My co-founder and I sit across the table from each other, silence dropping between us. We’ve had the second blow in as many weeks, an email from our bank which slashes our cash runway in half.
I fill the silence with thoughts running through my mind…
‘How are we going to get out of this one – it’s over’
‘What a waste of five years…we have failed’
‘We’re going to lose all our investor’s money…our friends and family’s money…our money’
‘We’re going to be homeless’
(Sounds dramatic, but how often does your mind-talk spiral like this?)
The situation we face is challenging, yes. This is the path we take as founders. A ‘bad day’ isn’t just difficult office politics, a career misstep or missing an internal deadline. We are dealing with the coalface of business, we are vested, and we feel the struggle – particularly in the exceptionally tough economic climate we find ourselves in now.
But so often what can make a bad day even worse is actually the story we tell ourselves about what is happening. Yes, we had bad news about our cash runway. But in just a few seconds, I had written off our entire business… in my mind. Our minds play havoc with all the fears of the future, and regrets or judgements of the past. Those thoughts lead to feelings of panic, fear, anxiety, anger etc. And those feelings drive behaviour – sleepless nights, frantic days.
Do you resonate?
Unpicking the thought spiral
We all know that founding a business is not for the faint of heart. I’m adding to that. Founding a business is not for the weak of mind. And that’s what got me thinking about just how critical it is to grow our mental resilience as founders. How can we get better at managing the stories we tell ourselves – even when facing true challenges? How can we reduce the anxiety we experience on a day-to-day basis… to help us not just survive the ride, but perhaps even enjoy it???
How we think, the stories we tell ourselves and the doubts that stew in our minds, all impact how we show up as a founder and leader. It affects the work we do, and those all around us. So to lead well (and lead through adversity) we must first lead ourselves and take charge of those thoughts.
The idea of mental resilience is nothing new – but I don’t think we talk about it enough, especially in the startup context. We must learn how to lead ourselves in order to lead our businesses… and by that, I really mean, how to lead our minds and the stories they like to tell us in moments of challenge and disruption. Now more than ever, we need to show up and ride out the uncertainty of a tough market – so mental resilience resources are what we need.
One of my favourite thinkers on this is Byron Katie. She says:
It’s not the problem that causes our suffering; it’s our thinking about the problem
Suffering is a strong word – but what she is referring to is actually a common part of the founder journey. Suffering for us looks like stress, over-work, anxiety, proving, tension, fear. It gets me curious about how much ‘suffering’ we create for ourselves through our own judgements and predictions as we try to make sense of the daily challenges we face.
So how do we alleviate this suffering? How do we build our mental resilience?
The founder mind-ninja workout
Let’s think of this like a workout for your mind – with practical steps to becoming a mind-ninja. Many of my favourite thinkers in this space (Byron Katie, Eckhart Tolle, Victor Frankl, Dr K Bradford Brown, Brene Brown, Bridge Partnership – to name just a few) have similar philosophies on what we need to do to build our mental resilience. Here’s 3 accessible steps to get you started:
Workout 1: Slow yourself down
Seriously. We may be required to move fast, with agility and pace – but mental resilience is achieved with the opposite. We need to become observers of ourselves… learning to notice our own thoughts, feelings and behaviours. We need to learn to find our familiar patterns of fear and identify our common storylines. You heard some of my common stories at the start of this article. What do you tend to tell yourself when things go wrong? And what emotions do you feel when you believe what you tell yourself? And then what happens – to the way you lead yourself, others, your business? Become a student of yourself. Be curious and look for patterns. Meditate. Notice. Journal. Pause.
Workout 2: Learn to lead your mind
This is the hard bit. Can we learn to not just blindly believe those stories, but instead learn to challenge them? Brene Brown calls this the ‘rumble’ – and it can feel like that.
Going back to my mind-talk at the start….
Is it really true that our business is over? No.
Is it true that it’s a waste of five years? No.
The truth sounds much more like ‘I don’t know what will happen’. It could sound like ‘I feel scared’. It could also sound like ‘We’ve been in hard places before and found a way out’.
This isn’t about positive thinking, as popular as that is. This is about being more pragmatic about what is real and actual and true. This is about shutting down thoughts that simply don’t serve you because they are not categorically true. When we can find more clarity, then we are ready for…
Workout 3: Choose your thoughts, and your path
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
The way we choose our response is by choosing what we believe. By choosing not to dwell on unhelpful thoughts we can actually find many more possibilities (and potential solutions) ahead of us. We are not paralyzed by fear or indecision. We can be experimental, playful even. And that of course is one of the keys to survival as a startup – our ability to navigate challenges with true agility. Freedom in our mind… and therefore from our feelings… is key to freedom in our actions.
This may sound like absolute psychobabble to you, or it may actually deeply resonate. My advice would be, if this piques any interest, start to explore this space… you never know what possibilities it may unlock. Become a mind-ninja, and see what it can unlock not just for you, but for your business and team too.
(And yes, we survived the cash runway issue…and still have a house).
FounderCircle members can access the Hub and watch the Scaleup Session with Naomi on this topic.
About the FounderFuel Series: Actionable tools and bite-sized insights to empower entrepreneurs and founders to get the best from themselves and those around them as startup and scaleup leaders. Get the fuel direct to your inbox by signing up here.
At weare3Sixty we believe in supporting the humans behind the world’s ambitious startups and our mission is to make sure that every founder and startup leader in the ecosystem has the support and skills to reach their full potential as resilient, high-performing leaders.
Here you’ll find 1:1 founder coaching, team coaching and team training all dedicated to the unique ride that is starting up and scaling up. Not only that, with our group-coaching FounderCircles® you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of other talented founders on the journey too – all committed to fuelling themselves, their teams and each other for the ride.
Calling all accelerators and investment partners: We work in partnership with investors, accelerators and incubators to complement programmes of support and learning with the human side of startup performance. Find out more here.