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Emotionally Intelligent Entrepreneurship

Almost everyone I know wants to one day start their own business and get out of the rat race of nine to five and yet, many aspiring entrepreneurs never take that first step towards realizing that dream. Most people have off-the-cuff retorts like not having enough starting capital or time. But these reactions often stop short of peering into the deeper concerns behind what they are feeling. While knowledge of the world of work and marketplace are important, knowledge of the self is equally key to successful entrepreneurship. This article sheds light on the different internal experiences that aspiring and new entrepreneurs encounter and by leveraging the science of psychology, offers suggestions on how to navigate the pitfalls of entrepreneurship with emotional intelligence.

Your Entrepreneur Identity

There are many reasons why entrepreneurship can be an attractive prospect. From having greater flexibility in your life, the responsibility of making risky and impactful decisions, following through with an amazing idea you’ve honed, to major increases in income, the paths to building a business are as varied as those who travel it. But if you’re far from realizing the benefits in your own entrepreneurship journey, these future-based incentives may not be as helpful to initiate and maintain your engagement in the hard work it takes to be a successful business owner.

Find your flow

How do you know if you’re investing in the right type of business for you? The field of human cognition may have the answer. Think back to a time when you were joyful, spending hours on end without a clue to time’s passing, so singlemindedly focused on a specific task and looking forward to the next available moment to make progress on it that you and others were baffled as to where you drew your energy. You may have experienced what psychologists refer to as “flow.” Studied across several cultures and occupations, from professional chess players to surgeons, it’s a state of intense concentration that can be achieved in the context of two conditions being met: 1) the task matches your skill level (not too easy or not too hard) and 2) there are clear short-term goals in which you receive feedback about your progress. Over time, you gain a sense of mastery and since engaging in this activity is intrinsically rewarding itself, end goals or profits almost feel like a perk. A principle that is rooted in the laws of nature for financial success is that you do something you love and by doing it all the time, you get so good at it that people have to pay you to do it. The better you get, the more money you can charge. This can be literally anything; it never ceases to amaze me that people are able to turn their expertise in unique products and services into successful business ventures. After identifying tasks that provide flow, you can start looking at how this is aligned with your greater view for yourself.

Hone in on your purpose

Pursuing your goals can look a lot like checking boxes off a list. When you reach a stuck point, starved of the sense of achievement you obtain from checking off that box, a list of empty boxes can appear less than inspirational. You might feel lost and without a sense of direction. This is where identifying and reminding yourself of that purpose can propel you forward. Having a purpose gives direction and meaning to a person’s life and the more you’re able to embed this purpose into your business, the more likely you are to stay committed to it.

The best analogy I can provide in finding your purpose is to notice what situations and activities light a spark inside you. Then, continue to feed that spark until it turns into a fire. A personal method I used was to look back on my life and acknowledge those watershed moments that gave me a sense of fulfillment. Growing up, all I wanted was to be self-employed. I doggedly followed my dream and made several sacrifices that did not necessarily make sense to others and yet, these risks made me feel whole and gave meaning to my life. As my career developed, I began experiencing success with my businesses. Ironically in that process, I was left feeling purposeless after achieving what had occupied the very center of my life. I had to start over to figure out a purpose that was longer lasting and gave me a sense of contribution to society as a whole rather than focused on myself. When I started reflecting, I noticed that I have always enjoyed inspiring people and helping them achieve their goals. I surmise this is rooted from my positive upbringing of having supportive parents and friends that not only believed in me but pushed me to pursue my dreams. It would not have been possible without that support. I wanted to replicate this experience and provide that support to people who have big dreams but don’t have a strong and supportive foundation. I coupled that with my experience and expertise in entrepreneurship and decided to start a business consulting and brokerage firm to help people become self-employed through entrepreneurship. Starting this firm has been challenging just like any other business, but it has brought a real sense of meaning to my career. Even in my toughest moments, it is nevertheless gratifying every time I am able to help a business owner achieve their goals. After redefining my own purpose in this phase of my life, I experienced a dramatic shift in my performance and the quality of service that I provide. I had newfound vision, aligned with my values, to guide this pursuit. I expect checking-in with my purpose to be a continual process. I still have my short-term goals for myself and my company but having a purpose has given me a sense of direction that makes it easier to achieve these short-term goals as well.

I share my story of purpose-finding to normalize what can be a frustrating and confusing endeavor- you’re not alone in this life-long journey. In fact, while looking inward is one method of increasing self-awareness, querying those who know you best or have observed you in various settings can also be helpful in this regard. What does a former colleague recall about which projects you became excited about? Perhaps a close friend, a teacher, or current partner has also noticed consistency in certain values that drive you toward action. Soliciting these opinions and having these in-depth conversations are effortful, but I can assure you it will be well worth the investment.

