If you haven’t lived through a business failure, suffered enormous financial loss, or as founder been pushed out of your own company by investors, you probably don’t know what entrepreneurial shame feels like, tastes like, or smells like.
Shame is typically defined as a painful feeling of humiliation or distress that brings a loss of respect or honor. Shame is not only a strong word, the feeling of it is even more powerful.
It is the subconscious fear of shame that drives many, if not most, entrepreneurs.
It’s the basis for the often repeated mantra, “Failure is not an option.”
No one wants to be judged a failure.
And, if failure does come, you teeter on the edge of darkness while holding up a facade that tells others that all is okay. You play the charade because you can’t possibly do anything else. You play the game until you can’t.
And so it was for Matt Berman, age 50; Jody Sherman, age 48; Austen Heinz, age 31; Aaron Swartz, age 31; Faigy Mayer, age 31; Ovik Banerjee, age 24; and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, age 21.
People with new ideas. People with vision. People with gobs of creativity. Creative entrepreneurs and founders that committed suicide when faced with startup failure and the loss of significant investment. And the world asks, “Why?”
I’ve been a founder/CEO in the biomedical space more than once and have had several low points in my career. Valleys of death where James Altucher would say that I was holding an imaginary gun to my head. I’ve recently come out of one.
My startup had been a grind-out, 36-month effort. Funded with my own savings along with family and friends, and for the third time, cash on hand was gone. The next 12 months required $1.5 million and once interested investors went silent. All this at a time of life when I should have been kicking back and relaxing. But, I had one more idea. The usual entrepreneurial thing where you can’t sit in the grass and watch the sun rise and set. I needed to be doing something. Achieving something.
I battled headaches and a weight on my chest. I had more days than not where being diagnosed with a terminal illness wouldn’t have been such a bad thing. And the thought of death, for the first time in my life, drew closer as an option.
I went to the gym every day for a couple hours of respite but the feeling of impending failure always came back.
Many days it was the shame, and it draped over me like a heavy wet blanket and my knees buckled under the weight.
The hardest part, the shameful part, was that I couldn’t see an apparent exit where I could escape unscathed.
That world is the world for many founder/CEOs because nine out of ten startups will fail. It’s a known fact.
So be careful to claim failure as not an option.
Because if it isn’t, what the hell do you do when there’s a 90% chance that it is?
Don’t Listen to Them. Don’t Let Them Defeat You.
In 2011, Ben Huh wrote a poignant piece about his own experience with depression and suicidal thoughts. His startup was failing and he holed up in his apartment for a week. Sitting in the dark at night and curtains closed during the day. Finally, he pushed himself out the door and began going through the motions of work. He put one foot in front of the other until he got through it.
James Altucher wrote about flipping your brain from the depths of shame to the high energy of abundance by creating a new thought pattern that leads to the next new beginning.
In the typical Altucher way, he covered every possible aspect of a topic. In bouncing back from those moments of holding a gun to your head, I found the most direct were mental and the spiritual. The mental is simply taking those first steps. The spiritual is forming a mindset.
The key to Ben Huh and James Altucher is not looking back. Always look forward.
When you’re down to your last dollar and you have no idea where the next one is coming from; when you’re ready to slam your head into a wall or leap from the commuter train; it’s time to sit by yourself in the dark, in total silence, and let all the negativity flow out.
Think all the bad thoughts that you can muster. Say them out loud. Think of every one of them. Then forget about it.
In that silence, remember why you decided to start your failing company. It was probably a good idea at the time. You never expected failure. Remember the good feelings you had at the beginning. You envisioned a chance to cure a terminal illness; make life easier for the disabled, impact the cost of business, or significantly influence the daily lives of others.
You had an impactful idea. You know that you gave it your best effort and now it’s time to give it up and move on to the next one.
Going from a broken idea to the next new one will happen. Forget about your credit score. Forget about what people think. Forget about all the material things you’ve gathered up along the way. None of it matters. Especially the thing about what people think.
Forget Jack Ma’s famous line, “If you’re still poor at 35, it’s your fault.” It’s an idiotic statement. I’m surprised the University of North Carolina hasn’t rescinded his degree.
If you had a potentially great idea and spent a portion of your life in its pursuit and in the end it didn’t work…are you a failure?
Sure, your attempt failed. The company failed. Investors lost millions. It’s terrible. It’s like striking out with the bases loaded in the 7th game of the World Series. But are you a failure?
Think about this: If Thomas Edison quit after 99 failed experiments to create the light bulb, we would have been using candles a lot longer. If Picasso quit after his 1,000th work of art because he hadn’t sold any, he would not have created the other 99,000 and have masterpieces hanging in the Louvre. And, if Cormac McCarthy quit writing after four failed novels, we wouldn’t have Blood Meridian, The Road or No Country For Old Men. And if Steve Jobs hung it up after being pushed out of Apple in 1985, we’d have no iPhone, iPad, or MacBook Air.
So often today, having grit is synonymous with success. If you’re successful, you have grit. If you fail, you don’t. That’s like saying that you lack character and resolve. It’s the basis for shame.
There are plenty of articles detailing the steps to develop grit. But here’s the thing: I have plenty of grit. Ask anybody who knows me. And guess what? I failed. Grit had nothing to do with it.
