Don't Let the Loneliness of Entrepreneurship Kill You
It's lonely at the top.
And that potentially could kill you.
We all know how stress walks hand-in-hand, knuckles white, with entrepreneurship, because of the constant need to put out the fires in front of us. Entrepreneurs, after all, are crazy enough to believe fighting fires is more fun than fire prevention. We often look to stress management -- exercise, more/less sleep, yoga/Pilates, Tequila Avion -- as a way to prolong our lives in this, the madcap life we've chosen.
But we may be missing the real silent killer: Loneliness.
We aren't talking about simply acting alone. It's important to remember how the theologian Paul Tillich viewed it, with loneliness expressing the pain of being alone, rather than solitude, which expresses the glory of being alone. Many entrepreneurs start out believing (and, more importantly, trusting) themselves and themselves alone. After all, entrepreneurship generally comes from a product or idea sprung from your head, like Athena born from Zeus, and so a company is uniquely yours. It is a part of you.
Along the entrepreneurial journey, there are a good number of successes to share with your team, with your stakeholders and your customers. But there are a ton more failures and setbacks. Few people around you share in those.
That means you are essentially alone. You can only rely on yourself.
That's, though, when solitude can turn to the more corrosive loneliness.
And that's where the health problems start.
A new study from researchers at the University of North Carolina shows that loneliness can "vastly elevate" a person's risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer, making it as dangerous to your health as a lack of physical inactivity in youth or diabetes in old age.
The research assessed loneliness across several life stages, but the overall picture is clear: loneliness can kill.
Advice is cheap, and readily ignored, particularly by the entrepreneurial set, but I'll try anyway. There are ways to avoid loneliness, or at least take away some of its killing power. Here are just a few:
While your instinct might be to always go it alone, you run the risk of self-imposed isolation, which almost always leads its close cousin, depression. Rather than isolate yourself, take on a partner or co-founder. For one thing, you'll have someone to talk with who is invested in your success. Second, it gives you the opportunity to get someone with complementary skills. Maybe you're a tech whiz, so you need someone who is a skilled marketer.
If you insist, in the very early days, on keeping all leadership functions to yourself, it might help to simply work adjacent to people just like you. Instead of operating your business from yor kitchen table, spring on renting a desk or office at a coworking space. (Disclosure: Entepreneur Media, publisher of this site, is an investor and parter in AlleyNYC, a coworking space in Manhattan.) There, you can work alone amid a bunch of other companies doing the same thing. It's a great way to meet people who might be able to help you work out problems, or network with like-minded founders to find funding or business opportunities. Plus, it forces you to put on clean clothes most days, which will also make you a far more desirable business partner.
Tillich's contrast between loneliness and solitude is instructive. Theologically, solitude is never really being alone, since the feeling potentially brings you closer to your God. Practically, looking around you, seeing no one, and taking that as an opportunity for inner reflection, rather than outer isolation, can only be a positive for you. Call it prayer, meditation or talking to yourself, reflection always gives your mind the pause it needs to recharge. Be still, and know you are not God, but you can do great things.
I cry. I'm not ashamed of it. One Father's Day, shortly after my divorce, my kids picked up a set of grill tools for me for my new house. I bawled. Since then, my kids pretend to cry every time I pick up a spatula. We go through a range of emotions, but they really only get us in trouble if we let them manage us, rather than the other way around. Loneliness is a feeling, nothing more. After all, you can be lonely in a crowd of friends. Like all feelings, they need to be felt and then addressed. Cry it out. Have that pity party for yourself. Then wipe your nose and move forward.
Depression is the cancer of entrepreneurship, and more and more business leaders are handling their own mental issues more effectively. If loneliness is leading to a true mental-health condition, find a therapist. If you just need to talk about where your life or business is heading, hire a coach. If it's a spiritual crisis, find that bar where the priest and the rabbi always seem to walk in. Talk to your mentor. Call your dad. The greatest loss that comes from loneliness or depression is perspective. Only someone who isn't you can truly see you without the biases our internal mirrors show us. My experience has been that people generally want to help others, so unburdening is rarely a burden.
I'd never presume to tell people how to live their lives, and experience tells me that lonely entrepreneurs are the least likely to listen anyway. But life is too important to spend it lonely. Take a few steps to correct that, and I promise I'll leave you alone.