The Importance of Managing Your Emotions as an Entrepreneur

On any given day, each of us run the gamut of a variety of emotions, and for the most part, are able to maintain an equilibrium. However, certain negative emotions, like anger or resentment, can serve as a call to action. These emotions can often get you “hooked” and like a fish caught on a line, the more you struggle with these, the more likely you’ll be dragged through your life by these emotions. Regardless of what negative emotion you are experiencing, understanding the particulars of what you are feeling is essential to effectively addressing it. Without this insight, you’re left with the aftermath of a series of emotionally charged reactions that damages relationships with employees, clients and other associates; all of the necessities for success. If you identify that hard emotion you are feeling, observing it without judgment and from a compassionate place, you’ll more likely gain insight into patterns that do not serve you in this situation and be more pragmatic in finding solutions. Some research in mindfulness refers to this skill as cultivating your higher-self or wise-mind thinking. It’s easier to go on autopilot, using the scripts and behaviors we’ve learned throughout our lives, no matter how unhelpful they could be to the present situation. Cultivating the wise mind is a step towards real self-love; it will help you achieve the life that you want to give yourself.

Let’s dive into a few common emotions that an entrepreneur encounters and how to successfully deal with them.

Uncertainty

The giant investment a new business requires and the relatively lesser known benefits it will yield is one of the biggest reasons why many people are hesitant to make that first leap. Tolerance for uncertainty does not come naturally; it is a skill that must be practiced and maintained.

One approach to resolving at least some aspects of business uncertainty is being able to parse out how much of the uncertainty is driven by the following categories: 1) unreal worry, 2) real worry, 3) unclear worry. For instance, if the uncertainty is driven by improbable circumstances, then you can categorize that discomfort as unreal worry, and thus, these are thoughts and feelings you can thank for trying to protect you and nevertheless set aside. If your uncertainty is driven by business weaknesses supported by actual marketplace and risk analysis, or real worry, implement your problem-solving skills to make your business more robust. If your uncertainty is due to being first out the door with your product or service, or unclear worry, then you can embark on seeking out high-quality information to project your company’s success and practice acceptance of this unknown reality.

Foundational business skills such as creating an adaptive step-by-step business plan can act as your compass as you navigate your way through this entirely new process. If writing business plans is relatively new to you, prepare to invest considerable effort to synthesize industry research and trends, objective data, and other information to support your idea. Through the process of conducting desktop research for your business, you’re able to locate traps that may have befallen similar businesses or innovative ways that you may augment the product or service you’re delivering. There are several websites that can guide you to create your first business plan; I encourage you to find a plan that works for your situation and complete at least one draft. Once you take the leap to start your business, the business plan will act as a foundation to help you evaluate where you stand, understand what’s working and what’s not, and then make any necessary adjustments to keep going.

The What-ifs

The human brain is a funny organ indeed. Humans have a bias to negatively predict our performance in executing a new activity or venture before we even try it. This phenomenon is termed affective forecasting. To combat this tendency, open yourself up to a curious stance, be steadfast in your purpose, dive into those tasks that give you flow, and use real feedback or evidence about your performance.
As an entrepreneur, you may undergo experiences where despite the most careful planning, the rug feels like it was just pulled out from under you. Overwhelmed with anxiety, paralyzed and panicked, you’re unable to figure out your next steps and may even regret embarking on the journey of entrepreneurship altogether. Your ship feels as good as sunk. Cognitive-Behavioral psychologists have figured out an effective equation for event-based anxiety that can help ground you in these moments:

Anxiety = Estimation of danger/ Estimation of coping skills

To summarize, anxiety is likely to occur when the danger of the situation is greater than the coping skills at your disposal; similarly, anxiety can occur when someone significantly overestimates the threat of danger and underestimates their ability to cope and recover from it. Remember, if starting a business were easy, everyone would be self-employed and living this dream. Dealing with business-based anxiety may be an opportunity to build upon the strengths you already possess in this new context. Identify the healthy coping skills you do have, write these down as a go-to list in times of anxiety, and if you feel like you need a tune-up, make time to learn to expand this list. Next, tether yourself not to your estimation of the danger (especially since you’re likely to overestimate this), but use real evidence. In this way, you’ll be able to better balance your anxiety equation and take on what once felt like a crisis as merely a blip in a long string of your life’s successes.

Isolation

Starting a business is like producing a one-person-show for no audience. Initially, you’ll invest countless hours prospecting for clients, delivering to the single or handful of clients you manage to attract, completing seemingly endless paperwork, all the while building your personal brand until you can generate enough cashflow to start hiring help. There might be days that you are working 12-16 hours by yourself. This isolation over time may not bring out the best in you- it can adversely influence your mood, performance, and eventually take a toll on your personal and business relationships. Does your city or local community have workshops or gatherings for entrepreneurs? If you do not already have peers in the entrepreneurship community, clubs and participatory events for start-ups, executives, and different types of products or services are readily available in most major cities just one internet search away.

