The Blog


May 2, 2008

Are You Building An “Empire Of Dirt?”

“If I could start again / A million miles away / I would keep myself / I would find a way” – Trent Reznor (Though covered much more emotionally below by Johnny Cash)

You get to live this life exactly one time.  You try to pack in as much achievement as you can in that life, to get as much done, to build your dream life.

But are you really sure that your actions are building the life you’re really after?

When The Ladder You’ve Climbed Is Against The Wrong Wall

When Johnny Cash covers Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” he’s sending a strong message: What I achieved wasn’t what I really wanted. The choices he made may have catapulted him to super-stardom, but he lost his way and let more important things in his life fall to the wayside. When he sings “You can have it all / my empire of dirt,” he makes it very clear how much his ’success’ compares to what it cost to achieve it.

It’s all to easy to do this with our businesses and our careers as well.  We might be working 80-hour weeks to provide for our family, but failing to give them the time they so desperately need from us.  We’re locked into thinking, “But I must do this, we need the money,” without necessarily thinking about the opportunity cost – the things we’re giving up in our pursuit of them.  We think we’ll create that work-life balance later, that “this is only temporary,” but is it really?

Think about your own life.  How many things that are important to you – truly important to you, long-term – how many of these things have been on the back burner for 6 months?  A year?  Five years?  Forever?  How many things do you tell yourself you’ll do later, “when you have the time,” “when the money finally comes in,” when things finally “slow down?”

I’ve got some uncomfortable news for you:  Things will never slow down.  You will simply force yourself to make the time to keep your life in balance, or you won’t.  And if you don’t, you will regret it more than you know.  The things you’re doing right now to ensure you and those you care about have “everything you need” might be sabotaging that very goal, if you’re not careful about it.  This warning will not apply to all my readers, but for the ones who watched the video and felt the knife twisting inside, this is for you.

How To Guarantee You Don’t Screw It All Up

How do you create a work-life balance that gets you everything you want?  The answer is simple, but not easy (in the same way that the solution for weight loss is ‘eat less and exercise’ – simple, yes.  Easy, no).  To start moving closer to work-life balance every day, you’ve got to do two important things:

  1. Want Less / Scale Back.
  2. Raise Your Standards.

These are not the answers you want to hear, but they’re the answers I have to give you.  And if the things you’ve been keeping on the back burner for far too long are time sensitive (like relationships with people), this uncomfortable advice may just save your ass.

Step One: Want Less and/or Scale Back

Society rewards and glorifies superstars, and because of that we’re conditioned to think that we have to have it all, become millionaires and have everything “come together.”  We set million-dollar goals or desire to become famous because we think that will make life easier, though it rarely does.  But that’s the allure.  We think that having more will make us happier, and make life easier, though that’s not guaranteed – and it becomes all to easy to postpone things for “just a little while longer” while we build out business.

It’s like the old story where the millionaire takes a beach vacation and discovers a fisherman on the shore, catching fish with ease and speed like he’s never seen before.  He urges the humble fisherman to start a business, leverage his skills, and build a fishing empire that would give him a massive income stream for life.  “What would I want to do that?” he asks the millionaire, who replies “So you can live a life of leisure at the beach.”  The fisherman looks at him puzzled.  “But I’m already doing that right now,” he answers, and goes back to fishing.

So the question here is this:  Do you really need to take your goals to the finish line to get the results you want? This is an important question.  When I started my business, I wanted to make a million dollars so that I could have all the time I wanted to spend with my wife and kids.  So I poured myself into building a business, only to discover that years went by without me spending enough time with them, and it’s costing me in big ways, ways I can’t fix with the money I’m making now.  And that sucks.

If this message doesn’t apply to you, be thankful.  But if it does, stay alert.  Ask yourself if you really need to make $X amount of money before you can have what you want.  Perhaps the better path is to set incremental goals, only pushing past them when you’ve satisfied the balance of other areas of your life.  For example, I’ve cut back the time I spend building my business a lot in the last 12 weeks.  I limit almost all my writing/blogging time to three slices of time: one hour before dawn, on my lunch hour, and an hour or so while I put the kids to bed at night.  My coaching calls take place in my car on the way to and from work.

