What to Do When Your Family and Friends Stand in the Way of Your Entrepreneurial Success
Why the people we love sometimes undermine us, and how you can let them go if you need to.
A few months ago, I was at my brother’s house hanging out in his backyard by the pool along with one of his friends. A discussion about the best way to clean a pool escalated to a spirited debate.
My brother, 10 years my senior, seemed inclined to take his friend’s side. I chided him jokingly, “You’ll listen to this guy and not your own brother?”
My brother shot back, with a little too much salt, “Yeah, he works for a living.”
Ouch. I already ran a successful agency at the time, but I guess you don’t have to acknowledge that I work for a living. In a way, I’m fortunate. My brother owns his own business, but he comes from a different generation. Maybe that’s the difference.
To men of his era, you don’t own a business unless you have a brick-and-mortar store and spend 100 hours a week yelling at suppliers on the phone, prodding unmotivated employees and self-medicating with fast food and whiskey until sugar, alcohol and cortisol land you in the hospital with the first of several heart attacks.
So I have my own family problems. Many of my students, though, have a different story to tell. A tale of friends, spouses and family members who walk the beaten path (college, job and retirement) and react with a mixture of terror and outrage that they want to step off that path and onto the high-risk, high-reward path of the entrepreneur.
“You know there’s no easy money, right? You always want to take shortcuts.”
“Nine out of 10 businesses fail! What makes you think you will be the one that succeeds?”
“Your father and I work for a living. Do you think you’re better than us?”
“This sounds like a scam. I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”
Humans are social animals. Back in the cave, it was dangerous for a human to go against the pack. If you got ostracized and exiled, you lost the protection of the group. You were as good as tiger-food.
We still have those herd instincts. When our closest pack-mates — our friends, our loved ones and our colleagues — all seem aligned against us, that kind of peer pressure is almost impossible to brush off. It’s an extraordinarily painful position to find yourself in, especially when you feel like you have disappointed or alienated the people you care about the most.
You’re not alone. Nearly every successful entrepreneur had to contend with haters and doubters. Whatever you do, don’t let them camp out in your head. People start successful businesses every day. Yes, nine out of 10 businesses fail within the first years, and you might found three of those failed companies before succeeding wildly on the fourth after learning from your mistakes.
So what do you do when the haters are your closest friends and family? In my opinion. and in my experience, you have four options.
1. Hear them out
Many people just want to be heard. Especially if they consider themselves your close confidants, they may simply want to have the chance to express themselves. So let them. Simply sit there, listen and take it in. Then thank them for their opinion and for the fact that they want the best for you. Once it’s out in the open, it can flutter away like a dove and you can both go about your day.
Try to resist the temptation to argue your point, even if you think you are right, even if you think your audience really needs to hear what you have to say and they would be better off for it. You will never change their mind. God forbid you try to change the mind of a parent or elder who is probably convinced that they know better and can’t believe you have the temerity to disagree.
People are set in their beliefs. They may have staked their very identities on their beliefs, and they find your divergence profoundly threatening to their sense of order in the world. So don’t argue. Just listen.
2. Prove them wrong
As the old Klingon proverb states, "Revenge is a dish that is best served cold." Sometimes there's just no better motivator than wanting to go out and prove everyone wrong. Instead of letting the heat consume your dreams, let it stoke the furnace of your will to succeed. Let it be your guiding light out of failure and into discipline.
But don’t be bitter, and don’t rub it in their face. Express gratitude to them for lighting that fire in your gut. As George Herbert said, “The best revenge is living well.” Remember, most people are set in their ways. Having their beliefs shaken by your success may cause them to dig their heels in, or it may inspire them to set a new standard for themselves.
3. Change the subject
I have stopped talking business with my brother. Now we just talk about family, hockey and home improvement. If I try to talk business with him — to share my perspective on running a lean, mean and scrappy business that actually frees my time rather than consuming it — it just turns into a fight.
As I said before, you will probably never change their minds, so just change the subject. Most people would rather talk about pleasant things anyway, so give them the gift of pleasantries. If they don’t have anything nice to say about your business, they don’t need to hear about it.
Find like-minded entrepreneurs to talk business with, and let friends and family stay friends and family.
4. Let them go
Winston Churchill once described a fanatic as someone who “can't change his mind and won't change the subject.” If your friend or loved one simply can’t let five minutes pass without scolding you about what a mistake your business aspirations are, how you should have gotten your degree and gotten a real job like your cousin, it may be time to let them go.
Many people can’t stand the idea of cutting people out of their lives, especially if the person is a close relation, a longstanding confidant or a personal benefactor. After all, we may be talking about your mom and dad or your oldest friend.
But you can’t hold space for their doubt. Their doubt in you is poison and will only hold your back. Assuming we’re not talking about a spouse or significant other, you don’t have to have a dramatic break-up with the hater in order to cut them off. Simply disappear quietly from their lives.
Don’t take their calls or reply as readily to their texts. Unfollow them on social media, and make excuses not to meet them for lunch whenever possible. See problematic family members only at holiday times, smile at them, and get out as soon as possible.
People serve different roles in our life in different seasons. Sad as it may be, people come and go. Always honor and express gratitude to the people who have made themselves relevant and nourishing to your life, but recognize that your first duty is to yourself and your purpose. Anyone who stands opposed to that purpose (even close kin) must be reckoned with. Lovingly and gratefully, of course.
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