Finally, having tried everything he decided his meaningful life was over and walked into the molten heat of the fully fired kiln. When his assistants opened up the kiln and took out the vases, they found the glaze on the vases the most exquisite they had ever encountered. The master himself had disappeared into his creations.

How many of  us create companies, create products where our blood and bone fuse with the glaze to create something so exquisite as to never have existed before? How romantically seductive is the image of giving one’s all to the fire? After all, as Whyte says:

Work is the very fire where we are baked to perfection, and like the master of the fire itself, we add the essential ingredient and fulfillment when we walk into the flames ourselves and fuel the transformation of ordinary, everyday forms into the exquisite and the rare.

I have to understand this viscerally if I’m going to be of service to my clients. But I have to be mindful, too, of the cost. In disappearing into the kiln, the potter created the most meaningful thing possible. But in the end, he ceased to exist.

The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of Soul in Corporate America and Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, both by David Whyte; The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring by Parker Palmer

  • http://www.bijansabet.com bijan

    Great post Jerry. Thx for sharing this. Keep them coming !

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Bijan. It’s nice to know the efforts are appreciated.

  • http://www.3pmobile.com/ Peter Cranstone

    You really do tell it as it is.

    I’ve been an entrepreneur now for 20 years and have felt those feelings, have poured everything into something and then ceased to exist (my partner died writing the code) and have even shipped something when we assumed all was lost only to see it a Internet standard to this day (we shipped mod_gzip 10 years ago).

    By my desk I keep Rudyard Kipling’s poem “IF”. I read it everyday, especially the part, “If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew, To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you, Except the Will which says to them: Hold On!”

    If you can balance this with the realities of life, then maybe, just maybe you’ll make it. If the cost is going to be so great make sure that “it serves it’s turn”.


    5o9 Inc.

    • jerrycolonna

      Peter…he literally died writing code?!? Wow. That’s amazing. You know the politically correct thing would be to say, always find the “balance” but the thing is, I think work/life balance is an illusion. I know it’s heresy for a coach to say this but I think it’s true. I think what we need to strive for is proper integration. The problem with balance is it implies a trade-off; and for crazy-assed entrepreneurs, the trade-off is unbearable. The existential struggle between needing to “disappear into the kiln” and not being wiped out or annihilated by that act is the real challenge. Hmmm…I think there’s another post in here.

      • http://www.3pmobile.com/ Peter Cranstone

        Yep. I found him dead just after July 4th 1996. The laptop was open and the code was loaded into the SDK. I sat there stunned. My immediate thought – What Next? After I’d buried him, I taught myself to code and reverse engineered everything he had done. I gave myself 9 months to solve the problems, if not, I would move on. The 9th month rolled around, I’d written a 76 page document detailing everything right down to every single line of code. I still couldn’t solve the problem, but I’d made a promise to myself and my family. I moved on, met another programmer (we’ve been working together 14 years now) and started again.

        What lesson did I learn – balance. You understand the word, but you don’t comprehend (feel) the word. Until you’ve walked into the fire and lost everything “but” your life you just don’t know. I risked everything because I believed, I learned things that re-wired my brain, but I couldn’t solve this one problem (we we’re trying to change Information Theory) – I’ve never wanted something so badly in my life, and I’ve never wanted like that again.

        It broke me in two, but I emerged on the other side ready for the next lesson. The irony was that I didn’t learn the value of a “coach” until my last company. You teach us to understand, but the comprehension (feeling) only comes over time, when we have a chance to stand on your shoulders and look to the future.

        I had a coach – I hired him without realizing I needed one, I spent 6 months everyday writing down everything he said. And I still didn’t feel.

        So I left the company I’d founded and started a new one. Now I can feel. Now I understand – and as I read your words I smile and say to myself… if you can you can fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds of distance run, Yours is the Earth, and everything in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son.

        I’m getting closer everyday.

        Thank you for this blog

        • jerrycolonna

          Peter…your comment is breathtaking. Thanks for sharing your experience.

          • http://www.3pmobile.com/ Peter Cranstone

            You’re welcome – and once again thank you for your blog. I’ve been looking for this for quite sometime. Everyone needs a coach, and during times in your life when you need them most they appear. If you’re smart enough, you’ll stop what you’re doing, listen and learn and thank them for helping you on your journey through life.