Does this put a limit cap on my billable time?  Of course it does.  But I’m playing with my kids more.  I’m reading to them more.  And I’m not telling them, “wait until I’m finished with this work” as much (today being an exception, since it’s a day off from the day job, and I woke up late :-) )

Can I make up for lost time?  No.  But I can take advantage of the time I have.  And that’s the lesson for you – if building your business has forced you to put off spending time on things that you must spend time on because they are important, you need to consider scaling back.  I’m not saying abandon your goals, not in the least, but I am saying you need to structure them in a way that doesn’t sacrifice family/personal priorities.  You will never get that time back.

Here’s the funny thing, though – if you put personal priorities like family and health first and then demand that you “fit business in” rather than “fit family in,” you will become amazingly effective with your time.  I can’t tell you how much more productive I am now that I’ve cut back my business-building hours.  It forces you to become demanding and discerning with where you put your focus.

When I say “Want Less / Scale Back” I mean crank things back until you’ve balanced the time you spend on things that have lifelong, meaningful value, and work your business around that rather than the other way around. Will this cost you money and business opportunities?  Of course it will (though you may actually grow faster and easier with your new, stronger focus).  But you won’t regret it.  Neither will the people you care about.

As you become more discerning with your time, you will become better at building your business without sacrificing time that can’t be replaced.  Do things the right way, because you will not get a second chance.

But how do you do that when you’re overwhelmed, overburdened and overgoaled?  Here’s how.

Step Two: Raise Your Standards

You act according to the image you have of yourself, the identity you’ve built in your mind.  There are things you don’t do (like robbing banks, killing people, or stealing your best friend’s girl) not via willpower, but because you have a standard for yourself, tied to your identity, that you aren’t willing to violate.  Think about something you have trouble avoiding (like eating junk food) and something you have no trouble avoiding because you’d “never do it” (like scamming the elderly out of money) and you’ll understand.  It’s not about willpower.  It’s about raising your standards, about seeing yourself as a person who’d “never do” whatever it is you want to avoid.  When it’s not who you are, you don’t think twice about it.

I’ll be talking about this in upcoming posts, because I’ve been working through it these last few months, and the road isn’t easy.  It involves demanding change from yourself, rethinking some of the ways you’ve been doing things, and you’ll have internal resistance to that for sure.

For today, though, the first step is raising your standards just a little bit by focusing on what you won’t settle for sacrificing in order to meet your goals.  Maybe it’s time with your kids, your spouse, or some other important spirtiual/fitness/personal goal you’ve been neglecting.  Whatever it is, it’s time to raise your standard by demanding you get balanced.  It all starts with a statement like this:

I refuse to sacrifice ______ in order to build my business.  I will do whatever it takes to balance the two, because that’s just how I roll.

Your statement will be different, since different phrasing will resonate with you better.  This is the format that has been working for me.  The key is to decide what you won’t settle for anymore, and to drill that into your mind over and over again until it becomes ingrained in your personal identity.  Until it’s not something you want to do, but something you are.

I’m hitting the limit for the time I promised myself I’d spend on this post, so I’m stopping now.  I’ll close with a small favor to ask of you – please pass this article along via email, or IM, or Twitter, or backlink … spread the word.  There are too many people out there who are struggling to build their business so that they can hav more time with the people they care about, but are losing balance.  This article won’t fix all of those problems, but it can be a powerful start.

Thank you for spreading the word and subscribing to this blog.  I truly apreciate it.

(Update: This topic continued in Wake Up, Damn It! You Won’t Get A Second Chance)

47 Responses to “Are You Building An “Empire Of Dirt?””

  • May 2, 2008 Bill Grey

    One of the best articles I’ve ever read on this subject, Dave. Now seeing the temporary nature of this life we need to seriously concentrate on “the permanent”. Families are also temporary and only one part of our lives. The one thing that is permanent is our true self….(whatever you call it… God, creator, etc.). That is the true center of our life/lives. If we devote too much time to temporary things, we live a life out of balance….. And build the empire of dirt ….. And end up with regret and little of value for the investment of this human life. Off soap box…

  • May 2, 2008 Tei - Rogue Ink

    I am secretly very pleased with myself that I am starting my very first empire, and it is not an empire of dirt. It is an empire of stardust and awesomeness.

