February 11, 2014

Recently, I read an article in Inc. magazine titled “The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship” by Jessica Bruder. The piece offers an in-depth look at how entrepreneurs often struggle with significant emotional distress during the early, very challenging start-up years. From the seemingly mild (anxiety, despair) to the serious extreme (depression, suicide), entrepreneurs are just beginning to share their stories.

As I was reading, I was struck by a recurring theme of secrecy. It seems that none want to admit their vulnerability or their failures:

“They are very successful people, very visible, very charismatic; yet they’ve struggled with this silently. There’s a sense that they can’t talk about it, that it’s a weakness or a shame or something. They feel like they’re hiding, which makes the whole thing worse.” ~ Brad Feld, a managing director of the Foundry Group

Most of us know exactly what comes with entrepreneurship: high risk of failure; tremendous pressure juggling several roles; huge workload; responsibility for or to employees, investors/creditors and family. Add in a lack of sleep, unhealthy foods on the go, and no time for exercise to balance the stress. Yet, entrepreneurs work hard at making it look easy:

“It’s like a man riding a lion. People think, ‘This guy’s brave.’ And he’s thinking, ‘How the hell did I get on a lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?” ~ Toby Thomas, CEO of EnSite Solutions

When we talk through it – when it’s an open and honest dialogue about the challenges that come with this endeavor – we can easily understand how this would be mentally tough to endure. Practicing candor in those toughest moments – in a safe environment, a confidential community of peers, mentors or coaches, or more anonymous blogging communities – could make the difference in how these entrepreneurs cope in the trenches.

Candor among entrepreneurs might also set more appropriate expectations for future business adventurers. Our culture tends to treat the success stories with glory; yet, for as many heroes there are thousands more who fail at turning a profit. A more open conversation about the challenges, losses, and struggles (as well as the wins) with “been there, done that” entrepreneurs who have no agenda could present a more accurate and more endurable picture about the path ahead.

Leading a start-up can be difficult and lonely, but no one says you have to do it alone.