Don't be a Hero
A glutton's guide to asking for help.
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There’s a fine line between courage and gluttony.
One time I wrote a product roadmap while simultaneously potty-training a two-year-old and caring for my pregnant wife on bed rest. In moments like these, concepts like ‘excess’ get a bit…fuzzy.
When you raise kids while building a business, you get good at stunts like this. Over time, a strange type of bravado creeps in that feels like invincibility. You are now a badged member of the Get Shit Done Club, the Batman to your own personal Gotham City.
No challenge is too daunting.
No conditions are too perilous.
“I will get it done.”
We fancy ourselves brave. On most days, however, we more closely resemble Mr. Creosote than the Caped Crusader.
Mr. Creosote was the preposterously obese character in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. He enters a French restaurant and proceeds to devour every item on the menu. At the end of the meal, the restaurant’s maître d’, famously offers Creosote a mint. Creosote, having just stuffed himself with a literal mountain of food, refuses. The maître d insists, “It’s only wafer-thin.” Creosote relents. He eats the mint, an ominous rumbling is heard, and he explodes.
Like the rotund Creosote, I too have a hard time saying ‘no.’ Each day, I gorge on meetings, projects, and an endless stream of requests to help put out this fire or that. Even when it seems impossible to take on more, I do precisely that. Feeding from the trough of Slack, wondering which bite will be the one that makes my head detonate.
This is no good for anyone.
A lot of people depend on me to keep my head in one piece: my family, my team, my investors. It’s my job to keep cool, find solutions, persevere, and lead.
When you’re a leader, small fires are extinguished every day without your knowledge. Only the most diabolical bastards of the lot find their way into your inbox. At that point, it’s your job to lead the way and help light the path forward. This will inevitably command a significant amount of your time and attention. You won’t have the luxury of passing the buck.
The same is true on the homefront. The problems are just more mundane.
A breakfast needs to be made.
A diaper needs to be changed.
A three-year-old is screaming and throwing toy trucks at your head.
Assuming you view parenthood as a team sport, there is no backing out. Like Mr. Creosote, when you’re served more, you grab your fork.
This is a slippery slope of the worst sort. You will start taking on more than you can handle. Over time, it will wear you down. Symptoms include pangs of anxiety at vibrating phones, difficulty speaking in complete sentences, and an attention span shorter than your average TikTok video. You will be, in a word, ineffective.
To make matters worse, your partner and colleagues probably won’t notice the cracks in your armor. They simply see you as their helper and will now, innocently and reflexively, bring you more. Left unchecked, this behavior will drive you to the nuthouse and your company into the ground.
None of this happens through any malice. People want to do right by their teammates and partners, address the challenges at hand, and help one another. But you can’t be both a leader and a savior. Weighing yourself down with everyone else’s burdens will grind your personal and professional growth to a halt.
You also can’t solve this problem by “setting clear priorities and empowering others.” In a startup, empowering others isn’t enough. There is simply too much that has to be done right now. You either share the load or pivot to a sole-proprietorship.
The same thing goes for your family. Try ‘empowering’ your partner to pick up all these toys on the floor and see where that gets you.
And yet, you can’t live like this forever. You have to have space to maintain your mental well-being if you’re going to perform at a high level. More accurately, you have to manufacture that space.
You have to ask for help.
That’s easier said than done. Startups are magnets for problem-solvers. The promise of unpredictable new challenges is the juice. Rushing headlong into the fire becomes not second nature, but first. It takes deliberate action to make real change.
So, to my fellow gluttons out there, here is my challenge to you. For the next week, I want you to find some way to ask for help every day. This could be something large, like handing off ownership of an important project to a member of your team, or something small, like asking your partner for 15 minutes to just be with yourself. The size of the ask is unimportant. What matters is that you break the habit of bearing everyone else’s burdens and start creating a more healthy balance.
Remember that your time and attention are zero-sum. You never know which task is that “wafer-thin” push over the edge.
You have to save yourself before you can help the people of Gotham.