The essay is for entrepreneurs who have perceived the occasional feeling of emptiness in their work, the anxiety about the meaning of doing business. We need to start with a brief detour to look at the theme of addictions.
Addiction as a shield
Lexico describes addiction as "The fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance or activity."
We use things, substances, activities and people to disconnect from certain feelings and emotions. Addiction serves as a shield from feelings and emotions that we might perceive as negative or painful and tend to avoid. Those can be sadness, shame, rage, resentment, fear, doubt, disappointment, and existential anxiety.
Being stuck in addiction means to exist but not to live. Also, it means to confuse joy and fulfilment with thrill and pleasure.
Entrepreneurship as a shield
Existential anxiety is when one is concerned with the question - does my life have a purpose? Does my work, business have a purpose? If yes, what is this purpose?
Entrepreneurs risk using their business similar to addiction to avoid existential anxiety. Running a business can bring lots of thrill and pleasure, a sense of achievement, money, the feelings of "doing something good for humanity". But why the feelings of emptiness, even meaninglessness start to creep in, despite the business going well and even more when it's not going well? Also, why does procrastination appear?
The cycle of addiction and emptiness
Alcoholics know that using alcohol helps to feel high for a moment, then the senses get dulled, and one gradually turns into a zombie. After the using period and a (short) break, the craving to use kicks in again. If the desire is not satisfied, what follows, is the feeling of emptiness. This feeling can become devastating; thus, it leads back to using.
But if one pushes it through the feeling of emptiness without using, what comes next is the connection to repressed painful affects, be it shame or rage or sadness or a mix of those and others.
Entrepreneurship can follow a similar route. One gets the thrill from being busy and achieving or being overwhelmed with problems. With time, it dulls the senses, and the feeling of existing, not living, creeps in. Procrastination starts to take over. Emptiness and meaninglessness show up. Those feelings then are repressed with pushing for more achievements or getting into more problems to solve.
Cuffed with golden chains? Still prisoner
Entrepreneurs who keep pushing and ignoring their feelings risk getting depression, panic attacks, burnout, sense of wasted years, to name a few possibilities. The worst-case scenarios include heart attacks and even entrepreneurs' suicides (which occasionally happen both after successful exits and after their companies' fail).
I remember a post-exit CEO entrepreneur while drinking his second beer at lunch telling me, "I am not happy in this place, but I'm handcuffed with golden chains".
Toward the freedom of expression
An entrepreneur will use his/her business for the personal and public good when it is aligned with his/her purpose. When one is not repressing feelings and instead is led by them, there is a lesser need to get the thrill of achievements or problems as a shield. A certain sense of lightness replaces the pressure to rise, scale, exit and repeat. Sure, if a strategic need may come, the entrepreneur might sell one asset to finance another. Nevertheless, all such assets serve one purpose, which is larger than a person's life. It's a journey that one cannot finish during their lifetime. Hence comes the known adage that the journey itself is something to enjoy.
How to achieve that state? Let's first look into what makes it complicated.
Social conditioning of the startup world
Many of the thoughts we think and truths we believe in, we've taken from elsewhere, partly from our social bubble. Scale big or go home, fail fast, push yourself, be resilient, focus on m2m growth, raise the next round, change the world, etc. These and other maxims are repeated over and over in our information sphere.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to scale, push oneself, improve the world, etc. It becomes unnatural when one operates as if these are the only things that matter. And then, on top, uses addictions or calming techniques to ignore the feelings that signal there's something more to life and business.
Often, the script goes like this: raise a round, scale, repeat, exit, enjoy life for a while, start the next venture. Or become an investor. If, during this path, one emphasises personal fulfilment while creating an external impact close to heart - great! (Only, in that case, it might be so that one does not want to exit - it might happen down the road depending on the circumstances, but it's not an end goal per se).
However, at times an entrepreneur wants to maximise success and profit primarily and uses the start-raise-scale-exit game as a method for it. In that case, there is a risk of playing a losing game. I say "risk" because there are 2 probabilities - to win - to find something close to your heart after the exit (if you succeed with it); and to lose - to die sooner than you find it. Let's look at both scenarios.
The elusive "Something good for humanity"
"I want to exit because then I will have funds to invest in something good for humanity". "I am building a startup because I want to do something good for humanity". In both examples, the heart of the person's is expressing its wish to fulfil the purpose. Yet, in both cases, the person still might not know what its purpose is. "Something good for humanity" does not signal a clear sense of purpose; it's a buzzword from the impact and humanism bubbles. In this case, one would benefit from getting particular - instead of "something good" - how exactly? Instead of "humanity" - for whom or what precisely? I will cover the approach to getting more specific in a separate essay.
Death might come sooner than expected
The modern western man thinks of himself as immortal or envisions death as something theoretical or possible only in a rather far future. Interestingly, startup founders choose to believe that they will win against the odds in the business game - "most startups fail, but mine will succeed". Still, in another area of probabilities, they choose the opposite stance - "most people die at around 80, so I have plenty of time to go".
Yet, let's look at the absolute numbers.
Exits: Statista.com shows that in Europe 1300-1500 startups exit per year, not taking into account the exits' valuations. Suppose we assume 3 founders per startup on average. In that case, it is 3900-4500 people exiting per year.
Deaths: According to Euromomo.eu in Europe, in the age group of 15-44, 1200-1300 people die every week.
With this perspective, it should be obvious that a wiser strategy is to live and do business as if your days are not infinite. I recommend imagining that for all you will ever accomplish internally, and in terms of external impact, you have 3-5 years at your disposal.
The time is now
Conclusion: use your time wisely and don't delay the work of your life to the future, which might never come! Use it to grow as a human, uncover your purpose, and align your business with it.
How to find or, more precisely, connect with the feeling of purpose is one of the themes I will elaborate more on in one of the following essays. You can also check out my talk on how knowing your purpose helps you attract the best talent.
Quick advice for the first steps: instead of ignoring or repressing your feelings, start paying attention to them. Instead of always rushing, take time off to reflect. As a takeaway, 4 questions for self-reflection:
Who am I?
What do I fear?
What do I want?
What do I leave behind?
P.S. How will you know that you have arrived? You will feel it! Occasional doubts will remain a normal part of the journey, but the feeling of emptiness or meaninglessness will be replaced with knowing and feeling that you are doing your life's work.
Author: Farhad Niyoz
Farhad is the CEO of .Cocoon that supports founders' self-discovery for personal and business growth through mentoring and investing.
When there is a challenge at the business level – we support our clients
1. To find the link between the business challenge and their personalities and personal challenges;
2. And to bring forth personal changes that, as a result, create changes in the business.
If you are a founder or a business leader - let's talk!
.Cocoon is part of .Contriber - a group of companies that supports self-discovery for businesses, individuals and children.
Join the insiders!
Get notified about new advice and opportunities for founders. Join our newsletter: