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Entrepreneurs / Personal Development

6 Lessons This Marine Veteran Learned Overcoming PTSD, Alcoholism and Suicidal Thoughts to Build a Successful Business

All the gifts worth unwrapping come packaged in adversity. Struggle is what makes us value them.
6 Lessons This Marine Veteran Learned Overcoming PTSD, Alcoholism and Suicidal Thoughts to Build a Successful Business
Image credit: Photo provided by Akshay Nanavati
Akshay Nanavati on patrol in Iraq.
- Guest Writer
Marine Corps Veteran, Speaker, Adventurer and Author of Fearvana
8 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

I still remember waking up with an empty liter bottle of vodka on the floor next to me. A week of binge drinking had finally taken it’s toll. With my mind and spirit reeling in a state of chaos, I thought to myself. "What is the point of going on…"

After I came home from seven months fighting in Iraq with the US Marines, I was diagnosed with PTSD by the Veteran Affairs Administration. The trut,h however, is that I didn’t do anything special in the war. I know veterans who have suffered a lot more and done a lot more than I have. That made me feel even worse about the choices I made that led me to the brink of suicide. In that moment, I knew something needed to change.

To heal my brain, I began studying neuroscience, psychology and spirituality. Initially, I just wanted a roadmap out of the abyss. But in that three-year journey, I began a greater quest to figure out how we can all live happier and more meaningful lives. That search led me to the concept of Fearvana. I came to learn that the path to success, happiness and even enlightenment is not to escape our fears, but embrace them, for if we don’t seek out a worthy struggle, struggle will find us anyway. The greatest gift in life is knowing what that worthy struggle is and taking consistent action toward it.

I found peace by consuming myself with a new war. My mission became teaching others what I had learned. I then built a global business helping people find their worthy struggle, learn how to smile in the face of it and ultimately live a limitless lifestyle. Here are six tips I learned about building a successful business as a veteran entrepreneur: 

1. Reframe and use your pain.

Among other things, I struggled with survivors guilt after the war. In my research, I learned there are no “negative” emotions, there are only emotions and it’s up to us to choose what we do with them. So I taught myself to find value in my guilt.

Today I have a picture of my friend who died in Iraq up on my wall with the words “This should have been you, earn this life.” Instead of fighting my guilt, I harnessed it. I told myself since I am still alive, let me do something meaningful with this life and honor my friend. That helped me sober up and focus on giving value to the world. Guilt is now my greatest ally.

Pain of any kind, including our so-called “negative” emotions, can be a very effective motivator for action, but it’s up to us to reframe it and leverage it as a force for good. As Sir Richard Branson says "It is important not to fear fear, but to harness it -- use it as fuel to take your business to the next level. After all, fear is energy."

Related: How to Never Let Fear Hold You Back Again

2. “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week” - General Patton

It’s scary bringing something out to the world, whether it be a product or service, so it’s easy to get paralyzed by perfectionism. In Iraq, we didn’t have that luxury. We had to be ready to act, even if the plan wasn’t perfect.

While building my business, it took me a little while to channel fear into imperfect action, as we did in the Marines. I spent my fair share of time procrastinating and delaying a project because I felt it wasn’t “ready” yet.

Ultimately though, I realized that the greatest lessons lie in the doing. We learned more on the ground in Iraq than we did while preparing for the war. Consuming knowledge is important, but in the end, creation is a far greater teacher than consumption. As entrepreneur Marie Forleo says, “clarity comes from engagement, not thought.”

Related: What a Combat Veteran Knows About Transformation Through Adversity

3. Recreate military structure

To build a business, you need to have a high level of productivity and efficiency. That’s very challenging when you are working from home, it’s easy to get distracted or get caught up by “shiny light syndrome.” So I taught myself to recreate the same structures imposed upon me during my time in the military.

I set up clear morning and evening routines, I created checklists for everything so I didn’t have to waste cognitive energy and lose strength to “decision fatigue.” I wrote down a list of five activities to work on every day, scheduled them in my calendar and worked in one-hour shifts followed by short 10 minute breaks.

With the larger mission in mind, I broke the process down into bite-sized chunks and just worked through them one small step at a time.

Related: The Service Industry: Why Veterans Are Flocking to the Franchise World

4. Force is the enemy

In counterinsurgency warfare, force is your enemy. Similarly, in today's information age, people are constantly bombarded with sales pitches and an overload of information. They no longer know who or what to trust.

Marketing today is about teaching your audience and providing as much value as possible. The more forceful you are in your sales and marketing, the faster you will lose the interest of your potential customers.

I do the best I can to provide value first through things like free content, free sample sessions, free talks and I am also donating all the proceeds of my book toward charity. As entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk said “Give value. Give value. Give value. And then ask for business.”

This is also how I finally beat alcohol addiction. I realized that willpower alone would not work. I couldn’t just keep fighting it. In my journey to sobriety, I came to find faith. Through that, I discovered that when you combine willpower with faith, you become unstoppable.

Related: Why Will Power Isn't the Answer to Curing Bad Habits

5. Build your success team

In the Marines, it’s all about the team. You don’t do anything alone. You rely on your men and they rely on you. I did the same thing to build my business. I got an accountability buddy to check in with every day, I started a mastermind group, I found business mentors like Jack Canfield, Gary Vaynerchuk, Marie Forleo, Derek Halpern, Steve Olsher and Ramit Sethi, to name just a few. I learned from anyone and everyone I could find who was doing what I wanted to do. I figured out what they were doing, how they were doing it and I followed their model.

Related: 6 Things Great Mentors Do Differently

6. Perhaps most importantly - Develop a positive relationship to suffering

After decades of research, in what has become one of the largest and most important studies on happiness, professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, bestselling author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, concluded, “Of all the virtues we can learn, no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.”

I like to call it developing a positive relationship to suffering. This was the greatest lesson I learned in all the research I took on to heal my brain and create Fearvana. Anything worthy I have achieved in my life has been far from easy, whether it was writing a book, serving in the Marines, running ultramaratons, nurturing a happy marriage for over six years, skiing 350 miles across the world’s second largest ice cap or, of course, building a business.

Building a business is hard, it’s very hard! But the struggle is what makes it worthwhile. There are a wealth of gifts waiting for us in adversity. As Tom Bilyeu, the founder of Impact Theory and Quest Nutrition says “it’s in that adversity that the magic happens.”

The real value in building a business is not the money you make, it’s the impact you make on others and the person you become in the process. Happiness, and success lies in the journey, not the destination. 

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