Startup Snapshot, a data-sharing platform for the entrepreneurial ecosystem, recently released its latest report, The Untold Toll: The Impact of stress on the well-being of startup founders and CEOs.
Clearly, the emotional state of founders and entrepreneurs in any period, especially now in this economic environment, is a critical driver of success. Yet the emotional, cognitive, and physical toll that founding and leading a startup takes is dangerously overlooked and rarely spoken about.
Startup Snapshot is illuminating the current state of the startup mindset through global data collected from hundreds of founders in startups of all sizes, in all verticals. It’s the largest study of its kind. And it is honest and gritty, with no punches pulled.
Covid-19. Presidential Primaries. Gyrations in the Stock Market. Global Pandemic. Trisolarians arriving in their droplet to exterminate us.
It’s pretty intense out there right now. Somewhere. But not in my backyard where my dogs roam around.
I was in the hospital recently, attached to those devices they attach you to that monitor everything. I was trying to relax by closing my eyes, breathing deeply and slowly, and meditating. Every 30 seconds or so something beeped. After a few minutes of that, I asked the nurse if he could turn off the beeping. He looked at it and said my HR was going below 60 so that’s why it was beeping. I told him my resting HR is low 50s and could he turn the beeping off. He said he couldn’t turn it off because he needed to be alerted whenever my HR went below 60. I suddenly identified with Kafka.
People conflate worry, stress, and anxiety all the time, but they are different. Worry and stress create anxiety. There are different ways of dealing with each of them, and addressing them individually is better than thinking about them as a big clump of things bundled together. Or, not addressing them at all. But all three get in the way of concentrating on, well, anything.
When I’m worried, I realize that my obsessive worrying has negative value. Instead, I write down what I’m worried about and decide whether I can do something about it. If I can, I do. If I can’t, I don’t and let it go.
When I’m stressed, I focus on understanding what I can and can’t control. I put my energy against what I can control. I let go of what I can’t control. I exercise more and sleep more.
When I’m anxious, I slow things down. I take deep breaths. I sit quietly until the anxiety passes.
I sense an enormous amount of worry, stress, and anxiety around me with many of the people I interact with. I’ve always been a huge absorber of other people’s worry, stress, and anxiety, which is a strength of mine, but at a real cost to me. Figuring out how to continue to be an absorber, without it having as much of a cost to me has been an important part of my last few years. I notice this more as things amp up, and they are pretty amped up right now.
If you are feeling any of this, consider how you are dealing with it and what it is doing to you. Take action on what you can impact and let the rest go.
I woke up late this morning with a vivid dream in my head. I had shown up at my new house on the first morning of our occupancy. There were all kinds of people running around including a dozen schoolkids playing red devil on the patio. I didn’t have any clothes unpacked yet except some running shorts that I didn’t like and an old t-shirt. I went upstairs to go to the bathroom and take a shower. The bathroom floor was linoleum and the wallpaper was grandma’s English garden floral from the 1950s. I tried to figure out how to poop in the toilet but the toilet paper holder got tangled up in the seat cover and I couldn’t get the toilet open correctly, dunked the toilet paper in the water, and just gave up. I turned on the shower, which was a pink tub with yellow walls, miniature size, with a plastic shower curtain that only covered half the length of the tub. The shower nozzle was a wide-spray non-adjustable one so I ended up with water all over the bathroom, including the one towel that was hung on a metal rack in the direct line of the spray. The only soap that was available was a tiny petrified stub molded into the ridged indent in the wall. I gave up and went to brush my teeth but realized I had no toothbrush or toothpaste. I put my uncomfortable running shorts on and got in a friends car to drive up a windy hill to a potato restaurant shack like the one where I had my first job at Potatoes Etc., except it was in a wooden crab shack instead of a shiny new shopping mall. I struggled for a while to construct my order based on their extremely complex paper-based ordering system before giving up. A few more things like this happened on the way back to the house, including a short run through the woods, and then I woke up.
It’s a few hours later and the dream still lingers. The obvious analysis of it is that I’m feeling a lot of anxiety, but I’m not. We just had an awesome two-day partner offsite and we all showed up fully to the conversation. While I’m emotionally and physically tired, I realized my dream was a version of something I described – and then we talked about – for a while, which is the notion of absorbing and metabolizing stress and anxiety, especially when it is generated by other people.
Last year I wrote a post titled Do You Reduce Stress Or Increase Stress? after hearing a great quote by Mark Cuban at an event where I interviewed him. He said:
“I like to invest in people who reduce stress and avoid people who increase stress.”
This stuck with me because I view part of my role to absorb the stress in the system while working hard not to add stress to people who I work with. I’m not perfect, but I’ve come to understand the link between this activity and my depressive tendencies.
Specifically, I absorb a lot of stress and anxiety. I’ve become very good at metabolizing it (a word that I came up with in therapy to describe the activity that happens.) As a result, I can stay very calm in the face of enormous stress and anxiety of others. However, I do have to metabolize what I absorb (and expel the waste product in some way) or else it builds up. I also have to deal with my own stress and anxiety. If I reach my limit, I start reacting to the cumulative stress and anxiety in my system. If I don’t do something about that quickly (of which self-care: rest, running, meditating, eating right, spending time alone, not traveling, being with Amy, reading) and in a significant enough magnitude, a depressive episode of some duration starts to loom. In the extreme cases, I tip into depression.
