Words by Leanne Kemp, Queensland Chief Entrepreneur
If you can believe it, for the better part of my life, and certainly well into my adult years, I celebrated the holiday season much like the characters in Love Actually. I would welcome the season by decking the halls (literally), singing carols (#sorrynotsorry neighbours) and following a strict diet of one Christmas movie every night during Advent (ok, sometimes two movies a night). It was the one time of year that I allowed myself the indulgence of acting much younger than my years.
Then something happened that changed all of that… I became an entrepreneur. And while I wouldn’t be anything else, I can tell you that it’s not always fruit mince pies and stuffed turkey. For the last four years, since I founded Everledger, this time of year has thrown everything at me from last minute mental health spirals, cash flow crises, family sickness, credit cards bouncing and investors disappointing.
This year, I have a confession: I’m exhausted!
Until recently, admitting that could’ve been taboo. Certainly not a topic to lead an end of year message! Rather than showing vulnerability, leaders – especially business leaders, entrepreneurs and founders – have practiced what social psychiatrists call impression management. Or as I like to think of it, “fake it till you make it”.
In our quest to become the next Zuckerberg, Musk, Mike Cannon-Brooks or whichever big-time founder you aspire to be, we sometimes overlook our own health at the expense of #GSD (getting s**t done). We idolise and celebrate these titans and wonder if we could just do that one extra bit of work, just be first, just put in more effort, that we might be the ones up on the pedestal – the inspiration behind inspirational quotes, the envy of every cog-in-the-wheel employee and the face behind the blazingly fast growth of an Inc. 5000 company.
The startup sector is full of energy, enthusiasm and passion. And I have been truly blown away by the incredibly generous and collegiate spirit of Queensland entrepreneurs who always seem to be on hand with encouragement, support and reassurance to continue.
But, and of course there must be a but here, many of us have and continue to struggle through moments that can knock us down. Those near-debilitating moments of anxiety and despair when our secret demons creep up and tap us on the shoulder, when our ideas turn out not to be as brilliant as we thought they were, when it feels like our house of cards might crumble around us at any second.
We are often warned about startup burnout. We know the symptoms: anger, aggression, loss of motivation, anxiety, depression and also physical signs like headache, insomnia, exhaustion and pain. But just knowing about the symptoms isn’t always enough.
As entrepreneurs and startup founders, we don’t have the luxury of paid annual leave, sick leave or even the chance to kick back and relax with the ebb and flow of a professional services job. No month is a “slow period” for an entrepreneur!
In fact, it’s often the moments that you want to step away and clear the decks that are the times that end up being when you need to dig deeper and lean in.
Well guess what? This year, I’m taking a break! I’m using Christmas to take stock and re-energise myself. I’ve learnt through the past couple of years that putting it all on the line as a founder isn’t always the best choice and actually that taking time off is the best gift I can give myself. I’m going to relax, have a little fun, connect with my family and friends, reflect on my epic 2019, and think about the upcoming year. I might even catch up on some reading, do something different (creative workshop anyone?) and slow down.
And what’s more, I’m going to encourage you to do the same!
December is the holiday season in Australia. And while we might be a 24/7/365 economy these days where no one truly gets that complete summer break like Baby’s family in Dirty Dancing, it is still a time in which many businesses reassess and put in place strategies for the next year. Therefore, why not take their lead and use the time to recharge yourself.
I firmly believe that our minds, like our bodies, need rest in order to grow stronger. The message is simple: you cannot be your best unless you are at your best.
You can be better, and accomplish a lot more, if you learn to strengthen yourself against the mental and emotional strains inherent in startup culture. Know your signs and triggers and seek out tools that help you identify and manage those stressors more effectively. Arm yourself against the damages that such stress can cause, and learn how to thrive in the startup world instead.
Form stress-reducing exercise classes to going off the grid (or at least putting your phone in another room) to reading something inspirational (even if it’s not related to your business) to taking relaxation techniques and psychological help seriously… these are some of the starting points for being healthy inside and out. And please, talk about it openly (and without judgement!). If someone comes to you looking for help or someone to talk to, listen and offer that precious thing we never have enough of: time.
Now I know what you’re thinking: that’s all well and fine Leanne, but I’m a startup/entrepreneur/founder who simply can’t take a week off to zen out at the beach. I know, I get you, I see you, I’ve been there (I am there). But on a long-haul flight recently, I got to thinking about a few top tips that are cheap, take effect quickly and are thrifty:
When people get stressed, they tend to take short breaths or hold their breath all together. The problem is that improper breathing causes your blood pressure to rise and your muscles to tense, all of which just complicates your stress.
Next time you feel yourself getting stressed – either in your business or waiting in line to see Santa – take a moment to allow yourself the opportunity to focus on your breathing. Learn breathing exercises and consider taking up meditation, which even Santa is rumoured to do, to relax.
2. Have a lifeline
I remember little from my early hectic holiday seasons, because I often shut down emotionally and crawled into a mental, and sometimes physical dark corner to sulk. Looking back, I thought going off on my own would mean that those around me wouldn’t be affected especially during the holiday season. This turned out to be a profound mistake, because it ultimately put stress on many of the personal relationships I had.
If business is getting you down this holiday, phone a friend – that is the reason they are your friends. Sometimes, just the warm tone a friend’s voice, an outside perspective, and a little advice may be enough to bring you back to reality.
3. Find a positive role model
My father-in-law has always been a positive role model for me in life and in business, even well into his 70s. As a guy who owned his own small hardware business, I never saw him stress about work or business, and this was reflected in how he treated his family and friends. His business was much smaller but he still had four mouths to feed, and his family achievements put my own stress into perspective.
In your seasonal pursuits, as well as for the entire year, find that positive role model in your life, and use them to help keep you centred during your times of stress and doubt.
4. Go to your happy place
Because the holidays are always bustling, it is important to have a place where you can recharge and reflect. Even if you’re an introvert, it’s not always best to have this place be a dark, secluded space, as this can often just increase your anxiety and isolation. For me, my happy place is the beach: the grandeur and expanse of our incredible Queensland beaches always puts my little business problems in perspective.
5. Smile and laugh
Although this may seem cliché, the truth of the matter is that the simple act of smiling and laughing can have tremendous health benefits. How do you think Santa has stayed fit and delivered everyone’s presents on time for so many years?
So whether you celebrate the holiday with overzealous anticipation and excitement or just quietly in your own private way, don’t let the business stress of entrepreneurship cause you to hate the whole Christmas season. Remembering those tips above and remind yourself to appreciate the season for what it is: a time for joy and cheer.
Oh and if you need me, I’ll be re-watching The Muppet Christmas Carol!