Staying Mentally Fresh is the second post in a five part series called “Enjoying the Ride.” Comparing a start-up to surfing, this is a simple guide to turn your grueling start-up battle into a more soul fulfilling experience by helping you battle the sets and pick the right waves so you can enjoy the ride.
“There’s the most extreme consequences in big wave surfing. The idea that you could go out there and possibly drown and die…It’s tragic when it happens, but it’s also sign you were living and taking those chances in life. That’s the greatest feeling in the world.” ~ Greg Long (Big Wave Surfer)
Being an entrepreneur is a choice. Going to work everyday is a conscious decision. No different than choosing to surf the world’s largest waves you are choosing to navigate a group of people through extreme conditions with the hope of making the world a better place.
So if I’m choosing to do this, why am I so mentally exhausted, stressed out all the time, and deeply afraid that I’ll let everyone down?
Because learning to manage your own psychology is the hardest part of running a company. Constantly overcoming the fear of failure is incredibly hard, especially with mounting expectations from your employees, investors, and customers. The more you succeed, the harder your job becomes. Rand Fishkin touched on this recently in a blog post about the expectation to give 100% of yourself and why it is so hard to run a growing business.
No one wants to fail and if you aren’t mentally prepared for the battle ahead it can crush you into the ground like a gigantic wave.
In running Contour, the only way I survived was by brute force. I didn’t give up. But it doesn’t mean I didn’t almost drive myself or the company off the cliff on several occasions. Not having preconceived notions became my saving grace and finding an outlet other than Contour was the only thing that kept me sane.
Being on the sideline for the first time in a decade is allowing me the opportunity to think about the mental transitions I was going through. They were gigantic, especially for a twenty-something-year-old trying to figure out life while pretending he had everything figured out as a leader. It is true that you will experience things you can’t predict, but I have come to believe that you can prepare yourself mentally to handle the ups and downs so you can actually enjoy the ride.
The following is a guide of how you can be better prepared on a daily basis.
Admit You Have No Idea
“There are a lot of variables of the ocean you can’t control.” – Greg Long
The very nature of a start-up is that it’s built on a series of assumptions and predictions about the future. Assumptions that can be so interconnected that if one thing changes, it has the potential to disrupt everything you have built. This can turn team momentum into disappointment, looking as if you would lie to them about the predictions of the future.
The minute you admit “you have no idea what is going to happen,” is the moment a huge weight gets lifted off of your shoulders. Instead of feeling you have to have all the answers you can galvanize a whole organization into helping you think about solving the problems the company faces. Instead of becoming plans of stone, they become plans that adjust to the actual conditions at hand. And instead of everyone feeling like you let them down, they can pivot to think about how to solve the new problems.
No doubt “change” in a start-up adds an incredible amount of stress on the organization and the individuals involved. But no different than surfing, the only thing you can count on is that the ocean constantly changes. Admitting you have no idea which way it will change, not only lifts the collective stress off the organizations, but shifts everyone’s mentality to helping understand the changing tides.
Turn Off the Distractions
You know that anxious feeling you get when you can’t stop touching your phone in anticipation of the next tweet, email, text, Skype, Facebook, or phone call? The small rush of excitement you get in anticipation of figuring out who reached out and why?
It’s called not being present.
And when you aren’t, you miss the ride, your work suffers, and people don’t want to be around you. Your significant other probably calls you out the most, but being present is one of your most important jobs. Yes, communicating is an important part of your job and there are times when checking email, twitter, etc are part of your day. BUT, you already have an incredible amount of inputs coming in on a minute-by-minute basis so turning off your twitter feed, closing your email, and putting your phone on silent will enable you to be present. If you have issues you can’t stop thinking about then write them down and leave them there until you have time to come back and deal with them.
Especially two hours before going to bed, turning off all the electronic distractions in your day will help you sleep so you can be fresh to tackle the day ahead.
Find Someone to Talk to
Figuring out who you can and can’t talk to is a painful process to go through. Even more painful is to learn that if you talk too much people start losing confidence in your ability to lead. Especially if you don’t have any other outlet than the people involved with your business.
It was 2008. My mom had just passed away from 15 years of fighting breast cancer, I recently broke up with my girlfriend of three years, and the economy was tanking. I was a train wreck ready to hit the wall at a hundred miles per hour. I had no idea I even needed help and instead I bottled everything up and pushed the train even faster. Putting in more hours and taking on more responsibility than ever. And then I got lucky. Into my life walked someone who taught me how to open up. She became someone I could talk to about everything I was going through. Someone who didn’t judge me or try to answer my questions. She just listened.
Every entrepreneur needs someone they can talk to. It doesn’t have to be a significant other or even a friend. It can be a professional, but most importantly find someone you trust, who listens well, and understands how to deal with complex relationships. Brad Feld talks openly about professional help for entrepreneurs in his recent book, “Startup Life – Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur.” Brad has worked with a lot of start-ups and is a strong believer that entrepreneurs need someone to talk to, especially a professional who is focused 100% on helping them talk through the challenges they face both with the company and their personal life.
Bottling everything up only compounds the pressure you are under.
There Is Life Outside of Work
Running a company is incredibly lonely, but it doesn’t mean the rest of your life has to be. My family would find it ironic I’m not admitting this, but there are people who care about your well being outside of work. People who aren’t looking for you to constantly be on or lead them. People who just like being around you and care a lot about you.
Spend time with your friends, family, and significant others. You let them in your life at one point because you enjoy them, so go enjoy them.
When we start a company one of the things we believe is it will give us an incredible amount of flexibility to work where we want, when we want. Instead we replace that dream with working everywhere, all the time. Part of unlocking your own creative energy is enjoying life’s pleasures. It is okay to go ride on a powder day. It is okay to go surfing in the afternoon. It is okay to take Friday off to hang out with your family. Taking time off to make life less predictable is one of the best ways I have found to stay fresh.
I wish I hadn’t spent my twenties behind a laptop.
P.S. There is a great interview of Greg Long, infamous Big Wave Surfer, talking about fear and how he overcomes it to surf the largest waves in the world. It is 20 minutes, but it’s not only inspiring, but very related to the challenges of building a company. (http://vimeo.com/channels/surfprevention/51117940)
Image Credit: Nathan Gibbs via Creative Commons