The tricky thing about stress is that it drives us away from one of the best stress busters: people! "No time for breaks, no time for socializing," stress seems to say. "Must work, must work, must work!"
We've all probably felt this way from time to time, especially entrepreneurs. When you're building a startup, it's easy to work from home, order in some pizza, and start asking your dog's opinion about design. But that's not necessarily the best arrangement for your mental health - or your productivity.
Venturing out into the community and connecting with other entrepreneurs can make a world of difference. You'll come back to work not just refreshed, but armed with some key psychological weapons to battle the shame and loneliness that can fester when working alone in a high-stress situation.
The struggle is normal
Stress and anxiety aren't the most pleasant states to be in, but they're even worse when you beat yourself up about being stressed and anxious. If you take an evening to have an honest conversation with other entrepreneurs, you'll discover something miraculous: everything you're feeling is perfectly normal. There's nothing wrong with you.
"The simple and honest process of letting people know that discomfort is normal, it's going to happen, why it happens, and why it's appropriate, reduces anxiety, fear, and shame. Periods of discomfort become an expectation and a norm," writes Brené Brown in Daring Greatly.
Judi Otton, cofounder and CEO of GrowthCast, was feeling anxious and having trouble sleeping and focusing as she got closer to launch. One day, she finally confided in someone at her coworking space, The Grove.
"I sat down across from a friend and said, 'You know, the closer we get to launch, the more anxious I'm feeling.' He just nodded wisely and said, 'Yeah, that sounds about right.' With that, my excess anxiety just dissipated. Knowing I wasn't alone, and that what I was feeling was perfectly normal, was so powerful, and I was able to go on and do the work I needed to do to get the product out," she recalls.
Paul McTaggart, founder and CEO of Dental Departures, had a similar experience. He had a full-time job when he was building his startup, so he was getting up every day at 6 am and going to bed at midnight or 1 am to squeeze in time for everything. Jealous of his coworkers, who had free time on nights and weekends, he felt like he was reaching a breaking point. So he invited some fellow entrepreneurs out for beers and ended up having a revelatory conversation.
"What came from that night was that to be truly successful as an entrepreneur, I had to 'be comfortable being uncomfortable' with the fact it was a marathon. If I didn't make time right now for myself, my family, my health, and my sanity, it was not going to get easier as we grew from a successful startup to a large impactful organization," says McTaggart. "The next day was a new beginning for me." As an entrepreneur, you can't wait for the challenges to dissipate; you have to accept them as part of startup life.
Kevin Jochelson, founder and chief events officer at Fiestafy, started having self-doubts when their launch was delayed by three months and he felt his confidence waning. Like McTaggart and Otton, he reached out to a fellow entrepreneur and was brave enough to share his feelings.
"He used a Yoga metaphor . . . each class is started by taking a bit of time out to acknowledge who you are that day and accepting that. He explained that you can't always hold yourself against what you once were or sometimes are; instead, you need to embrace who you are today, acknowledge your achievements and your doubts, but take ownership of them because that is who you are today. With that advice, I was able to stop worrying about former setbacks or past challenges, and embrace the person I am, choose my attitude, and tackle each challenge with the best person I can be today," says Jochelson.
"When you tackle the world with this mentality, you will find that your fears fall aside because when you go to sleep at night, you know you lived the day being the best person you could be today. And if you didn't achieve everything you wish you could have...tomorrow's always a new day."
Fighting the stress, fighting the anxiety, fighting your weaknesses and shortcomings adds a second layer of struggle onto being an entrepreneur. Accepting it all doesn't mean the journey will be easy, but it will be less hard. And one of the best ways to learn acceptance is to hear it straight from the mouth of other entrepreneurs: this is normal.
You're not alone
Once you understand that everything you're going through is normal, the second part of the equation is to understand that you're not alone. Getting stuck in traffic by yourself can be infuriating; if you've got a carful of people, at least you can crack jokes, play games, and make fun of that guy in the other car who's talking to himself.
"A certain level of the stress and anxiety is alleviated when one is able to share it with others who are going through a similar experience. It is when one keeps it bottled up that it can often lead to more significant problems," explains Melissa Peterson, a clinical social worker who has been practicing in Boston for nine years and worked with many (highly stressed) students from MIT and Harvard.
This is partly the reason why Daniel Lee and his team at Hush Technology love to work out of the EvoNexus incubator in downtown San Diego. "By being surrounded by the like-minded entrepreneurs in the EvoNexus space, we see a very tangible difference in our internal team morale. Without even actively doing anything, our EvoNexus community provides huge psychological support to Hush on a daily basis by creating an energetic, 'we're in this together' aura," says Lee.
When Pixelkeet founder Jessica Greenwalt noticed that lots of entrepreneurs spent weekends working on their side projects alone, she decided to do something about it. Side Project Sundays was born, bringing people together at her home or a cafe to work alongside each other. "Friends from all over the Bay Area come together to share what they've been working on and keep each other company. SPS gives everyone a chance to ask for advice from a group that has gone through the same thing they're going through and helps busy founders feel like they are not alone," she says.
DialMyCalls's David Batchelor agrees. "The ability to connect with a group of similar people will be one of the most rewarding things you can do to grow your startup. It's reinvigorating and necessary to break the isolation that running a startup can trap you in."
Beyond simply offering advice, other entrepreneurs in your community can be a powerful source of emotional support. And the way you get support is up to you - maybe you just need an evening of laughter and distraction, or maybe you want to go deep on what you're feeling. As long as you don't throw a pity party, you'll head back to work with a clearer head and a lighter heart.
Want to hear more about startup communities? On October 6-7, Tech Cocktail Celebrate will gather hundreds of attendees, industry leaders, and inspiring speakers in downtown Vegas. Meet the hottest startups and investors from around the country, learn and collaborate with others turning their communities into startup cities, and enjoy music, parties, and llama spotting.