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I'm Not High Output: Why I’m Sunsetting My Brand & Betting On Myself

Steve Schlafman
Steve Schlafman
10 min read
I'm Not High Output: Why I’m Sunsetting My Brand & Betting On Myself
Photo by Sergey Pesterev / Unsplash

Earlier this week I was having dinner at my in-laws home. Towards the end of the meal, my father in-law asked me how business at High Output was going.

“Super well. 2021 exceeded expectations and 2022 should be even better.” I said, but I managed to squeeze in a caveat before he could respond. “I’ve decided to retire the High Output brand.”

His face twisted in surprise. “Why would you do that? It’s such a strong name. You’ve put so much into it over the past two years.”

My father-in-law's reaction was not dissimilar to what I’ve heard from friends, colleagues and clients: “Are you crazy?”

I understand the skepticism—brands hold power and meaning beyond the individual founder, they help businesses scale, and lend legitimacy to projects and ventures. Having a brand around your work these days is practically inescapable, even for solopreneurs.

But here’s what I think is crazy:

Keeping something going only because I’ve invested time, effort, and energy. Staying the course even though it doesn’t reflect my values or support who I want to become. Living with cognitive dissonance because my vision doesn’t align with what I’ve built in the world. Suppressing my emotions instead of facing a hard decision.

Here’s how I ended up with a brand that didn’t resonate with me, how I recognized that, and what I’m doing to move forward.

The Origins of High Output

In the fall of 2019, I was leaving Primary Ventures to launch my coaching practice and angel fund. I spent several weeks brainstorming names but was stumped. My wife, who is a branding expert, suggested Genuine or Headlamp as words that reflected my vision and that I could own. I ignored her creative suggestions and stole from a man instead.

Idly lying in bed one morning, I turned toward my bookshelf, and staring me in the face was a copy of High Output Management by Andy Grove, the legendary CEO of Intel. Eureka moment! I said to myself, “I partner with founders to help them level up as leaders and managers, just like the great Mr. Grove taught.” “Yeah, High Output was a great name for his book, and it’s a great name for my coaching practice!” I confidently said to myself.

Confident, sure—also lazy, tired, and impatient. I had spent weeks brainstorming a name but hadn’t come up with anything I loved. Every fresh idea was shot down by my wife and friends. Instead of embracing the creative process as my wife suggested, I was ready to throw in the towel.

Without consulting anyone I trusted, including my wife, I bought a domain, contacted my trademark lawyer, and was off to the races.

The fact that I chose not to tell anyone until I had already committed resources to the name is a pretty good sign that I knew it was wrong even then. I told myself I could redefine “high output” and make it my own, that a brand isn’t built in one day but over countless interactions, over time. I didn’t reveal this feeling to anyone. I kept it to myself and I settled. That morning, High Output was born.

The Cost of Becoming High Output

From 2019 to 2021 I was nothing but High Output. I built a self-sustaining and thriving coaching practice serving dozens of founders and VCs. I shipped The Founder Library, Tapestry and the Ultimate Annual Review, trained with the Conscious Leadership Group, and established a Coach In Residence program. I even raised a $5M angel fund and invested in more than 40 startups. Believe it or not, there was more.

How’d I do this? When High Output was born, I was reborn into it. Achievement became my obsession and identity. I became a slave to productivity tools, hacks, and processes: Superhuman. Time blocking. GTD. PKM. If I didn’t make progress every day it was time wasted—I had to be “high output.” I was empowered, then intoxicated, and then I was lost.

During that period, I was frequently burnt out and stressed. I wasn’t present around my family. I thought about work even when I wasn’t working. I took on the next client, committed to the next project, and made the next investment without careful consideration. I was living in the future, planning and predicting where I should go next, and I wasn’t taking time to care for  myself. I was focused only on the results, the output—I rarely thought about the inputs, or about the process.

