I’m Worse At My Job: What the Former CEO of Groupon Taught Me

I listen to a lot of podcasts. One of my new favorites is StartUp, from Alex Blumberg, a name you’ll recognize if you’re a fan of NPR and/or podcasts. His LinkedIn profile describes him as:

an entrepreneur, radio journalist, former producer at This American Life, and the co-founder, along with Adam Davidson, of the This American Life/NPR co-production Planet Money.

StartUp chronicles Blumberg’s attempt to start his own business: a podcast network. Once again, his LinkedIn profile provides a succinct description:

Blumberg left a long career in public radio to launch his most recent endeavor, a for-profit podcast network focusing on narrative journalism and story-telling. His first show on the network, Startup, is a podcast documenting the launching of his podcast business.

On the StartUp site, we get a more in-depth description of the show itself:

After years of reporting on other people's businesses, I decided to start my own.

This show follows what happens next – my difficult journey from man to businessman. It's a classic start-up story, but one that's recorded in real time. I've documented disastrous pitches to investors, difficult conversations with my wife, and tense negotiations with my co-founder. The result is an honest, transparent account of something that happens all the time, but that we can rarely listen in on: starting a business.

It’s a neat idea, familiarly meta commentary in a Director’s Commentary Track world, one that meshes the two arenas Blumberg has had success in in the past. It’s also worth pointing out that, so far, StartUp is good. Very good. It’s well-produced, narratively sound, and has a clear vision; and it makes perfect sense. You don’t work on shows like This American Life and Planet Money and not know what you are doing.

Podcasts are compelling because of the informal and highly-personalized way in which you listen to them. It’s talk radio 2.0—you can pause, rewind, and fast forward; listen on your phone or tablet; and choose to hear only about the niche topics that you care about. You wind up feeling like you know people that you don’t actually know, which works both ways—podcast ads always feel slightly less slimy. All of these factors come together to form the impression that each particular show was recorded for only you. There’s always a feeling of Wow, you know about Podcast X? when you find out that someone listens to the same podcast as you. It’s the false community element that we were promised modern technology would deliver.

While I’ve gained some interesting insight into the startup world from the show; laughed; even gotten choked up; and enjoyed the unique spin on the ubiquitous Podcast Ad Read of some familiar brands (the entire podcast universe is kept in alignment by Squarespace, MailChimp, Audible, and Hover), there’s one thing I never expected StartUp to lead me to: an important realization about the convergence of my life’s work as a writer and as a stay at-home father.

At 17:58 of episode #4 of StartUp, “Startups Are a Risky Business," (I pause here to state something that is probably clear already—you really should listen to the episode. I’ve transcribed the important part, but you’ll get the full effect from just spending the half hour or so; you won’t regret it), Blumberg explains his relationship, personal and business, with Andrew Mason, the founder and former CEO of Groupon. We learn how the two met, how their business paths eventually crossed, and why Mason ultimately decided to invest in Blumberg’s business.

At the 20:40 mark, Mason, in response to being asked what he thinks the return on his investment will be, says: 

I feel like if you’re not successful, it’s going to be because you didn’t want it enough. And there’s a lot of good reasons that you might not want it enough. Like, I have a kid now—and I’m worse at running a startup because of that. I mean, it’s hard. It’s hard. It’s an insane amount of work and balancing that with, not just having a family, but fulfilling your responsibilities to that family, if you choose to do that is—I don’t understand how anyone could do that without making tradeoffs. I think that people that tell you that, ‘oh, it just forces you to be more thoughtful about how you manage your time,’ are really—that’s a story that they’re telling themselves. I mean, what are they gonna say, ‘I’m worse at my job?’ I’m worse at my job. There’s no question about it.

I listened to this as I was driving home at 9:00 on a Tuesday night. Like all great podcast moments (and all great storytelling, really), it felt as if it had been written for only me. I couldn’t believe that there was someone out there—albeit someone in a different universe of success—who was able to put into words what I’ve been feeling since I became a Stay At-Home Dad eight months ago. That I was driving home from the one remaining link to my work outside of the home, teaching a creative writing class once a week at Manhattanville College, only made the point that much more salient.

