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Dear founder, here are three ways to build your mental resilience

Building and running a startup can be mentally tough. That’s why in this TechCommunity post, Cecilie Willer guides founders to become mentally resilient – even as pressure from investors grows and a potential economic recession looms on the horizon.

Cecilie Willer is a Management Consultant & Executive Coach specializing in Founder/Startup Psychology. She holds an MSc in Business Psychology and has 13+ years of experience in the tech industry developing CEO’s & Teams. She has coached over 200 startups and teams, and works with some of the largest VC’s, Foundations & Startups/Scaleups.

“I feel like a duck – I have to seem totally cool and confident to the board, investors and employees. But down under, my legs are paddling at a pendulum speed to keep it all afloat – both my own anxiety about the future as well as everyone else’s uncertainty about the future I have to be able to accommodate.”

The words come from my client, a female entrepreneur for an early-stage VC-funded startup. Last week, she, probably like every other new startup founder, read the leaked internal memo from the well-known incubator YCombinator as well as Sequoia Capital’s 52-page PowerPoint presentation, which portends headwinds and tough times for their startups.

The main points are; get ready for an economic crisis on par with the dot com bubble of 2000 and the financial crisis of 2007, get profitable as soon as possible, cut everything to the bone and expect it to be hard to raise money for the next 12 months or more. The reason for this is the uncertain macro-economic situation combined with the fact that capital has actually started to cost money.

My client has runway (term for how long a company can operate before running out of capital, ed.) in the fall and is therefore already in “funding mode,” which in itself is demanding mentally and hard emotionally. It’s now being spiced up by a potential major economic recession. As she puts it: “Right now I feel uncertainty with uncertainty on.”

Accepting fear, uncertainty, anxiety and impatience, while not letting emotions block or control our thoughts and actions, requires mental strength and resilience. But how can we build and maintain it in difficult times? What other resources do we need to tap into to be mentally resilient?

Psychological resilience…

…is the ability to mentally or emotionally cope with a crisis or to quickly return to pre-crisis status. Resilience exists when the person uses “mental processes and behaviors to promote personal assets and protect themselves from the potential negative effects of stressors.”

Control what you can control and accept what you can’t

Uncertainty is the hardest thing for us humans to be in emotionally, as we are not “in control” of the situation. The funny thing though is that life itself, as with a startup journey, is very uncontrollable – we are not in control of an economic recession, illnesses, accidents and so on. What we do have control over is how we respond to it – that is, what we think, say and do. As the famous psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor D. Franklin said: “Between stimulus and response there is a gap. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Your focus, then, should be on accepting the new reality and taking stock of what you do have control over and what is outside your control.

Hold on to the structures that ensure your mental health

Most of my clients find it counter-intuitive to focus on things like exercising, turning off the computer early, getting sleep, eating properly or meditating when they are under pressure. “I don’t have time for that, I have to secure funding,” many say. But it’s you and your mental toughness that a potential investor looks at in a pitch or due-diligence situation. So part of your managerial responsibility as a founder is to look after yourself. It is when there is least time and pressure is greatest that maintaining your mental health structures is most important. Nor do top athletes or soldiers go into battle with poor nutrition in their bodies, poor physical fitness or without proper sleep patterns. So if time is short, focus on doing one of the things and not all of them.

Your social support is number one in resilience

One of the most important studies in psychological resilience is the Kauai studies. Over 40 years – from birth to mid-life – they followed 698 children from vulnerable families from the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The studies showed that even though the children had experienced abuse, molestation or other neglect, a third of them did surprisingly well in life – they got an education and a family. So the children who did well had developed mental resilience.

The studies showed that one of the most important protective factors in the development of mental resilience was that the children had received social support and help, either from a family member, a teacher, a coach or another person from their community. The children who had not had that social and human support simply perished.

The study clearly shows that we humans are primarily social creatures, gaining much of our mental resilience and strength through social relationships. We are the world and it is us.

In a startup world, with the dominant narrative of the founder as a “lonely rider ” (with worship of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs), it is important to remember that as humans we need to hold on and use our social relationships even when times are tough – or in fact most of all when times are tough. Although vulnerable, one of your most important sources of resilience as a founder is whether you manage to reach out to people who can help and support you. Whether it’s family, friends or a mentor, reach out, share and allow others to help and support you.

Kauai Studies

A 40-year longitudinal study of 698 infants on the Hawaiian island of Kauai from 1955. The study supported the conventional wisdom that many children exposed to reproductive and environmental risk factors (for example, premature birth combined with an unstable household and a mentally ill mother) experience more problems with crime, mental and physical health, and family stability than children exposed to fewer such risk factors. The study’s most striking finding was that one third of all high-risk children showed resilience and developed into caring, competent and confident adults despite their problematic developmental histories. The study identified a number of protective factors in the lives of these resilient individuals that helped balance risk factors during critical periods in their development. Among these factors was a strong bond with a non-parent such as an aunt, babysitter or teacher.

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