A Survival Guide to the Emotional Roller-Coaster Ride of Entrepreneurship
It’s great to care deeply about the work that you do. For entrepreneurs, passion is a competitive advantage, a force that keeps you going when times are hard.
But let’s face it: Being emotionally well-adjusted is difficult for anyone, but especially when under the stress and intensity of running a business. It’s hard to separate your personal self-worth from your company’s, it’s hard to make tough decisions when you’re emotionally strung out, and it’s hard to not take things personally.
As emotional as running a business can be, learning to cope with those emotions is a crucial and underrated skill for an entrepreneur. If not properly managed, emotions and stress can cloud our business judgement and stunt our growth.
So how in the world do you start the process of disentangling your emotions from your business decisions? For many people, it’s not intuitive. This kind of stuff is not really taught in school, even though it’s valuable for everyone. The good news, though, is that there are some relatively simple ways to manage your emotions, if you’re willing to open up Pandora’s box and look inside. (So to speak… hopefully the inside of your mind isn’t that scary!)
There are many ways to go about this, but I’ll walk you through five techniques, backed up by science, that have worked for me personally.
1. Observe Your Mind
I’ve never been what you would call “emotionally well-adjusted,” but I have had the privilege of being surrounded by some wise people and interesting ideas. One of the most influential concepts I came across as a teenager was cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s a proactive form of therapy with a goal of identifying and changing unhelpful thought patterns that affect our behavior.
Essentially, you seek to identify why you act the way you do—the thoughts and feelings behind your actions—and once you see, understand, and adjust your reasoning, you can change the behavior.
This perspective gave me power over things that felt subconscious or otherwise out of my control. That’s really the key here: being aware of your emotions and your thought processes gives you power. Just the simple fact of understanding why you act and react the way you do is enough to make a massive difference in your life and business.
That’s where the concept of mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is the practice of observing your thoughts and feelings, in the moment, without judgement. Simple mindfulness meditation has been shown to literally change your brain, with one study showing increased grey matter in areas related to learning, memory, and emotional regulation. A four-part experiment on mindfulness and stress found that mindfulness was related to higher performance and well-being:
“More mindful individuals were likely to view demanding situations as less stressful or threatening. More mindful individuals were also more likely to cope with stress in adaptive ways, particularly using less avoidant-oriented strategies in stress situations.”
Mindfulness has also been linked to improved attention spans, a benefit for everyone in the modern age of distraction. A neuroscience study on attention and mindfulness noted, “Mindfulness meditation may alter the efficiency of allocating cognitive resources, leading to improved self-regulation of attention.”
So, it apparently works. How do you do it? One good place to start is Foundr’s entire special issue devoted to mindfulness, featuring Deepak Chopra, or our interview with meditation master Andy Puddicombe. But beyond that, here are a few concrete steps to start being more mindful:
- Practice observing your thoughts and feelings, and examining what’s going on in your head. But withhold judgement—don’t get upset or frustrated with yourself, just observe.
- Keep a journal. For me, writing is the best way of seeing clearly what’s going on inside my head. I’ve made so many breakthroughs in my life because I was writing an experience out, and all of a sudden, I knew why I was doing something.
- Create a trigger. To get in the habit of being more mindful, set a trigger that’ll remind you to stop, breathe, and listen to yourself. A good trigger could be every time you refill your coffee, mindlessly open your email, walk in your front door, go to the bathroom. It could be anything, as long as it’s something you do regularly.
- Look deeper and deeper into your head. Don’t let yourself off easy, and don’t settle for shallow conclusions. Follow your thoughts and feelings as far down as you can go, until you hit a nugget of truth.
2. Change the Way You Think
Literally your brain
There’s a concept called cognitive restructuring that can be super helpful when you’re caught up in a situation emotionally and having trouble seeing clearly. It’s the natural next step after observing your thoughts, a process of tracking the accuracy of your thinking and identifying cognitive distortions (like polarized thinking, jumping to conclusions, or overgeneralizing) that are affecting your work negatively. Look clearly at your thoughts. When you do, you can change them.
The crazy thing is that it’s possible to rewire your brain just by focusing on it. Neuroplasticity is the idea that our brains change throughout our lives, because synaptic connections are constantly being removed and created, altering our thought processes at the most fundamental level. You can teach an old dog new tricks!
As we use neural pathways, they become stronger and more defined, like a river flowing through a valley. But just like a river, neural pathways can be rerouted. What you experience and how you react literally changes your brain. So, then, with some focus, you can use this concept to your advantage to form healthier habits and give your mind a deep clean.
For example, a friend of mine works at a large tech company, and she also has a tendency to speak impulsively. Learning how to curb the instinct to say anything that comes to mind is not an easy one—after all, she’s speaking on impulse, without thinking.
So how do you interrupt that process and begin to form new habits of communicating? My friend’s therapist suggested that she wear uncomfortable shoes at work, to remind her (constantly) that she’s at work and can’t just say whatever she wants.
The shoes become a trigger: Because she’s associated foot pain with the goal of thinking before she speaks, whenever her feet hurt, her brain, always wanting to be helpful, remembers that work = not speaking impulsively.
Every time this happens, the relevant pathways in her brain get stronger, and the goal becomes easier to remember, until the habit breaks and communicating professionally becomes instinctive. It may seem simple, because it is. The brain is a magical thing, y’all. Just give it a little guidance and it’ll blow you away.
No shoes… aka the freedom to say whatever you damn well please
A good daily way to practice mindfulness and rewire your mind is with email. Many of us are addicted to that hit of dopamine we get from seeing good news in our inbox, or sending off an important email. But it can be a huge waste of time when we aren’t mindful about how we are interacting with our inbox.
