29 Oct Mental health tips for entrepreneurs. Quick, before you go nuts.

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When Apple launched Think Different in 1997 with a commercial narrated by Steve Jobs called, “Here’s to the crazy ones“, they observed that “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

Cool. No. Wait! What? Turns out that working like “crazy” is more of a recipe for a mental health meltdown than for success.

There’s not much point striving so hard to change the world as an entrepreneur that you’re not around to enjoy it. Or that the price of your success is trading off your mental health. And yet we continue to neglect and abuse mental health in pursuit of the entrepreneurial dream.

Why? What if the problem is striving itself?

So many of us have a deeply ingrained belief that striving is the only strategy to achieve success when, in fact, it’s more likely to be a self-limiting cap on our potential.

Striving and thriving are very different approaches to realising your goals in life.

I haven’t always thought this way. Call me a slow learner if you like, it’s taken me five decades on earth and numerous back from the brink moments to arrive at this view. I have my own unhappy experiences with striving, not to mention obsession, ultra-competitiveness, and adrenaline-fuelled ambition, and I know I’m not alone. Swing a cat in a co-working space or corporate lobby and you’re likely to hit 10 people who have their own struggles with mental health – addiction, anxiety, depression or overwhelm – or know someone close to them who does.  

James Packer has just released a biography, The Price of Fortune, in which he talks about his battle with mental health.

There’s an epidemic around mental health with more than four million families in Australia impacted each year – no one is immune. James Packer, Buddy and Jesinta Franklin, Ian Thorpe and a long list of other high-achievers – film stars, musicians, sporting heroes and media personalities – have bravely “come out” in recent years putting the issue on the public agenda and firing up conversation. Thank you.

Still, I’m worried.

Recently I was invited to speak on these themes at an Innovation Bay dinner for entrepreneurs. At the end of the evening many of the attendees came up to me to share their own struggles. Startup founders and business leaders are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues. Mostly because they’re operating in pressure cookers in which they fear mental health problems will be seen as a sign of weakness. In a recent report from KPMG, 96% of startup founders admit to being stressed with 66% somewhere between “Very” and “Extremely”.  

James Cameron, Partner, Airtree VC shares this concern:

“Founder mental health is a massive issue, and we don’t talk about it enough. This means we’re failing a lot of people who might be struggling. Because of the cultural stigma that still gets attached, many founders feel that talking openly about their own struggles will somehow mean they’re seen as less competent. This, of course is complete bullshit. Suffering from bouts of depression or other mental health conditions doesn’t mean you’re any less than capable in your role as a founder.” (KPMG 2018, p.6)

And so, as Mental Health Month draws to a close, and Movember kicks off (the charity tackling, among other things, mental health and suicide prevention), I felt compelled to share a few of my experiences and offer a little advice in the hope that it might help others.  

There’s no such thing as an overnight success.

I just saw “A Star is Born” and loved it. It’s brilliant, but it’s not real.

Waitresses rarely get plucked from obscurity, flown by private jet to concert venues, and coaxed out from the wings to perform an original, unrehearsed song to a Glastonbury-sized audience (hats off to the Producers, that scene really was filmed at Glastonbury!).  

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga - A Star is Born

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga – A Star is Born

Yes, Lady Gaga’s character, Ally, has been slogging it out singing cabaret and writing songs in her bedroom for years, but we didn’t get to see those arduous travails. Instead, we see her catapulted to stardom at lightspeed.

The world doesn’t work like that.

Success. Takes. Time.

To steal the cliche, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. A long haul flight, not a bunny hop. Which means you’ll need to develop the capacity to perform at a high level on a sustained basis so you don’t blow yourself up en route. Amanda Price, KPMG’s Head of High Growth Ventures, puts it this way, “It’s critical that founders get better support, so they don’t burn out before their business has a chance to succeed.”  

This applies to corporate leaders too.

Between my own entrepreneurial exploits I spent 10 years leading international agency networks and running around the planet chasing clients, pitches and people to bring in to the business. I’d rarely stop to recover and had convinced myself that working harder than anyone else was the only way to succeed. Are we all so infected with the Calvinist work ethic?

