If you’ve started a business, you probably know that entrepreneurs are an all-in kind of people. It’s one of the things we admire most in them: the endless dedication and perseverance, the willingness to commit every last measure of resources and ability toward building a vision.
What is the difference between entrepreneurs with a healthy dedication to their startup dream and those who take it too far?
At some point, though, this complete allegiance to a business can become a risk — and even a liability.
I know several entrepreneurs who lost their homes, intentionally deceived their spouses, and disengaged from their children in pursuit of startup success. These are decent people who, somewhere along the entrepreneurial path, lost their way and ended up deeply hurting themselves and those around them.
This brings up a key question: What is the difference between entrepreneurs with a healthy dedication to their startup dream and those who take it too far?
Be Committed — Up to a Point
After being in the startup world for more than a decade and interviewing dozens of entrepreneurs and their spouses, I’ve come to believe that the answer boils down to this: A healthy life for an entrepreneur is dependent upon the ability to separate his or her personal identity from the business.
The question of identity is rarely discussed among company founders. But the temptation to let your venture become an extension of yourself is remarkably compelling. It’s easy to let your sense of self-worth rise and fall with the company’s milestones and valuation. Corporate success becomes personal vindication; business failure can feel like death.
The stress and intensity of building a startup are real. A startling 72 percent of American entrepreneurs have self-reported mental health concerns. Thirty percent said they struggled with depression, compared to only 7.6 percent of the general population in the U.S.
Staking who you are on the success of the company can amplify the costs even more.
But there’s an alternative: you can draw a clear dividing line between your sense of self and the company. The business, while still important, is only one part of who you are. Your purpose and self-worth can come from a broad range of other things: family, community service, engaging in social change, participating in arts and culture, grounding yourself in faith and spirituality, and more.
The business, while still important, is only one part of who you are.
Of course, when the company succeeds, you should celebrate it. When the company struggles, you should do your best to turn things around. The key is to remember that no matter what happens, your life continues.
So, how do we establish a strong sense of personal identity outside of our businesses? Here are some simple strategies, recommended to me by experienced executive coaches, therapists, and entrepreneurs themselves, for ensuring that you maintain a strong identity outside of your business.
1. 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 remind you that you are valued and appreciated outside of what you accomplish professionally.
This person can engage you in conversation about things other than work and hold you accountable to maintaining healthy boundaries. This is the kind of friend who will be in your life no matter what happens with your startup.
2. Establish work-free places, and respect those boundaries.
We’ve all heard that we need to carve out time in our day for non-work activities, but creating work-free physical environments can help you to respect the boundaries you establish for yourself.
Pick a space in your home, such as your bedroom or family room, where you do not discuss work or check your emails. This gives you the opportunity to practice living apart from your company on a regular basis. Invite those you share your space with to hold you accountable to this rule.
3. 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 are scheduled in a calendar. Scheduling even simple activities like “take a walk” or “journal for twenty minutes” makes it much more likely that you will follow through, allowing these activities to become a part of your regular routine — and contribute to your sense of who you are.
While it’s tempting to pursue every business opportunity that comes your way, not all of them are worth the costs and risks.
4. Embrace the power of “no.”
While it’s tempting to pursue every business opportunity that comes your way, not all of them are worth the costs and risks. Saying no to business opportunities gives you the chance to exercise power over your startup, rather than the other way around.
If you have trouble evaluating if an opportunity is worth pursuing, consider enlisting the help of a mentor or adviser. Ask him or her to help you think through the pros and cons of a business opportunity and its associated risks before you devote time or energy to it.
5. Practice delegating and collaborating more
If you’re willing to practice letting go of your business, a good place to start is regularly delegating tasks to trusted colleagues and collaborating with partners. Share the burden of responsibility with others whenever you can.
In addition to lightening your load, doing this will remind you that the company, and its potential for success, are not just about you. They are dependent on the efforts of an entire team. The burden to succeed and the cost of any failure are shared with others.
You Get to Decide Who You Are
The reality is that you don’t have to lay everything on the line for your startup to succeed. In fact, you’re better positioned to emerge from the experience as a more mature and healthy leader if you don’t.
Yes, be dedicated, persevere, and give it your best. But remember that who you are is ultimately not determined by the crazy startup journey.
Living in this reality will give you more freedom from fear, from feeling like you have to be a certain kind of entrepreneur or achieve a certain level of success. You will be able to enjoy the startup ride with greater appreciation. And no matter where that ride takes you, your sense of meaning and purpose will remain strong.