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The importance of self-esteem for a startup founder

June 27, 2016

Starting your own business is one of the most emotional things you will do in your life. The ups and downs can be dramatic, and the emotions involved in startup life can test the self-belief and resolve of even the most confident entrepreneur. Whilst we often think the success of a startup is down to the innovation and the idea, I think it’s as much to do with your self-esteem.

Self-esteem reflects a person’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth, a positive and negative evaluation and judgment of oneself as well as an attitude toward the self. Self-esteem encompasses beliefs – for example, ‘I am competent’ and emotions such as triumph, despair and pride – three feelings I know startup founder experience every day.

Self-esteem is made up primarily of two things: respecting yourself and feeling capable. Every adjustment in your startup business model shouldn’t be viewed as a crisis in self-esteem, nor every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. Adversity, and perseverance and all these things can shape you.

In many ways I view a startup as a completion with yourself. Negative thinking patterns can be immensely deceptive and persuasive, and change is rarely easy, but with patience and persistence, backed up by diligence and research, your startup can fly. Reflection is a way to balance out the emotion.

Research shows that there are four emotional stages that most entrepreneurs pass through on their way to becoming completely comfortable with their new startup life. The four are: the Busy Phase, the Second Thoughts Phase, the Self-Doubt Phase, and the Been There, Done That Phase. Although the phases’ names might seem slightly negative, understand that each stage is associated with a mix of emotions, both negative and positive.

The third stage of emotions research says most entrepreneurs experience during their startup, mirrors the first and second stage in many ways, in that there are both positive and negative moments. There are a number of negative emotions you can expect, but there are also many effective ways to cope with these feelings.

For example, performance anxiety. One of the toughest things about a startup is that it can be difficult to measure your progress. Setting milestones based on your MVP and customer development are fine, but finances are scattered and unpredictable, but with cashflow acting as a real measure of success in terms of survival, this can lead you to wonder about how well you are performing.

To overcome this self-doubt, you should define and measure your success in your own terms, because measuring your startup’s success using finance measures might not be an option at this point, it could be helpful for you to look to other types of milestones, such as those related to projects or personal goals. However, with new ways to measure success, come new ways for you to be disappointed.

Frustration will abound in equal measure with feeling positive. As you become more comfortable with your business, you’re likely to be thrown a curveball or two and some setbacks – anticipated new business not closing, new hires not taking job offers made, or even prototype development not hitting the mark. The good news, however, is that this is all part of the startup learning process.

Look back to those days when you were employed before you launched your startup – and don’t lose sight of the many reason you stepped into the world of entrepreneurship. Remember, you experienced days like this in your previous work life, the only difference now is that you get to decide how to handle the situation rather than relying on your boss. Just keep in mind during these frustrating times that every startup experiences setbacks – and regularly, too.

At this point, you are probably fully invested – emotion, energy, time and cash – into your idea, and so the concept of quitting, even during the toughest and most frustrating of times, is unthinkable. It’s not a remote possibility. During this stage of emotion self-doubt, expect your determination to be renewed. Your business is part of your personal identity now, and your commitment to it as a measure of your personal success is a high driver.

Frustration, performance anxiety, and determination are all emotions you’re likely to experience in your new life as an entrepreneur, and combine into a maelstrom to undermine your self-esteem. We’ve all had those quiet moments when we reflect and doubt ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, there are a raft of positive experiences along the way too, but be realistic, a startup is hard and there are no shortage of unknowns, unexpected challenges and risks.

But let the chips fall on the floor as they may. Simply roll your sleeves up, and strategise. Focus on asking yourself questions on strategy, and do the hard stuff. The insights you’ll gain by answering those questions will help determine if you’re on the right path or perhaps need to pivot or change direction.

As long as you’re honest with yourself and deal with it head-on, there’s nothing to fear from self-doubt. It’s actually a good mechanism for keeping you on the right track.  Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your startup life, but define yourself.

The Six Pillars Of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden demonstrates compellingly why self-esteem is basic to psychological health, achievement, personal happiness, and positive relationships. It was the culmination of a lifetime of clinical practice research and study, and hailed as the most definitive work on the topic.

As with all such ‘psychological analytical’ research, the key is to take the framework and apply it to yourself. There is no ‘right or wrong’ answer, simply an opportunity to frame your own situation and thinking against a useful framework, and ask ‘so what does this say to me?’

Branden introduces the six pillars – in essence six action-based practices for daily living that provide the foundation for self-esteem, and explores the central importance of self-esteem in five areas: the workplace, parenting, education, psychotherapy, and the culture at large.  From a startup and entrepreneurship perspective, it’s an opportunity for self-reflection – but don’t over analyse. It forms a useful ‘conversation with myself’ structure.

One thing that is important to grasp is that self-esteem is an indirect result of what you do. Branden breaks this down into the six practices highlighted below:

Live consciously This requires us to be fully in the present moment. This takes a bit of practice, because many of us are conditioned to disown the here and now, to survive what we have thought that we cannot handle. It’s about being comfortable with yourself, your persona, what you’ve achieved and what you stand for. Respect yourself at all times, what you’ve achieved and where you’re going.

Accept yourself We all have flaws and attributes, but you also have the opportunity to enhance who you are, by accepting everything about yourself. In fact, the only way to enhance who you are is to accept yourself. Don’t try to live in someone else’s skin or adopt their personality, simply be yourself for what you are. Measure your success by your own standards, not others.

Take responsibility for your experiences There’s a piece in the book which says: I have learned to be in conversations where I say to myself, “It comes down to ‘this is where you end, and I begin”. Giving yourself such an affirmation helps you to say what I will and will not experience, and this is quite liberating and fulfilling. Again it’s about asserting yourself to yourself – if you don’t respect you, no one else will.

Assert who you are Like what you think, feel, believe, need, want and value is genuine, and don’t doubt yourself against some alter-ego or artificial model of what you want to be. Your startup is a reflection of you.

Live purposefully Make an agreement with yourself to reach your highest potential, while you maintain balance in your life. You only get one chance, make it happen and realise your potential. Again, don’t covert or envy. Don’t look at the progress other startups are making, simply focus on your own model, execution and growth.

Maintain your integrity Know exactly what your principles and values are, and stick to them, no matter what others think or do. You started with a clear purpose in mind for your startup, don’t lose sight of it – it’s the ‘why I am doing this’ which is a vital reminder when you do hit the brick wall and doubt yourself.

If you are consciously aware of the real conditions of your startup life, accepting of yourself, take responsibility for yourself, assert yourself, have a sense of purpose and are rigorously honest, then self-esteem is the natural result.

High self-esteem, while often confused with cockiness or arrogance, is a trait that should be fostered in entrepreneurs and be sought after when building your team. Self-confident people are often positive and outgoing and those are the types of people you want on your side.

The most beneficial effect of reflecting upon these six pillars of self-esteem is to make you more aware of your own values and what is important to you, and to keep you honest with yourself. That’s the benchmark, not what others think of you, not what you think others think of you, or what you crave as a new model of you in your startup.

It’s when things go wrong that you must not quit. You’re doing it for yourself, so make it matter where it matters most, inside.

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