If you choose to be an entrepreneur, business owner, freelance writer, online content marketer, or anything resembling self-employment, you need the resolve to pick yourself up after you fail and after you’re sinking at the low of the lowest points of your life. That’s what grit is really about and it’s meaning has been lost for at least a decade.
Successful entrepreneurship is determined by a body of work across a lifetime. One success or one failure does not define it.
But you will never get there without the ability to bounce back from failure. Grit is the ability to survive against the odds.
You won’t find grit in a book. And you can’t get it by hanging around people who have it — although it does help to see it firsthand.
Grit is all about how you act when times are difficult and the tables are turned against you.
Grit comes from within. Grit is courage. Grit is self-worth. Grit is ignoring the judgment of others. Grit is ignoring the expectations of others. Grit is keeping with your own internal compass.
Grit is a mindset. A mindset can be developed. James Altucher has his method. Ben Huh walked out the door. I have mine and we’re all somewhat similar.
I came to it during my young adult years in overcoming severe speech block and social anxiety. I found it through prayer. But you don’t have to pray. You do have to seek silence and do some form of meditation.
Think of mindset as an unwavering source of energy that guides your decisions and actions. It guides through intuition, that small voice deep inside you that jumps out first as described by Malcolm Gladstone in Blink.
Gladstone found that most of the time when faced with a decision, your first reaction and your first thought is the correct one. The problem is that our minds quickly short-circuit to expectations, perceived problems, and extraneous details that turn decision-making into a random analysis and we end up choosing wrong or at least choosing a poorer option.
The objective in developing a mindset is to ignore all the external stimuli and focus solely on that first “blink” reaction, your intuition. However, to hear that small voice, you must be in tune with it.
Getting In Tune
Many are afraid to whisper the word “spirituality.” Others feel funny talking about meditation. Others can’t picture themselves meditating because it seems…well…like they’re the Hare Krishna-thinking, incense-burning type, and that type doesn’t fit into their neighborhood, family, or church.
Others may talk about their belief in God and Jesus, while others are afraid to say that they’re not sure about God. That they don’t know enough. They can’t imagine what is meant by the universe.
None of it matters, though. You can believe what you want. You can believe in nothing. You can keep it all secret. But, if you want the mindset that will move you forward, you must practice the following:
1. Silence. You need to find the silence. Find a quiet place to sit or lie down. Close your eyes. Start taking slow deep breaths in and out.
2. Focus. Focus your thoughts on your breathing. Focus on the silence and the sound of your breathing and sense how good it feels.
3. Relaxation. Let your arms, legs, and shoulders grow heavy. Don’t hold them in tension. Let the tension ease out.
4. Letting go of the negative. When you’re starting to feel relaxed, begin thinking those negative thoughts that keep haunting you. As you breathe in and out, think about how bad you feel. Think about how you should have never started that damn company. Get it all out while continuing to breathe and focus on staying calm. Let your thoughts flow free.
5. Stop. Once the negative thoughts start repeating themselves, it’s time to stop and never think of them again.
6. Refocus. Change your focus to the things that you want in life. Do you want to change your life? Do you need money to pay the bills at home? Do you need a job? Do you need an idea for the next venture? What would make your family happy? Imagine having all your “wants” answered and feel how good it feels.
7. Ask for what you want. Now, ask for exactly what you want. Imagine the exact thing and ask for it. $10,000 to pay bills. The exact job. If you want a new place to live, imagine exactly where and in what type of house.
But wait, who are you asking?
Well, it could be the universe, God, Jesus, an angel, a Saint, or your dead mother. You may feel uncomfortable with that but who will know? The important thing is to do it.
Practice the above steps the first time for ten minutes or go for thirty. Once you get into the habit, you’ll find the length of time that suits you. The time between these sessions, when you’re going about your day, you need to be aware of negative thoughts: thoughts about failing, hindsight and the internal debate of what you should have done three years prior, thoughts about blaming someone or something. When they sneak in, and they will, you need to go back to positive.
Redirect your thoughts to what you meditated on. The things you want and how good it will feel once you achieve them.
Think about what you can do today to get closer to the things that you want tomorrow.
Your behavior should be like James Altucher who writes down ten new business ideas every morning. Or, Ben Huh who pushed himself out the door and began interacting with the world. What are you doing to get what you want?
Serendipity Turns Into Synchrony
A strange thing happens once you start thinking differently and asking for help. People at the grocery store become friendlier. That old friend you’d been thinking about calling suddenly calls you with a great idea. You bump into an acquaintance at Starbucks and a conversation starts up and before you know it you’re following new advice or a lead to a job.
Those are moments of serendipity. And once you begin paying attention to them, one will lead you to the next and to the next, which will lead toward the things you desire. When you tie these moments together, they form a line of synchronicity.
With synchronicity, before you know it you’re pumping your fist in the air because what you needed just dropped into your lap. Or, it seems that it came from nowhere but actually you were instrumental in making it happen. You asked for it. You took steps every day to get there.
Amazing things happen when your focus changes from “poor me” and you stop pouring the bottle of shame over yourself to focusing on what you can do today to make tomorrow better.
That’s the mindset.
It works every time.
If you have an experience or are going through one, I’ve love to hear from you. Please use the Comment Box below.
Thanks for reading!
About The Author
I’m a writer, entrepreneur, and survivor. I share my experiences and discuss how to battle the odds and keep coming back. Don’t let fear and anxiety control your decisions in life.
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