When I first created a startup, I would come to work at 9 am in the morning, and would head home at midnight. I also worked on week-ends because during the week I would have a lot of meetings and then I used the weekends to sort out paperwork and code. I was exhausted and I was persuaded that being exhausted was what founders were supposed to be.

Luckily, in France, not much happens during the month of August, and I decided that taking a week off during that time would be OK. I was terrified by the idea of leaving my company on its own. I had meetings with all of my people to give them precise instructions of what to do if they receive a letter, or e-mail from a client. There was a very elaborate if-then-else reasoning structure left with each of them. Then, from Greece, I was desperately trying to connect and download my e-mails on an extremely poor signal mobile network. I was convinced something must have gone wrong.

When I got back, I found on my desk a contract with our first international client. My team has managed to sign a client in the UK, in my absence. A client I didn’t even meet.

It was a reconning.

And at the same time, it was marvellous — an almost Pinocchio-like moment when you see something you have been building come alive, act on its own without you in charge. I would say this kind of magic is maybe the best reward the founders ever get for their efforts. But this reward was only possible thanks to my absence. Have I not taken time off, and let my team work without me, I would have never known what my start-up was capable of.

There is an important lesson there, that many founders never learn: You are not your startup. If it depends on you, it is not a startup — it is just a “you+”.

Obviously in the early days you are essential to everything your start-up does. And even when the company grows, you can still be essential to steering it to new directions. However, there is a difference between “I’m essential — only I can do it this way” and “It depends on me”.

I very much like the parallel with photography. Take some great photographers like Mario Testino, Peter Lindbergh or Annie Leibovitz. If you are into photography, when you see a photo, you can recognize who made it — they are not in the photo but somehow as if a part of their soul was woven in it. You can only take a photo, when you take a certain distance. It is the same with founders. As a founder, you’ll definitely weave your soul in your start-up, but you should stay out of the frame.

Absence is a key tool that you have at your disposal in order to take the necessary distance, emancipate your organisation from yourself, and give it space to become alive and able to perform all of its functions.

One reason why absence is so difficult, is because it requires the generosity to delegate, i.e. let others make mistakes and then be willing to help or empower them to fix them. And that is definitely a learned mindset, not the one we are born with.

In addition, there is serious scientific evidence about the importance of rest and play have for our cognitive functioning. Undeniably, you owe it to yourself and to your startup to be fully present and aware while working. And you can’t be any of that if you don’t learn to absent yourself.

There is no better indicator that you are doing something wrong than being too busy.

I am often a target of judgmental comments about my absences. “Things are falling apart and you’re taking a break?”, “You’re never fully committed!”, etc.

Such comments are often toxic and come from a place of insecurity and questionable self-worth. Well aware of what I am making (a startup and not a “me+”) I consciously and despite of criticism rely on my absences to get to my own perspective change and show up in my mission present, awake, and with my full potential. I also want to learn to trust my organisation that it can respond to challenges, situations and fulfil its functions.

As it turns out, the organisation also relies on my absence to start trusting itself.

Normalizing absence

Researchers who study the psychology of founders point to the freedom of founders to engage and disengage as a key element of forming well-defined (and separate) identities for themselves and their organizations. And this seems to be a crucial component in managing the ability to exit and begin again.

In order to overcome the social pressure for non-stop presence, I allow myself permission to disconnect, I ask myself the following questions:

  • Am I favouring quantity of my presence at the expense of quality of presence?
  • What are the lines of work my organization still can’t do without me? Am I sure it can’t? How can I empower my organization to be me-free?
  • Who in my surrounding is holding the toxic belief about necessity of constant connection? How can I set the example and model the healthy break beahvior?

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