    Okay, to be fair, it’s not really an empire yet. It’s kind of a sandcastle of stardust and awesomeness. A tiny one. But it’s very pretty.

    Thanks for a great post. I try to remember this stuff all the time. It’s very easy to think, well, if I just figure out how to be more profitable, then all the madness will go away. Won’t though. It’ll just be different madness. And I’m cool with my madness. I know what it looks like.

    Tei – Rogue Ink’s last blog post..Option Bonk

  • May 2, 2008 Brett Legree


    Man, did this ever kick my a$$ today.

    1. Want Less / Scale Back.
    2. Raise Your Standards.

    This is so simple, yet powerful, I think I’ll tattoo it on my forehead with a staple and some ink.

    Your fisherman example is perfect. I said the same thing once about a farmer I saw tending his field, on a sunny afternoon. At that moment, I would have traded places with him.

    And you know what, I can. And I’m on my way to doing that.

    Thanks for a rockin’ post, and for rockin’ my day.

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..fix the stairs.

  • May 2, 2008 Dave Navarro

    @Bill –
    Thanks for the kind words.

    @Tei -
    Enjoy the madness :-)

    @Brett –
    As always, I am here for your daily dose of a$$-kickery.

  • May 2, 2008 James Chartrand - Men with Pens

    Yesterday afternoon, I picked up my daughter at daycare. She asked, “Who did you work for today?”

    “I worked for a woman named Heather,” I answered.

    “I wish Heather would go away.” Her look said it all. “You work too much for her. You don’t play with me anymore. So she should go away.”

    “But we need money, honey.” I refused to glance in the rear-view mirror to see her face. “Remember what I told you? If I don’t work, we can’t have nice things or new toys or buy food or have a warm house.”

    There was a few seconds of silence. “I don’t need new toys,” my toddler said quietly. “I have enough.”

    How’s that for a kick in the gut?

    James Chartrand – Men with Pens’s last blog post..How to Promote Your Business and Win Clients

  • May 2, 2008 Tei - Rogue Ink

    Oh! James! I’m going to cry!

    Your little girl loves you so much . . .

    Tei – Rogue Ink’s last blog post..Option Bonk

  • May 2, 2008 Brett Legree


    Brother, now it is your turn to make me cry. I know how that feels… to see that look. The first time you drop a child off at daycare, and see them bawling at the window as you drive off. Not good.

    I’ve often thought how it could be to work as an old world craftsman, or a farmer. Something where you could take your children with you, show them how it is done. It would be challenging for sure, but on the other hand you would be raising your children yourself.

    Modern life is very complicated. Sometimes, too much so.

    But as Dave says, we can scale back.

    Brett Legree’s last blog fridays – the unwise man.

  • May 2, 2008 Dave Navarro

    @James –
    Ouch. Yeah, that’s the rub, ain’t it.

    @Brett -
    Complicated is definitely right. But not impossible.

  • May 2, 2008 Brett Legree


    You are right, wise man. Definitely not impossible.

    You know, you would make a good Viking… what with all the a$$ kicking and so forth… :)

    Brett Legree’s last blog fridays – the unwise man.

  • May 2, 2008 Dave Navarro

    @Brett -
    I’m 1/4 Swedish, with my Viking peeps up above the Arctic Circle. I’m as Viking as I can get and still call myself Italian … :-)

  • May 2, 2008 Brett Legree


    Now *that* is cool… you could change your name to Dag for a day, to see how it fits :)

    Brett Legree’s last blog fridays – the unwise man.

  • May 2, 2008 Dave Navarro

    @Brett -
    My middle name is RAGNAR … that fits nicely :-)

  • May 2, 2008 Brett Legree

    Dave RAGNAR Navarro, you are now officially *THE* coolest person.

    (Geez man, why does my middle name have to be Andrew? Come on, mom & dad, Dave’s parents called him RAGNAR… how cool is that?)

    Brett Legree’s last blog fridays – the unwise man.

  • May 2, 2008 Tei - Rogue Ink

    Ooh man. I can’t compete with awesome middle names, but I have a killer for horrible ones.

    Know a guy. Jason Hemp. Nice, strong, manly name, right?

    Jason Rearden Anastasia Hemp.


