THE BLOG
07/15/2014 10:19 am ET Updated Sep 14, 2014

Are You a Hamster?

GettyStock

When I was 40, I discovered that I was a hamster. It really surprised me. The previous year I had hung up my consulting boots and left the company I had co-founded with enough money to live off for ever. I had been working 50 to 80 hours a week as a consultant for the previous 14 years, often working seven days a week, and rarely taking a vacation. Very largely, my work was my life. And I'd been successful. As I contemplated life off the hamster wheel, in my final months of consulting, as I eased off the gas and took lunch and weekends off, my morale soared. After a shaky first few years, I'd proved that I could succeed in the world of work, and I looked forward to relaxing and doing more important things.

A year later, however, my morale was rock bottom. I wasn't working much -- I kept my hand in with some investment projects -- but I wasn't doing much of anything else worthwhile either. I wasn't having fun. I felt like a fraud. Here I was, sound of mind and body, and I was doing nothing that I respected. The only measure I had of self-worth was how much money I made, and I wasn't making much at all anymore. Worse, I was bored. I missed my hamster wheel. The withdrawal symptoms were terrible.

Happy Hamsters

I came to realize that my experience was quite common. I've known dozens of entrepreneurs who've stopped working intensively, and found the transition to normal life very hard. It often causes problems if the entrepreneur is still involved in his or her old company, especially via a large shareholding. I remembered consulting to a famous firm based in Oxford, England, where we had the dickens of a job getting action because there were three chief executives. OK, only one of them was called that, but the former CEO was still there as chairman, working three days a week, and the founder of the company was deputy chairman and still loved the minutiae of his old firm. They were all large shareholders in the business so all of them had an effective veto on key decisions. And the three of them never agreed -- it was always two against one, or three separate views on what should be done. They were extremely smart and nice people, but it was a nightmare. The truth is that they were all hamsters -- only one had a proper hamster wheel, one had three-fifths of a hamster wheel, and the poor founder had no hamster wheel at all, but kept snatching at one of the other's wheel. They were all happy hamsters when in charge, but two of them found the transition to post-hamster life almost unbearable. As I did.

The Trap for Hamsters

But not everyone is a happy hamster, and even the happy hamsters can discover that you can have too much of a good thing. It's incredibly wearing and destructive of personal relationships to work long hours for a decade or more. If you own the business, it is even worse. You feel that the whole thing -- everyone's livelihood, your reputation, the success of clients -- depends critically on one person, and that one person is you. It's a crushing responsibility, even when it's not really true. It's what you feel. So even if you love your job and business, you can never get off the wheel. At least, you never do -- and the only way to get off the wheel, as my Zen master would say, is to get off the wheel. If you won't, you can't; and if you can't, you won't.

And why are you doing all this anyway? Most entrepreneurs and highly paid professionals who own their business tell themselves that they are doing it to make enough money to be financially independent and do exactly what they want. But then reality dawns. If the business is dependent on you being there -- which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy -- then there is no real equity in it. You couldn't sell it to save your life. If you fell under a bus it wouldn't last a month. So what you have been working towards, at great personal sacrifice, is a mirage. The dream of financial independence recedes indefinitely, because without you the business has no value. You have sold yourself a pup. Nobody today saves enough money to live off the rest of their life, the way they want to live. So you are living in a hamster cage -- I'm sure your cage is very nicely appointed and has only the choicest grade sawdust on the floor, and you may enjoy the finest hamster food and wine, but it is still a cage -- and there is no way out.

Your critical life decision

I think the most important career decision any of us has to make is this: Are we happy being a hamster? And if not, why not? What do we want to do instead? And when?

My problem was not that I was an inveterate and addicted hamster. Far from it. I was always clear that I wanted to stop working, and age 40 seemed a good time. My problem was that I had not worked out beforehand what I wanted to be once I stopped being a hamster. It took me about five years -- the first two or three, of some misery -- to work out what had meaning for me, and what I really wanted to do. (I wanted to write books, as a hobby and not to make money; and make money without having to work. And spend a lot of time outdoors in the sun.)

Unless you decide what you really want to do, you will never do it. You will never stop being a hamster, without the motivation to stop being a hamster. The Catch-22 is that it's hard to decide what you really want to do, while paddling the hamster wheel like crazy. And if you want the business you own to have value independent of you, you had better stop being a hamster. Before you try to sell it.

If this all sounds paradoxical, it is. But the beginning of wisdom is to know whether you really are a life-long (at least, career-long) hamster. If you are, there is no problem -- except that you will never be rich. Accept it. But if you have ambitions to stop being a hamster, you need to know why. And when you will make the transition.

In next week's blog, I explore how to stop being a hamster -- successfully and happily. I've done it, but I made a pretty poor job of the first few years. I hope to help you do better.

For anyone who is really serious about stopping being a hamster, I am running a 3-day workshop in Chicago from September 28 - 30. More information on that here:
www.richardkoch.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/IntroducingRichardKoch.pdf

If you find my blogs interesting or useful, please share them with a friend, leave a comment, or follow me on Twitter @RichardKoch8020