Isolation, Failure, and Mental Health
Entrepreneurship can really suck.
No one tells you that, though, and they won’t, because entrepreneurs are mostly lying to themselves and others about how great things are. The business may be going “great” as defined by a lot of measures, but that doesn’t mean their experience of entrepreneurship is going great. Most entrepreneurs, if you can get them to admit it, suffer a tremendous amount from isolation, fear, doubt, and stress. This isolation comes with a heavy toll for the entrepreneur themselves, but also for their businesses and the stakeholders involved.
Some of my story
If someone had asked me during how things were going when I owned my own food service business, particularly during high stress moments, I would have found a way to put a positive spin on everything. I would not have told you about my fear. I may have told you that my employees were miraculous and incredibly helpful. I may have told you about my frustration with my landlord or our weirdly constructed space, but I would have said some light sentiment about rolling with the punches and quickly changing the subject. In no way would I have told you about my body-numbing fear I’d only feel at 3am or my morbid hope that would arise at times that the whole thing would crash down so I’d be free of the mess.
Somehow I always found my way through and landed on my feet, mostly. A lot of the time I muscled my way through with work and a ridiculous amount of determination. However, when it got too much for me, I would have to concede defeat and ask for help from my community. I so desperately wanted to appear put together and to not need people, but that’s not real. And when I would finally give up on doing it by myself, people were ready to help and they were there. God bless ‘em. I have to wonder how often people watched me struggle, wondering when I’d finally ask for help, like a 3 year old determined to tie her own shoes.
No seat at the table
As an entrepreneur, I had experienced a deep and profound sense of isolation, while being surrounded by people who wanted nothing more than to help me. Yet, I didn’t know how to allow myself to be supported. Since then I’ve talked to many entrepreneurs who tell a a similar story; that they are holding a space for others (employees, customers, vendors, etc.) to have the best possible experience with their company while they themselves feel outside of that space of care.
I’ve come to believe that entrepreneurship (and leadership) can be like throwing a dinner party where everyone has a seat but you. Everyone else is enjoying the food and drink, the good conversation, and the warm light of the candles while you are busy attending to everyone’s needs. There is a lot of satisfaction in throwing a great dinner party, but after the work settles, you may be surprised to see that you are on the outside of the circle of care you’ve worked so hard to create.
Simply said, that is no bueno.
The sense of isolation is getting worse
This problem is exacerbated by wonderful emerging ideas in business that espouse the importance of community and keeping people and authentic relationships as the center of business. I totally agree with these best practices of authentic engagement on social media, treating employees like customers, and working with the community to do great social good. These are important ideas.
However, this can feel like a heavy weight for the entrepreneur and small business person who is already doing their best at serving the best interests of the people involved with their companies. Entrepreneurs already don’t have a seat at the table. They already feel isolated. They already feel tremendous pressure to live up to their own, as well as societal, ideals. Now they have to do it all authentically? Good god.
None of this is sustainable. In a study published from UC San Francisco, 72% of entrepreneurs and their immediate families report mental illness in comparison to 48% of control families. Granted, either number is high, but entrepreneurs and their families are suffering to a much higher degree from mental illness. That’s not necessarily including what people would call “normal” levels of anxiety and worry.
What is normal for entrepreneurs, particularly in tech, is outrageously not normal behavior. Not only do people work too hard, for too long, but they are isolated and often have their own self worth wrapped up in the state of the business. When 90% of tech start-ups fail, 90% of tech entrepreneurs are particularly exposed to feelings of personal devastation and people are literally choosing suicide. The stakes feel too high.
Outside of tech, entrepreneurship is still dicey. Only 30% of small businesses last ten years, and according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 470,000 businesses in this country were dying, while 400,000 were started that same year. So, failure in our small businesses and start-ups is common. It is the rule, not the exception. And even in companies that survived this ten year mark, it’s not necessarily smooth sailing. I can say that for certain, because my first business is in that category. I opened a business, ran it for ten years and sold it. But I suffered a great deal during that time. It’s not just failure of a business that is painful in entrepreneurship. It’s the pain of isolation and being unable to adequately process difficult emotions.
What to do
The first step is to know that you’re not alone; that the feeling of isolation, fear, and doubt are practically ubiquitous in entrepreneurship and leadership. As much as we want to believe in the power of the individual, it is important to find the communities and resources you need to help you be honest about your experience. You really do need people who can hear your stories and be empathetic. Those people can be professional coaches and/or therapists, but other entrepreneurs and leaders can provide incredible support. Simply knowing that it’s not just you goes a long way in supporting you along your own journey of development as a leader, human being, and a business person.
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