Mental health and entrepreneurship

Today is RUOK Day…a day in which we shine a light to mental health awareness and ask those around us R U OK?  This is more of a personal article today.

I have battled mental health issues my whole life.  But the daily challenge of starting and running not only one, but two businesses is of additional stress given my situation.  What most don’t realise, is that I started these businesses at a very difficult time.

Having lost my Dad in January this year, my initial outlet was to surround myself with his stuff and do things that he would have liked.  So my days were spent tinkering around the shed, building a cubby house for my little girl and camping.  This really allowed me to overcome the grief of his departure and re-focus me for the next step ahead for me.  I would have thought that given my history of mental health battles, the loss of dad would have overcome me, but I found quite the opposite.  It really focused me on what is important in my life and in society, which lead to me wanting to make some change in the world around corporate leadership.

Now when I started my Executive MBA journey, I was really unsure as to what path laid ahead for me.  Would I continue in the corporate world and eventually progress into Executive roles, or would I feed the desire to control my own destiny and choose the entrepreneurship path?  The skills I was learning at Melbourne Business School helped me in my current role and also set me up for either pathway.  It wasn’t until I lost my dad that I realised that I wanted to at least try the entrepreneurship pathway as I had become so disenfranchised at the current crop of corporate leaders.  I really wanted to make a difference as to how ALL businesses were conducted in the future, not just the businesses that I was leading.  So I started with two businesses – one, helping small business owners with running their business; and two, running leadership programs for junior professionals.

I found myself bouncing off the walls with ideas.  The optimism was high; the feedback I was receiving was excellent.  I spent a lot of time meeting with my network and outside my network and all the feedback was overwhelmingly positive…so start planning for expansion growth hey?!  Not so fast…how about you get your second client in the door first.  You see, the Executive MBA is great for giving you tools and knowledge on strategy, marketing, brand management, business economics, managing innovation etc, but one thing it didn’t teach you: how to get the ‘flywheel’ moving and the mental challenges you will face.

The first month, I was still high on optimism.  I can count only one time that I doubted myself.  It would easily be the happiest and most content I had been with myself and my career in 15 years.  I could see the path; I could see the difference I wanted to make; I knew the clients would come.  I could see what value I could bring to everyone in business.  But by the second month, still no clients, no referrals, no opportunities and my confidence was starting to wane.  Was all this positive feedback I was receiving genuine or just lip service?  The seeds of self doubt really started to creep in and I found myself at times in really dark places of mental health.  I was getting no traction; I was losing confidence in myself.  Thankfully, the Executive MBA provided me with a network that included other entrepreneurs that I could feed confidence off.  One in particular took it upon himself to establish a phone call every day to check in and re-focus me.  He said that these were normal feelings of starting up and had nothing to do with the demons that I have faced over the years.  The first 12 months are the hardest 12 months of a business life and I was only 2 months down.

So, the program of positive mental health restoration commenced.  An element of entrepreneurship is to remain confident that your idea is a good one.  I have some great tools now to determine the feasibility of the idea within a confirmatory bias reason, but if you can visualise the success of the idea, then you need to maintain your confidence in it.  I have now come up with a few things that I do everyday to remained focused and overcome my self-doubt:

  1. Remind myself why I am on this quest – why am I doing this?  For me, I need to remind myself that it is to make a difference to the next generation of leadership and to provide myself with positivity to be a better husband and father.  Write it as a screen saver.  Get it as a sticker on your wall above your desk.  Do whatever you need to do to have it readily available when you feel self-doubt creep in.
  2. Reach out to someone in your network everyday – unless you have a business partner with you on the journey, entrepreneurship can be a lonely existence.  We are social creatures (and don’t get me started on the social media paradox!) so we need to be around people to maintain positive states of mind.  So reach out to someone everyday, even if it is just to see what’s happening in their world.  I find that when I am down, I reach out to others to see if I can fix a problem for them personally.  This then contributes to more positive mental health for me.  Days like today (RUOK Day) are great reminders of the connection that is so important in your community.
  3. Achieve something everyday – I am a big list person.  I have lists for everything, but not everyone is like me.  So set yourself a daily goal of achieving something.  Focusing all your ideas as an entrepreneur is tough and it means that your days can really get away from you if you are not careful.  So ensure that you have achieved something today.
  4. When you feel like giving up, ask yourself: Have I done all I can? – Some business ideas just won’t work; setting up a flyscreen business to sell to the submarine division in the Navy is a good example.  But before you give up on your idea, have you tried every possible avenue?  For me, I can’t give up on my business management idea until I have door knocked every single business owner in Australia.  The challenge for me in that business is whether I can overcome the ‘nice to have’ offering to show business owners that it is ‘need to have’ offering.
  5. Have an ally or two – I am lucky that I have a number of people I can call when I am feeling blue, that do a really good job of providing me positivity and pick me up.  The challenge I face is taking that positivity and converting it to self-belief.  I am much better at it, but no doubt you have battled with a similar problem of ‘imposter syndrome’.  Chances are, you are actually great at what you do, you just need to believe it.  Having a network of allies is so important to this.

I am sure there are many more tools, tricks and tips that others have, but this is what is working for me.  Every entrepreneur needs to practice tenacity and resilience – they are the cornerstones of success because you will always face mediocrity.  Albert Einstein once said:

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.

The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.”

This quote has helped me understand that it is not my mental health that is holding me back from entrepreneurial success nor that I am incapable of being valuable, but it is that not everyone will see the value in what the idea you have for a business straight away.  It takes time, awareness, persistence and resilience to realise.  Hang in there, keep fighting the demons, and keep pushing new challenges to make your dream a reality.  The biggest lesson is don’t isolate yourself in your pursuit; maintain your social connection with others and also ask, RUOK?



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