Every so often, the discussion in the startup community turns to ageism. Why is it that the startup community seems to be so in love with younger people and so critical of older people as startup founders?
My standard reply is that it’s all risk: if you’re 20-ish, you can take on a lot more risk than if you are 40. Venture Capitalists can hire on a hundred startup founders for pennies, they work like dogs, and at the end of the day you get a few winners which makes the numbers work. The 20-somethings get great experience in startups and you get a few winners. As they say in the movies, it’s a win-win.
There’s also the standard answer that people have more commitments as they get older. A spouse, a mortgage, children, student loans — life quickly throws you all kinds of things that you don’t have the option of escaping. When you’re 22 you might live on 500 bucks a month. When you’re 32 your bare minimum salary could easily be five times that.
I’m in my 40s and I’ve spent quite a bit of time on startups, and I’ve found another big obstacle that rarely gets mentioned: life fills up.
After many startup attempts over several years, I’m overweight, out-of-shape and have very little social life. Why? Because I refused to fill my life up with other stuff. Everybody else I know is not like this: they all have civic groups, games, clubs, or other things they spend their time in. I, on the other hand, have always been very miserly with how I used to spend my time. I spend a lot of time reading books, for instance. Makes for a great consulting career. Gives you a shot at forming a startup. Not so good for a lot of other things.
So aside from the usual answer of risk and commitments, there’s another important consideration. Normal people fill their lives up with normal stuff. Softball games, kids’ recitals, technology groups, family events — after a while you find you have no time for anything else. I used to wonder how somebody could work at the factory for ten years, get laid off, and then not have any other skills. How could this happen? To me this was all about not having enough drive. Now I know one of the other answers: people fill their life up with all sorts of things. It’s a real-world example of Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill up the available time. Life also expands to fill up the available time.
Of course, you can always continue to argue that this is not an optimum situation. Is a life full of watching sports events and chit-chatting in you social club something you want? Or do you want more than that? Whatever your personal answer, it’s obvious to me that people who can commit huge chunks of their lives on one single-minded endeavor are very weird and strange compared to the rest of humanity. They are perhaps not as weird compared to other people in their 20s, the time of life most of use allocate for developing our skills for our careers, but the definitely stand out in the 30 and 40-something crowd.
I used to think the inability to focus narrow-mindedly on one thing just was a matter of self-discipline, no matter what your age. Now I’m thinking not so much. At some point in your life, for normal people, life just fills up.
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