Brad Feld

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Discovering Work Life Balance

Jul 22, 2005

I was recently asked to write an article on “Work Life Balance” for the MIT Sloan School Alumni Magazine.  I’m an MIT alum (‘87 and ‘88) and – when I asked what they were looking for – they told me “something personal that talks about how you’ve achieved it.”  So – I sat down and cranked out the following.  I hope it’s useful / inspiring / thought provoking for others out there in the world searching for the elusive “work life balance thing.”

The challenge of “work life balance” is a central theme for many people, especially entrepreneurs.  It took me 15 years, a failed first marriage, and my current wife (Amy Batchelor, Wellesley Graduate) almost calling it quits for me to realize that I had to figure out what “work life balance” meant to me.  Today, I can comfortably say that I have a major clue and my life is dramatically better for it.

I started my first company when I was 19 and in college at MIT.  I was obsessive, worked incredibly hard, and – while I generally had a lot of fun – was almost always maxed out.  This manifested itself in many ways, including always being overcommitted, regularly being exhausted, having a failed marriage when I was 24, and physically changing – according to one of my best friends – from “skinny Brad” to FOB (“fat older Brad”).

During this time, I was very successful at the work I did.  I created a company – Feld Technologies – which was acquired by a public company.  I helped start and/or finance a number of other companies which went on to be acquired or go public. I helped create a venture capital firm.  I was well known and respected within the entrepreneurial community – both for what I had accomplished and what I was working on.

However, until about five years ago, I had absolutely no balance in my life.  I was on the road from Monday to Friday, arriving home exhausted at the end of the day Friday.  Amy got “the dregs” over the weekend – I’d sleep a lot, spend time in front of my computer getting caught up on all the crap I didn’t get to during the week, and when we went out, I’d always be tired and withdrawn.  The burnout cycle continued; every six months I’d completely crash from the effort (I graphically remember a vacation to Hawaii with friends where I slept 20 hours a day for the first four days – so much that Amy thought something was physically wrong with me.)  I drank too much, I struggled with my weight, and I felt physically crappy.  I loved my work, but I couldn’t see past it.

At age 34 when – on a long weekend with friends where I was completely absent and struggling to get through a difficult deal (for a company that eventually failed) – Amy turned to me and said “I’m done.  I’m not mad – I just can’t do this anymore.  You either have to change, or it’s over.”

That woke me up!  We spent the rest of the weekend talking about what change meant.  I knew that this wasn’t a warning.  After that weekend, we created a set of well defined rules which have evolved over time.  As I discovered what balance meant to me, the rules evolved into a set of habits which – among others – include (1) Spend Time Away, (2) Life Dinner, (3) Segment Space, (4) Be Present, and (5) Meditate.  Following are examples of each:

  • Spend Time Away: Amy and I take a week long vacation each quarter (which we fondly refer to as “Qx Vacation” depending on which quarter of the year it is) where we completely disappear.  No cell phone, no email, no computer, no conference calls – my assistant knows how to find me in case of an emergency; otherwise I’m completely unavailable for the week.
  • Life Dinner:  We have a standing date on the first day of every month that we call life dinner.  Occasionally we’ll invite friends; often we have dinner alone.  We have a ritual where we give each other a gift ranging in value from nominal / silly (a fart machine) to expensive / romantic (jewelry).  We spend the evening talking about the previous month and about the month to come, grounding ourselves in our current reality.
  • Segment Space: We have two homes – one in the mountains of Boulder, Colorado and one in the small town of Homer, Alaska.  Both have nice office areas which are clearly separated from the rest of the house.  We only have telephones in the offices and, by some delightful fluke of nature, our cell phones don’t work in our Boulder house.  We treat our houses as a retreat from the world and, while we do plenty of working at home, where we do this is separate and distinct from the rest of the house.
  • Be Present: One of Amy’s lines to me is “Brad – be a person.”  This is a signal to me that I’m not present in the moment, that something is troubling me, or simply that I’m tired.  Whenever I’m not present, it only takes a short phrase to pull me back from wherever I’ve drifted off to.
  • Meditate: I use the word meditate metaphorically – everyone should meditate their own way.  Four years ago I became a marathoner – the 6 to 10 hours a week I run is my current form of meditation.  I’m also a voracious reader and the 10 hours a week I read extends my meditation time.  Do whatever you want, but spend some of your time on yourself.

The habits have created a structure for my life that not only encourages but reinforces a healthy work life balance.  My work – which used to overwhelm everything else I did – is still a central part of my life.  However, it is no longer my singular focus, nor is it the most important thing to me anymore.  The balance that I’ve discovered has helped me understand the value of other things, which has made my work and – more importantly – my life – much more rewarding.