The Myth of the Entrepreneur
We live in a world that glorifies entrepreneurs as geniuses, innovators, and brilliant risk-takers. And we are, in a lot of ways. As an entrepreneur myself, I’ll claim that I do have innovative ideas at times or make daring decisions that relatively few people would take. Entrepreneurs are the people willing to make those choices. Genius, innovation, and courage happen every day in the entrepreneurial world.
That said, it doesn’t always feel like genius, innovation, or courage. More often than not it feels like tedium, despair, doubt, or terror while we’re being “genius” innovators, but we don’t talk about that.
Culturally, we love the idea of entrepreneurship. We love the myth of entrepreneurs as heroic leaders and visionaries who create new worlds for us to explore. As a culture, we acknowledge that business creation is hard work and sometimes there are setbacks. There’s lots of talk these days about how failure is a natural part of innovation, which is good. It’s true. However, what we don’t talk about is what it’s actually like to be an entrepreneur. We prefer our story version over the actual human experience and entrepreneurs suffer for it.
When you’re an entrepreneur, steeped in this mythology of grit, vision, genius, and risk-taking, the daily experience for entrepreneurs quickly becomes distorted. Are entrepreneurs supposed to get tired, confused, and afraid? Are you allowed to be weak and unskilled…at anything? What happens if you wake up in the middle of the night in crushing, paralyzing doubt? Aren’t entrepreneurs supposed to have laser-like focus with an incredible ability to “see” the inevitability of success? Aren’t entrepreneurs supposed to be optimistic in the face of daunting odds?
Entrepreneurs get sucked into believing that they should be unfailingly wise, smart, clear, tireless, and skilled in everything. Entrepreneurs don’t feel fear, or if we do, we feel the nice kind that is deftly handled during a walking meeting. Sure, we feel isolated, but we don’t actually need other people. We are entrepreneurs!
If our actual experience is different than the myth, we assume there’s something wrong with us.
The trap is that the myth is impossible to live up to and we are all having experiences that do not live up to the ideal. Enter the struggle of the entrepreneur. We believe we should be living up to an ideal that is impossible to succeed at, while simultaneously looking around and assuming all of our peers are doing a better job than we are at at fulfilling this mythic role. I am happy to tell you that everyone else feels this way, too. So, take a deep breath. You’re in good company and not the only one who feels like their failing.
The primary outcome of trying to live up to an impossible ideal is that entrepreneurs are emotionally isolated in their doubt and are convinced that if they just do everything right, they will be OK and will be able to relax a bit. They tend to believe everything they are the only ones actually struggling to live up to expectations. It’s amazing to me how consistent this reality is for entrepreneurs. However, most of us wouldn’t share this with anyone, not really, because it feels so threatening to admit this “failure.”
The outcomes of this entrepreneurial weirdness is not just personal suffering, but also significant negative impacts to business and personal lives.
- Suppress and hide fear and shame, instead of learning the lessons they hold
- Overwork or stay busy with the wrong activities as a way of controlling the discomfort of negative emotions
- Make decisions that are perhaps expedient, but not in the best interest of their business
- Fail to ask for appropriate support, either personally or professionally
- Be tyrants, hyper-controlling, or distrustful of employees
- Work to the point of burnout
- Refuse to incorporate adequate self-care
- Question their own vision and judgment
- Literally kill themselves from desperation and isolation
The combined result can be ugly. Customers, employees, vendors, family, and friends may or may not be aware of the internal battle being waged in the entrepreneur, but they will experience the fallout. Entrepreneurs tend to be very committed to not letting others see the struggle. Never let them see you sweat is not just great advertising, it’s the live and die by motto for millions of people.
This myth is a destructive lie that hurts everyone involved.
Of course, ridiculous and destructive expectations don’t only apply to entrepreneurs. Many people suffer in silence while trying to live up to unreasonable ideas of what “good” is. The reason I am identifying entrepreneurs in particular is that we seriously do not talk about this. Ben Horowitz, the author of “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” and entrepreneur icon from Silicon Valley, he talks about the hard things as being a permanent part of leadership and identifies this common phenomena of entrepreneurs lying to hide their own struggle.
“When I first became a CEO, I genuinely thought that I was the only one struggling. Whenever I spoke to other CEOs, they all seemed like they had everything under control. Their businesses were always going “fantastic” and their experience was inevitably “amazing”. But as I watched my peers’ fantastic, amazing businesses go bankrupt and sell for cheap, I realized I was probably not the only one struggling”
He also wonders why, if everyone had similar struggles, why no one wrote any of it down to help others. In this way, his book is a gift to entrepreneurs struggling in the nonstop flow of “hard things.” But we need more honesty and truth telling.
How We Lie
The big reason why these books aren’t written is that no one wants to admit that the emperor has no clothes. As in the emperor will be the last one to say, “Actually I’m bare ass naked and don’t know what I’m doing. I’m afraid, overwhelmed, and tired. I haven’t eaten anything but sugar and caffeine in over a week and I’m quite possibly not qualified to do what I’m doing.”
What we say instead of this when someone asks how we are is, “Good. Great. Couldn’t be better. Having the time of my life.”
The problem with this is obvious. Entrepreneurs cannot function at our best when we are so compromised and isolated by fear. Our organizations, as well as all the people involved, suffer when we are not at our best. And we know it! However, most of us respond by trying to be more perfect instead of more human.
The Way Out
The reality is that entrepreneurs are working so hard to live up to an unrealistic myth of what a great entrepreneur is, they aren’t allowing themselves to be human. Humans have needs and limitations, entrepreneurs don’t. The problem is obvious; we are human. We can’t change that, even if we find just the right doses of caffeine and melatonin to work our biology like a wind-up toy.
There is no failure in fully accepting our humanness. It’s not losing the game. In fact, there’s immense potential and good that comes in allowing ourselves to be human, for ourselves as well as for our businesses and stakeholders. Being fully human opens the door to creativity and innovation, increased productivity, more sanity for everyone, higher employee satisfaction, and greater customer loyalty.
Entrepreneurs need to allow themselves to be human. We can’t possibly deliver best possible business outcomes, nor create highly functioning business environments without having a seat at the table, too. Everyone may be enjoying the feast you’ve created, but if you don’t have a seat at your own table, can you really keep it going? Is it really the best experience it could be for everyone?
We can create businesses that not only fulfill and exceed our visions, but don’t kill us in the process. We can create businesses, jobs, work environments, customer experiences, and communities that support everyone, including ourselves. When we are able to become human in the context of our businesses and we will experience deep community for ourselves, as well as create it for others. We can be nourished and sustained, while our employees, customers and other stakeholders thrive, too.
Questions to consider
- Are you running yourself ragged to reach a sense of OKness? Has this worked for you?
- Are you feeling that others have it more together than you do? Can you really know for certain if that’s true?
- Are you taking the time to take care of your basic needs and relationships?
- Is it threatening to be seen as human (aka having needs, flawed, limited) for you? Why? What would happen if you were seen this way?
- Do you have the support you need in your life to be honest about your reality with anyone? Are there steps you can take to begin to create that support?