There is something so great about supporting a community that includes over 10,000 startups.
You get to hear stories about how startups are thriving in places like Cairo, Beruit, Buenos Aires, and Tallahassee. How they’re building amazing products, hiring like crazy, and creating cultures that have an impact on the company’s employees, as well as the people around them.
Unfortunately, you also get to hear other kinds of stories, too. Stories that aren’t so fun. Painful stories about companies as they launch. Stories of chaos, and stories about companies that ultimately fall apart.
But one particular type of pain is so consistent that I hear startups, accelerators, and partners talk about it all the time.
And I hear it play out in any number of ways:
- Founders are talking about how they have no one to go to for advice.
- They feel like they can’t be honest with anyone.
- Because, if they’re honest with their team, their team will stop engaging.
- Or, if they’re honest with their investors, their investors won’t help them anymore.
- Or, how they can’t possibly ask any more of their spouse because they’re already asking too much.
Basically, founders feel alone.
And I get it. There are so many times, as a CEO, that I feel this way.
“No one understands the pressure.”
“If only my spouse truly understood what was going on with the business, she would have more empathy for me.”
“Everyone on my team is asking me for something. If only they understood the pressures each one of them is putting on me, they would let off a bit.”
“My friends are all doing very different things than me. They won’t understand this particular problem I’m having. And on top of it, they don’t have time for me to bring up this stuff anyway.”
So here I am—alone.
This isn’t something particularly unique to the startup world.
In 1980, approximately 20 percent of Americans reported feeling lonely. Today, that number has doubled. And this isn’t just a problem in the States; it’s rapidly increasing in countries around the world.
The effects of this loneliness are pretty awful. For instance, researchers Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton did a meta-analysis on studies that focused on loneliness, and they ended up seeing the following: Living with air pollution increases your odds of dying early by 5 percent. Living with obesity decreases it by 20 percent. Excessive drinking ramps it up to 30 percent.
But loneliness? Loneliness increases our odds of dying early by 45 percent.
Ultimately, there are a ton of things that actually cause loneliness. However, as far as I can tell, one particular issue appears to be at the heart of why startup founders consistently feel so lonely:
We think we can’t be vulnerable with others.
We fear that, if we started being truly vulnerable, we’d start to lose people.
We’ll lose our colleagues, friends, and spouses.
They’ll find out that we’re fakes.
They’ll realize that we don’t really know what we’re doing.
And they’ll turn against us. And everything we’ve worked for will fall apart.
Changing the Tapes
To shift this in my own life, and as I’ve been in conversation with founders, there are three things that have been really helping. Here’s how I’m changing the way I think about loneliness.
Sitting with It
I hate being lonely. I find it to be one of the worst feelings in the world. So I fight against it as much as I can. I’ll watch TV instead of reading a book so my mind doesn’t have to think about being lonely. I’ll immediately call a friend instead of feeling that ache. I’ll do some work instead of feeling lonely.
But, over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to sit in my loneliness. Why? When I sit with it, it actually tells me something bigger about what’s probably going on, under the surface.
For instance, I find that I’m most lonely while on a work trip and in my hotel. I start feeling alone and begin to grasp for things that will take the feeling away. But instead of grasping like I have in the past, I’m trying to hear what’s going on. Why am I lonely? And I’ll start thinking about things like…
- How much I love my daily rhythms at home
- How much I miss my two girls
- How much I want to go for a run around my neighborhood
- How much I’m missing a certain friend
If I don’t decide to sit in my loneliness, I miss out on these kinds of key insights, like how much I cherish these things. They’re actually allowing me to realize how important they are to me.
And missing them is actually a good thing because they help me realize what I truly value. If I just ran away from the hurt and pain, I would never get the key insights that otherwise would have been drowned out by watching another Netflix show in my hotel room. I like to describe this as being authentic to myself.
Sitting with my Colleagues
I’ve blogged about this before, but what if I’m not just authentic with myself, but authentic with my colleagues? When I’m not doing great, can I share a bit about it with them? Or, if I’m scared about something, can I share that? Or, if I actually hate what I’m doing, can I be honest about it?
Because if you’re actually vulnerable, what’s the worst that could happen? You’d lose your job? Lose your team? Get taken off your current project?
And if that’s the worst you could lose, is it truly the worst?
Because I would argue that the rewards of being open and vulnerable far outweigh the risks. Whatever you might potentially lose—more often than not—doesn’t even come close to what you gain in opening up.
I find that the more honest I am with my team about what I’m struggling with, the more they’re able to come alongside me and support me in my weaknesses. And the more vulnerable I am about the things I’m scared about, the less power those things tend to have over me after I voice them.
Essentially, being vulnerable is helping me feel like I’m actually not alone in this—that I have people around me who not only can support me, but people who really want to.
Sitting with my Friends
Lastly, I’m spending a lot of time with my friends. Not because time with them makes the loneliness inherently go away. There are a lot of times I’ll be with friends and feel very lonely.
Rather, I’m spending intentional time with friends working through the things I’m nervous, intimidated, or worried about.
That intentional time looks like me…
Jumping on a call every other week with a group of friends.
Meeting in person with another group of friends once a month.
Calling my best friend once a month.
A weekly date with my wife.
Seeing an executive coach I pay for once a month.
Seeing my informal mentor every other month.
And in each discussion with the people above, I’m jumping into the areas I’m struggling with. Why? Because they listen to me. They care about me. And they tell me over and over that this is hard. That this is difficult. That my work isn’t for the faint of heart.
But they reassure me that I’m not in it alone. There are people alongside me, helping me along the way.
Loneliness is actually helping me understand deeper things that are going on and ways I want to connect and impact the world more than ever. So while there are a hundred other ways to fight and work through loneliness, I haven’t found one that works better than what you see above. To actually feel it. To lean into it. And to use it to my advantage.
Otherwise, without the people in my life to work through it with me, I’m just lonely.