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How to Not Lose Your Mind as an Entrepreneur
In start-ups, as in life...
Guess what? I’m not stressed.
No, really. I’m not. Even though I am inundated with advertisements for stressed start-up founders, I’m not stressed. I’m very even-keeled. Sometimes I think that maybe I shouldn’t be so calm. Like, hey, buddy, you’re doing something that promises zero security, could be a disastrous failure, could leave you without a source of income (and already has certain junctures), and requires a ridiculous amount of attention. But I can’t help it.
It wasn’t always this way. This isn’t my first rodeo, though it is indeed my first as a founder. I’ve done the start-up thing before, and it ended up getting stressful for myself and most of my co-workers at levels that made me genuinely concerned for our health. I vowed to never let that happen again. Easier said than done, right?
Maybe. I don’t know if there’s a real secret to staying “cool in the pocket” to borrow a football metaphor. When there’s a bunch of things rushing at you, threatening to take you down, how do you not only remain upright, but progress toward the goal?
Well, here’s an interesting place to start. It’s a simple question. If you “fail”, are you going to be okay? For me, it’s a resounding “yes.” Which brings me to my next question. Are you able to compartmentalize yourself and your business? I hope so. Because if you can’t it can legitimately feel like life or death, and your body will react accordingly. Potential death is a reasonable thing to invoke the stress reflex, but even that reflex does not have the purpose of tunneling you into an underground labyrinth of despair, it’s to make you do the things that will get you out of that stressful mindset so that you do not, indeed, die.
So there’s two things I have going for me. I’m not afraid of failure and I can draw a line between myself and my work. I know part of myself always goes into my work, but if my work dies, I do not go with it. I can untether myself from my work being my true identity. It’s very helpful. I am actually naturally repellant to people who can’t do this. I can understand and empathize with them, and even sometimes I have an admiration for them, but they’re not the folks I want to hang out with on the weekend or build a solid relationship around.
Sometimes this may actually work against me. I am quite avoidant of meet and greets and networking and other business-oriented events that happen outside of my actual place of work. I’d much rather go play a game of rec league softball. Which brings me to the next point. You can’t give everything away. I’m actually referencing a David Bowie track here, but I am doing so for a reason. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is the final track on Bowie’s final album. It was released on the 8th of January 2016. Two days later, Bowie died of cancer. I can’t know what Bowie meant by this, or why he chose for it to be the end of his last album, one I’m fairly certain he knew would be his last. But I can posit some guesses.
Bowie was a mercurial figure, one of the weirdos and outcasts who was able to find acceptance by unabashedly being himself. I would imagine being a critically acclaimed artist of Bowie’s stature is not easy. You do a service to society, to the world, but in the end, you can’t give everything away. There are parts of you that you must keep to yourself, energy which you can’t spread to everyone.
Now this may seem a bit dramatic to compare choosing to not go to networking events with the potential swan song of one of the greatest musicians of all time, but bear with me. As a founder, you can’t give it all away. Your attention, your resources, your energy…you’re going to be hit with a lot of expectations and it’s okay if you don’t meet all of them. You’ve got to manage yourself first.
Next, and likely most importantly, comes faith. I’m a religious man, but I don’t think you need to be in order to understand. I had faith well before I ever considered myself religious. So, faith in what? Faith in something bigger than this world (call it God if you’re so inclined, but to reiterate, this need not be a specifically religious state of mind). That you have a purpose. That this isn’t all random chaos. That you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be, because at this very moment, there was not another option. This helps me immensely. To tell you the truth, I never actually envision this endeavor failing. It’s a journey and I trust that I am on the right path. I don’t even know what failure would look like because I’m unsure of the destination. Is failure the company ceasing to exist? I don’t know. I don’t even think about it. In fact, I exist in the opposite world. I have no doubts what I will be successful. But what does success mean? That this endeavor becomes a unicorn and I cash out and sail off into the sunset? Probably not, but maybe. I can’t picture what the true success is quite yet. Maybe I won’t until it’s “all over.”
This also does not mean sitting back and letting the world happen to you. No, in fact, quite the opposite. Being passive in my own life is something that makes me feel closer to failure, further away from the “path.” So my “secret” here, if it can be called one, is to do the work with the intention of growing, and so the world will grow with you. To have a door opened for you, there’s almost always some legwork. The door very likely is not directly in front of you, or was not directly in front of you always.
Faith, in this regard, is not limited to the faith you have in yourself. For, no man is an island. Faith must also extend to those with whom you share a vision. It is entirely possible that if not for those involved in this endeavor, I would indeed be stressed. But that is not the case, so I do not bother to entertain the thought. I am blessed to be working with amazing people who care and who do things---for reasons sometimes including, but not limited to, skill---I am incapable of doing myself. I reciprocate by doing the things for them that they cannot.
That’s pretty much it. Much easier said than done, I reckon. It’s taken me years of self-work to arrive at this current state of mind, and I’m not convinced this is my end destination (this realization in and of itself is proof that this modus operandi is not for everyone, though I hope anyone can take something from this, regardless of their current situation). The inclination that maybe I should feel less calm, a bit more flirty with urgency, is probably one worth looking more closely into. It is quite possible some burst of do-or-die will do me well. I’ve already experiences said mindset in other areas of my life.
But, to everything, there is a season.
When opportunity calls, answer.
When you receive the answer, hang up the phone.