By Shari Kingston Adams
Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and even the TV are overflowing with the Cinderella stories of entrepreneurial success, dreamers hitting it big and the rebels winning despite their challenges. We don't hear about the struggles, complete fails, the founders drowning from their business or the people ready to quit. Instead we see camera perfect smiles, beautifully staged scenes and inspiring words of “don’t quit you can do it, just like me!”. The internet famous say their journey was “hard” without painting a real picture of what HARD means. They just say keep hustling!!
There’s a lot not being said in that four-letter word, HARD.
Not long ago, I was trying to track down one of my favorite mentors Kevin, whom I’d lost contact with. I met him in 2008 and from the moment we met he was one of those rare people who made me feel like I could do anything and encouraged me to use my untapped potential. He always had a million fascinating projects going on and lit up the room with his infectious positivity. He was an entrepreneur, mentor and friend. We worked together on a few projects and he even brought me in as an advisor for a multi-million dollar venture capital project, which at the time I felt completely out of my league, but he told me I had just as much right being there as all the “old stiffs” did. Why am I telling you this? Well, as I tried to track him down, I discovered why I couldn’t reach him.
SUICIDE. He and has wife had committed suicide separately on the same day and left their only son behind.
I WAS SHOCKED. I was in complete disbelief. As the tears began to stream down my cheek I kept trying to grasp the reality of this news. I struggled to understand how the mentor that became my friend could find himself in a place where he felt suicide was the best option for him, his wife and to leave his son. I discovered there were more questions than answers for everyone that knew him. I tried to formulate answers on my own…. was it the struggling business, debt, feeling overwhelmed or something else? Sadly, we’ll never really know. I don’t and won’t pretend to know how something like this happens. But what I do know is this, something about his journey became too much to bear. The HARD became too hard.
After my shock turned to sadness I just felt heartbroken and helpless. How could a larger than life person, with so many big dreams, brilliant ideas and beloved in the local entrepreneurial circle feel so alone, lost & desperate? I wish I could have reached out sooner, not lost touch....maybe I could have seen something in his eyes that said, "I'm in trouble".
During the past few years there have been over 10 high profile entrepreneur suicides--who knows how many worldwide never make the news.
Chasing our dreams is hard. It can be REALLY HARD, emotionally and physically. The reality is we don’t talk about the “HARD” as much as we should. The problem with keeping this a secret is when many dreamers face their own HARD, it’s a surprise. Instagram doesn’t show the honest portrayal of starting a business, running it, struggling with it, not succeeding, feeling lonely, feeling overwhelmed, battling depression and coping with anxiety—and even suicide. They just share the feel-good quotes and success stories. Heck, it’s not just Instagram, we don’t share the messy part of the journey anywhere.
Not everyone deals with their HARD the same, but I guarantee if you’ve had your own business or chased a really big dream you’ve felt some of these feelings at varying degrees—even if you “fake being strong” to the outside world.
Some entrepreneurs think they're doing just fine emotionally but they're barely hanging on--they're just one crisis away from a mental health meltdown.
The entrepreneurial journey can be long, so ask yourself can you sustain this journey at the emotional & physical pace you’re keeping right now? How are you dealing with your own “HARD”?
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The HARD part of your journey doesn’t have to take you as far as it did for Kevin and his wife, but it doesn’t mean it’s less HARD. Many dreamers, founders and entrepreneurs say they regularly experience depression and anxiety. It doesn’t matter if you’re a start-up, small business, consultant, freelancer or running a successful business, mental health is an issue for many. Some think everything gets better when you make lots of money, get lots of customers and become a “somebody”. Unfortunately, many times mental health issues and stress GROW as your business, status and profits grow. Many of my successful clients have reached their BIG goals and wonder why they still feel depressed and stressed. It’s because mental health is about something bigger…we’ll talk about that later though.
First, I think all of us need to understand the scope of the issue. According to a study by Michael Freeman, entrepreneurs are 50 percent more likely to report having a mental health condition, with some specific conditions being incredibly prevalent amongst founders.
