The bond between the best entrepreneurs and their businesses is often so tight and all-encompassing that they can make the easy mistake of confusing who they are as people with what they do for a living. They lose sight of some of the more important things that distinguish earning a living from having a life. And because they take the ups and downs of business so personally, there's virtually no separation between work and what little time is left for the rest of their life (not to mention family and friends). Everything suffers as a result.
If their business takes a hit, which startups do on a regular basis, they feel like they're failing personally and that they must be fundamentally worthless. If that sounds overly dramatic or overwrought--come live in my world for a few weeks and you'll change your mind in no time. The external stresses of business creation are nothing compared to the mental beatings and recriminations we administer to ourselves. It's not healthy, it's not smart, but it's a fact of the life we've chosen.
Having said that, I want to be clear that I believe that there's no such thing as "just business" and that it's essential to take your business personally if you want to have any chance of real success and of building something that matters and makes a difference. But, at the same time, I don't think that you can let your identity and your sense of self-worth be entirely subsumed by the day-to-day crises and fire drills and the many temporary (we hope) setbacks that we all deal with. The ups and the occasional wins are nice; but it's the downs and learning how to deal with them that makes all the difference in the long run. The highs may be high, but the lows are a lot deeper.
We all get depressed from time to time because --and I hope this doesn't come as a complete surprise to anyone - life isn't fair. Even the nicest people get knocked in the head from time to time. The very best of intentions are scant protection from the vagaries of the startup world. And especially in this startup world, not everything ever works out the way you've planned. Sadly, and far too often, it turns out that being in the right time and place, or just catching some other lucky break, say like Bill Gates did, beats out a lot of better ideas, a bunch of long hours and hard work, and even much better technology and solutions. That's just how it goes. But where things go after that, and where your business ends up, is up to you and how you handle the bruises and blisters that are all an essential part of growing any business.
I've watched hundreds of entrepreneurs handle every kind of adversity, and lived through more near-death experiences myself than I care to recall, and I've concluded that there's a right way to proceed and a lot of ways that are wastes of time, leading you nowhere. Some of these approaches are just common sense ideas, but it's easy to look past them when you're feeling down and troubled. That's when you need a friend and a helping hand. So here goes.
What Won't Work
Playing the Blame Game
There's always someone or something to blame. Usually it's the people not in the room or the circumstances beyond your control or the weather that we can't do a thing about. It doesn't help to whine and worse, by putting your fate in the hands of circumstances or third parties, you give up your own power to change things. Sitting back and feeling sorry for yourself isn't ever a viable solution.
Settling for A Situation that Sucks
Nothing I know gets better by itself. If you want a better outcome or result, you have to take control of the situation and make things better. Standing still means you're sliding back while others are racing ahead. When you settle for less than you deserve or for less than your best, it's a very slippery slope and, as often as not, you end up with even less than you settled for.
Trying to Ignore the Problem
If you don't want to believe or accept something, no amount of evidence will change your mind. But, if you ignore a serious problem long enough, you'll have a crisis on your hands eventually and then you'll have no choice but to take action. It makes much more sense to be proactive and get on the problem now and get started on a solution before things get out of control and you end up just reacting to the latest fire. Ignoring the unhappy facts doesn't make them go away; they just fester.
Trying to Be Superman
Nothing much gets done by one-man armies or super heroes - your business's important problems are complex and require a competent team to address and resolve them. You can't solve these things all by yourself regardless of how many all-nighters you pull. Putting a team together distributes the burdens and some of the stress and makes for a much better result.
Trying to Distract Yourself
You may think that you can focus on other more trivial things-- see a show or a movie, take a run or work out, have a few drinks--and magically stop worrying about the elephant in the room, but that's not the way your entrepreneurial brain works. It never shuts down completely. Convincing yourself that you don't care isn't as easy as you might imagine-- regardless of what a great sales person you may think you are. And even if you get your head momentarily out of the game; your stomach will still be keeping score.
What Will Work
Doing Something Now to Fix the Problem
Nothing beats now. You may still not get it totally right, but you won't get anywhere at all if you don't get started. Better to be doing something constructive and moving the ball forward than to be sitting in a pile of pity feeling sorry for yourself. The people who work hard and still can't find the right answers or circumstances don't come to a screeching halt-- they bend the world to their needs and desires-- and they create their own solutions and make the conditions and circumstances that they need to succeed.
Raising Your Sights and Expectations for Next Time
At 1871, one of our favorite mottos is: "It's Only a 'No' for Now." The most critical skill of any successful entrepreneur is perseverance. Get knocked down, get back up, try again harder. But also, while you're at it, aim a little higher the next time because selling yourself short or settling for half a loaf is stupid--regardless of all the people who are more than happy to tell you why things can't be done. When you shoot for the stars, you'll be amazed at just how far you can go. There's always a best seat in the house; your job is to go for it.
Focusing on What is Working and Build from There
I call this "eating the elephant one bite at a time." Not every problem can be solved at once and you can't generally get across the chasm in a single leap, but you can build off the foundation formed by the accomplishments and successes that you've had to date and then break the remaining barriers down into manageable and bite-sized challenges; and then take these tasks on one at a time. It may require a little more time, but eventually a lot of small steps, pushes and the occasional shove-- as well as a little bit of patience-- will get you there.
Acknowledging that Things Could Be a Lot Worse
Serial entrepreneurs will tell you that it's never as bad or as good as it looks. People who aren't living this life think that all entrepreneurs are cock-eyed optimists who view everything through rose-colored glasses and believe that trees grow to the sky. But we know better. Whatever brave and excited face you have to put on every day and show the world (and your team as well), deep down inside, it pays to be paranoid. But it's also essential, in the privacy of your own mind, to be proud. Proud of what you set out to do; proud of how far you've come when so many others never could; and proud of what you've built so far and of all the people you've benefited along the way. There are a lot of much worse ways you could be spending your time and your life. Admit it and get on with it.
Remembering Why You're Doing This in the First Place
We didn't come this far to quit or to only come this far. We didn't come to play; we came to win. And we wouldn't be doing this at all if it wasn't important and likely to make a difference to a lot of people in addition to ourselves. That's why we come to work; put our noses to the grindstone; and try to get better every single day. If it was easy, anyone could do it. It's not.
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