          • http://avc.com fredwilson

            once again we prove that comments, the discussion, can bring the points home better than the post. this back and forth between you two was riveting and touched a nerve. thanks.

          • jerrycolonna

            You’re so right. The openness and honesty and insights are wonderful.

  • https://twitter.com/johnmccarthy johnmccarthy

    Wow, thanks for this. A great and sobering reminder that this stuff isn’t easy.

    • jerrycolonna

      You’re welcome John. In my heart of hearts, I hope it sparks a dialogue—maybe even one without a resolution…but just to recognize that the entrepreneurial life ain’t easy, is complex, and multi-dimensional.

      • https://twitter.com/johnmccarthy johnmccarthy

        Caterina Fake had a nice take on working on the right thing versus simply working hard when she wrote

        “My Hunch cofounder Chris Dixon and I were talking about how hard we worked on our first startups, his being Site Advisor, acquired by McAfee — 14-18 hours a day. We agreed that a lot of what we then considered “working hard” was actually “freaking out”.” http://www.caterina.net/archive/001196.html

        With infinite options and possibilities and only one life allocated to each of us, thinking about what one works on is as important as how they choose work on it.

        • jerrycolonna

          Wonderful dialectic John…working hard vs freaking out. Now I may very well steal that!

  • http://www.blueleaf.com/ John Prendergast

    Very thoughtful Jerry, thanks for the post.

    I like that the post doesn’t resolve and in your response to @johnmccarthy you mention the likelihood of having no resolution to this. I’ve moved among being an entrepreneur and employee and back to being an entrepreneur again. And despite knowing it will happen, and knowing to leverage experienced support, and even being able to at times achieve the “mind like water” state, I still get hit on the back of the head with the force of emotion from being an entrepreneur.

    I wonder if dealing with it isn’t about minimizing it, which would lessen the passion and emotional commitment necessary to make a venture successful but rather its about preparing mentally for it and having good coping mechanisms and support when it does so you can recover more quickly.

    The thing is, at the highest level of athletics, as at the highest level of entrepreneurship, its not that it doesn’t hurt, its that your pain tolerance and ability to recover is finely tuned. Think Lance Armstrong.

    I also like your balance versus integration point, would love to read your thoughts there as I think the general direction you suggest is right on the money.

    • jerrycolonna

      Glad you liked the lack of resolution. I’d hesitated in leaving the post like that but everything I reached, every resolution, seemed forced. I really appreciate you sharing the experience of being smacked in the back of head despite having achieved the “mind like water” state. I think’s the ground truth of the experience of work.

      In the years since I left venture capital and developed my coaching practice, many people asked why I didn’t become a therapist or something. Aside from the fact that I’m probably too neurotic for that, the truth us fascinated by the intersection of meaning and work. The balance point, the need for proper healthy integration, seems a universal struggle and something I’m equipped to spark a dialogue about.

  • http://davidfishman.tumblr.com/ David Fishman

    Awesome post …. hope I don’t fall into the kiln. I keep this by my desk and when I’m having a tough day I give it a read,

    Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
    Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.
    Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
    Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
    Persistence and determination are omnipotent.
    The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. – Calvin

  • http://www.attassa.com/ Rod Fitzsimmons Frey

    What a beautiful story about the potter – David Whyte will definitely be in my next shipment from Amazon.

    I wonder if it’s even possible to be great without that paying that price.

    It seems to me an odd, non-choice. If you are driven to choose perfection of work over life, then it is no choice at all: you are compelled (and generally, it seems, regret the compulsion). The lucky majority of us are not forced to serve some creative demon, but if we choose to shoot for greatness without that demon driving us, the sacrifice is so great we’ll fail at both the work and life.

    To me, Yeats says it best.

    The intellect of man is forced to choose
    perfection of the life, or of the work,
    And if it take the second must refuse
    A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
    When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
    In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
    That old perplexity an empty purse,
    Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

    • jerrycolonna

      Brilliant Rod. I know there’s an answer somewhere. As I said above, I think it lies in the notion of integrating and not choosing (and I recognize that implicit in the integration are little constant choices). But setting oneself up an either/or structure–either I work with passion and zeal and meaning or I have a life with passion and zeal and meaning seems a maddening, deadening choice. Jung often wrote about how each of us has an “unlived life” within us which must find some expression or else we become consumed with dissatisfaction and dis-ease. One of his unlived lives was being a stone mason and it found expression as he built turrets and other castle features on his summer home. One of mine, obviously, is to be a writer. The trick I think is to find a balanced way to express all of our passions, our beings, and integrate the various aspects of ourselves.