Looking back I can see how rudimentary and flawed my approach was. Even more so as a leader who was modelling sub-optimal behaviour to thousands of people in the network.

So much smarter to treat yourself like an athlete and develop the capabilities to perform at a high level on an ongoing basis. Remember the marathon?

Regular exercise, plenty of sleep, and good nutrition are the basics, but if you’re serious about success, you’ll need to have a more complete athlete’s mindset and support team to help you.  

Take a look at this list below contrasting athletes with Founders. It’s little wonder that Founders are exploding and imploding all over the planet.

Courtesy KPMG HGV Founder Program

Stay curious

I’ve met countless startup founders totally fixated on what they’re doing. That kind of focus is a necessary, but insufficient, precondition for success. But if you’re not careful, you’ll end up living in a bubble of your own making oblivious to, or disinterested in, the outside world. That’s dangerous.

If you’re not checking in with the wider world and cultivating your curiosity you might get caught up in your own BS. Suddenly the bubble becomes an echo chamber confirming all your preconceptions. At its worst whole companies and entire categories become self-referential. I’ve seen this happen in the advertising industry, the music business, and publishing.

Eventually a failure of curiosity leaves people in once vibrant businesses dancing on the head of a pin reminiscent of  the classic disco tune from Flight of the Conchords, “Too Many Dicks on the Dancefloor.”

If that’s not enough to convince you to look up and scan the horizon from time to time, there are other benefits to being curious. Like, IMHO, humility.

I’ve always loved this model from McKinsey, it’s such a simple way to put your ego in its proper place. Ask yourself, how much do you really know about anything? Answer: There’s 5% you know you know; 15% you know you don’t know; and 80% you don’t know you don’t know.

Outsized egos and arrogance are easy to find in startup-ville and they’re never useful qualities. But an insatiable curiosity is a powerful antidote. Keep your mind open and be prepared to be amazed. Lead by example as a life-long learner. 

One if the best books on this subject was written one Sunday afternoon in 1939 by James Webb Young. As you may have guessed, “A Technique for Producing Ideas” is a short book, only 64 pages long, and easily devoured in an hour or two.

Webb Young argues that in any kind of creative act or problem solving situation, from architecture to detective work, you need to have plenty of raw material of both a general and specific nature in your mind to work with. You can only acquire that raw material by being curious in an open, enthusiastic, childlike way.

James Webb Young

James Webb Young

Curiosity is good for your creativity and for your soul, and it goes a long way to mitigate any asshole-like tendencies.

Be Mindful

Mindfulness is fast becoming mainstream and not a moment too soon. It’s not about achieving a certain mental state, it’s about tuning in to the state you’re in. That might be manic or relaxed, either way it’s good to know.  

Recently a friend of mine said that mindfulness was just another thing she had to do in a life that was already way too frantic, and that she was failing at it. But mindfulness isn’t another thing to do, it’s another way to be. It’s about being present.

Easy to say, hard to do, or be.

We spend so much of our time with our brains running on our hyperactive and scatty Default Mode Network that we rarely give ourselves the chance to notice and focus on what’s actually in front of us. According to research from Harvard, we’re off with the pixies 47% of the time.

A recent article in Time reported that our attention spans had dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015. Less than a Goldfish.

The opportunity and switching costs of this are incalculable. What golden opportunities might you be missing? What if you’re not paying attention to your team in meetings and miss the beginnings of a killer insight or idea? What if your fail to hear the critical feedback from a sweet-spot customer and push on oblivious to it?  

Being present is a precursor to focus. Even better, getting yourself off autopilot and into the here and now is the first step towards being “flow ready.”

At a deeper level, mindfulness practice is a pathway to self-awareness and higher order emotional intelligence competencies that are critical to high-performing businesses.  

Developing your emotional intelligence is an essential skill-set for navigating the complexities and pace of the world today. According to the State of the Heart Report 2018, your EQ is predictive of effectiveness, relationships, wellbeing and quality of life. All good reasons why the World Economic Forum identifies EQ as one of the essential skills for the future.

Full disclosure here: I know the power of mindfulness first hand and I’m now, officially, an evangelist. In fact, I teach a leadership program called Search Inside Yourself that was developed and tested at Google and is based on mindfulness, neuroscience and emotional intelligence training. Having lived the first 40 years of my life in hyperdrive, the penny finally dropped on my need to develop new skills to elevate my performance, leadership and wellbeing in ways I could happily sustain. Better if you can get to this point sooner than later.