I believed that this was what was expected of me. I’d hoped to infuse the High Output brand with my own values and build it over time, but I was the one being influenced by the brand, the twittersphere, and hustle culture. I linked my self worth to what I produced and achieved and began to lose sight of what exactly my values were.

I was in the prime of my career, but High Output had taken its toll on me. My body, mind, and spirit were crushed. In October, I walked away from my new venture fund at the 11th hour. I looked at my daughter's face and knew there was more to life than the kind of achievement our society and this industry recognizes. I was prepared to abandon everything I had worked so hard to build to make space for something new and authentic to emerge.

Sunk Costs and a Cognitive Dissonance

As soon as I walked from my venture fund, life began to slow down. I had fewer commitments and activities on my calendar. I was no longer context switching between coaching, investing, building and creating. I was focused on only coaching. I had space to think and write. I doubled down on my meditation practice. I went for long walks in the city. I spent time with people I admire who expand my thinking and being.

By slowing down and going inward, I began to question not only my values but every aspect of my life. New values began to emerge—authenticity, intention, simplicity, balance, expression, and curiosity—along with a new vision of how to build an identity and career around them.

Meanwhile, High Output was thriving. I began to feel a cognitive dissonance—what I was doing every day didn’t align with how I saw myself and who I am becoming. I wondered, “How can I continue to build High Output when new values are surfacing and I’m moving towards a new expression of myself?” I was uncomfortable and unsettled. What I saw in my world no longer aligned with how I saw the world.

As I spent the fall contemplating how I want to practice coaching and run my business, it became clear that High Output was the antithesis of my core values. Every time I saw the words high output I thought: What does this say about me? What message am I sending to founders? Why am I still preaching output and achievement over inputs and process? I wondered why I hadn’t listened to my wife two years earlier and was ashamed by my impulsivity.

But I justified and rationalized like a pro. Every time I thought about leaving High Output behind, I thought about the premier leadership development company it could become, and accounted for everything I had already invested in the brand. The sunk cost fallacy is our tendency to continue a venture just because we have invested (unrecoverable) resources in it in the past, and it had me in its grip.

I had invested nearly $10K on a new visual identity and website. I spent upwards of $5K in legal fees for the creation of the LLC and the trademark. I receive dozens of leads for my coaching each month via HighOutput.co. My primary email is tied to that domain. We have more than 1,500 followers and subscribers. The brand is scattered around the internet on Twitter, blog posts, and podcasts.

Wouldn’t it just be so easy to keep High Output going? I felt this conflict viscerally.

Several of my inner “personas”—Scared Steve and Ashamed Steve—were peppering me with questions. Will potential clients and companies take me seriously if I don’t have a polished brand? Will I appear less ambitious if it’s just me? Will other coaches want to collaborate and join forces if there’s not a brand? If I retire the website will my lead volume dry up? What if people want “high output” Steve and not “process over product” Steve? What does this say about me? Is this more evidence that I’m a quitter?

How I Reframed My Internal Crisis

These were all good questions, but I had to ask these “personas” to step back and stop running the show. It was time for a new perspective. I asked my sage “persona” to step forward and reframe the situation. My strategy was to uncover a variety of supportive beliefs that would outweigh the ones that were causing the cognitive dissonance. This is what I uncovered.

  1. “I am not High Output.” I wrote this in my journal one morning and it was a powerful reframing for me, decoupling my identity from the brand. In the end, it was simple: the brand does not reflect who I’m becoming and what I want to create in the world. I had plenty of evidence to back this up. A healthy family life. Interests outside of work such as meditation, sobriety, cycling, and cooking. I wouldn’t lose myself if I moved on.
  2. I owned, finally, that High Output wasn’t even mine to begin with. I took it from Mr. Grove who I don’t blame for any of this. He and his book, High Output Management, are timeless and legendary. It would always be his regardless of what I put into it. Deep down inside I knew it. I was fine letting it go.
  3. The process I had been undergoing wasn’t just about a name. It was about something bigger. It was about what the name represents, and how that representation ended up seeping back into my life, attitudes, and values. I don’t want a High Output life. I confirmed this by asking myself what I do want: a high quality of life where I have impactful work, to help leaders evolve, to earn enough income to support my family, and have the freedom to do what I want. That’s the dream.
  4. My values had shifted and I wanted to follow. I kept returning to these words: authenticity, intention, simplicity, balance, expression, and curiosity. A move away from High Output would signal and enact this shift.

