The startup life is an intense and intensely personal experience.
Poet David Whyte said, “Work is where we can make ourselves; work is where we can break ourselves.” We’ve seen so much of the making and breaking in this world of fast paced startups, big exits and failures. Perhaps the greatest detriment has been the rise in burnout and depression in the startup community.
What follows is our absolute best advice on how to navigate the startup world without losing yourself in the fire.
It starts with radical self inquiry.
What is Work?
More importantly, what is your relationship to work? As humans, we work for purpose and meaning, to create value in the world and for money. Yet very few of us take the time to explore what work truly means to us and where we first learned our beliefs about work.
What is work to you? Is it your job or your joy? What did you parents teach you about work? How did they relate to work? What is your relationship to work right now? What is success to you? What is failure?
We bring a lot to work, and we check a lot of ourselves at the door of our respective workplaces before we enter. When you understand the story under the story of your relationship to work, or discover what is truly driving you, a new understanding of why you do what you do may surface. Apperception is the gateway to stronger decision making.
When it comes to finding meaningful work, know what connects you to your purpose and commit to align with it often.
What parts of you show up at work? How can you bring your wholeness into work?
How’s your heart? How do you feel? What are you not saying that needs to be said?
Startups are stressful. They can be incredibly lonely, frustrating, disappointing, overwhelming — and a whole host of other emotions. If these emotions are not released or are stuffed down and tucked away for later, they can compound in their intensity just under the surface of you. Allowing yourself to get comfortable with vulnerability can diffuse stress and cortisol build-up caused by the extremes of the startup life.
Start by voicing your feelings, even if it’s just to yourself or your journal. Take refuge in the private pages of your always-there-for-you journal and let your pen do the writing. The stream of consciousness style of writing helps to release thoughts, emotions and other mental tangles that may be weighing heavily on you.
Working with a coach can create space for you to open up and receive support to shift from draining habits and patterns to more life-giving ways of being. Connecting to a community of peers allows you to find a sense of safety and belonging.
Be honest, bold and real with yourself.
Know Your Flow
When hard work equates to constant stress, you won’t produce good results. From a neurological perspective, working with a brain constantly in survival mode — from a place of fight or flight — is the fastest way to deplete your resources as a human being, and can tank your ability to be an effective leader.
There is a powerful engagement in the oscillation between the states of optimal performance and recovery that is your prime resource of creativity. To work hard and work better, you need to be alive — you need to learn what it takes for you to be in your creative flow.
How do you work best? How do you show up on your best days? What do you do to show up on your best days (eat well, sleep well, exercise, play, etc.)? What can you do to support yourself so that you can show up like that more often?
Look Fear in the Face
What are you afraid of? What are you afraid of? What are you afraid of?
As humans we fear many things that compromise our sense of safety, love and belonging. We also fear uncertainty — and startups are a sea of uncertainty. When it comes to fear and failure in our startup saturated lives, it’s good to know what fears are at play for you.
Your fear has much to teach you. Be brave enough to ask yourself in moments what you might be afraid of. Trace your responses and inquire deeper. Voicing your fears is to know what underlying stuff you’re working with and what may be unconsciously driving you.
Until you get to the root of that fear, it can consume you and keep you from a fulfilling life. What is the fear you’re running away from? What will it take to admit and surrender to it?
How might you do something differently if you weren’t afraid? What would you dare to ask for?
Being a leader requires a cultivated depth of self-knowledge and awareness. Take some time to reflect on the following:
What do you really believe? What is your vision for your life? What values do you hold? What kind of company do you want to build? What kind of adult do you want to be? How do you want to be remembered? How do you want to feel in your days?
Rooting and Rituals
Once you begin the unfolding of who you are and want to be in the world, you can build that into your daily patterns and create that life for yourself day by day.
Personal rituals can help you connect to who you are and your purpose, and provide a center to orient your day around. Develop a habit of grounding to remember those important things — who you are, what you believe, what your vision is and what your intentions are for the day. These are your Polaris, your living why. Giving yourself this time for you can affect all the choices you make in your day.
What are rituals and things you can do to nourish your deepest sense of self daily? How can you slow down and find the pause in your day?
Learning to relax and lighten up is the key to your sustainability, resiliency, agility as a leader in your life, work and relationships. And, relaxation is the key to creativity.
How do you play? How do you unplug and recharge? What fuels your spirit? How can you create unburdened moments into your days?
“The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.” — Stuart Brown
Create spaces in your days that are unburdened and you are connected to your most intimate being and to your community.
What is the change you want to see and bring to the world? Startups begin with an amazing idea that sparked a successful company doing great, new things.
In the rapid growth of startup life, it’s important to reconnect to those moments that bring you alive and to cultivate more moments like that. That’s where your next great idea is going to come from.
Techstars put together a list of resources for anyone who thinks they may be suffering from mental health issues, or anyone who wants to learn more about the topic. You can find them here.