For those of us who have experienced mental health difficulties in the past — and let’s face it, it’s an ever-increasing proportion of the population — the idea of putting ourselves in situations which could challenge good mental health is a scary one. Entrepreneurship is testing, for even the most resilient of us, so does it, and should it, put people who worry about their mental health off of setting out to realise that entrepreneurial dream of theirs?
I got thinking about this because of a quote I read yesterday:
“[In hiring] I look for people who, at least in part, define themselves by their work. Their personal identity is intertwined with what they do and how successful they are. It’s those attributes that will keep them engaged and striving to succeed long after they are tired and worn out. It builds the mental toughness needed to be successful, especially in the startup world”
~ Daniel Portillo, Greylock.
It’s this sentence that made me stop and think: “striving to succeed long after they are tired and worn out”. To me, this could well be a recipe for disaster. The feeling of tiredness is our body’s way of telling us to rest, not to carry on being “engaged and striving to succeed”. I also believe you can take a rest when you need one and still be and do both of those things; still find success, however you measure it.
With this view of entrepreneurship, I don’t think it is compatible with good mental health (keep reading — I, of course, go on to prove that it doesn’t have to be the case). It’s a recipe for burnout, which is just a nice way of saying “messed up mental health” (because, ya know, as a society we still don’t like to refer to poor mental health, and whatever you do don’t mention its scary cousin, “mental illness”).
Many people associate the onset of depression and anxiety (by the way, depression is the second leading cause of years lived with disability worldwide, after lower back pain) with a sad life event, perhaps the death of a loved one or having to go through a divorce. Though this can be true, I know that any mental ill-health on my part is far more likely to come from “striving to succeed long after I am tired and worn out”. It comes from my constantly striving to meet unattainable expectations, and constantly falling short as a result. It comes from not eating and sleeping properly, from over-exercising or stopping exercising. It comes from spending too much time on my own, in dogged pursuit of a vision, without a support system that I’m reaching out to to share what feels difficult. It comes from isolating myself and keeping my problems to myself, locked in my head.
This is why that sentence, of pushing beyond the point that your body feels worn out, feels problematic to me. Not because a couple of nights of inadequate sleep is going to mean you end up depressed, nor because tiredness is the leading cause of mental illness in this country (hardly). It’s the outlook that is the problem — and it is one that I find is often pedalled when it comes to entrepreneurship. As though it were a badge of honour.
Yes, there is an element of truth in it; you do have to push hard to be a successful entrepreneur and there will be late nights and early mornings, nights where you can’t sleep because your brain won’t switch off, too. But I think by reinforcing this story over and over again, and holding in the highest esteem those founders and co-founders that push themselves to breaking point (even Maggie Thatcher is looked at with admiration for her ability to sleep only 4 hours a night — and let’s face it, we find it hard to admire much about her), we’re giving the wrong impression of what it is to be an entrepreneur. Perhaps we’re even putting some brilliant future startup leaders off because they’re concerned — and rightly so — that they might not be able to withstand the pressures that being an entrepreneur could subject them to. It might be a concrete worry about their mental health, or it could just be an unease with how their work-life balance will be or if they will be happy.
But hang on. Did you hear the story about the amazingly successful entrepreneur that worked a 9–5, even from day one of running their startup, and was always in bed by 10pm to get their 8 hours in? The entrepreneur that was at home every night to tuck their little ones in, have dinner with their partner, then rose feeling fresh and ready to run in to work the next morning?
No? That’s because you never hear about these people. The question is, do they exist? I’ve honestly not met one but that doesn’t meant they can’t or don’t.
Assuming that being able to lead such a perfectly balanced life five days a week is wishful thinking, given the demands of a brand new, baby startup, is there a way that we can protect our mental health when running a startup? A way that we can get closer to our smug Ms. Perfect & Balanced up there?
In the first article in this series on Mental Health & Entrepreneurship, I explored a couple of ways we can protect our business from mental health struggles. But I didn’t explore how we can protect ourselves. That is, of course, a topic that is explored for years during therapy (if you’re lucky enough to get it in the UK), and not something I can solve for each individual here. I know I’m still trying to work it out and I am continually amazed and astounded by how attuned to your body and your brain you have to be to keep everything in check. The shifts are, for me at least, astonishingly subtle. It might be the slightest feeling of overwhelm that makes you think “eek, perhaps I could do with another night in this week — I’m sure Sophie won’t mind if I ask to reschedule our plans” (true story for me this week). Mental health, and its preservation, need constant — and I really mean that — attention.
But this highlights the most important point of all. Deep down, we all know what our mental health needs. I’ll happily admit that, on the face of it, when I was 22 and starting my corporate job, I didn’t know. That’s when trouble first hit. But as soon as I looked deeper and gave my mental health the time and space it required (and deserved) to reflect on it — which we often feel is over-indulgent to do in this fast-paced, modern world — of course I knew. I know I’m not that party animal that can go out drinking every night, have four hours sleep, and feel balanced. I know I need space to recharge. And I now know that I need to reflect critically on the goals and expectations I have for myself, to put attainable and measurable targets in place, because otherwise they are, quite frankly, ludicrous. I am better able now to protect my mental health because I am increasingly self-aware. That is what it comes down to. It has taken me practice, and I still fail sometimes, but I’m getting better.
Self-awareness in isolation is, of course, insufficient. You need to understand and implement an action plan for every realisation you make about the self, at any given time. It’s as simple as: feeling too busy? Cancel plans. Feel sluggish and tired? Exercise. Need a break because you feel mentally exhausted? Try and book a weekend away. Got stuff on your mind that is stressing you out? Speak to someone about it. Thankfully, all the tools and techniques that we use to repair or preserve our mental health are things that we should do anyway if we had the luxury of dedicating all our time to the things that make us feel good, balanced and happy in life. The fact is that we don’t. But we at least know what they are — and they don’t cost money and they don’t require exclusive membership to a club. We just have to pay ourselves the greatest respect by doing them.
So my message is this. We should not fear entrepreneurship. I say that as someone who does indeed fear it herself sometimes (a healthy measure of caution is good for you), as I know the demands and pressures are exceedingly high. Yes, an amount of those are somewhat inevitable but I believe two things that temper this. 1) It is “an amount”, a percentage, that is inevitable. I believe that entrepreneurs self-perpetuate the notion of the constant need to strive to an unhealthy degree because they think it’s “just what entrepreneurs do” (of course it is if that’s what you continue to do) and 2) I think through self-awareness and a willingness to act in our best interests, we can raise our defences against the inevitable stresses and strains on our mental health that being a founder or a co-founder (or even in a stressful job) can pose. And, honestly, if your business can’t withstand an extra day off in the week, then it’s probably not robust enough anyway.
The turning point for me was a) taking my mental health seriously and b) having the confidence to realise that it was in my control and I had all the tools I needed to keep my mental health on track — I just needed to use them.
I implore the same of you, if you are considering becoming (or are already) an entrepreneur. Firstly, feel the fear and do it anyway. We don’t want to miss out on that business genius of yours. Secondly, know that you are in control. You call the shots. You own your own mental health. To me, that is the most empowering, and reassuring, thought of all.