Things That Keep Us Up At Night: Entrepreneur Anxiety
Each year, I invite my clients to participate in the Lucky Break client survey. I ask you all sorts of things: about your business, about where you turn for advice, about how confident you feel in various aspects of your business, and about what biggest piece of entrepreneur anxiety is keeping you awake at night.
Several hundred people rose to the occasion this year (thank you!) and I wanted to share some of the responses with you. Why? Because so very many of us are lying awake with worry/ fear/ overwhelm at night, and there’s a surprising amount of commonality in what plagues us. Entrepreneurship is damn hard and sometimes I don’t think we talk about that enough. In my entrepreneurial journey, I’ve often taken comfort in community, talking about the “hard stuff” and realizing that my worries and failures are well-tilled ground among the small business set. In fact, that’s the reason that I started a consulting company- to help us connect to one another, pull back the curtain on running a product-centered brand, dish “no b.s.” business advice, and help others benefit from the 3,719 mistakes I’ve made as an entrepreneur.
I sifted through hundreds of survey answers to discover that the vast majority of replies fell under one of five main “umbrellas.” Below you’ll find some direct-from-our-mouths answers about what’s rumbling across the brain waves at 1am. The responses are purposefully provided without any identifying information, because the replies could easily have come from any of us!
ENTREPRENEUR ANXIETY + FEAR OF FAILURE + JEOPARDIZING OUR FAMILIES
- Fear holding me back every step of the way. Worried that I’ll waste my family’s money on a failed attempt at entrepreneurship.
- Worrying that I’ll fail.
- Not getting this company I’ve worked so hard for off the ground and where I want it to be.
- Wondering if it’s all worth it.
- Are my products good enough?
- Family balance.
- Should I continue this business or shut it down? Is it adding to or taking away from my life?
- Managing anxiety, and managing unfounded doubts about potential success and failure when taking risks.
- Imposter syndrome.
Mercy… that’s is a heavy list, isn’t it? I put it forward because I think these are the anxieties that constantly dance through our heads, but so rarely roll forth from our mouths. But there is comfort in the commonality… you aren’t alone. You’re not the only one facing that fear, white-knuckling it, and sweating it out. In my experience (and in the experience of the majority of my consulting clients), struggle is at the very core of entrepreneurship. But there’s a tremendous beauty in challenging ourselves, pushing outside our comfort zones, and taking a risk. It’s never easy and rarely boring, but there’s almost nothing else I’d rather do with my life at this point.
Here’s my advice…
Nervous energy isn’t your friend. And I say that as someone whose first grade teacher gave her a book about anxiety at the ripe old age of 6. I’ve ultimately realized that all energy is either productive or destructive, and anxiety is massively destructive energy. That doesn’t mean that we should go running off of cliffs blindfolded in the name of courage. We shouldn’t ignore our gut, but it’s wise to be aware of (and attuned to) our nervous energy. Once we’ve made a decision, stand confidently in those decisions. Don’t give into panic or stagnation or the negative narrative that your mind wants to produce. Becoming more self-aware is an essential building block of business success.
One of my favorite books to read to steady myself and help me pay attention to the negative narratives that run on a loop in my head is Rising Strong by Brene Brown. It’s a good read and I hope you might find some value in it, too.
Impostor syndrome is real. And we all suffer from it. I don’t think there’s any level of success that’s immune from this beast. But the key- I think- is to hear that narrative when it pops up. Be attuned of it, but don’t indulge it. Two things that help me:
- Keeping a journal of my accomplishments. Progress is hard to see when it’s incremental and we’re standing so very close to it. But if I keep a notebook nearby (or even a digital note on my smartphone), then I can casually jot down the wins- both large and small- in the moment. When I feel stagnant and like I’m up against the impossible, I leaf back through those notes and I’m continually reminded of just how far I’ve come.
- Maintaining a “rave” file. Whether those are snippets from positive emails, or press clippings, or product reviews… I digitally gather assets to stow away for the most grueling of days (pro tip: The Evernote app is a godsend for this task!). When I’ve just heard my third “no” of the day and every time I’m paralyzed by fear or indifference, I spend a few minutes immersed in those glowing words. It’s an effective strategy for reminding myself of the importance of my work and restoring my gratitude for the opportunity to do it.
Remember: There are people less qualified than you, doing the things you want to do, simply because they decide to believe in themselves.
Balance is a myth. Several years ago, I was fortunate to hear Martha Stewart speak in her Omnimedia offices in NYC. One thing, in particular, that she said that day has stuck with me: “There’s no such things as balance. The key is prioritization in the moment.” Amen and amen! I long ago abandoned the ideal that I could run a burgeoning business, perfectly parent my children, keep a clean house, eat three balanced meals a day and drink eight full glasses of water, workout five times a week, and maintain a robust social calendar. Spoiler alert: that bullshit doesn’t happen. It’s not real and we’d all be better off if we abandoned the unobtainable ideal.
My house was often messier than I’d like in those early days. My kids were sometimes resentful of my travel schedule, my husband had to be more patient with our relationship than he ever imagined, and my friends rarely got me on a phone unless I was in transit from point A to point B. Such is life. Thankfully, my kids are increasingly independent. Our dinners are delivered weekly in a big box: I skip the grocery shopping in order to double-down on the time I spend actually cooking for my family. I have a helper wash our sheets. And though there still occasional 80-hour work weeks, there are also Tuesday afternoons that I take off simply because it’s gorgeous outside. And weeks I take off to help my daughter get settled in her dorm. Or jet off to explore a new country that’s been on my bucket list.
There’s no balance in any single day of my life, but there is radical prioritization. I wake up every day and invest those hours as best as I can. And I give myself lots of grace and flexibility when needed, because I’m human and I desperately need that. Forgive yourself if you don’t make it to the gym today. Release yourself from guilt at buying store-bought cookies for your kid’s event at school. Cling tight to those friends who don’t guilt you about your availability. You’re growing a business and that’s damn hard work. But if we play our cards right, then we’ll one day get to live life in a way that many can only imagine, with a degree of financial independence and flexibility that most covet. And in the meantime, we’re role-modeling the beauty of tenacity, commitment, and hard work for our families… and that’s a priceless lesson!
I hold an opinion that’s somewhat unexpected (and often unpopular) among business strategists: sometimes it’s best to surrender the fight. I’m not advocating that you go down easy. Or that you let someone talk you out of your dreams. No, no, no… that’s not it at all. But if you’ve dared greatly, pushed past your comfort zone, and you find no joy in it, then- sister- it’s time to lay it down. I’m not insinuating that there won’t be bad days or weeks or months.
In fifteen years as a full-time entrepreneur, I’ve waded through some deep, excruciating waters … and here’s where I’ve landed: if running the business zaps your joy, jeopardizes your relationships, or drains your bank account for an extended period of time, then there’s no great wisdom in continuing that suffering. It’s natural to be broke and exhausted for a good long while as a startup, but there’s no glory in continuing to walk out a business that’s no longer serving you well. I’ve actively coached some of clients to walk away. Occasionally, I can hear in their voices that they’re depleted. Exhausted. Done. And sometimes we simply need permission to do what’s best for ourselves and those we love. There’s tremendous courage in removing our ego from a situation and doing what we know in our gut is best, optics be damned.
The Lucky Break community had a lot more to say, too. I hope you’ll join me for parts 2 + 3 in this series as we dive into the other things that are keeping us up at night: daily overwhelm, small business finances, the struggle between our creative + business “to do” lists, and finding your ideal customers. More to come!