Why Being Kind to Yourself Is Key to Entrepreneurial Success
Once we silence our inner critic, we're free to live on our own terms.
“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” -- Jack Kornfield
I remember sitting in the middle of a tech conference years ago when I first founded my company, JotForm. I watched as, one by one, established entrepreneurs took turns in sharing their stories of success. Every time one would get up to speak, I heard this small, nagging voice in my head tell me: You’re not good enough.
I had fallen into the trap of comparison and self-pity, which then led to a snowball effect of self-criticism. Why can’t I reach my goals faster? Why am I the only one struggling to scale up my startup?
Not only was I beating myself up over my perceived shortcomings, I wasn’t seeing the whole picture.
It was only after a few days had passed and I’d had some distance from those initial negative feelings that I was able to see the situation for what it was. Those entrepreneurs have been at this longer than I have. I can’t possibly know all of the struggles and challenges they’ve faced along the way. No one is perfect.
This wasn’t the first or last time I felt this way. During the course of building my startup, I’ve had to learn to stop listening to my harsh, judgmental inner voice. It’s ultimately taken me 13 years to stop being my own worst critic and cultivate more kindness toward myself.
An Underrated Virtue
Psychologist and researcher Dr. Kristin Neff refers to the practice of being self-compassionate as “treating yourself with the same type of kind, caring support and understanding that you would show to anyone you cared about.”
For high achievers, it’s easy to become accustomed to running on all cylinder. This means that no matter how you cut it, you’re prone to mess up. You’ll make mistakes and there’s no way around it. But here’s the thing: We can’t spend our lives avoiding messes. Berating yourself only serves to limit your future development and depletes your resources.
Looking at ourselves through the lens of kindness staves off feelings of shame and guilt, because we realize that just like everyone else on the planet, we’re flawed and imperfect. Or as Dr. Neff pointed out to the New York Times: “When you’re in the trenches, do you want an enemy or an ally?”
Self-Compassion Improves Performance
“Self-acceptance is my refusal to be in an adversarial relationship to myself.” -- Nathaniel Branden
In building my startup, I recognized that by keeping track of everything I lacked, I was actively draining my energy. Dwelling on all my mishaps didn’t automatically lead to surges in productivity either. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
Basing our self-worth on out-competing others makes us more insecure and anxious, which is ultimately self-defeating. According to Emma Seppälä of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research, scientific data shows that this self-criticism makes us weaker in the face of failure.
Over the years, this is what I’ve learned: For motivation to be sustainable and effective, we have to practice self-compassion. Writer Kristin Wong put it this way: “It’s easier for self-compassionate people to improve on those mistakes, failures or shortcomings because they view them more objectively.”
In other words, I had to stop comparing myself to others and focus on all the things I was doing right in order to grow my business in a scalable way. And research backs me up on this. According to one 2012 study, treating ourselves with more warmth and understanding when confronted with failure can also make us more motivated to improve. That’s because regularly practicing self-compassion activates our biological nurturance and soothing system. And other studies have shown that when we have the ability to recognize and own our failings, we develop more resilience and are better able to cope with adversity.
Build Stronger Teams
Being nicer to ourselves is also an attitude that affects those around us. The more self-compassion we practice, the more likely we are to treat those around us the same way. In a graduation speech delivered at Wharton by LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, he alluded to creating a culture of warmth and greater emotional acuity. “Managing compassionately is not just a better way to build a team,” he said. “It’s a better way to build a company.”
When we can show our teams that we’re willing to see our mistakes in a kinder light, we are reinforcing trust and inspiring colleagues through empathy, respect and understanding. These are some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned since starting my company. Embodying more self-kindness has meant acknowledging that we’re all human and reminding myself that it’s okay to stumble or fall short along the way.
Self-Acceptance Means Freedom
Imagine you could step into any conference not only with confidence, but with the self-awareness to know you don’t have all the answers -- and that’s okay. “There is only one success,” American journalist Christopher Morley famously observed. "To be able to spend your life in your own way.”
No matter what stage you find yourself in, nothing compares to feeling fully comfortable in your own skin. Keep track of how often you berate yourself over some small mistake or whenever your mind plays the comparison game. Pay attention to how you’ve treated yourself in the past week. Have you acted like a caring, supportive friend? Or your own worst critic?
By being mindful of these moments, you can start to see where you could use a little more self-compassion.
In the end, nearly two decades of entrepreneurship have taught me that there’s more to life than reaching the top of TechCrunch or disrupting industries. What matters most to me is focusing on making something great and ensuring a company that allows people to feel equally fulfilled outside of work.
Once we can silence our inner critic, we’re free to lead our lives on our own terms.