The mental health statistics for entrepreneurs are staggering,
2X more likely to suffer from depression
6X more likely to suffer from ADHD
3X more likely to suffer from substance abuse
10X more likely to suffer from bi-polar disorder
2X more likely to have psychiatric hospitalization
2X more likely to have suicidal thoughts
Come to find out, the research shows that the very traits that propel entrepreneurs to success can also take them down a dark road of depression and other mental health conditions. Even if you don’t think you suffer from the more serious mental health conditions you probably have experienced at the least, burnout, stress, lack of sleep, poor physical health, unclear thinking, low productivity, exhaustion, short temper, relationship challenges and even low self-esteem.
So, what do ambitious dreamers do to keep their mental health “healthy”, so they can chase their big ideas without sacrificing their inner health?
Before you can find the solution, you first must admit the value of fixing the problem.
Entrepreneurs are so narrowly focused on the success of their dream it’s no surprise they’re willing to sacrifice relationships, their physical health, their time, their money, their happiness and yes, their mental well-being. Why? The “Prize” seems to be well worth the PRICE. So, what’s the PRIZE? It’s the promise of more money, status, the promise of a better life, the hope of making a difference in the world, becoming a “somebody” or even just the addiction of the pursuit.
Entrepreneurship is the modern-day gold rush. Growing up in Colorado, I’ve heard hundreds of stories about the gold rush and gold bust here in Colorado. Gold miners 200 years ago would sacrifice everything in hopes of striking rich—their prize. Yet, only a small number ever did. Most of them went broke, got diseases, got injured, went home or died before they got rich. The point is, they didn’t care about staying healthy or staying safe in their pursuit of getting rich. Sounds like many entrepreneurs I know.
If I’m being honest, I’m guilty of becoming so focused on “pursuing my prize” that I go blind to the other important areas of my life and people. Over the years I thought I had to, because money was low, or I didn’t want to miss a window of opportunity. Any entrepreneur knows that the UPs and downs of entrepreneurship can cause mental health issues, stress, anxiety & even moments of crazy…at least for short periods of time. But I think the problem is when this constant stress and unbalanced focus becomes your normal, for many months or even years. Entrepreneurs don’t realize the price they’re paying for their dreams because sometimes it begins to cost them their health inside and out.
How many dreams can you chase if you're sick? Your health is everything.
When my mom passed away suddenly in 2013, it came at one of those particularly low times on my entrepreneurial journey. Losing my mom took me even lower. During the months that followed my mom's passing, I could totally see how depression can easily sweep you down the river and you can’t escape. However, instead of staying in this low place I reassessed my life and decided to measure my success in a larger way—beyond just my work. As a mom, I also decided I had to find a way to “do success and life differently” so I could give my son a different example. I created space for my “whole life” and not just my work life. Did it happen overnight? No, not at all. Did one thing fix it all? No, not at all. I still struggle with the balancing act, I still struggle getting stuck on the prize. However, I started making tiny changes to keep me balanced in my mental, spiritual and physical life. But becoming AWARE of my own tendencies towards sacrificing my mental health and neglecting the important stuff in life helped me look for solutions and make changes.
A Healthy Inner Self Can Give You Real Strength—not FAKE STRENGTH
In order for entrepreneurs to pay attention to their mental health, they first have to DECIDE it’s a vital resource that will contribute to their overall success. Research shows that finding ways to keep your mental health and stress balanced will contribute to your success in work and in life. It can also give you the inner strength to face your stress successfully. A University of Georgia study showed that people who exercise regularly to decrease stress are more confident, better able to focus, and more likely to follow through on promises and goals. Researchers also asked 1,300 people who earn upwards of $100,000 annually what helped them stay focused, and 75 percent said physical fitness, spending time outdoors and taking time away from work was a huge part of their drive to keep going.
We all have stress, but entrepreneurs typically live in a “stress pressure cooker” that keeps them in a constant state of survival. Learning how to manage this stress and finding ways to improve your mental well-being begins to let some of the pressure ease.