Going through this exercise helped me see that my purpose was no longer about helping my clients “amplify output and maximize potential.” While that is an important outcome of my work, I can’t let that be the driver. I aspire to help founders cultivate inner wisdom, increase resiliency, and develop as whole leaders. In other words, it’s no longer about the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s about the client developing the skills and inner resilience to enhance their effectiveness while in the tunnel. This is far more aligned with how I coach and where I’m heading.

I realized that if I’m going to be coaching for the next 10-20 years (god willing), I want to be  hyper-intentional about how I build my business. Going forward, if I don’t have a “whole body yes” then it’s a “simple no” until I can decide for myself. No questions asked.

Finally, I came to the conclusion that sometimes we just need to burn everything down to the ground and start over. Fuck sunk costs. Fuck what people think. Clear it all out. Start with a blank slate. As Tom Cruise says in Risky Business, “Sometimes you gotta say, ‘What the fuck?’ Make your move.”  I embraced that elegant notion.

After I made the decision, I also came to grips that I don’t need to build or scale something that’s bigger than myself to feel fulfilled and complete. In many ways, I was shooting for something bigger but somehow I became smaller in the process. I’ve scaled back everything on my plate and I’m happier than ever. I’m coaching a dozen clients, spending time with family, writing and caring for myself. I’m sourcing fulfillment and security from within. I didn’t even know this was possible three months ago.

I hope to go even further in my reframing in the next few months, so that my story isn’t about what was wrong with High Output, but about how I learned to bet on myself. I don’t need a brand name to have an outsized impact and become a successful coach. I also realized that I can step into my full power as Schlaf. I can do it my own way.

Here’s what I want you to know: if you don’t stop to listen to your inner knowing, feel what you really want, and bring it into consciousness, there’s a good chance that you’ll just keep moving forward. When you become consumed by the fear of loss, judgment, grief, or shame, it’s a good signal to step back and ask what those emotions are trying to tell you.

It's scary and difficult to cut ties and move in a different direction. But people change, our identities can transform over time. This is positive, but we have to stop contorting ourselves to fit into whatever decisions we made when we knew less about ourselves and the world.

These decisions might even fundamentally shift our identities and who we perceive ourselves to be, but sometimes it’s the right move for so many reasons.

Here are some questions worth considering:

  • Where in your life has momentum kept your wheels spinning?
  • What do you want to walk from but are too scared or confused?
  • How might you reframe the situation?
  • What support do you wish you had around this?

Start there and see what emerges. You might surprise yourself.

So now that High Output is retired, you might be wondering “what else is changing?” For starters, I plan to evolve my coaching practice to ensure those I work with elevate their self-awareness and develop as whole leaders. This begins with the work that I’m doing with the Conscious Leadership Group but it doesn’t stop there. I’m also studying “Presence Based Coaching” and implementing many of these frameworks in my practice.

All of my work going forward will be under my personal brand, “Schlaf Co.” I’m slowly evolving this new website and I even have a new email address. I don’t have a grand plan or even a roadmap. It’s just me. I plan to take it one day at a time and see what emerges. This much I know: I’ll be supporting clients, immersing myself in the craft of coaching, and writing about what I learn along the way.

2022 is the year I step into my power as a coach and embrace who I am. Goodbye High Output! Hello, Schlaf!

Steve Schlafman Twitter

Exec coach. Writer. Student of Change.

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