      In the midst of a vision quest I undertook, I remember concluding that the opposite of sadness wasn’t necessarily happiness but, instead, wholeness.

      Btw…you get the golden sticker for quoting Yeats.

      • http://www.attassa.com/ Rod Fitzsimmons Frey

        In the reverse direction, the opposite of happiness isn’t sadness, it’s boredom. Like love and hate, happiness and sadness are too intertwined to be opposites.

        • jerrycolonna

          Exactly so.

  • josephlogan

    Second time in a week I’ve been blown away by one of your posts. The way you bring your heart to the world of entrepreneurship is inspirational and something to which we might all aspire. Thank you for showing us this side.

    • jerrycolonna

      You’re welcome Joseph. I decided a while back that the only I could be happy is if I showed up to my life fully and fully-engaged. I’m just as capable of generating the million and one self-deceptions and so, by bringing my heart fully to the table, I push back against that tendency…sometimes succeeding.

  • http://www.twitter.com/stevenkane Steven Kane

    Very nice piece.

    Still, much as I admire koans, I would like to hear your thoughts on whether or not or when it makes sense to walk into the kiln, given that god or the spirits or nature gives each individual just a few decades, a blink of a cosmic eye, to exist in the material world.

    Existence is a zero sum game.

    Isn’t it?

    I mean, maybe I have a luxurious perch from which to consider all this, but I don’t fully agree that “integration” is a better concept than “balance.” “Integration” implies you can have it all. “Balance” implies you can’t. That you have to make choices.

    I believe you have to make choices.

    So while its maybe a little bit of a cliche, lately I’ve been applying the “deathbed” litmus test to major life decisions — when considering whether or not to do something that feels big or risky or controversial or whatever, I try to pause for at least a minute or three and ask myself, when I am lying on my deathbed, will I regret NOT doing this if I now choose not to?

    having said all that…

    a wise man named Dinabandhu Sarley once told me, “Good judgement comes from experience. And experience comes from bad judgement.”

    • jerrycolonna

      Good point Steve. I certainly don’t think that integration means you can “have it all” but I can see why it would come across like that. So I’ll have to re-think the position.

      I wasn’t trying to be Zen-like, leaving the question unresolved, koan-like. The truth is, I’m still formulating my thoughts on the challenge. I realize, after the fact, that this is probably one of the reasons I started blogging again: It helps me organize my own thoughts.

      That Dinabandhu is a genius.

      • http://www.twitter.com/stevenkane Steven Kane

        keep up the great work. great to have you writing in public again

    • http://suesol.typepad.com/ suesol

      what an excellent quote.

  • http://www.thelancasterfoodco.com Charlie Crystle

    blood equity.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/MGRF3SBYDLW4UV6P2BULO2XXUE Julie P

    It’s scary for sure. And what if you feel like you would disappear either way? One is the visceral commitment to your creative passion and the risk of getting absorbed by it. The other is, disappering as a cog in the wheel of someone else’s (less inspiring) company.

    Every night I fear I will miss one of my son’s life moments (and with 3 sons it is likely at some moments, I will) yet, if I quit on my dream I will die a differernt kind of death – the kind attached to a life never lived.

    • jerrycolonna

      Well said, Julie. That’s a evocative articulation of the dilemma. Even further, when those three sons are 20 (as my son is) and they are arguing with you about their need to pursue their passions, what will they have learned? Balance, integration…either model you chose, both imply a need to recognize and manage priorities. As I’ve stepped into midlife, and my children have grown, I’ve been able to feel (slightly) more comfortable with engaging my passion more fully.

  • http://www.panciuc.ro/contact/ Radu Panciuc

    Quite an entrepreneur story. I really liked the parallel with the Chinese master.I think this kind of stories make us stop and think for a second if we’re going on the right track. :)

    • jerrycolonna

      It makes me very happy to think that something I wrote caused someone to stop and think.

