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Founder Mental Conditioning: Building Resiliency for Long-Term Success

By May 22, 2020January 24th, 2022No Comments

If you’re a founder that feels exceptionally stressed out right now—you’re not alone. The COVID-19 crisis has unleashed an avalanche of new stressors onto startup founders that were already experiencing the pressure of growing a venture-backed business.

Today we’re witnessing anxiety at an entirely new level, fueled by worries about the viability of companies as the economy heads into unchartered waters, health concerns related to the virus, and regulations that have mandated working from home. Is it 2021 yet?

The mental muscle load is significant. That’s why we’re encouraging founders to pay close attention to their mental conditioning. There’s never been a more critical time to be proactive about brain conditioning—that is, the mental exercise and wellness steps required to survive and thrive through this pandemic. Just as you train and condition your physical muscles, your mental muscle is no different.

No one is immune. People that have never struggled with stress or anxiety are finding themselves with newly onset insomnia. You may be running into the same problems and feeling unable to work them out. People are irritable, extra fatigued and losing motivation by the minute. All of these are signs of the mind working overtime.

Ignore them for too long, and you become overwhelmed, burned out, or unable to function effectively. For founders, strengthening your brain to handle the added stress of our new reality is akin to strengthening your body via exercise. Here are some practical steps to mentally condition yourself to feel better and, most importantly, perform better too.

1. Ramp up your routines. The human brain is hard-wired for certainty. And this pandemic offers nothing of the sort. By establishing routines, you can give your brain more of what it wants, and reduce stress and anxiety in the process. Perhaps you go for a walk every morning or spend 20 minutes before bed each night reading a good book. The ingredients are less important than the actual predictability of the habit. Also, consider using check lists. Author and surgeon Atul Gawande has written extensively about the importance of check lists as a way to maintain routines and improve outcomes, especially in complex situations.

2. Pay attention to the Big Three. That’s exercise, sleep, and diet. Prioritizing exercise is essential; exercise facilitates sleep, reduces stress, and of course, helps you maintain your health. Also monitor your rest, and do everything you can to ensure sleep happens. This crisis has disrupted our collective sleep like never before. Healthy eating rounds out your physical wellness, which informs your mental health. But keep your media diet in mind as well: reducing news and social media consumption is a surefire way to reduce anxiety.

3. Strive for personal connection. Founders can be a lonely bunch, and social distancing has only spurred that feeling of isolation. Make a point to reach out to people when you need support or help with a problem, have a question, or want to hear the voice of someone not in your family. Small actions make a big difference in improving your mood and mental state. Be sure to offer the same care to others—check in on your employees, family, and friends. Spend time listening to what they’re going through and provide your support and guidance. Additionally, take a break from Zoom and video calls. It’s easier to connect with others without the performance aspect of being on video. Walk and talk on your phone, at least a few times weekly.

4. Find ways to give back. It’s easy to despair when you feel powerless. Regardless of how your company is faring through this crisis, you may feel at the mercy of forces beyond your control. Using your skills for good can help you regain some measure of power and generate positivity that’s genuinely energizing. Get creative with what you can do and what feels doable. For instance, if you or your team has knowledge or skills that could help others, you could put together a free webinar. You might pitch in with efforts to help local businesses recover, donate food to nonprofits in need or just pause and help someone in your own household cope.

5. Go easy on yourself. Self-criticism can take off when things are uncertain, and there’s no right answer. How do you know you’ve done the right things or done enough? Spoiler alert—you can’t know. So wrangle your negative self-talk and cut yourself some slack. No one has the “right answers” for how to manage a startup in a pandemic. You’re going to make mistakes—we’ve made several this week already. But that’s part of working the problem. Don’t perseverate on what you’ve done wrong; evaluate, adapt, and continue moving forward. You’re doing your best.

6. Solve and celebrate solving one problem at a time. Navigating a startup is like navigating terrain in the outdoors. You set your course, but you’re regularly taking your bearings and course correcting as needed as you navigate the terrain, obstacles and whatever nature throws at you. You’re also enjoying the journey along the way and taking time to celebrate the successes of getting from one point to the next. It’s easy to forget to do that amidst a startup, particularly when others depend upon you. But don’t forget it’s a team effort and to acknowledge and celebrate the small wins on the journey.

The COVID-19 crisis is unlike any we’ve encountered before. By staying mentally fit, you can ensure you’ll get through this challenge positively and productively, and be ready for whatever comes next.


By Matt AbramsTFX advisor and venture partner, and Dr. Ben Michaelis, clinical psychologist, author and keynote speaker