Balancing the Grind with Collin Li, Startup Advisor

Collin Li is a startup advisor and former founder who launched several of his own startups in the web3, healthtech, and edtech and spaces.

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To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I learned how to grow startups at Culture Amp, founding their Business Operations & Strategy team (and playing the Chief of Staff role for a little while) from series C to F, and growing from 200 to 800+ employees. 

I’ve founded some of my own startups in web3, healthtech, and edtech, which have (separately) reached $100k monthly revenue in 100 days, raised VC funding, launched a super sticky product, and attained national press coverage. I started my career in strategy consulting and completed an MBA at MIT Sloan. 

My first job was tutoring, and I’m driven at the core by helping people to grow by identifying unique insights about them that others haven’t noticed or had the courage to voice. Today, I focus on doing this as an advisor to startup founders and I am also working on a few of my own projects!

What does a day in your life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

I usually start my day with a 10km run – though it depends on my exact training schedule if I’m training for any races.

After that (and a shower, of course), I just go with the flow! 

If I roll a low energy day (I literally think of energy like a dice roll), I’ll be guided by my task list. I’ll take the meetings I have booked, I’ll check my inbox and triage anything that should be dealt with straight away versus later. I partially schedule my life through Gmail’s Snooze feature, by sending emails out to come back to me in the future, especially things like bills or things that I can’t act on now. Simple zombie tasks for the simple zombie brain.

If I roll a high energy day, I usually try to drop as many non-essential things as I can and work on the most high impact things. These are usually big ambiguous projects: copywriting, building spreadsheets, writing code, etc. This is usually sparked by something I’ve been inspired by in the last 24-48 hours.

Sometimes it is also a power blast through a bunch of tasks I’ve accumulated (from lower energy days) that needed more focus and energy to get done – writing emails/messages to people who can help, updating a complex network of spreadsheets, etc. It feels great to clear the list down to zero, as the blank space allows me to take in inspiration again.

I don’t crave a lot of structure or routine. I do my best work when I’m able to grab the inspiration as it strikes.

What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

On the balance of work and life, life should always win.

Work is merely a subset of life. If work is not enhancing your life, why even bother? On the other hand, if it gives you energy and meaning to life, then follow it!

We work so that we can enjoy life. Most people forget that and make work the objective unto itself, but end up miserable as they are inadvertently chasing social approval and status instead of actually doing it for themselves.

I’ve been fortunate to be able to do work that gives my life energy and meaning. I’m motivated by intellectual curiosity and learning, and a lot of my career has helped me pursue that. But if at any moment, my work doesn’t feed that desire to learn and inquire anymore, I want the freedom to quit working. 

So when I think about work-life balance, I think about financial independence. I measure what I earn and spend religiously, and think intentionally about what it costs me to work, and whether I truly value what I buy. My ideal is to be in a position where none of the work I am doing is driven by financial decision-making at all, i.e. I am only working because I love it, not for the money.

This is such a tough balance though. Something I see people get wrong sometimes with this is that they focus all of this anxious energy into being frugal and hoarding as much money as possible, but never actually begin to imagine what they’d even want to do with their life if they were financially free.

I try to live my life as freely as possible, while keeping an eye on the realities of earnings, savings, and expenditures to craft a glide path that allows me to do the most fulfilling work that I can during my lifetime.   

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In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

About a year ago, a lot of my routine dropped off as I was self-employed and following weird timezones for the work I was doing at the time.

While I don’t require a lot of routine in my day, something that I’ve cherished from returning to more normal working hours recently is that I have no better time to run than in the morning, which is a great way to start the day.

Before the pandemic, I used to walk to and from work, which often took a little over an hour. This was such a great mental reset, either to mentally prepare for work or to wind down from it.

Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

Can I say something controversial? I find conversations about good books or podcasts to be a bit of an intellectual circle-jerk to be honest. There are a few content creators that I like to go back to every now and then, but they serve a different purpose for me: entertainment, mostly. 

For the purposes of learning, I don’t think there’s anything that can replace voracious curiosity. Whenever I think about something, and I have a question, I almost always try to Google it, and read the first few things that come up. If it’s interesting, I will go a bit deeper. I love starting on one Wikipedia page and ending up on the other side of Wikipedia.

I don’t think you can learn that much from reading what everyone else professes is a good read, or narrowing your information sources to the same podcasters. Instead, I ingest a broad variety of sources, and compose a mosaic that guides me in a broad range of situations.

If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

Hmm, I don’t know. Most famous people got there by being extremely obsessed and one dimensional about what made them famous, and so I’m not sure if I’d respect a lot of what they’d have to say about balance. The true masters of balance are probably happily living in obscurity. 

Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

1. I think lots of people (especially capable, high achievers) over-index on work and career in their overall life. Work becomes their identity, and it feeds a vicious cycle where you work more because you have nothing else that brings you fulfilment outside of work. But that fulfilment is probably hollow and fleeting. To reset this, people need to get busier in (or just prioritise) other parts of their lives, and force themselves to let go of some things at work.

2. I also think financial independence is deeply interconnected with work-life balance. If you had unlimited money, would you still work doing what you are doing? If the answer is not “fuck yes!”, then that tells you something. I think having the freedom to choose how and when you work is really important, and I think deeply about this and care about helping others achieve this. I write about it sometimes on my Twitter at @CollinLi.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.