When I put my daughter, Luna, down for her nap at 10am on Tuesdays, I remind her what day it is, and how that means that I will not be there when she wakes up, and that I will not be there when she goes to sleep that night. And even though I’m with her the other six days of the week, four or five of which I spend the majority of the day alone with her, even though I am known to send miserably dramatic texts to Danielle, my wife, at work (I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE) during this time, I feel tremendous guilt when I shut Luna’s bedroom door behind me. Last Tuesday night, trying to push that feeling through the filter of what Mason was talking about seemed impossible; how could I even compare my career as a writer, a career that at the moment is closer to an over-glorified hobby, to the career he’s had, a career that surely required sacrifice, time, and money in amounts I could only dream of?

If he can’t do it, how can I?

I jokingly remarked to Danielle not too long ago that I had finally figured out how to have a successful day, meaning that I had checked-off everything on my to-do list, now that the baby was asleep and we were settling down for the evening; that I had wrung the day out for all it was worth.

She said, “Oh, yeah?”

I said, “Yup. Give up on getting any reading or writing done.”

It was a joke, of course, but like all jokes, there was a bitter truth at the heart of it. Partitioning works; the hard part is being okay with what gets left out in the cold. I’d reached a point where I could choose to go to sleep, sour with the feeling that I didn’t get done all that needed to be done, or, I could simply redefine the definition of success. A writing life, an artist’s life, is that simple. There’s a budget, and to balance it, you either spend less, or earn more. However, the currency is time. And because of that, there will always be a ceiling.

At a certain point, there is no earning more.

I saw what life is like when both parents in the home work full time and commute 40, 50, 60 miles each way. It was no way to live. I certainly don’t judge anyone who does it. Day-to-day existence, like a podcast, is all relative to the tiny personal sphere that we each inhabit. But for me, racing to get to daycare before they closed, after having dropped the baby off 15 minutes before the facility was technically open that morning, was a mental exercise wheel that I will never allow myself to forget, if only so that I’m never lured into stepping onto it again. When the opportunity arose to live life in a different way, we jumped on it, and we’ve never looked back.

I fill my days with routines, tasks, lists. Some are small (MAKE THE BED, COFFEE, BREAKFAST), some slightly less small (STRAIGHTEN BEFORE NAP, BATH, LUNCH), some are errands that free my family up on the weekends (POST OFFICE, HOME DEPOT FOR FLAPPER FOR TOILET, PAPER TOWEL COSTCO COUPON). I buy Luna things when we go on these errands—lanyards, oversized stuffed animals that double as a pillow, balloons, seasonally-appropriate onesies, new sneakers.

When Luna deviates from a set routine, I still get frustrated. All we’ve ever known is change, yet I’m still terrible at seeing it coming. She’s getting older. She’ll give up napping twice a day soon (for authenticity’s sake, I’ll add that, in the time it took me to draft, edit, and post this, we’re now on Day 6 of One-Nap-a-Day; that’s how fast the changes occur). While part of me knows that my anger about her straying stems from my own hangups regarding change, I’ve also come to realize that it’s more than that. Her deviation is a harsh light that illuminates the fact that I gave up another routine for her. It was a routine that resulted in words, sentences, stories, novels. Becoming a writer was the first big decision I ever made on my own.

And now?

I no longer have free moments. Maybe in the technical sense I do, but when I sit and do nothing, or waste time in front of the TV, or nap, I can’t help but almost buckle under the weight of the thought: but this is when I’m supposed to be catching up on my other career.

Am I a good father? I think so. I don’t regret a thing. I sang Luna all of her lullabies twice the other night, simply because I didn’t want to put her down yet. From the day she was born, her eyes have always seemed to say: I know you, and I understand you. There isn’t a way or a word to describe how totally full of purpose and meaning that look makes me feel.

Still, though, there’s this:

I mean, what are they gonna say, ‘I’m worse at my job?’

Like Andrew Mason, yes, I’m worse at my job. Since April of 2013, I’ve treated my writing career as if it were on hiatus; something had come up, the elevator was temporarily out of order. Service would resume eventually. But I see now that that’s not the case. My writing career, as I knew it, is over. What I do in the future will look nothing like what I did in the past.

I’m writing this, though, working, as usual, in fits and starts, bridging the gap between the life I knew and the life I know, keeping the flame lit until some time in the future when choice or circumstance presents me with the chance to, once again, tear the entire enterprise down and rebuild. 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there. Right now, the baby is asleep. Thursday. Late night. You take a little from over there to cover what you’ve got going on over here, and look to replace it before the other hand comes up short at the end of the month. Danielle isn’t home from work yet. Hopefully, when she reads this in the future, she’ll understand why dinner wasn’t ready.