Written by: Michael DeVenney, President, Blueteau DeVEnney and Company, Founder, The Mindset Project, mdevenney@blueteaudevenney.com

That really is it: what we are all looking for. The good life. We want to feel that we are living in a way that matters to us and gives us contentment that things are the way they should be.

Well, what is the good life?

A number of studies have repeatedly shown that what entrepreneurs say they want from their working lives are money and recognition, followed closely by the ability to work independently and to make a difference in the world.

But is the way we are working as entrepreneurs answering those needs and giving us what we want to lead a good life?

The answer is no.

In our study, The Mindset Project, we found that 72% of entrepreneurs feel they are not getting what they want from their businesses. This shortcoming has created a sense of relentless stress and anxiety that affects the perspectives of entrepreneurs.

This is the paradox of entrepreneurship: the more we see a path to having a good life, the more we work in ways that take us away from that very life.

Much of starting and building a business is about expectations. Entrepreneurs, in many ways, live their lives for others: trying to meet what they expect other people will think about them. Rather than focusing on what matters to them, most entrepreneurs look to others to evaluate their life and business.

Entrepreneurs work endless hours, deal with mounting commitments, face unrealistic deadlines, and stress over unachievable demands. But they suck it up, isolate, refrain from talking about it, and put on the façade that everything is okay. In many ways, the business depends on it. The very nature of the way entrepreneurs work today limits their growth and ability to be innovative, creative, and productive.

As entrepreneurs, we must put our own oxygen mask on first! We need to invest our time to build our energy, perspectives, strengths, and judgment. From here – a strong individual foundation – we can work towards healthier lives, healthier companies and healthier growth. And the good life.

Right now, though, entrepreneurs seem to be thriving on busyness! All the things they should do or have to do come first. What is important to them comes later, or not at all. Entrepreneurs need to be themselves first, as the success of their companies depends on their own health; the reverse is not true, no matter how much it may seem to be.

I know this story well. It is me. For thirty years, I relentlessly pursued stretch goals, pushed myself through 70 hour weeks, and always felt I needed to do more. I was not living, I was working. The company became me and I became the company. The stress I felt mounted to incredible anxiety. But everyone said they couldn’t see it. Of course not, I hid it well. I put on a face that I thought everyone around me needed. The anxiety turned into clinical depression and I fell hard. I hit rock bottom and attempted overdoses several times. Everything unraveled and I lost my business. I lost myself.

At this point, I wondered if it was just me. Was there something wrong with me?

Being an entrepreneur, I had questions and a deep curiosity. I started the Mindset Project to research entrepreneurs and the stress they face in their work and how it affects their lives and businesses.

I was not alone.

Entrepreneurs’ responses showed that they are struggling with cash flow, customers, and how to grow. But the deeper issue was the incredible levels of stress. It is never ending and takes us away from families, friends, and personal time. More than 74% of respondents said their businesses interfered with their ability to have positive relationships! Just when we need the people around us the most, we turn them away.

The impact on the mental health of entrepreneurs is the greatest business risk we face today. In our research, we found the working environment for entrepreneurs is one of unhealthy stress, strain, and tension. The resulting pressure affects the mindset of the entrepreneur to the point of creating poor mental health conditions.

Figure 1 outlines the much higher incidence of mental health illnesses for entrepreneurs as compared to the general population. These are only documented cases; actual mental health incidence is much higher. A further study estimates that 69% of entrepreneurs experience some form of mental health challenge in their working life.

Chart showing the prevalence of mental health illness in Canada

Figure 1

With the stigma of mental health, entrepreneurs do not talk about it. We found that a further 36.7% of entrepreneurs felt they needed to seek help but remained untreated. The expectations of the response of others are a strong deterrent.

How we work today as entrepreneurs is a choice, and one that is killing our businesses and lives.

We found that three factors affected the ability of entrepreneurs to take a positive approach to their business.

We self-identify with our business to such an extent we lose our own sense of worth. Our greatest strength, our passion, becomes the limiting factor. Our value becomes tied to the rollercoaster of our business and we stop seeing ourselves as independent.

Chart showing how entrepreneurs identify with their companies

Figure 2

We lose our confidence by working towards goals that are unrealistic. But we hold ourselves accountable and responsible and our confidence is eaten away. Investors expected returns of 19.1% to 22.2% each year from entrepreneurs with most business owners seeing 20% as a reasonable growth rate. The actual annual return on small to medium sized businesses is 3.0% with a potential of 7.2% (as reported by Industry Canada). What are we thinking? And we put pressure on thinking we can do more in less time. We take on too many commitments with too short timelines and that further chews up our self-confidence. It becomes a nagging question, can I do it?

We have a competency gap in that entrepreneurs focus on outcomes rather than the causes. Business owners put the focus on results without fully dealing with what has to be done to get there. It becomes a question of will it work?

If we want a good life as an entrepreneur we have to prioritize the people at the heart of the business: us. Growing a business starts with shaping how we approach work and investing in our own personal development. We need to prioritize time for what makes life worth living: our most important relationships to give us perspective. Time also has to be invested in activities that renew and build our positive energy (from exercise to meditation to getting restful sleep). We need to understand and work from our strengths to make our best contribution to the business with confidence. Lastly, we need to use data to inspire informed judgment.

Most importantly, we have to invest in putting our own oxygen mask on first to lead a good life. And then we can positively affect the lives of the people around us, our communities, and our region.

About The Mindset Project:
The Mindset Project
is a Halifax-based thought initiative concerned with the ongoing risk of mental health among Canadian entrepreneurs. Through a self-funded survey, the Mindset Project presents seminal findings on the motivations and stresses of Canadian entrepreneurs and the implications for business growth.

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