As a co-founder of Sendle it’s been these skills that have been my most important contribution to our early success, far more than anything I know about marketing, brands, culture and communication. It’s a way to bring your best self to the business and the team you’re there to support.

Put yourself first

There’s a little masochist in all of us – the part of us that enjoys the pain of overwork a little too much. It may not be sexually gratifying but in professional circles it can feel like a status symbol.

As Imogen Baxter from Square Peg Capital says, “Length of day” or “hours worked” is a weird badge of honour that doesn’t need to exist in our ecosystem. Sustained high performance is far more important to optimise for.” (KPMG 2018, p.11)

The status conferred by overwork and lack of self care is entirely erroneous. It’s simultaneously unhelpful and unhealthy. If you want to be successful, looking after yourself has got to be a top priority. Too often we put others in front of ourselves and eventually pay the price.

It’s not weak, it’s not soft, and it’s not selfish.

On the contrary, self care and self compassion are precisely what give you the resources and reserves to support and serve people around you.

Here’s an everyday example you may not have considered before – the oh-so-familiar airline safety demonstration:

In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person. Keep your mask on until a uniformed crew member advises you to remove it.

In this case, looking after yourself first means you can care for the others around you. But the idea of self care and self-compassion goes much deeper than this.

Far from being “soft on yourself” practising self-compassion helps you deal with missteps, mistakes and failures with higher order outcomes.

In 2012, researchers Breines and Chen demonstrated that self-compassion helped develop a growth mindset, improve motivation to correct past mistakes and increased efforts to improve after setbacks. They concluded that, “self-compassion may increase self-improvement motivation given that it encourages people to confront their mistakes and weaknesses without either self-deprecation or defensive self-enhancement.”

You can learn more about these practices by looking at the work of self-compassion expert Dr Kristin Neff.  

You’re always infectious, make sure it’s with laughter

Ready or not, you are the living embodiment of the business and brand you want to build. Knocking yourself out, sacrificing your health and blowing up your relationships sets you on a treacherous path that others in your company may also stumble along. Doesn’t sound like a winning formula does it?

As Sian Priest, General Manager, Innovation Bay explains, “Work-life balance is a constant battle for anybody in a position of leadership, but as a founder this is often amplified. Founders are under pressure to be “on” 24/7 and having to constantly fight fires to grow their business. The risk is that the long hours, and not taking time off, not only affects their ability to lead, but can sets a bad example for other people within their startup and lead to burnout.” (KPMG 2018, p.5)

Your behaviour as a leader is bedrock for your business.

At Sendle we’ve tried to model the right behaviours from the get-go, and to live the values we espouse. We called our values “The 5Hs” – Humble, Honest, Happy, Hungry and High-achieving. No matter how hungry and high-achieving a potential employee may be we say ‘no thank you’ to them in the absence of humility, honesty and a happy, positive disposition.  

The goal was to build a company that was healthy from the inside out in the belief that it would radiate positively through the products and services we created, attract the right people, and would ultimately be reflected in positive customer experience and a glowing NPS. Great in theory, but none of this works if the Founders can’t actually be humble, honest and happy in the business and set the right tone for everyone else to follow.

So far, so good.

Entertainer, Victor Borge.

Good mental health amplifies the potential of your venture 100x. Prepare for the long haul, keep yourself humble and inspired with curiosity, be present as often as you can, and prioritise looking after yourself. Do these things and your odds of success have shortened considerably.

Oh, yeah. There’s one more thing. Life’s far too short for you not to have fun on the way through. As the late, great entertainer, Victor Borge said, “laughter is the shortest distance between two people”. Try to laugh a lot, it will help keep you, your shit, and your business together.


If you would like to talk to someone about your mental health, here are some people ready for your call:

  • SANE Australia Helpline 1800 18 SANE (7263) www.sane.org
  • beyondblue support service line 1300 22 46 36
  • Lifeline 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au
  • MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78 www.mensline.org.au

If you would like to support mental health please sign up for Movember.

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