Rejection

When you start your own business, the first daunting task for many is having to sell yourself in addition to your products or services. Prospecting for new clients includes cold-calling, knocking on doors, attending networking events, and more. It is inevitable that through the course of selling yourself, there will be people you encounter who are not interested in buying. Repeated rejection is emotionally exhausting. Because of the negative emotion associated with the rejections, naturally you develop a fear of being rejected and it becomes very difficult to keep at the grind of prospecting for clients. You may even unknowingly shut opportunities down when expecting to be rejected, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a well-studied interpersonal phenomenon social psychologists refer to as rejection sensitivity. Finding ways to bypass this tendency can make a significant difference in determining whether your business will flourish.

Facing rejection feels personal at first – maybe the investor did not like me or they think my product is poorly constructed. I encourage you again to take a breath, step back, and evaluate the evidence. For instance, no business has a 0% rejection rate baseline- that simply is not possible. Not every person you want to help wants to be helped and will become a customer. Another helpful reframe is that clients may not yet be ready for your product or service at this point in time. Selling is an art form and requires training and practice, just like any other new skill. While you cannot control a client’s receptiveness, you can control the effort you invest in improving your skills. Losing an account can feel devastating, and yet, even in those experiences there will be little wins that come along the way like the opportunity for feedback and a greater understanding of what clients want. At the end of the day, if you want to succeed at your new venture, you just can’t give up. Keep making those calls and show up for yourself; you’ll increase the chances of reaching a breakthrough and when that time comes, these rejections won’t seem so earth-shattering after all.

Failure

Most of us can cognitively understand that failure is a part of life. Nonetheless, it can still take considerable effort to deal with it. Effectively acknowledging and addressing setbacks is a critical skill required to be a successful entrepreneur. In order to have the experience of failure serve you, you’ll have to see them as they are: an enduring lesson that may very well serve as the building blocks for an upcoming success.

Below are some ways to process and deal with failure effectively:

  • Accept that failure is an eventuality for everyone in business. Though it may not look like it, even the most successful entrepreneurs have gone through their fair share of failures; in fact, grit in the face of failure may be the key mechanism that catapulted their accomplishments. If you don’t experience any failures, you simply are not doing what needs to be done to experience success at a massive scale.
  • Familiarize yourself with how you experience failure. Perhaps you shut down and self-isolate or flail and pull everyone else down with you. Equipped with the knowledge of your patterns, you’ll be able to more easily identify your unhelpful reactions to failure in the moment for what they are—a temporary collection of thoughts and feelings that do not define you.
  • Once you’re able to obtain emotional space from your experience of failure to observe it, you’ll be able to use the wise mind you’re cultivating to formulate a helpful response. When you’re ready, you’ll be better equipped to evaluate the evidence for what went wrong with an eye towards improvement in the future.
  • Lastly, if there is someone in your life you are able to confide in about this experience without judgment, do so at your discretion. As human beings, we are vastly underequipped to metabolize feelings of shame on our own. And yet, one of the reasons why failure is so powerful is that we seem to be programmed to care about what others think of us. Releasing that perfectionistic pressure valve by opening up to a trusted other can feel risky and vulnerable, but it can also be a steadying force as well. Isn’t it marvelous that in your mind, you’ve had the biggest flop in your life, and yet, there are people whose commitment and view of you remains unchanged?

Burnout

Burnout is a constellation of symptoms and behaviors (i.e. mood irritability, problems concentrating, difficulty experiencing positive emotions, disturbed sleep, malaise, using substances to cope) most readily associated with work environments that provide minimal control while peppering you with constant high demand. Combine these dysfunctional circumstances with the common traits of entrepreneurs who are known to possess extraordinary drive with unparalleled expectations, and you can almost see the dazzling fireworks of energy soar that just as soon fizzle out into the distance.
I define success as encompassing not just financial profit and a positive business reputation but aligned with my values, family, and personal growth as well. The following are a few approaches to prevent and address burnout:

  • While building your business can be an all-encompassing experience, it is essential that you don’t let it completely consume you. Instead, retain a dual focus on your health and happiness by keeping contact with what is important to you. Taking time to reconnect with friends, family, mentors, or mentoring others yourself will revitalize you and your work.
  • You should incorporate your health and personal care as a necessary part of your week. You should make it a habit to exercise and eat healthy regularly and make it a habit. Just think about this, if you neglect your health right now, the business and financial success in the future will be pointless if you cannot enjoy it. Energy is life and if you are not healthy and don’t have the energy to do things, the quality of your life will drastically decline.
  • Book that trip! If you have the means, go on a brief vacation where you can just be you. The world is not going to fall apart if you are gone for three or four days. I can guarantee you that nothing will change and your clients will be waiting for you when you get back.
  • Lastly, as your business grows, you may have to start sharing an aspect of your work that helped you with your success: control. Remember that one-person show without an audience? With employees, you’re no longer alone to make the big production happen. Become more comfortable with delegating some of the more heavy lifting to trusted and competent employees. Having a strong and functional team that can task shift can be instrumental in having a small business execute like a larger one while also keeping employees engaged and adequately challenged in their roles.

In conclusion, if you keep self-awareness as one of the primary focuses before starting your new business or while going through the ups and downs of self-employment, you will considerably increase your chance of being successful.

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