In any startup, having flexibility is essential for success. One thing, however, cannot change without significant disruption and cost: the founding team. Successful investors say, “Put a great team in the right market, and you’ll win,” however, the focus is usually on the team’s professional skills. This is clearly relevant, but even more important is what lies underneath the professional resume.
The most important, yet often overlooked, factor that leads to a company’s success or failure is the emotional health of the founding team. The founders’ emotional health is deeply intertwined with so much, including:
- Strategic and operational decision-making
- Company culture
- Work ethic
- Ability to take advice and work with investors and partners
- Runway (avoiding burnout, self-sabotage)
According to neuroscientists, we are conscious of about 5% of our cognitive activity, meaning that most actions depend on the 95% of brain activity that occurs beyond our awareness. Our ingrained thought patterns and how we deal with feelings ultimately lead us toward happiness or pain. Emotional health is at the foundation of nearly everything: career, family, relationships and physical well-being.
In my own personal experiences as an entrepreneur over the past 20 years, I look back and see how my mistakes and successes were clearly really related to my emotional health at the time.
Team And Culture
Much like romantic relationships, in our professional relationships, we are attracted to people who have similar energy or, more concretely, share a similar maturity level, worldview and values. There were times when I chose to work with people who clearly were not emotionally healthy. Instead of blaming them, I look back now and realize it was my own emotional health that was the cause. Today, I would have known within two minutes that these were not the right people for me, but with weaker emotional health, I didn’t stand a chance back then.
Running a new business is a roller coaster of feelings that can interfere with making good decisions. Years ago, my solution was to simply avoid and push down my feelings. This, of course, made it worse. Today, I allow myself to experience all the highs and lows, but with a much-improved foundation of support. I have more meaningful relationships in all aspects of my life. Achieving this meant saying goodbye to a lot of people, setting strong boundaries with others and working really hard to build and grow the relationships that are most important. This support system makes riding the waves of entrepreneurship more manageable, leading to consistently better decisions.
Energy And Work-Ethic
While running a business I had 10 years ago, I gained 30 pounds in the first year, started smoking and would drink as hard as I could whenever I got a free night. I did these things because I didn’t know how to deal with uncomfortable feelings and was in desperate need of more self-care. I didn’t prioritize my emotional health, and my physical health paid the price. Today, because of much-improved emotional health, I prioritize caring for my physical health, even when it’s hard to do. I have more energy than I did back then, and I better pace myself for the long haul. Any entrepreneur whose physical health suffers is going to lack the energy and staying power to build a great organization.
Recognize The Patterns Of Self-Sabotage
Sometimes when things get very difficult, our subconscious will try to protect us by finding a way out. I can think of several instances when I set myself up to fail by doing stupid things. But I wasn’t dumb. I was, deep down, looking for a way out. Maybe I wanted to escape those really hard feelings. Perhaps there was a part of me that thought I didn’t deserve success. Maybe I feared the responsibility of success. People self-sabotage all the time; they do seemingly strange and destructive things because they are angry, hurt or in need of change, yet lack the emotional health to face the situation. Recognizing these often hard-to-see patterns with a foundation of emotional health is essential to unlocking our full potential. A quote often attributed to Carl Jung says it perfectly: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, you will repeat it and call it fate.”
Where Do I Start?
In the last 25 years, there has been incredible scientific progress in the field of brain plasticity — the ability to shape and “rewire” our own brains. There are countless ways to begin, however, finding what is most impactful can be overwhelming. For me, going to therapy has been incredibly helpful in navigating this process.
By prioritizing my emotional health, I am a better entrepreneur and, more importantly, a healthier and happier person. The greatest education of my life has been the process of learning how to build and care for my emotional health. It is much improved, far from perfect, and still very much a work in progress.