How to Run a Business Without Losing Your Identity
You’ve probably felt it before. That icy wave of fear racing from your head to your toes. That excruciating knot twisting in your abdomen. The endless loop of to-dos and what-ifs running in your mind. The weight of monumental concerns falling on your shoulders.
Perhaps your business is running low on cash. Perhaps a distribution deal you were counting on fell through. Maybe you discovered a fatal flaw in your product or a key team member just quit. Or maybe your website inexplicably crashed—and it feels like your entire world is crashing as well.
As any entrepreneur knows, running a business is a full-body experience. It can suck up all your physical, emotional, and mental energy, even when things are going well. When the company is struggling, it can feel like your insides are being boiled alive.
While some level of stress is inevitable, it doesn’t have to be like this. There’s a better, healthier way to look at your identity and your personal well-being in relation to your business.
Why Running Your Own Business Becomes Personal
I greatly admire entrepreneurs. After all, I married one. They are adventurous, creative dream chasers. And they are among the most stressed out people I have ever met.
“Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake.”
Sound familiar? The list of what the typical entrepreneur lays on the line when starting a new business is remarkably long. This includes (but is certainly not limited to) their reputation, competence, finances, and career trajectory.
It’s no wonder, then, that entrepreneurs experience high degrees of stress that seem to seep into every molecule in their bodies. The stakes are incredibly high, and deeply personal. They are so personal, in fact, that many company founders inevitably begin seeing their businesses as extensions of themselves.
Who they are becomes inextricably connected to how the business is doing. Their identity and sense of self-worth are determined by the company’s milestones and valuation. Corporate success becomes personal vindication; business failure can feel like a kind of death.
The Dangers of Rooting Your Identity in Your Company
Such close identification with your startup is both understandable and common. But it’s also extraordinarily risky.
Building something from the ground up is difficult enough. If your very sense of who you are and your reason for existence is tied up in something that has a 90 percent chance of failure, you are setting yourself up for levels of stress, anxiety, and heartbreak that may exceed what you can cope with.
There are even stories of entrepreneurs who have taken their own lives as their companies were struggling and on the edge of failure. In recent years, entrepreneurs we’ve lost include Austen Heinz, founder of Cambrian Genomics; Ilya Zhitomirskiy, cofounder of social media platform Diaspora; and Jody Sherman, who founded Ecomom. We can never know exactly why someone chooses to take their own life, but the extremely high stakes and stress involved with starting a business are no doubt contributing factors.
(It’s important to point out that if you are experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, please seek assistance. There are many resources available, including the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.)
But even without going this far, the potential consequences for all-in entrepreneurs are gravely serious. In one recent study of American entrepreneurs, 72 percent self-reported mental health concerns. Thirty percent said they struggled with depression, compared to only seven point six percent of the general population in the United States.
On top of this, staking your sense of self on your business will actually make it more difficult for you to succeed. You will likely dedicate all your waking hours to your work, casting aside personal relationships, hobbies, recreation, and rest. You will probably take professional rejections—from potential investors, business partners, and customers—extremely personally. You may try to control and micromanage everything within the company.
Doing any of the above will lead you more quickly to burnout, strain your relationships with your colleagues and employees, and make it more difficult for you to make clear-headed, rational business decisions.
The terrible irony is that, in your desire to learn how to run a successful business and do everything possible to keep your startup alive, you may actually be steering it, and yourself, into the ground.
A Healthier Way to See Things
My husband, Ned, and I learned this the hard way. About three years after he cofounded his company, he and I got to the point where we were both burning out.
We had gone all in with the business—to an unhealthy degree. We had relocated from the U.S. to China, leaving behind our family, friends, and previous careers. I joined his company, and we both worked at least 15 hours a day, six days a week. We talked about work incessantly, even late at night when we were lying in bed together. Isolated in a foreign country, all we had was each other and our work.
Within months, we were paying the price for living this way. Our mental and physical health had plummeted; we were perpetually anxious and fearful. In short, we were miserable, even though the company was steadily growing.
When I hit rock bottom and fell into a crippling depression, we realized that we had to make some drastic changes. Our very lives depended on it. Ned and I began reserving weekends for leisure and rest. We set aside date nights, during which we committed to not discussing work. We focused on connecting with wise mentors and developing friendships that fed our souls.
Each of these newfound behaviors reminded us of a truth that we were just beginning to grasp: We were individuals, separate and independent from the company. Our identities were not dependent on the business; our sense of self was based on far more than work.
Though this perspective shift took time, the payoff of choosing to invest in things other than work was almost immediate. We became healthier and less stressed and exhausted, which helped us to think more lucidly and make sounder decisions. Ned was able to let go more, delegating responsibilities to others and making new hires. This empowered his team and lightened his own load.
It’s been seven years since we had that epiphany. And while we are still very much committed to his business today, we have also come to understand that who we are and how we’re doing is distinct from the welfare of the company. Regardless of whether the business thrives or flails, or we walk away with millions or with nothing, we will still be okay. Failure, while painful, can also be a great learning opportunity.
Knowing all this has given us a remarkable sense of freedom in how we live and think.