  • http://twitter.com/djtokyo Hiro Maeda

    Thanks for an inspiring post!

  • http://merunetworks.com/ Craig Plunkett

    My lovely bride describes the period of my life from 9/11/01 to about the middle of ’07 by using a painting by Gustave Courbet, “The Desperate Man”. http://bit.ly/avgY7U It is a difficult and ongoing task to put that Monster in your head in his box when you need to pay attention to the rest of the world.

    • jerrycolonna

      What happened in ’07 to make you less Desperate?

      • http://merunetworks.com/ Craig Plunkett

        I stopped believing that if I just pushed harder, one of my strategies would provide a breakthrough and everything would be ok. I saw that I was losing the love of my wife and kids, and decided that getting a job was preferable to hanging on to the entrepreneurial multi-plate spinning act i was performing. Once I made that switch, I was able to get life trending in a positive direction again.

        • jerrycolonna

          What a great insight.What a great example of finding your own way. Thanks for sharing it.

  • http://Lewwwk.com/ Michael Lewkowitz

    Best damn description of entrepreneurship yet – and of coaches :-). The final line though is particularly interesting… the notion of ceasing to exist… relates it very much in a way to what some would describe as a spiritual journey. That truly is the depth to which the best entrepreneurs are drawn – it is irresistible and relentless.

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks. I agree it’s irresistible and relentless. And terribly seductive.

      • http://Lewwwk.com/ Michael Lewkowitz

        Heh – yes, and the seduction is the always beyond the thing we are working on. It is somewhere in that place where we cease to exist.

  • http://twitter.com/BigBags BigBags

    This post both inspires and terrifies me. I’m graduating from college in 3 months. Today one of my professors told me that she’s excited for me to call and offer her a job one day… and she was serious. I have the itch to do great things. The task before me is both inspiring and motivating. Giving my whole self to something that I deem of such great worth is something I’ve been looking forward to my whole life.

    April is close, and my trigger finger is itchy.

    • jerrycolonna

      Take a deep breath BigBags and enjoy but the thrill and the terror.

      • http://www.bigbags.tumblr.com Bags

        *SIGH* Here goes!

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  • http://chalobolo.blogspot.com/ Deep

    Fantastic post, and so true. The anxieties of a startup can be overwhelming. I never could relate to folks who were in it for the money, but the idea of losing your work, or its potential not being significantly realized, is exactly what drives both the productivity and the anxiety. I managed to escape from the kiln with the help of a Buddhist monk.

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Deep. I think you’re right…it drives both creation and anxiety. How did the monk save you?

  • http://attentionspanmedia.com/asmblog/ MattCope

    Jerry – Fred and Bijan’s recommendations brought me to your blog.

    The engaging story telling kept me here.

    Keep it up!

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks and welcome Matt.

      • http://eastagile.com kenberger

        welcome mat? 😉

        • jerrycolonna


  • http://www.fill-your-cup.com/ julie_poplawski

    Right, and in getting the balance we teach the kids to balance inner space and outer drive. That legacy is probably the best reason to get it right!

    • jerrycolonna

      Exactly right. I’ll tell you, when I’m working with clients and I bring this point home, it nearly always moves them in deep and powerful ways. Still, though, there’s something powerful about passing on a legacy of following your heart, your passion. The question remains do you follow that passion into the fire? (and, is that what you’d wish your kids to do?) My 19-year old, Sam, is passionate about guitar. And he struggles so because, well, because being a musician is exactly like walking into the kiln. And it’s dreadfully painful to witness.

      • http://www.fill-your-cup.com/ julie_poplawski

        The perfect balance might be unattainable for me this year. I have had an extra 3 hours a day all week w kids so less time for clients, writing, accounting, developing, marketing and as much as I want to jump in the entrepreneurial fire AND be the attentive mother the best I can do today is show them with utter transparency and awareness my transitions. It has gone something like this: “I need ONE-whole hour with no ones asking me ANYTHING at all!!” … “OK, now I’m totally yours for a half hour before practice. Really? We are jumping on the trampoline?” ☺ You say, they do grow up? I hope someone with 100% focus doesn’t do it “better” while I am balancing.

        • jerrycolonna

          Yeah. They do grow up. I’ve three kids…ages 19, 17 and 12. I don’t jump on the trampoline much any more (and they still have their crises–in a way, thank God they still need me). Rhetorical question: What does “better” mean?

