Life at a startup is unpredictable. You need to roll up your sleeves, think outside the box and take on more than just your job responsibilities. As the CEO of a startup, I’ve learned that it’s inevitable that you’ll experience anxiety at least once every day. From worrying about business strategy to product development, financials and company culture, being a startup CEO is both the most fascinating job in the world and possibly the most destructive.
You are expected to be strong by investors, employees and even your loved ones. You are expected to show grit, courage, inspiration and drive. You are expected to pull through every single challenge. You are expected to be Superman!
Is that true though?
In the book Feeling Good, author David D. Burns shares that nearly 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Epictetus stated that people are disturbed “not by things, but by the views we take of them.” Your feelings are a result of messages you send to yourself. As Burns himself indicates, “Your thoughts often have much more to do with how you feel than what is actually happening in your life.”
Do your investors, employees and loved ones expect you to be strong or is that an extreme distortion of what you think they expect? Have you ever asked them? If you are in this position, I advise you to do so, as the answer may surprise you.
In my startup journey, I have developed my own mechanisms to cope with anxiety, which include showing vulnerability, stepping back and asking myself questions, embracing surprises, sharpening the saw and educating myself.
Being vulnerable is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.
This was a big revelation for me. Through all the effort I put into showing how strong I was, I was actually making myself weaker. The stronger you want others to perceive you, the bigger the gap between reality and fantasy.
Show vulnerability. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know” or, “I haven’t figured it out.” Recently, one of my investors asked, “Did you get punched in the mouth today?” I answered, “YES!” His response was, “Good, that means you’re learning.”
Step back and ask.
When you work for a startup, you have a million things to do, and the majority of them are not as important or as urgent as you think. Some of these tasks may actually turn out to be a total waste of time.
As you approach a new project, ask yourself:
- Will this matter in a year from now?
- What would your friend say about this?
- Is this important or just urgent?
These type of questions have helped me reprioritize and refocus my energy on the most important tasks at hand, and ultimately become a more efficient worker and leader.
I have developed a ritual where every morning I take the 40 minutes to walk to my office. During that time, I will repeat to myself, “Today you are going to be surprised.” While I don’t know what type of surprise that will be, positive or negative, from employees, investors or customers, I am not only mentally prepared for it, I actually look forward to and embrace them. I always say, If you know that there are going to be surprises, you can’t be surprised.
Sharpen the saw.
There is nothing more important than your well-being. And for those who have read the book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, you will already know this concept. “Sharpen the saw” means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have -- you. It’s easy to forget, and there is no instruction for how to do this. I personally journal, cook and exercise. If you are not happy and healthy, it’s next to impossible to bring positive change to the world -- which startup CEOs typically aspire to do.
Learn it, do it, teach it.
Maggie Perry, one of our advisors and a doctor of psychology, argues that one of the first things to do when coping with anxiety is to educate yourself. Use self-help books, see a therapist and read relevant sources. But alone, education is not enough; you must also practice what you learn. Otherwise, you become just a bank of unused knowledge. The final step in the process is to teach it. Anxiety is part of your life and others can’t simply understand you; you need to teach to them what you learned.
These mechanisms have helped me, but they are by no means a recipe for everyone. Each individual will have their own methods and tips for coping with anxiety that will work best for their life, schedule, work environment and personality. Sharing your experiences with others and trying new things will only help us all become more aware and present, whether you are the CEO of a startup or a recent college graduate about to embark on your career.