How to Separate Your Identity From Your Business
Because the pressures of being an entrepreneur inevitably push you toward merging your personal identity with your business, you must commit to an ongoing pattern of intentional choices in order to establish a robust sense of self.
If you run a business and you are in the early stages of starting your company, you may not see self-identification with the business as much of a problem. And it may not be—yet. But staking your well-being and self-worth on a very unreliable startup will catch up with you at some point.
Almost every entrepreneur I know has reached a searing nadir of stress or pain before reaching this understanding. From personal experience, I can say that it’s much harder to climb out of a place of burnout and depression than to protect yourself from internalizing all that strain and agony to begin with. So the earlier in your career that you can establish healthy boundaries between yourself and your company, the more successfully such practices will serve you.
Based on dozens of conversations I’ve had with entrepreneurs, executive coaches, and therapists, here are some simple but effective strategies for ensuring that you maintain a healthy sense of self outside of your business.
1. Establish work-free times and places, and honor those boundaries.
Research has consistently shown how essential it is for us to rejuvenate ourselves with breaks from work. Doing so allows us to bemore efficient and productive when we do work, while also promotingcreativity andhealth. In addition, regularly stepping away from your company—both physically and mentally—will give you the opportunity to invest in and enjoy other priorities.
Consider setting aside at least one weeknight and one weekend day to be free of work. You may also want to pick a space in your home, such as your bedroom or your family room, as a place where you do not discuss work or check your emails. The exact time or place you decide on doesn’t matter; what matters is that you rigidly honor those boundaries to the best of your ability. This gives you the opportunity to practice living apart from your company on a regular basis.
2. Schedule regular times for activities you enjoy, such as exercise, hobbies, and relationships.
Entrepreneurs are so busy that most things—even important things—won’t happen unless they arescheduled in a calendar. Though it may feel silly to schedule activities such as “read a book” or “meditate for 20 minutes,” doing so makes it much more likely that you will follow through. And it helps ensure that these regular activities become part of your weekly rhythm—and your sense of who you are.
Ned meets regularly with an executive coach, whose primary goal is to help him be as effective a leader as possible. Interestingly, though, this coach leads almost every conversation they have with these two questions: Have you been playing music recently? and How is your relationship with your wife? He knows, after working with hundreds of executives and entrepreneurs, that living a balanced, healthy life is foundational for long-term professional success.
3. Say no to business opportunities that are particularly high risk or costly.
One executive coach I spoke with lamented how entrepreneurs tend to be “opportunity junkies.” They are driven by the fear of missing out and, as a result, feel the need to pursue every possibility that comes their way, no matter the risk or cost. Soon they become addicted to the chase itself rather than rationally evaluating each opportunity as it comes. All their time and energy is taken up with racing after potential breaks.
Saying no to business opportunities gives you the chance to practice exercising power over your startup, rather than having it be the other way around. It also creates space in your life to focus on the highest potential work opportunities and to pursue personal priorities outside of the company.
Some entrepreneurs may have difficulty evaluating if an opportunity is worth pursuing or if it requires more than they should reasonably give. If this is the case for you, consider enlisting the help of a mentor or adviser that you can call upon each time a new business prospect emerges. Ask him or her to help you think through the pros and cons of a business opportunity before you devote much time or energy to it.
4. Practice delegating and collaborating more; share the burden of responsibility with others whenever you can.
One of the most practical ways to practice letting go of your business is todelegate tasks to others you trust, and to partner with collaborators rather than trying to do everything yourself. Make sure you havecompetent and committed members on your team whose strengths and skills are different from your own. This will then allow you to hand off the tasks that are the most draining for you.
In addition to lightening your load, delegating and collaborating will make it clear that the company is not just about you. Instead, the business is dependent on the efforts of an entire team. The burden to succeed, and the cost of any failure, will then be spread out across multiple people rather than sitting on your shoulders alone. This will help alleviate your stress, and give you more options to pursue different opportunities, ideas, or activities that capture your interest. And if you ever feel ready to walk away from your startup, you’ll be able to leave it in capable, experienced hands.
5. Invest in at least one relationship in which you are valued for who you are, not what you do.
It’s important to have at least one person in your life who sees you as more than a company founder. This could be a friend, family member, mentor, or significant other. Their role is to help you remember that you are valued and appreciated outside of what you accomplish or how successful your company is. This person will engage you in discussion topics about things other than work and encourage you to pursue hobbies and recreation that nurture your health and well-being. He or she can also hold you accountable to setting and maintaining boundaries between your business and your personal life.
While establishing such a relationship takes time, it’s well worth the investment. This is someone who will be in your life no matter what happens with your startup. Regardless of whether you succeed or fail, you will still have this relationship as a lifeline to hold on to.
Run a Business But Keep Your Identity
Making a commitment to even one of these approaches will help remind you that there is life outside of your business. And it’s a rich and rewarding life that pays personal and professional dividends. You’ll likely be healthier and lead a more balanced existence, and you’ll be able to be more clear-headed in your work responsibilities and decision-making when running your business.
On top of that, you’ll be more free—to choose to work or rest, to remain with the business or walk away, to enjoy life regardless of how your business does. And hopefully, you won’t have to experience that icy wave of fear or that painful knot in your stomach again.
How to Run a Business Without Losing Your Identity was originally published on Foundr