So the next time you mindlessly open your email, remember to be mindful. Focus on what is important, and be aware of what is noise. Use it as a cue to watch your thoughts and reactions to what you read.
3. Don’t Take it Personally
This is probably a tough one for most entrepreneurs out there. After all, your company is your baby. You’ve put in the hours, the sweat, the tears. So when people criticize your product, it stings. Understandable. But to succeed as an entrepreneur, you need a thick skin. The most successful people are always skilled at separating their personal self-worth from professional criticism.
You can’t succeed without feedback—good and bad—and if you’re not resilient, you’re gonna have a bad time. People are flawed, we make mistakes, we do dumb stuff. You will, too. As soon as you accept that, and take your ego out of your business, the weight of the world will fall off your shoulders, and everything will be much easier.
Life is lonely at the top
Daily life as an entrepreneur has highs and lows in the extremes. That resilience will come in handy during the dark times. Also, find the magical combination of optimism and logic. It will ground you, and push you forward.
For me, finding that magical balance has to do with choice. As soon as you understand that your mood is completely within your control, that you have a choice about how you feel, it opens up a whole new way of living. I’ve always loved the serenity prayer, and repeat it to myself constantly as a mantra:
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Life is unpredictable. There will always be problems outside of your control. The most successful and happy people know that, so they don’t waste time and energy worrying about things they can’t change. Entrepreneurs have millions of fires to put out every day—so don’t create unnecessary problems and stress for yourself. When it seems everything is going wrong, take a deep breath. Look at the situation, gather all of the problems, one by one. Ask these questions:
- What can I not control or change?
- What can I control or change?
- What can I do right now to improve the situation or fix a problem?
Then, do #3. And forget about #1, because you can’t control it. So worrying about it will have no effect on the outcome. It’s a hard lesson, and sometimes I want to beat myself (and others) over the head with it. But it’s one of the most worthwhile lessons you’ll ever learn: Focus on the things you can change, let the rest of the cards fall as they will, and your daily life will become much, much easier.
4. Create Guidelines for Tough Decisions
Another source of emotional angst for entrepreneurs is the frequent judgment calls we’re required to make in day-to-day management. Especially when you’re starting out, you probably don’t have a lot of data or processes to guide your decisions, so you’re making a lot of decisions on a case-by-case basis. There’s a certain freedom in that, but it can also be a trap.
For example, a friend of mine runs an e-commerce boutique for a niche market. She frequently gets lowball offers and messages appealing to her personal feelings—people saying things like, I can only afford to pay half the listed price, can you give me a discount? While this was manageable at first, once her business picked up steam the messages like that became overwhelming. My friend is a nice person, so she didn’t want to be mean to people. But it began to weigh on her emotionally. She’d get frustrated and pissed off, and it would ruin her day.
When your customers make you angry, take it out on inanimate objects
Most importantly, you can only offer so many discounts before it affects your bottom line. So she implemented a rule that she’d accept offers for 75% below retail, but no lower. It worked perfectly, and since setting the rule, she has realized that people who would offer her less are low-value customers anyway—they take up too much of her time, messaging back and forth, for not very much revenue, and often ended up returning the items anyway.
The point is that once she was able to step back from her emotions, by setting a process for potentially emotional decisions, she was able to see the situation way more objectively. Her emotions didn’t factor in at all, because she was just following her rule. Every type of business can benefit from taking a step back and identifying possible areas where decisions can be streamlined in this way.
Think about how your time and energy are allocated: What do you spend too much time on? What decisions do you agonize over? What’s getting under your skin on a daily basis? Make a list, and then see if any of these decisions can be automated, or replaced with a process.
5. Take Care of Your Physical Health
How do you take care of yourself when you’re busy as hell? For many of us, our physical health is one of the first things that slips by the wayside. But it’s really the first thing that we should be focused on, and it doesn’t matter how busy you are, or think you are. If you take care of your body, your mind and your work will thrive.
It’s been proven again and again, that exercise cures depression, revitalizes your brain, makes you happier, more productive, less stressed, and unleashes your creativity. Even just 10 minutes of exercise a day will do wonders. If you’re not already in the habit of running, going to the gym, biking, or doing some sort of physical activity, you need to start today.
Start going for walks while you take calls or doing bodyweight exercises on breaks. When I’m feeling sluggish in the afternoon, I like to do some push-ups and then plank for as long as I can. It gets my blood pumping and all the endorphins running wild, so I can get stuff done. I’m a fan of the Fitness community on Reddit, which a great place to get started if you’re looking for more information.
Another thing that’s easy for many people to overlook is sleep. Many of us have this perverse attitude that glorifies depriving our bodies of sleep. No one should brag about how little sleep they get. Even if you are working constantly, you need sleep to replenish your brain. Getting a good night of sleep, every night, is probably the best productivity tip there is.
Our eating habits also suffer when we’re working a lot or under a lot of stress. But what you put in your body also has a huge effect on your brain and your mood. It’s pretty crazy, actually, and gut health is an area where a lot of research is underway. Needless to say, drinking lots of water, eating whole, unprocessed foods, and dialing down the sugar will always be sound advice.
Life is hard. Don’t make it harder on yourself by getting in your own way. By observing your mind, training your brain, focusing on what’s in your control, setting up processes to help with tough decisions, and taking care of your health, you’ll probably find that life is hard, yes, but not quite as hard as you’d thought.
Try one of these techniques or all of them. They’re meant to fit together, but you can be flexible. Everyone has different methods of managing their emotions while at work. What techniques or methods do you use? Let us know in the comments!