Staying Mentally Stable On The Startup Rollercoaster

Lately, there’s been some much needed talk in the startup community about the mental health effects of the constant ups and downs that come with being involved in early stage companies. The toll can be especially taxing on founders – take a look at the notes Brad Feld received from founders after he wrote his illuminating “Founder Suicides” blog post earlier this month.

The media usually portrays famous founders as Supermen/Superwomen – which makes “regular” founders feel inferior and inadequate. This is very much related to the “crushing it” culture that has gotten so rampant. When founders are asked how things are going, it’s incredibly rare to hear an answer other than one of the many variations of “crushing it”. With more people like Brad Feld talking about mental health, I’m hoping that honesty will become more common, but maybe that’s wishful thinking.

Having been involved in a couple startups over the past few years, I’ve been through some awesome experiences and also through shitty, terrible things that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Staying mentally healthy in a rollercoaster environment like that is a huge challenge and to be honest, is something I’ve struggled with at various times in my life. Over the past few months, I’ve taken a more active approach to keeping a healthy mindset. Below are some scientifically untested techniques I’ve been using with success so far to keep my work problems in perspective:

 

Read Books:

I read a lot of books growing up but for some reason I pretty much stopped once I got to college. In 2014, I rediscovered my love for reading and it’s been great. Most importantly, I’ve found it’s a perfect escape for my overactive work brain. When I watch TV or a movie, my brain doesn’t have to do any work and continues drifting towards work. When I’m reading a book, my imagination gets involved and my brain stops thinking about work for awhile.

Stay Physically Healthy/Exercise/Go Outside:

When you’re already not in a great mental state and then something goes wrong physically, you’re just asking for disaster. Re-committing to my health after some issues in early 2014 has helped my mental game so much.

Going out into nature is really helpful to me as well. There’s something about being in nature that just gives perspective and makes problems feel insignificant.

Get a Hobby:

Doing something outside of work gives you two things:

  1. Your brain gets a break from thinking about the same problems – which actually helps you solve them.
  2. You make friends outside the startup bubble

I started taking acting lessons in April and it’s been great. I’ve met people who live in a completely different universe from the startup community, which is enlightening. It’s also given me insight on my own emotions and habits that I wasn’t previously aware of. I started this hobby so randomly: I took a four week Acting for Non-Actors class to improve my sales skills and ended up liking it so much that I started training more seriously. Most importantly, it lets me shut off the analytical part of my brain for awhile and do something different.

Stay Close With Your Family and Friends:

This is listed last but it’s by far the most important one for me. In most industries (including startup world), things work like this: when things are going well, you have a ton of people contacting you and it feels like you’re the most popular person ever. But when things are going badly, no one wants to talk and you feel like an outcast.

The good news is that relationships with your true friends and family don’t change when things are going great or when things are going terribly. They will be there for you. This is why it’s so important to not let your relationships die out of laziness or lack of time – something that happens too often. Friends and family are your mental safety net. When I’m having a crappy day, nothing cheers me up more than gchatting/texting/Snapchatting with friends or having a long phone conversation with my mom, dad, and brother. Invest time in your relationships and you’ll never feel alone.

 

Lastly, I just want to say that having struggled with some of these issues myself in the past, I’m always here if someone needs to talk or get things off their chest.

 

My 5 Minute Morning Routine

I know I’m not the only person who experiences this but I’ve struggled with negative thinking my whole life. I don’t mean that I always expect things to go wrong. It’s more like, when I have too much time to think about things, I get “down”, and when I get down, I get unproductive. When I get unproductive, I get more negative. So it becomes a cycle. And I mostly feel this way early in the morning right when I wake up and late at night right before I go to sleep, which led me to explore and experiment with my morning routine and night routine.

A few weeks ago, I started doing something that, so far at least, has gotten me out of the negativity cycle and allowed me to start my day feeling mentally at peace. I’m not saying this will work for everyone but it’s been working for me. I do the following things within the first 10 minutes of waking up:

Step 1: I write down what I am most grateful for that morning. I try to be completely honest with myself on this. If I’m honestly most grateful that I’m about to drink a cup of coffee, I write that down. If I’m grateful that a big project is over, I write that down. The key is being honest with myself. One thing I’ve noticed is that as time goes on, I’m more grateful for my problems – which sounds ridiculous! Sometimes things that seem like problems are actually blessings. I was recently struggling between a few different career moves and was really stressed out about the decision until one day it just hit me that I’m so incredibly fortunate to even have 1 opportunity, let alone several.

Step 2: I write down one thing that I want to accomplish that day. This is a lot different than a to-do list. I make sure I limit it to just one thing. We all usually have so many competing priorities that our brains can only process that there’s a ton of “stuff” to get done today. Unfortunately for most of us, there’s more “stuff” out there than we can ever do in 24 hours so we need to prioritize. Writing just one thing forces me to really figure out what my top priority is for the day.

Two steps seems too good to be true but I’m not arguing with the results so far! I may add things or tweak this morning routine as time goes on but for now, I’m planning to stick with it.