You Are Not Your Work

My friend Gary said this to me the other day in an email. He wasn’t talking about me but he could have beeen. Last night I went to bed thinking about my work, dreamt about my work, and woke up thinking about my work. It’s been that way for me since I started Flatiron in the mid 90s. To some extent it’s been that way for me since college. Fortunately I have the Gotham Gal and three awesome kids to keep me from going fully into the fire. I spent the past four days skiing wtih my family and some new friends and enjoyed it immensely. If anything I am letting my work sit idle in my brain more these days than I have in a long time.

What Gary was talking about when he wrote those words to me was failure. And when you are your work, your failure at work is personal. Deeply personal. When Flatiron melted down after four great years and one awful one, it was painful. I went to see a therapist for the first time in my life. It was the best thing I could have done. I had been to see coaches but I had not taken the deeper dive into what was driving me. A few years later I was energized and Brad and I started USV.

Failure can sow the seeds of success. It did for me. It did for Mark Pincus when he turned the failure of Tribe into the success of Zynga. It has done the same for countless others. But to get through failure, you need to be able to separate who you are and what your work is.

One of my favorite lines from an entrepreneur came from Rob Kalin. I am sure I’ve shared it here a few times. He said “I am an artist. Making websites is my medium right now” That’s a helpful way for entrepreneurs to think about their work. They are the painter. Some paintings will hang in the MOMA and others will sit gathering dust in a storage room. Not every thing you create will be brilliant. But you can be brilliant while still making work that isn’t, particularly if you understand why the work that wasn’t great wasn’t great.

Jerry ended his amazing post with the observation that “I have to understand this viscerally if Iā€™m going to be of service to my clients”. When your work is servicing entrepreneurs, it is actually pretty easy to “understand this viscerally”. Their failure is your failure. Their success is your success. Their work is your work. But it is not you.