Life Fills Up

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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4 thoughts on “Life Fills Up

  1. JP Zeni

    This is an interesting article for sure and certainly some of the trends you mention ring true for me as I get older, but, I’m not sure how it explains ageism in the entrepreneurial community. Yes, people who are older typically have more commitments and are often more risk averse and this might explain why there are fewer people willing to start their own venture as they get older but how does it explain why older entrepreneurs are discriminated against? If someone at the age of 40 is willing to start the same type of venture as someone who is 20 they are likely taking on more risk and sacrificing those other things in life. So wouldn’t it actually be more reasonable to say all else being equal its likely that the older entrepreneur is more passionate and dedicated to that venture then the 20 something. Just a thought

    Reply
  2. DanielBMarkham

    I think we agree, JP.
    At the end of the day, like programming, working on a startup is not a natural act. It’s something similar to playing a game like WoW, except it’s much more multi-dimensional and there aren’t any recurring reward systems. My point was that working on a startup as an older person is even more of an unnatural act than doing it as a younger person.
    I have high hopes that we are going to see a renaissance of older startup founders. But my gut tells me that their startups are going to have very different business models and work ethics.

    Reply
  3. Puranjay

    Daniel,
    I don’t think there is any ‘ageism’ per se in the community, but it certainly appears so if you’re standing outside the curb and gazing through the window into the party that is the startup scene.
    It’s a product of the media’s fascination with youth and consumer products. Marc Benioff of SalesForce is a great CEO, but he hardly gets 1/20th the press of a Mark Zuckerberg. Reason: he’s in his 40s, and his company works in the enterprise space (read: is boring).
    Most of the older founders tend to work in enterprise startups. The media hardly covers those (again, because that’s just plain boring). Younger founders who don’t always have an insight into what ails an industry tend to focus on consumer startups and consequently, get all the press.
    I’ve written a bit more on this here:
    http://startupdispatch.com/opinion/is-the-startup-community-ageist/

    Reply

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