          • http://www.fill-your-cup.com/ julie_poplawski

            “Better” I initally meant bringing my concept to market. On re-reading/thinking my real challange is that I want to feel great about each aspect I balance: to delivering the right products to help my customers, to being an attentive mother, an inspiring teacher, a supportive wife, a loving friend and daughter. All of it – better. Can you Type-A every aspect of life?

          • jerrycolonna

            “Can you Type-A every aspect of life?” Yikes. I hope not. Steve Kane’s point about balance versus a having-it-all mindset comes to mind.

          • http://www.fill-your-cup.com/ julie_poplawski

            Yes and in my head I want to balance everything at the top of your game. I have been settelng wiht that last comment for days.
            Ephianny for me – I think this feels good. Thank you so much.

          • jerrycolonna

            Thanks but I think the epiphany is all yours to claim. It’s like that in coaching…the client will say something out loud, hear it (or hear me mirror it back) and think, now, wait a minute…it’s one thing to feel good about all the various aspects of your life and another to be “Type-A”.

  • http://www.recordnexus.com/ Shane Taylor

    This post was amazing. Just reading this got my adrenaline flowing. This represents all that is good with your blog and why I take the time to read your posts carefully.

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Shane. I’m really grateful for to the little community that’s growing here. I’ve been touched by how moved folks have been.

  • Lancelot_dL

    A variation on the master potter story, a beautiful short story of Poe’s, The Oval Portrait:

  • http://www.execcouncil.org/ bob johnston

    There’s a book called Synchronicity, by Joseph Jaworski (his Dad was the famed Watergate prosecutor, Leon Jaworski). Synchronicity should be required reading for entrepreneurs. After a big failure in Joseph’s life, he talks about how he found his true calling by jumping into the unknown fully and with all of his soul — the “fire” — and coming out of it with incredible new friendships, clients and a new worldview. Synchronicity is the X factor that comes into play when you are fully and totally committed to a goal, big or small.

    Regarding “Integration” versus “balance,” Richard Branson said it best: “I’ve never tried to balance home and work, It’s all living to me.” He’s never tried to build false walls between his work and his home life (even before he bought Necker Island to entertain clients 😉

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  • http://twitter.com/stevenstein Steven Stein

    Since shining shoes on the boardwalk as a child I’ve been an entrepreneur.

    Somehow I am drawn to it. Love the satisfaction of a job well done, a shoe well shined.

    As a serial entrepreneur you need thick skin, resiliance and more and more am learning-
    balance is key.

    Now that I think about it, a fresh can of black esquire shoe polish was totally full of promise. After a couple of good days I invested in a can of
    brown which expanded my potential market share significantly. Then I discovered that selling sodas and knishes on the beach was more profitable and graduated to that non particularly scalable business….

    These days, older and hopefully wiser new endeavours include the passion of old, the promise of what could be.

    And The constant attempt to remain mindful of the process, and not becoming the kiln, not getting lost to my family and myself.

    It has never been an easy process and is somehow always a hopeful one. Now I am forced to be more deliberate, positive, and thankful for the opportunity to create something of value, and contribute,

  • http://mattamyers.tumblr.com/ Matt A. Myers

    Appreciate the story and the lesson behind it. Thank you.

    Oh, and I’ve learned a good way to deal with these kinds of anxiety: regular yoga! :)

  • http://technbiz.blogspot.com paramendra

    This cease to exist can have another meaning. You still exist, but you are so consumed by work that you have no life outside of work….. Larry Ellison: “My first wife left me because I did not work hard enough, my second wife left me because I worked too hard.” http://bit.ly/ga3WVi

    • jerrycolonna

      I’d argue that Larry’s focused on the wrong place…I wonder what would have happened if he focused instead on himself (and not in a self-indulgent way but in the inquisitive, self-inquiry way).

      • http://technbiz.blogspot.com paramendra

        His wives left him, one after the other. It is not like he had a choice.

    • SamT

      I humbly submit that none of us look to Larry Ellison for marriage insights. And on a related note, I’m personally no fan of the phrase “work-life balance.” The goal should be life balance. Period. Work is but one aspect of life that we need to balance, and it is an intensely personal equation.

