The Rat Race

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Editor’s note: Justin Kan is the founder of Exec, the fastest way to get your jobs or errands done in real-time. He previously co-founded Justin.tv / TwitchTV, which recently spun off Socialcam. You can follow him on Twitter @justinkan and check out his blog here.

When I was in college, I had a fixation on weight lifting. Like many other young men, I was obsessed with working out, with a disproportionate concentration on upper body muscle-building exercise. Despite what it may have appeared, my focus wasn’t on being fit (I rarely did cardio, had no flexibility), it was on appearing fit and having an adequately muscular build, especially when in comparison to my peers. Fit enough wasn’t “fit enough to my own standard,” but rather “looking more fit than everyone else.”

My mother always told me that if something was worth doing, it was worth doing your best. Unfortunately, the message got a little garbled in translation, and what I internalized was that if something was worth doing, you had to be the best. And ever since I’ve entered my adult life, I’ve always had a small knot in my chest every time I’ve done anything that can be compared; a small worrying reminder that I’m not the best at whatever it is.

Of course that is true. With over six billion human beings on the planet, there’s always someone better than you at everything you’ll ever do. Someone who will achieve more, younger. Someone who has made more money, earned more accolades. Better at music, luckier in love.

Silicon Valley has an unhealthy obsession with the being at the top. We’ve canonized Steve Jobs and idolize Mark Zuckerberg. TechCrunch headlines are almost entirely about companies being successful, acquisitions and funding rounds and “best thing ever” product launches; how many articles are about companies headed to the deadpool? I’ve had friends whose startups have grown much larger and more successful than mine, made orders of magnitude more money, and I’ve felt envy at times. I’ve seen other friends obsessed with keeping up with the startup Joneses, abandoning long-term thinking to try to find success, money and status as quickly. There is even competition for who is having the best time; at events I always hear not-so-subtly masked bragging about who is experiencing the most growth, having the most fun with their startup. I know I’ve contributed to it myself. It is insanity.

I bought into the race completely. I used to think: if we just grow to another order of magnitude of traffic, everything will be feel great. If we reach the next revenue milestone, light will shine down from the heavens and I’ll finally be successful. But we always hit our goals, and mentally nothing changed.

One of the most simultaneously depressing and enlightening moments for me was when I learned that human beings don’t get any happier day-to-day once they’ve reached a certain level of comfort. In America, that’s around $75,000 of salary a year, something which pretty much anyone reading this blog can achieve. Making more money or having more titles beyond that doesn’t do anything for you: you might feel great for five minutes, but afterwards that just fades and you have a new, higher standard of living to maintain.

It was extremely difficult to accept this; after all, I’d always lived to get to the next milestone. Go to a good university, launch a company, get funding, hit a product, hit a growth goal, raise the next round. Each time expecting that the next time would change the game. To accept that no matter what happened, I’d never feel any better than I do now, well, that was earth shattering, even though I’d experienced the same brief, fleeting high and return to earth every time. To be perfectly honest, while I theoretically accept it I am still working on internalizing it.

I have to remind myself from time to time that I want to be happy doing what I’m doing now, not after some next step, accolade, or achievement beyond my peers. The truth is that it isn’t a bad thing if I can’t get any happier: I was quite happy to begin with. For the most part I enjoy immensely my day-to-day of working on products and creating something new, something that no one has seen before. Still, I try to regularly re-evaluate that I’m doing the things I’m doing because I want to be, not for some next level of achievement.

Being successful doesn’t have to mean having the most employees or making the most money. Yes, it can mean that you do create a huge company that has massive impact and you reshape the world in your own image. But it can also simply mean that you enjoy your day-to-day and the people you work with. Have fun with what you’re doing. Do it because it gives you opportunities to grow and learn new things, and because some days are great, even if there are just as many days that are awful. No life is perfect, and that is an ok thing.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do a startup and strive to grow something big, amazing and self-sustaining. If it sounds like a challenge, then go for it, even though it will be hard and probably make you very unhappy at times. Don’t do it because you expect that there is something magical waiting for you at the other end, some state of nirvana for the rich and successful; there is always something next to attain. The journey is its own reward; if it isn’t, you’re on the wrong path.

[photo of Banksy graffiti via flickr/Duncan Hull]