    Tei – Rogue Ink’s last blog post..Option Bonk

  • May 2, 2008 Dave Navarro

    @Brett –
    I’d feel cooler if I could pronounce it properly. Went to Sweden for a summer and still couldn’t hock up the sounds correctly.

    @Tei –

  • May 2, 2008 Brett Legree

    @RAGNAR :)

    You have to wear a horned helmet, it resonates when you talk and makes the sounds come out right…

    Brett Legree’s last blog fridays – the unwise man.

  • May 3, 2008 Janice Cartier

    Thor. I know a toddler named Thor. He’s either going to kick butt or…no he’s going to have no choice but to kick butt..just like this post. Good one Dave. :)

    Janice Cartier’s last blog post..The Function of Form

  • May 3, 2008 Kelly


    A beautiful post. I’m always working on this, simplifying and focusing on the real reason we’re all here. This was a lovely reminder. Steven Covey’s description of “ladder on the wrong wall” has stuck with me for years, and that really keeps me grounded. (So does an occasional listen to “Cat’s in the Cradle” if you can stand it.)

    I love Tei’s comment: “a sandcastle of stardust and awesomeness.” Yeah. That’s all I’m after.

    You gave some great tips here. Thanks!



    P.S. My tip: More hugs. Things balance better when you give more and get more. (Umm, not at work, though. ;) )

    Kelly’s last blog post..Tip of the Week: Stand and Deliver

  • May 3, 2008 Joshua Clanton - Design for the WEB

    @ Dave: You had to suck me in here with the lyrics to one of my favorite songs, didn’t you? Seriously, though, this is one of your best posts ever. Learning to prioritize correctly is huge. Stumbled.

    @ James: Why’d you have to make me tearful this early in the morning? *looks at clock and realizes that it’s almost noon, but ignores that fact*

    Joshua Clanton – Design for the WEB’s last blog post..Welcome Anywired readers!

  • May 3, 2008 James Chartrand - Men with Pens

    @ Joshua – Because you guys can avoid the mistakes I make through my lessons.

    James Chartrand – Men with Pens’s last blog post..What Is Niebu: The New Way of the World

  • May 3, 2008 Joshua Clanton - Design for the WEB

    @ James: Yeah. I guess I would be in the appropriate audience for your story. No kids, but planning on getting married soon.

    Joshua Clanton – Design for the WEB’s last blog post..Welcome Anywired readers!

  • May 3, 2008 Dave Navarro

    @Janice –
    Thanks – was hard to write this, but very necessary.

    @Kelly –
    You read my mind – Cat’s In The Cradle will be the basis for a follow up post. Than song’s been killin’ me since I was 10 …

    @Joshua –
    Thanks for the stumble.

  • May 3, 2008 Brett Legree


    OMG. You’re going to do a post based on Cat’s In The Cradle?

    You do kick a$$. That will be awesome…

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..from dusk till dawn. a story about running.

  • May 3, 2008 Janice Cartier

    You “covered” it in a major way. I found Trent his first apartment in New Orleans. He was my neighbor. That big house he eventually bought was across from a studio of mine. :o But I didn’t know this was his. I just knew that it is a favorite of mine. Cash sang it after his wife June had passed away. And it still grits and grinds its way soulfully across my heart. Excellent use of it. Cannot wait til the Cat’s Cradle post. Major good stuff here. :)

    Janice Cartier’s last blog post..The Function of Form

  • May 3, 2008 Kelly


    The thing is, you can only listen to it once every couple of years, ’cause it just haunts you in between if you’ve got a heart at all.

    Do not put a clip of it in your post, or all us parents will be bawling. (It got me when I was a kid, too, in the same way my daughter can’t handle Puff the Magic Dragon. Time flies… ouch.)


    Until later,


    Kelly’s last blog post..Tip of the Week: Stand and Deliver

  • May 3, 2008 Sonia Simone

    Really lovely, Dave, thank you.

    One handy thing about children is that when you’re spending time with them, you always know you are spending your time well. For me, anyway. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Priorities.

    Sonia Simone’s last blog post..SOBCon Update: Saturday

  • May 4, 2008 Dave Navarro

    @Brett –
    It’s really hard for me to listen to that song … I’ll get into it in the post. But I think that it’s one of the most important songs a business owner can listen to on a regular basis.

