When you hear the phrase ”I work at a startup’, it always sounds intriguing. Like the person saying it must be crazy smart, passionate and adventurous. Or you assume they at least have their shit together.
Jumping into startup life is… A Journey™.
This is my first time at one and I recognise it could just be the part of the journey we’re at right now, but there are times I genuinely miss the structure of my old job. It’s the kind of structure that comes with an established business and it’s also something I didn’t know I needed until I no longer had it.
Maybe I was naïve or maybe I’d just gone through the motions of work, but I’d never really examined my needs as an employee.
My role didn’t exist before I started, so on top of learning as much possible, having to define my role has been another challenge. Now that I’ve chosen to slingshot myself into the unknown, it’s painfully obvious I need a degree of predictability to feel like I know what I’m doing.
I doubt I’m the only one to feel this way but, when working at a startup, you really do need a good understanding of yourself and how you need to work.
This atmosphere also requires a good deal of mental health management, more than I’ve ever had to do before. I’ll admit here and now, I’ve always struggled with anxiety. I have a related disorder I’ve considered disclosing to my manager, but then I remember part of startup life is about being mentally resilient so, you know, the stigma lives on.
If you’re susceptible to anxiety or have underlying mental health conditions that can bring it on, tread carefully. Know your limits before going in and know how to manage the inevitable low points too.
Change is hard, and it’s a big part of startup life, with the constant need to stay ahead of the curve. It’s tough to feel stable in an environment where process, technology, and people all change like the weather.
Then comes the other big anxiety contribution factor: the concept of being eternally connected.
How else are you going to learn all the things you need to know? If you’re in a global startup, the person you need to speak with may be on the other side of the planet and it’s easier to suck it up and schedule a late-night call to have that conversation.
And every startup has those employees who throw their whole lives into the business. They look like the shining beacons of success others can only hope to imitate. Whether they mean to or not, they set a tone the rest of us feel a lemming-like need to follow.
I still don’t know if that expectation is real or a construct we just accept because it ‘looks good’ to our peers and founders, but it’s much easier than you think to get lost in a loop of 14-hour workdays and constant availability. And of course, it’s much harder to break out of it.
I didn’t think it would happen to me. I was someone who used to just turn up at work, do my job, then go home and forget about it until the next rinse-repeat cycle. #dronelife
But it creeps up on you. Soon you’re waking up at 4.30am, unable to sleep, and getting a head start on work emails seems like a cool and normal thing to do. Then you wonder why your brain feels like a husk all the time.
This burnout cycle is real and seems to be on an accelerated timeline for startup employees. If you’re already struggling with something, it’s that much more important to set boundaries and guard your time, your life, and your mental health.
Am I just another whinging millennial snowflake? Maybe. My parents are baby boomers, albeit young ones, and they worked hard every day of their lives to give my sisters and me a future.
They’re proud of me, but when I mention the long hours, even my old-school immigrant dad looks at me with concern.
“You can’t give all of yourself to the job,” he said to me. I think about what that means a lot now.
While you may not be the founder of a startup, you can just as easily throw your life into it if you’re not careful. Their stress becomes your stress. Their lifestyle becomes your lifestyle. But you have to remember this was also their choice.
They chose this life and while you may share a common interest, you don’t have to choose it too. Someone else’s vision should never overshadow your own goals, health and wellness.
I’ve been at my current job for over a year and finally feeling more familiar with the intricacies and weirdness of corporate startup life. It’s been a battle, but I’m determined. There have been times where I thought quitting was the best option and I’m sure there will be a few more in the future.
The flip-side to all the uncertainty is that joining a startup is probably the most educational thing I’ve done outside of actual school and that’s what keeps reeling me back in. The learning curve is treacherous, but the high risk does come with high rewards. It’s just up to you to decide how long you’re comfortable with that arrangement.
Through all the ups and downs, I can say this much: while the journey will be long, hard, unpredictable and scary, you will undoubtedly surprise yourself along the way.