      • jerrycolonna

        I’ve made the same argument myself…that work-life balance is a canard. It’s all life. The issue to me seems to be what you choose to do with that life.

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  • Josh Meta

    Very well written poetic piece – unfortunately of little practical value especially in the VC context. Even though the perspective will help the troubled entrepreneur (to see the bigger picture and all) – the VC does not have patience for poetry. He is busy worried about looking good to his boss, the LPs and about the mortgage payment on his 2nd home and Porsche – all of this while the entrepreneur is scrambling to maintain his rented lifestyle and ensure he is “baked to perfection” through his work.

    • jerrycolonna

      Sorry you found the piece to have little practical value. As someone who was a VC for more than 12 years, and somewhat successful, I do try to cover a lot of perspectives. This piece wasn’t really intended as practical advice, especially in dealing with investors. It was intended to describe what I’ve been seeing for many years now…that there’s a seductive aspect to disappearing into your work and that as powerful and beautiful as that can be, it can also be deadly. That message did seem to resonate with a few folks.

      I’m sure you’re right; there are venture capitalists who, as you describe it, have little patience for poetry. Or, if I may elaborate, little interest in music, art, or the inner working of the minds of their partners: entrepreneurs. I feel fortunate in that I know folks like Fred Wilson, Brad Feld, Mark Suster, Ben Horowitz, and Bryce Roberts (to name a few) who, in fact, are very much interested in those things–even if the pressures of their job prevent them from articulating it as often as they may like.

      • T. J.

        Thanks for capturing eloquently what many feel – regardless of “practical” value. It can be lonely especially once you make the leap to pursuing your passion full-time to bring something to life from nothing. And if you’re married with children as I am, you can also be very fortunate with a rock solid spouse who can cheer, console and provide perspective – a key differentiator I believe. Thanks for the piece.

        • jerrycolonna

          You’re welcome T.J. You’ve described well what I was trying to do…sometimes there’s a power in simply bearing witness to what is (and resisting the impulse to “fix”). This took me a VERY long time to learn (many hours of therapy :-) ).
          StoryCorps…the NPR group that encourages us all to share our stories…has a book, a collection of it’s stories, the title of which is “Listening Is An Act of Love.” Amen.

      • Josh Meta

        1) Thanks for responding.

        2) There sure is a great attraction of getting lost in your work – like an artist does because a) he is so engrossed in and so in love with it and b) it is his escape of sorts. Point taken.

        3) The Fred Wilsons, Colonnas and Feld are by far the exception (six sigma events) in the VC community. The general track record of VCs is not a proud one as we all know it. Case in Point: They would not call the entrepreneurs “their partners”. Most often, the relationship is more that of Employee/Employer. QED.

        4) The point of my clumsy expression was only to highlight that people are educated to become idealists, to believe that intangibles (quality) ultimately drive the tangibles (quantity). And yet, they repeatedly take decisions based largely on the tangibles to make quantity the unfortunately law of life.

        Did the entrepreneur-hero of this post make his #s? Was he able to “erase that failure off his resume”? Did he get another round of funding? Or did this bump haunt him more than it should have?

  • Manie Wessels

    Thank you Jerry! This is a really well constructed piece. A lot of the agony and ecstasy of my own entrepreneurial experience is woven into the conversation in the piece and the blog posts. There was a really good article in the HBR a few years ago called “Success That Lasts” which provided a nice framework for balancing the ups and downs in particular aspects of one’s life, which I found extremely helpful. For most A-type entrepreneurs, I think it is quite hard to find real meaning without going for broke on the things you’re passionate about. We’d probably all do well, however, to step back on some sort or regular basis to take stock of the safety nets we’ve put in place to avoid “the night’s remorse”.

    • jerrycolonna

      You’re welcome Manie. I think this is exactly the challenge.

  • Christian

    His values were all ego centered, so he walked into the fire…when he could have danced in life.
    Men always have been fascinated with fire, living on the edge and so on. How romantic! How short sighted!.

    • jerrycolonna

      I agree, Christian, that the Potter allowed his ego, his inherent narcissism, to drive him into the kiln. But the last notion…that the glaze created was the most exquisite ever seen…that implicit romanticism of that view is precisely the problem. I think there is some relief in seeing the ways in which the companies, the entities we build; the enterprises we undertake can be the greatest expression of our creative souls but in can come at a cost that may simply be too high.

