As the founder of a startup your job is to find a really challenging problem to solve in a huge market.
It helps if that problem is really difficult to solve, because then it becomes defensible.
Your reward if you do find and start to solve one of these problems is:
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- You get high-profile investors to make a big bet on you. After they make that bet, they’re going to push and prod you to get them a 50-500x return. NO PRESSURE!
- You’re going to land some of the smartest people in the world to join your mission to solve this difficult problem. Smart people need massive amounts of attention. Let’s face it, they tend to be challenging, difficult, and demanding, both of themselves and everyone around them. NO PRESSURE!
- If you do your job landing smart people your reward will be that those people will bring you all the problems they *can’t* solve. NO PRESSURE!
- If you built a killer team and raised a ton of money to tackle this epic problem your next reward will be a dozen, well-funded competitors who are going to spend all their time trying to figure out how to copy, improve upon, and kill your product. NO PRESSURE!
- Now, if you’re not successful in solving this big problem, and you do hire a killer team, you’re going to be slaughtered day in and day out as these smart people get persnickety because they haven’t solved the problem. NO PRESSURE!
So, how does anyone not crack in these situations?
The truth is every founder I’ve ever met feels massive stress at some point — and probably often. I’ve taken on bigger and bigger risks and figured out how to manage my own stress to the point at which I sometimes wonder if I’ve disconnected TOO MUCH from it.
After all, stress and anxiety is your mind telling you to pay attention to something. On an evolutionary basis it has kept many of us alive. In fact, the more anxiety you feel the greater the chances of survival. Fairly certain that this made us into the evolutionary stress balls we are today.
If you feel stress when you are surfing in Australia because of a fear of sharks, that’s actually logical. There are very large sharks all over the place, and although they rarely attack humans, the fact is that when they do it’s really, really bad.
And we now have a global network that will tell everyone, in gory detail, about every shark attack in real time. inside.com/sharks
So, we have to unwind our stress.
Here is what I do to manage my stress:
- Mindful Meditation: You put in ear phones, you find a quiet place, and you listen to the instructor. Calm.com and this free album from UCLA are my go-to choices. So much so, that I invested in Calm.com.
- Good cheer: I’m constantly challenging myself to go about the inevitable drudgery of startup life with good cheer. The whole “whistle while you work” thing is contagious. As founders we can set the tone of our organization, and I find that a “it’s hard work, but we have fun doing it!” approach is best. This doesn’t mean being goofy or soft. You can fight hard while smiling. It takes vigilance, but it’s worth it.
- Relentless optimism: The people who do the best in this world are the ones who are delusionally optimistic. The odds of hitting it big are tiny, but if you approach each day as a chance to learn and, perhaps, get a little closer to solving your problem, folks will want to come back the next day. You’ll want to come back as well! Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” is required reading.
- Having dinner with friends: this sounds silly, but having dinner with your mates, and shooting the shizzle, can really help lower your stress level. Once you find out that everyone is a fraud, that all startups and careers are on the brink of complete failure, you get the perspective to sleep well at night.
- Finding flow moments / exercising: Not to get all Tom Cruise on you, but working out is critical. As is finding those moments where you “get lost” in something. For me, it’s been poker, basketball and Tae Kwon Do. For you it might be running, chess, or cooking. Finding those moments when your mind is focused only on the thing you are doing, to the point in which you lose track of time, is essential for a healthy mind. Read up on it on Wikipedia and watch the TED talk by Csikszentmihalyi.
- Getting educated about stress, happiness, and anxiety: The more you understand how your mind works, the easier it is to disconnect from the voices in your head and see them as an objective observer. It’s hard to stop your brain from spewing ideas constantly, but it’s fairly easy to learn how to step back from those thoughts and let the flow by — like leaves in a stream. Here is a solid list of books on positive psychology.
- Leaving my phone behind when I go for a walk or to the movies. These things are stress-inducing devils. You are addicted. We are all addicted. Leave it behind, or stack your phones at dinner, and have the first person to touch their phone pay the bill — hilarious!
If you are feeling overwhelmed please go talk to someone. There is nothing wrong with saying “I can’t take this any more,” and walking out of your startup and going to see a therapist (talk therapy is the most effective self-improvement innovation in history I believe).
Talking to someone about these problems is a critical way to let the pressure out of the cooker. Don’t be proud, don’t be scared — just go. You’ve got nothing to lose and so much to gain from becoming self-aware.
OK, 700 words. I’ve got to stop before I do another 2,000-word piece like yesterday.
PS – Sam Harris has a lot to say about this topic. Read his blog.
PPPS – If you don’t follow me on Twitter, I’m twitter.com/jason.