Here’s food for thought if you don’t think stress can impact your mind, body and whole health. Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic share the serious side effects of stress when it goes unchecked.
Too much of the stress hormone cortisol may make heart and lung conditions worse. These include heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and asthma.
Stress can trigger tension headaches, tightness in the neck and jaw, and knots and spasms in your neck and shoulders. Doctors call this the “tension triangle.”
Stress really shows in your digestive system — from simpler symptoms such as pain, gas, diarrhea and constipation to more complex conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and acid reflux (GERD).
Stress can bring on symptoms of depression and reduce your enthusiasm for activities you usually enjoy. People also tend to eat poorly and exercise less when stressed, which only makes symptoms stronger.
What’s the First Step To Making Mental Health A Priority For Entrepreneurs?
Change their definition of success. Right now, the entrepreneur culture promotes hustling long hours, putting in your time, sacrificing the fun stuff for your dreams and tells you “no pain, no gain”. The gurus and internet famous preach hard work and tell their followers you’ll live the good life when you “make it”. The problem is they’re giving a one-sided view of the journey. They focus on “work & financial success” and building your “business & financial resume”. They ignore your “life, health & happiness success” and building your “life, health & happiness resume”. It’s not an either/or situation here. It’s finding ways to build your work success AND your life success—inside and out.
Taking care of yourself mentally and physically should become your #1 business growth strategy.
I’ve found that making space for happiness, rest and for things that restore inner health gives me the real strength to keep going. I know it’s hard when the entrepreneurial load you carry is heavy and sometimes desperate, but you can’t postpone taking care of YOU. It doesn’t mean taking lots of time, it’s about just taking moments of time to take care of YOU. Think of it as giving yourself a moment to rest on a long hike up a mountain. You’re not giving up or neglecting or ignoring your long climb…you’re just resting for moment to give yourself the energy to continue strong. It’s about reaching the TOP strong, emotionally intact, excited and enjoying the hike rather than getting there FAST, exhausted, alone and missing everything on the trail to the top.
What Can You Do Today?
Research shows that there are many solutions that have proven to help mental health in entrepreneurs (or anyone for that matter) that take less than 20 minutes a day, like being outdoors, being around positive people, meditation, exercise, doing something that’s fun, laughter, helping others, spirituality, gardening, traveling and even just rest. But in order to take the steps to do those things, dreamers, visionaries & big thinkers must first acknowledge the importance of their mental health as it relates to their overall success, happiness and life. The entrepreneur needs to be OK admitting that they’re dealing with stress that is making them unhealthy, unhappy and unfulfilled.
The goal is to begin, take small steps and move towards improving mental health and balancing stress rather than trying to solve it all at once.
Why Share This Story Now?
I didn’t write this to give you all the answers (because I don’t have them all), I wrote this so you would take an honest look at where you are with your own INNER journey not just your entrepreneurial journey. I just don’t want another creative and brilliant mind to think that the stress they’re facing is inescapable, like my dear friend Kevin must have imagined. I’ll never know what happened with him, but I do know I can share his story, my story and many others to let you know that managing your mental health is important—regardless of if you face a lot of stress or just minor stressors. It’s time for all of us entrepreneurs, creatives and dreamers to be honest with ourselves about what’s going on “inside” of us because it really does impact our success, happiness and whole life. It’s also time to reach out to our fellow entrepreneurs and check on them, make sure they’re doing OK even if they say they are because we’re all good at “faking strong”, isolation isn’t the answer.
Please share this so we can help our fellow dreamers, creatives and entrepreneurs.
**If you are feeling like suicide is your only option PLEASE, PLEASE call someone. Call someone that loves you, call a friend, go to a friend’s or family member’s house for a few days and talk about what’s going on. Doing this is a sign of courage and strength, not failure. Or call 24hr National Suicide Prevention line 1-800-273-8255. The world NEEDS you, your story and your gifts don’t let this temporary moment of pain, stress or desperation make you feel differently.