      There’s a value in seeing that this pursuit can be ego-centric and, therefore, deadly.
      But the struggle isn’t simply dismissed. If the person truly believes that they are changing the world, making it a better place, the seductive power of the work can be overwhelming. And, of course, it’s easy and perhaps even politically correct to dismiss, say, someone who pursue a career in investment banking as having been ego-centric.

      But what about the person who is truly saving lives, acting a true bodhisattva? It can be equally dangerous for them as well.

      Lastly, in my work with my client I do not see a gender distinction. I do not see “men” being more fascinated, lured into the kiln, than women. Our boys may be socialized differently than our girls and so we may seem more male entrepreneurs than female. But in my empirical work with hundreds of clients (easily 40% of them women), I see no difference in the struggle.

      This is a human struggle.

      • Christian

        Thanks Jerry.
        I am a Coach too and have also worked with hundreds of people. My point was that there is a prevalent attitude among men in business or creatve entreprises to be knights / samurai / heroes pursuing a mission. However they can afford to do that only because there are people supporting the material aspects of their actions in pursuit of their holy graal. Those caught in the spell of the romantic / ideal goal tend to forget the support teams. Then the question is whether reaching the precious goal is worth the cost to the others, not to oneself. No society can function with only heroes.
        As a coach, I prefer to help my clients dance in life than walk into the fire.

        • jerrycolonna

          Well said Christian. Sometimes I find that folks need help in simply understanding that, in fact, they have a choice and don’t have to walk into the fire. And when they see they can dance, well, that’s just glorious.

  • http://www.participate.com Alan Warms

    Great post Jerry. I thought when you wrote about affording to be an entrepreneur, your next sentence was, “can you afford to fail?” Because like baseball, even the best entrepreneurs fail some times. So going in – you need to ask yourself – what if this doesn’t work out? The stress I find of that is much less after a few base hits, and an established reputation. But still. I am on a few boards now, and some of my advice to entrepreneurs facing adversity is “this is where you will make and break your reputation. How you handle this situation is an opportunity for you to show your true character and establish yourself as somebody people want to do business with in the future.”

    Building companies is H A R D. And very often the issue is with the macro assumptions. Can you handle it if it turns our you’re wrong?

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Alan. Coming from you, that means a great deal to me. You know viscerally, I am sure, what it means to live that hard startup life. Thanks for sharing your views.

  • Eroach


    It’s Eric, we met briefly over on Fred’s post. You are addressing a problem I have struggled with my whole life. At 27 I started a company that just took off. I sold it 5 years later to Morgan Stanley and soon was back in the valley going at it again.

    As wonderful as that sounds, the reality is that in the process I lost total balance. I worked for 5 years without a day off. If not for a wonderful wife, I’m sure I’d be divorced or worse today. In addition, I gained lots of weight and was besought with anxiety.

    Long short — got back in shape and as of a year ago I have restarted the same as before. Weight is piling on, anxiety is on the climb and sleep is practically non-existent. I promised myself that I would this time enjoy the process, but in reality, the end goal is so drilled in my existence — it is almost impossible.

    I’m sure I’m relating a scenario you are personally and professionally familiar with, although your reactions to anxiety may be different than mine.

    Here is where it does get more complicated and downright confusing. My actions as stated above are of course exactly what my professional investors want me to be doing — and if I could be so bold — feeling. They want to know you are full on and that their, your interest is your all consuming passion and focus. I struggle with this greatly.

    Then throw in the part about the realities of your employees and the fact that most do at best about 90% of what you do. Back off a little and so do they — only more. I think you get the idea.

    That is to me the entrepreneurs ultimate struggle. Being an entrepreneur is a lonely place. Much like great comedians are often driven by a lack of self confidence, I do believe most entrepreneurs are driven by a tremendous fear of failure and an affront to their professional pride.

    Well, I could go on and on… Your thoughs?


    • jerrycolonna

      Hey Eric…thanks for being so forthright and honest about your struggles. And yes, this is the type of disappearing into the fire I sought to describe, sought to relate to, sought to spur a dialogue about. It’s so clearly a universal challenge.