    @Janice -
    Small world, isn’t it. I though the song was Cash’s too, until my wife told me it was Trent’s.

    @Kelly –
    I’m going to do an experiment – I’ll listen to this song and Cat’s in the Cradle once a day for 30 days and see what it does to my mindset. I’ll have to include the clip on my post because I *want* people to bawl … and feel enough to take action. (Click at your own discretion) :-)

    @Sonia -
    It’s funny how you don’t have to do anything “special” to be doing something special for them. Time is time, as long as the attention is there.

    Dave Navarro’s last blog post..Are You Building An “Empire Of Dirt?”

  • May 4, 2008 Brett Legree


    I agree. Very powerful song. I see so many people making the same mistakes. And it is worse for the people I know, because most are not business owners. They work for someone else. So they slave away for something that isn’t even theirs, in the end.

    @Dave & Sonia,

    Agreed. My kids still call my car “daddy’s new car” because they hardly get to ride in it (it is small and sporty). If any of them is feeling blue, a quick ride around the block fixes that. Then I have to take them, one at a time. Simple. And it works.

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..from dusk till dawn. a story about running.

  • May 4, 2008 Janice Cartier

    @ Dave- Yes it is. Of course now , “Baby you can drive my car” , beep, beep, ,yeah…has a whole new image behind it of Brett and the little Vikings touring the block….:)

    Janice Cartier’s last blog post..The Function of Form

  • May 4, 2008 Christine OKelly

    This is an incredible post… I had this same realization once – which is why I ended up quitting my 9-5 in the first place. I achieved what I thought I wanted to achieve… then realized it was empty and unfulfiling – not to mention I was completely missing out on what was ultimately most important – my kids. I agree – everyone should take some time in silence asking themselves… are my goals what I REALLY want?!?

    Christine OKelly’s last blog post..Hunting Down and Exposing Deep Dark Challenges

  • May 4, 2008 Karen JL

    Hi Dave, first time commenter here. And I have a buddy named Ragnar…go figure.
    Loved this post (and love that song). I don’t have kids and have never been a material person. I just want more money for more freedom, not more stuff.

    But it’s the raising your standards thing that jumped out to me. I’m very good at keeping promises to others but ditch many of the ones to myself in a heartbeat. That has to change. I use work as excuse to not take care of myself. So I’m going to ‘raise my standards’ and make some healthy changes. Thanks.

    Karen JL’s last blog post..A Little Weekend Brain Food

  • May 4, 2008 Dave Navarro

    @Christine –
    Yeah, it sure sucks whe what you think you want doesn’t give you what you think you wanted :-) I loved what you said in today’s post about getting quiet time to reflect …

    @Karen JL –
    Music to my ears. I hope that everyone reading this is prompted to take action … and follows through on it. Welcome to the commentarati … :-)

  • May 5, 2008 Donetta

    Thank you for the reminder Ragnar (and I think Brett is right about the hat and the horns……

    Will avoid putting make up on until after reading the Cat’s in the Cradle post……..

    Off to move my ladder………

  • May 5, 2008 Donetta

    This is the missing ) from above. Sorry!

  • May 5, 2008 @Stephen | Productivity in Context

    Killer post Dave. I am still in Chicago, winding down from SOBCon, so I will have more on this later this week.
    I am so overloaded with info it is insane.

    @Stephen | Productivity in Context’s last blog post..Monday is a Travel Day

  • Aug 24, 2010 Harriett Benedetti

    hey, I discovered some nice posts you may possibly be liked to read. Please see: Click here

  • Sep 2, 2010 Nick Pringle

    I accidentally came across this before and it’s been a very interesting read. Timing of discovery has been pretty much perfect for me as well because I’ve realised I’ve spent too much time on university and haven’t seen some good friends in a while. I was thinking before that the 80/20 rule is really something I need to bring in for myself and apply to uni.

    Thank you.

  • Oct 2, 2010 gratis Gewinnspiele

    Considerably, the post is really the greatest on this laudable topic. I agree with your conclusions and will thirstily look forward to your forthcoming updates. Just saying thanks will not just be adequate, for the wonderful clarity in your writing. I will at once grab your rss feed to stay privy of any updates. Pleasant work and much success in your business endeavors!

Comments are closed.