Friday, December 5, 2008

Stress Management for Entrepreneurs

Sean recently wrote about the need for entrepreneurs to learn to deal with "unfamiliar pain". I think he's right. Running a small firm, where you have to worry not only about your own welfare, but those of your team, can be a pain in the brain. That can be particularly the case in that volatile industry sector known as high tech. I'm not sure if I've learned to deal with stress, or if I've just become so used to it that it's now merely part of the background noise. But I do know that I'm now able to shrug off things that in the past would have had me rocking gently back and forth in the corner of a dark and quiet room while muttering. So here are five stress management approaches I've come up with over the years. Your mileage may vary.
  1. Moral outrage is a luxury the entrepreneur can ill afford. My parents brought me up to abhor a lie and with a strong sense of fair play. I've never minded people playing tough -- I played tighthead prop in rugby. In the winter. Near Ferguslie Park -- but I try to play things straight, and expect to be treated likewise. As a result, I have a tendency to get well-nigh incandescent if I sense someone cheating me or anyone dear to me. But in business, that is, I've come to realize, not a positive characteristic. First, genuine cheats are, in my experience, rare. Business is complex, and different interpretations of contracts and other agreements are common. One man's cheating is another man's ambiguous non-compete agreement. That's why we have lawyers. I've never really bought the idea that some things are "Just business; not personal". But I've learned over the years that it's often best to treat things that way. Second, even if genuine cheating is going on, I've learned it's more productive to consider it in the same way I would a donkey stamping on my foot. That - like cheating - is not a pleasant thing to experience. But I don't get angry at the donkey in a "How dare you stamp on my foot" sense. By classing the cheat as a donkey I reduce the discomfort to a managable level. It's still a pain, but my desire to rip the cheat's head off tends to dissipate.
  2. Learn detachment. I'm not a Buddhist, but I find their approach to detachment useful. I've actually learned the value of the phrase "Well there's no point in worrying about that." When I was younger, I found such an exhortation senseless. It implies that worrying is something we choose to do. I assumed it was pretty much involuntary. But in fact I've discovered that it is absolutely possible to simply switch off a worry for a time. The underlying concern may well still remain, but my fevered response to it can be turned down. Especially good for dealing with problems of the moral outrage variety, particularly when they're keeping you awake at night. It takes practice, but I'm no Zen monk and I've managed it. Give it a try.
  3. Control secondary pain. This is, I think, related to Sean's "unfamilar" pain. I've found that there are often two pains or discomforts associated with any given unpleasant situation. First, there's the pain itself. I stub my toe, and my toe is sore. Pain, plain and simple. But then there's the pain I experience because of the existence of the first pain. "Oh no, I've stubbed my toe. Maybe it's broken. Maybe it'll get gangrenous. Maybe it'll get infected and I'll die. My wife and kids will be destitute. Ahhhhh!!" The key difference between the two pain types is that while you may not be able to control the first pain, you can very often control the second. Moral outrage is a good example. A large client pays slowly. They know you can't afford, and don't want to enforce the clear contract payment terms. So they cheat by paying late. They said they'd do one thing, and then they blatantly break their word. The first pain - the hit on your cash flow is real. And, within typical operating constraints, there's not much you can do about it. But the second one - the anger at the very fact they are cheating - is almost all in your head. With practice, it can be controlled.
  4. It could be worse. A lot of stress is instantly lessened by putting it in perspective. Again, my awesome parents drilled this kind of thing into me when I was a kid. "The poor children in Africa would love to have your dinner", I'd be told, while complaining about Wednesday mince an' tatties. And it comes to the rescue often in running a business
  5. You are already dead. This is my favourite coping strategy, and it's best illustrated by recalling a part of the World War 2 drama series, "Band of Brothers". The scene involves a young paratrooper, Blithe, confessing to his Lieutenant that he had stayed hidden in a ditch rather than fight on D-Day. Spears, the Lieutenant, asks if if he knows why he hid in the ditch, and Blithe replies that he was scared. Spears replies: “We’re all scared. You hid in that ditch because you think there’s still hope. The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. And the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier’s supposed to function...” It may seem a bit dramatic to treat business like the assault on Carentan, but it works for me.


  1. I think your "secondary pain" bullet does a better job of capturing the sense of "unfamiliar pain." It's a sense of violated expectations that can lead to spiraling fears.
    There is good advice for a CEO in your first four points. I have some misgivings about number 5, at least in the context you have framed it. To me, Churchill's advice "When you are going through Hell, keep going" is easier to digest. Or try Thoreau's journal for Dec. 27, 1857: "Do not despair of life. Think of the fox, prowling in a winter night to satisfy his hunger. His race survives; I do not believe any of them ever committed suicide."
    There is some really good advice for leaders here.

  2. @Sean,
    Yeah, I doubt the "already dead" approach is everyone's cup of tea. But at its heart it's really just about dealing with fear, which is one of the most debilitating forms of secondary pain. If I play out the worst case scenario in my mind, and come to some kind of terms with it (e.g. as if it has already happened), then the fear is substantially controlled. Especially useful when combined with the "It could be worse" mindset.

  3. The model proposes that helping stressed individuals understand the nature of thought—especially providing them with the ability to recognize when they are in the grip of insecure thinking, disengage from it, and access natural positive feelings—will reduce their stress.

  4. Thanks for the post, many entrepreneurs don't realize that stress can have a huge effect on a business if not kept in check. Over stressed people make poorer decisions, and that is why you run into a problem. Programs like the Kolb Learning Style can teach you ways to manage your stress before it gets out of hand.