Entrepreneurship is described as a “challenging but potentially rewarding,” career path. In an Orwellian style, we use words like “struggle” and “hustle” to describe magical entrepreneurial traits that, in fact, mask more serious and complicated stigmas like depression. In fact, over the last 18 months, the technology industry has seen a number of high-profile suicides, with few individuals willing to talk about it. Why?
As a young entrepreneur myself, I still have another 50 years to go in my career. I couldn’t help but be curious: How big a toll does entrepreneurship really take over time, and why doesn’t this get talked about more?
Here’s what some entrepreneurs in my own network had to say — and their advice for pushing through your darker moments:
Stay grounded outside of work
I started with Ryan Paugh, co-founder of YEC. Ryan is known for his talents as a community manager, working overtime to connect entrepreneurs who can help each other, so he’s seen the pressure firsthand. “I think there is a lot of pressure on entrepreneurs, especially in some of the larger, more competitive startup ecosystems,” he said. “This can be a dangerous mindset to have since most new businesses fail.”
But formal entrepreneur organizations — and more informal networks of peers — can serve as a line of first response for entrepreneurs. “We want to create an atmosphere where entrepreneurs feel comfortable letting their guard down,” Ryan continued. When I asked him about his own experiences with work-related stress, he said, “I stay grounded through the investments I make in my personal life with family, friends, and non-work-related hobbies. I think that’s crucial for every entrepreneur to have.”
Push yourself daily
Building on Ryan’s advice, I wanted to hear what some of my fellow entrepreneurs had to say. San Francisco’s David Landis was a perfect candidate, having been in business for himself for over 22 years. It was difficult for me to even comprehend a wealth of experience (it adds up to a minimum 10x my own). President of Landis Communications (where he is also President of the international Public Relations Global Network), David says, “You can’t ‘rest on your laurels.’ You have to constantly push yourself to learn, realign the business with your customers and reinvent yourself and your business to stay competitive. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.”
Experienced entrepreneurs like David develop processes that help them better manage their emotions to become more effective leaders. “Running a business requires a very thick skin and knowledge of finances,” he said, admitting he still has doubts “daily” and that he does enjoy “indulging in a glass (or two) of California Cabernet almost every night!” David also travels the world with his husband, Sean, and walks his dogs in San Francisco to help relax. “Those types of things keep me grounded,” he explained.
Cultivate a network you can trust
It’s somehow plausible that entrepreneurs, many of which express a degree of irrational optimism that plays into their success, don’t want to sit down and talk about the darker problems that plague their field. At what point do you consider the mental health issues of entrepreneurs a stigma, or just blissful ignorance?
Arjun Dev Arora, CEO of San Francisco based Retargeter, had little time to ponder these questions as he built his business over 4.5 years. Without any sort of outside funding, Arjun feels that it is “absolutely critical” to have outside advisors. He also said, “Create a culture you’re excited to be a part of, so when stuff gets tough, there’s people you want to hang out with that will be a support network and have individuals you trust.”
Be resilient in the face of failure
Nothing in any of the interviews I conducted suggested that things got easier with experience. However, while I was digging for kevlar jackets and armored plates, I found confidence and wisdom instead. To find that most truly accomplished entrepreneurs had a highly developed sense of self-control as opposed to just masking feelings came as a huge relief.
If I had to add one word that describes the key to a healthy entrepreneurial life, it would be resilience. When starting a business, you’re taking on enormous risk. Even when things may be commercially successful, getting things right internally isn’t easy. There will be failures — and some of them will be public.
To me, entrepreneurs are a group of people that make a habit of tackling their fears and facing the future. The idea that they are going to sit down and focus-group their way out of the issue is a concept that goes against the grain of what entrepreneurs have trained themselves to do. They are a group people they are used to solving their own problems. They are resilient.
Thomas Jefferson said, “The art of life is the art of avoiding pain: and he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks and shoals with which he is beset.” The art of entrepreneurship, then, is in being the best pilot.