      There’s no easy answer unfortunately. I suspect the anxiety (of which I am very familiar fro my own life as well as those of my clients) stems from some deeper issues than being an entrepreneur exacerbates. While it can bring out the best in us it can also bring out all of our more difficulty tendencies. And the loneliness of it all is so heartbreaking.

      If I all I ever do with my coaching, my workshops, my writing is to make it safe and acceptable to speak about these things, I will feel complete.

      The fact that it is a struggle to speak about these things, openly and clearly, is a huge problem.
      Thanks for sharing your experience. And if you’re in NY, come to the workshop I’m doing at General Assembly.

  • http://www.justfamily.com/ Nate Quigley

    Terrific post.

    But I do believe that great art can be created (and great companies built…) by normal people living balanced lives. The romance of wild mad Van Gogh and tortured soul Phillip K Dick making magic while fighting demons to the depths and heights….just isn’t scalable. Maybe that’s where experienced mentors like you come in. To do as much good as it can, entrepreneurship needs to be viewed and understood (and developed…) as a respectable profession you can pursue while raising a family.

    So I get the walk into the fire image, but I don’t think the guy made a noble choice. He didn’t give himself up to his art. He quit on the much harder job – becoming a whole person.

    Found you through Fred W recommendation. Look forward to reading more of your ideas. Well crafted and very thought provoking!

    • jerrycolonna

      Terrific comment, Nate. “To do as much good as it can, entrepreneurship needs to be viewed and understood (and developed…) as a respectable profession you can pursue while raising a family. ” Not just respected but honored as well. Thanks.

    • Andy

      “He quit on the much harder job – becoming a whole person.”

      IMHO – the ‘having it all’ idea is a fantasy. Individuals can’t be high-performers in every dimension. To expect otherwise is to live in constant anxiety.

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  • http://auntmimisbookclub.com/ Emily Merkle

    Jerry, I found you some time ago in my maelstrom that is my web navigating.
    I am afraid I am so engrossed with my work, my passion, that I have virtually walked into the kiln.
    I do not have a balanced life by another’s measure – but who says I have to?

    • Hu Man

      I’m so afraid of becoming engrossed with my work that I have passionately ran away from the kiln. Let’s meet in the middle :)

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  • Ben Thomas

    Is it possible that losing oneself in the fire is the path of least resistance in this environment ? When you are working so hard it is self-destructive, somehow that is meritorious and heroic. If I told my friends I was doing so much heroin that it was ruining my life, I’m sure it would culminate in an intervention, but if I say I am working so hard my relationships are suffering and my health is trashed, (but it’s a STARTUP !) I would get a handful of knowing smiles. Your angel investor is never going to say you are working too hard. Your employees will always be impressed by how committed you are and your conscience will always say ‘at least you are working hard’. You are an entrepreneur – you are supposed to be unbalanced, right ?

    • jerrycolonna

      Hey Ben…as you can imagine, I’ve heard similar responses over the years. A few things occur to me.
      The first is that, yes, the system is set up in such a way that entrepreneurs are rewarded for a maniacal work ethic. We praise folks who exhibit the burning desire to succeed at all costs.

      Indeed, in some ways, the venture process is about selecting out for that quality; they call it “hunger” and look for the quality in people.

      My point isn’t to lay out a counter argument against hard work. Yes. There are many, many times when you should work the all-nighters and create the perfect glaze. Yes. There are many, many times when the act of creation is so consuming as to give you near superhuman capability to move.

      MY issue is simply this: don’t walk into the fire unconsciously. Don’t bullshit yourself and tell yourself that you’re doing because you’re “modeling commitment” for employees (for example, have they asked you to do this? Have you noticed that they need you to do this or is this merely an assumption on your part because, as is often the case, you’re really warding off the inevitable insecurities that come with the job by convincing yourself that you should be doing more, faster and better than anyone else, because you’re the “leader” instead of doing what the company needs–building the machine that makes the products and services).

      Too often people walk into the fire deluding themselves and everyone around them with the story that they “need” to do it for the good of the company when, really, they’re doing it for other neurotic reasons (like those above or to ward off fear of–and not the fact of–failure).

      Work hard. Play hard. Love hard. Live hard. Just be aware of your own true reasons for doing whatever it is you’re doing. THIS consciousness is the key to being resilient in dealing with the roller-coaster of the job.

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