I used to fight the idea of this. I foolishly thought “if I can just stop being stressed or anxious, I’ll be fine.” Rather than trying to prevent or avoid stress and anxiety, I’ve learned to embrace it, and all the signals around it.
The dream that I led this post off with is a signal that I’m metabolizing a large amount of stress and anxiety. While I can psychoanalyze the dream, I’ve had some version of this type of dream enough times in my 52 years on this planet to know what the inputs are. More importantly to me is the warning of a dream this vivid that I need to pay attention to me and to make sure I’ve got enough of a metabolism buffer. I’m good there as I’ve got four days at home in Boulder with Amy, working out of my house the next two days and then having a very quiet weekend.
For me, the metaphor of metabolizing stress and anxiety, which only emerged through my work in therapy last year, is a profound one that has been incredibly helpful to me. If it’s helpful to you, that’s great. If it’s not, I’d suggest a meta-insight, which is to search for a physical or biological metaphor for how you deal with stress and anxiety, in an effort to have a more constructive relationship with it.
Mark Cuban had a great line a few weeks ago at the interview I did with him and Charlie Ergen at Denver Startup Week. He said:
“I like to invest in people who reduce stress and avoid people who increase stress.”
As I was dealing with something yesterday, this reappeared in my brain but slightly modified.
“I like to be the person who reduces stress and avoid people who increase stress.”
My world is filled with people who increase stress. It’s particularly true around negotiations, but it is also prevalent in board level interactions, relationships with founders, dynamics with leaders, and everything else that has to do with companies. And this is just in my business world. When you wander into other areas, like politics, news, and even social situations, the level of stress (which often masquerades as drama) is remarkable.
One of my meditation routines from Headspace that I like is on Anxiety. Another favorite is on Stress. In both cases, the goal is not to eliminate anxiety or stress but to acknowledge it and be more effective in interacting with it.
The word I’ve anchored on in the past few years around this is equanimity. It’s at the essence of my own personal approach to things. Given the work and larger world context I live in, I’ve accepted that I can’t eliminate stress. I also can’t avoid it. And, while I can avoid people who increase stress, they will still appear and I will need to interact with them.
So, by turning an element of this around 180 degrees, I’ve been able to change my relationship with stress. I accept that stress is everywhere. I don’t try to eliminate it. However, through my behavior, I try to be the person who reduces it. I do this through my approach to all things, carrying the notion of equanimity as a core principle.
This doesn’t mean I’m perfect. I know I generate stress for others in some situations. I know I can always get better at this. Whenever I realize I’ve created stress for someone else, I try to learn from it and improve.
I’ve had my share of vomit moments – both in business and in life. It’s that moment where a specific thing happens that causes you to want to run into the bathroom and vomit, which you sometimes actually do.
Some of my memorable vomit moments including the night that I asked my first wife if she was having an affair and she nonchalantly said “yes.” Or when I woke up at 4am in the morning and realized Feld Technologies would be out of money in two days if I didn’t go collect some of our accounts receivable – primarily from customers who were clearly stalling to pay because of their financial issues. Or when I finally came to terms with the fact that the only real option for Interliant, a company I had founded and had gone public, was to file for Chapter 11 because we simply couldn’t service our debt. Or when I got sued for $150 million for fraud and read through the first filing which had my name on every page at least 10 times (after three years the suit was settled for for $625,000 and there was no finding of fraud – the other side spent $3m to get $625k – ultimately not a good plan for them.) Or when I got a call that a close friend, who was a CEO of a public company at the time, and his wife had been in a near fatal car accident and were both in surgery (they ended up surviving, recovering, and are doing great.) Or when I got a call that an acquisition of a company I was an investor in, which we had struggled through for months and was an outstanding outcome for everyone involved, had been called off because it wasn’t approved at the board level of the public acquirer. Or when I was on an airplane with my three Foundry Partners coming back from NY and we were diverted to Colorado Springs because of a massive storm in Denver and as we were landing I literally threw up – for the first time ever on a plane – because it was such an excruciating landing.
Some of the vomit moments, like the last one, are tangible. Others are conceptual. But they all share one thing in common – an intense moment of anxiety which is followed by the passage of time. Whatever caused the vomit moment either resolved quickly, or is something you have to go deal with for a while. While you may be paralyzed in the moment, I’ve found the most powerful thing is to realize that time will continue on and that you almost always can address the issue that caused the vomit moment and get to some sort of resolution. This resolution won’t necessarily be an external definition of victory, but it will allow you to move on to the next thing you need to address. The worst thing you can do is stay paralyzed, or go into a phase of explicit denial about what is going on.
At the Feld Men’s Chautauqua in Aspen this weekend, my cousin Kenny asked us all what our favorite quotes were. Mine was “It’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering.” (John Galt in Atlas Shrugged). Understanding that the vomit moment is part of life (and business) and accepting it, rather than fearing it, or denying it, results – at least in my opinion – in a much better life.
We will all have our vomit moments. But we will usually survive them. And taking action after they happen is the best approach.
What are some of your vomit moments?