Whether you’re a layman launching a passion project, an entrepreneur waiting for her first big act, or a blue-collar man who’s simply ready to be his own boss, know this: Those who sprint to achieve mythical unicorn status flicker out fast.
Laboring through long days and longer nights, they’re left depleted. In fact, one study found company founders are twice as likely to experience depression or contemplate suicide and three times as likely to abuse substances than the general population. This level of stress has become so pervasive among professionals that the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases now considers job-related burnout a legitimate medical diagnosis.
All this anxiety could be mitigated if entrepreneurs stopped chasing the unicorn dream and put an end to working primarily for the money. As one survey of nearly 330 members of the Business Networking International showed, entrepreneurs who toil because of passion for the mission are better able to balance their emotions and skirt burnout.
Why Founders Struggle to Find Peace
Of course, achieving some kind of Zen entrepreneurship isn’t easy. Some business schools encourage would-be founders to write business plans, raise money, build products, and exit as multimillionaires within two or three years. Consequently, upstarts put the pedal to the metal and go, go, go. But their speed isn’t sustainable. Eventually, they fall apart.
The better way to view the buildup of a business is from the perspective of a lifelong bootstrapped journey. That is, taking on new challenges for the enjoyment and fulfillment, not the lure of wealth. In fact, one 2017 study discovered that when people connect financial success to self-worth, they experience anxiety and stress, negatively compare themselves to others, and feel less autonomous.
“People in this society are often focused on pursuing money, and they don’t think there is anything bad about that,” says Lora Park, who co-authored the study with her University of Buffalo colleagues. “But in terms of your psychological well-being, there are all kinds of negative consequences.”
She’s right. If you’re putting money first, prepare to fail. As C.S. Lewis said, “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” And the first thing is unmitigated passion.
Pacing Yourself Fueled by Passion
The definition of passion includes an intense, driving feeling, but it also denotes the presence of suffering. Long-distance runners have perfected this practice. They must be happy with the marathon process itself, or they’ll hate every footfall. They achieve inner peace by staying aware of the finish line and responding with grit to the everyday training and inevitable injuries.
You can do the same by remembering you’re not working for a mansion lifestyle. You’re working to create something from unique passions, visions, and viewpoints — finding a void in the world and trying to fill it.
Undoubtedly, some young entrepreneurs may find this attitude dull or unsatisfying. When they don’t see a unicorn in the mirror, they feel they’re not good enough or lucky enough to make it. Really, a simple shift in mindset — one that embraces the long haul — is all that’s needed.
To help you get off the treadmill to nowhere, follow the steps of “SHALOM,” an acronym I created to illuminate my “six peaks” principle. An entrepreneur needs these peaks to reach success and happiness. Ideally, SHALOM paves the way for professionals to achieve wholeness so their lives overflow with positivity and peace:
(S) Story and Innovation: Know your “why.” It’s hard to find the perseverance to carry through if you don’t know the purpose behind your decision to launch a company. Dig deep for your “why,” the story behind your mission and what makes it innovative and unique. Remember: It might not be clear right away, so be patient. Being able to articulate your personal story and how it relates to your company’s story is important.
For instance, my business partner used to be a youth pastor. He was challenged to construct a passion play, which he created based on his spiritual convictions. It grew to a point where it’s been shown internationally because it came from his heart. Selling it wasn’t the point — spreading a message was. And that’s precisely why it still resonates with audiences.
(H) Health and Wellness: Integrate your whole self. You can’t run a footrace without training, and you can’t be a healthy entrepreneur without thinking about nutrition, exercise, and soul-related fulfillment. Marathoners know that if they’re not psychologically and physically complete on race day, they’ll never finish without hardship.
There’s a limit to what you can do, no matter how tough you think you are. Not everyone is like Forrest Gump, who just keeps going (remember, he’s fictional). Without pacing yourself and developing healthy habits, you and your company will crash and burn.
(A) Awareness and Authenticity: Understand your holistic nature. It’s difficult to be truly authentic without self-awareness. At the end of the day, if you aren’t authentic, people won’t follow you. However, authenticity isn’t just about being true to the self; it’s also about understanding how others perceive you.
I once worked with a manager who harshly criticized an employee. The manager thought he was being authentic, not hostile. The employee, however, disagreed — and quit the following day. I recommended the manager learn to adjust his communications not just based on what he wanted, but on what others needed, too.
(L) Leadership and Culture: Vocalize your passions. Good leadership matters. Consider King Henry V or Sir William Wallace: As leaders, they shared their visions and did so in a way where people were willing to die for them.
The only way to become a strong leader is to take risks and go against the odds. In business, those odds can feel overwhelming. I remember competing against Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and other big tech brands. People tried to talk me out of my plans. But I believed that sometimes David could beat Goliath, and my convictions spilled over to my colleagues.
(O) Operational Excellence: Keep your books in order. Accounting. Bookkeeping. Legal issues. All that business school stuff may sound boring, but it’s necessary to keep stress at bay. When you know your records are solid and everything is in check, you’re less worried when your head hits the pillow.
Stay diligent about this to stay lean and hungry. Not sure you’re up to the challenge? Be humble and aware enough to find someone who is. Crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s still matters.
(M) Mentoring: Share your path. Entrepreneurs innately want to be known and believed in, despite struggling with weaknesses and insecurities. Many days, I don’t believe in myself; I don’t believe I have what it takes. That’s why I depend on mentors and peers who help me slay inner dragons — and I do the same for others.
Whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of the mentoring connection, embrace the journey. Talk openly about your life, work, family, and things below the water line. The vulnerability I felt with my most important mentor helped me discover the greater truth in myself and the world.
If you’ve fallen for the notion that peace and entrepreneurship can’t coexist, practice a little SHALOM. There, you’ll find the harmony you deserve to avoid burnout and thrive.