"I AM AN OLD MAN AND HAVE KNOWN MANY TROUBLES.
MOST OF THEM NEVER HAPPENED." — MARK TWAIN
As a serial entrepreneur himself, executive coach Justin Milano knows firsthand what his clients go through every day as they navigate the complexities of building a business. The demands are endless and urgent, the competition fierce and the pressure to succeed intense. Many entrepreneurs and executives find themselves torn between the need to keep up outward appearances of prosperity—success breeds success—while feeling utterly overwhelmed and burned out. In fact, startup culture, full of mythical heroes living on ramen noodles and no sleep, has turned burnout almost into a right of passage.
The truth is that most businesses fail, and most entrepreneurs are not real with themselves about the challenges they face. To go the distance not only means finding better ways to sell better products and services, but also developing a culture of resiliency, starting with leadership.
"Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom," said Aristotle. Translated into today's business world that means becoming more mindful of our subconscious psychological and emotional patterns. The lack of time spent on developing self is one of the single greatest inhibitors of success, notes Milano. On the flip side, those who spend the time on personal and leadership development not only are healthier and happier, but they also have a competitive edge.
Milano and Matt McCall, partner in Pritzker Venture Capital Group and KIN Advisory Board member, began the workshop by noting that most of our stress is fueled by fear. To transform our relationship with fear, they explained, first we must understand the key difference between fear and anxiety.
Fear is about real threats happening in real time, for example, your co-founder or business partner unexpectedly announcing that they're quitting. The experience is very sudden and lasts only seconds or minutes. Anxiety, by contrast, is about potential threats: What would happen if you were to lose your co-founder or business partner? Stewing in your anxieties takes considerable mental energy, which is how stress builds over time. Days are spent worrying about future threats that may, or may not, happen.
Anxiety can be a friend and ally, but only if we learn how to listen to its wisdom, rather than the crazy stories that can so quickly fill our minds. Anxiety provides useful information and data for scenario planning. If we don’t learn how to discern the wisdom of our anxiety and instead use avoidance strategies to cope, then anxiety builds, repeating like a broken record in our subconscious.
Too much of this anxiety can lead to what psychologists call the chronic threat cycle, an acutely stressful downward spiral that can end in burnout. Neuroscience shows that too much anxiety can literally keep you from thinking straight. When faced with what is perceived as an imminent threat, the brain stops information from entering the cortex—the part of our brain responsible for thinking, creativity and sorting through new possibilities. How can you run a business when all you can think about is fight or flight?
The best thing that an overstressed founder or executive can do is become aware of their unconscious reactions, says Milano. Then they are ready to learn how to reliably shift from fear to creativity and new possibilities.
As part of the workshop, Milano took the group through a simple, five-step process that interrupts the fear response. This allows people to access their whole body wisdom and uncover new creative possibilities to solve challenging problems.
The key takeaway from the session was that stress, fear, and anxiety are hardwired into us for a reason. They allow us to respond to the circumstances of our lives. The ability to generate a healthy relationship with our anxiety is one of the greatest skill sets a leader can possess.
Milano's company, Good Startups, offers a free online Entrepreneurial Awareness Assessment that helps entrepreneurs, executives and team members uncover their blind spots and bright spots in 22 key areas. "Awareness is the first step to any transformation," says Milano. "By learning these skills, you, your colleagues and company can all benefit."
by Jacob Meschke, Medill School of Journalism