Disclaimer: IF YOU BELIEVE YOU HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY, YOU SHOULD IMMEDIATELY CALL 911 OR YOUR PHYSICIAN. If you believe you have any other health problem, or if you have any questions regarding your health or a medical condition, you should promptly consult your physician or other healthcare provider.
It happened again. It seems every time I turn on CNN, I see an in-memoriam segment on someone who seemingly had everything and took their own life. This time it was fashion designer Kate Spade; who knows who will be next? Many say news outlets and television networks are sensationalizing these relatively small, one-off events, but I’m starting to believe they are doing the world a gigantic favor by highlighting this epidemic. It’s affecting the entire population but hitting CEOs and business owners hard. Remember the stories of Wall Street traders jumping off of buildings during the Great Depression? That actually happened; it’s not just a cautionary tale. I’ll start with my story to get the discussion moving.
As I look back over the first 10 years of my company in Tennessee (2001-2011), my memories are riddled with anxiety over debt, career roadblocks, rejection, 18-hour workdays, heavy drinking, fatigue and sleepless nights. That kind of emotional beat-down took a toll, especially when there was no real way to prepare myself for it. They teach business management in every university in the country, but as far as I know there’s no course in “Accounting 101: How to Smile When Taking Payroll Out of Your Personal Account” or “What to do When the State Tax Assessor is Drilling Out Your Office Locks.” Maybe there should be.
My business partner and I used to joke to others that we had more balls than sense, and we casually laughed off the idea of being afraid or the possibility that we would/could fail. We damn sure never talked about it, to each other or anyone else, including our families. Not only was that not a smart or prudent way to move forward, it was a complete denial of an emotional hell-ride that I can’t look back on now without getting a lump in my throat and tightness in my chest. I will NOT belittle the term PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) by comparing what we went through in that decade of small business experience to veterans of combat, but the physical and mental symptoms are very similar, and the causes are far less obvious.
It was a mistake not to talk with my loved ones or a professional about those high-stress days, and the most important thing I can say to you fine readers is that you need to be honest with yourself and the people in your life about how you are feeling, right now. Learn from the mistakes made by so many who have come before you and drill down on the stuff that keeps you awake at night.
The epidemic of suicide is reaching bizarre proportions across the board, but within the entrepreneurship community, it’s particularly alarming. Of entrepreneurs, 30% experience depression, according to a study by Dr. Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and when you sprinkle in the anxiety of deadlines, payrolls and lost opportunities, it’s not a giant leap to see where getting off the hamster wheel could be a pretty sensible choice.
I’d like to outline a few ways that you could begin to communicate some of those concerns and give them less power in your daily life. (Keep in mind, I’m no emotional health expert, I just work with a lot of you guys every day, and I see the same things in all of you. So back to the disclaimer above, if you need help please seek it immediately.)
Find a Peer Group, Today
It is lonely at the top, and it’s almost impossible to talk about your real worries with people who are looking up to you for answers and support. There are groups like Entrepreneurs’ Organization, Young Presidents’ Organization and Vistage where CEOs and business owners can come together and be vulnerable with each other in a real-time feedback setting. Each has its own criteria for membership, but they all have a mission to help their members grow and learn from each other, and they do this through small-group forums where members can be as open as they want to be, in a safe environment. I can only speak personally about Entrepreneurs’ Organization, as I was a member of the Nashville chapter for eight years.
Entrepreneurs’ Organization started as a result of a suicide inside of a group of close business buddies, and the rest of the group was left wondering why he did it. He had never shared that anything was wrong or let on that he was even dealing with small issues. Research tells us that the idea of needing help gives the appearance of being weak or vulnerable which is forbidden in the world of hard-charging start-ups. Unfortunately, this leads to harmful health effects at a minimum, and (in some cases) complete breakdowns if left unchecked.
Verne Harnish, author of “Scaling Up” and a member of that peer group, took the opportunity to rally around the idea of sharing and supporting each other BEFORE things get too bad, and Entrepreneurs’ Organization was born. There is likely a chapter in your city, check it out.
Talk to a Professional Counselor
I go to a counselor regularly, and you should too. There, I said it.
I mentioned before that I’d struggled with anxiety during my start-up days, and that never went away. It might lay dormant for a while when everything was going perfectly in my life and coaching practice, but it was always there in the background waiting for something to trigger it into a full-blown attack. Chest-tightening, physical-pain, panic-stricken attack. I finally admitted to my wife that I was having a problem with anxiety and fear, and she was the one to get me to a counselor to uncover and talk through my issues.
My first appointment was awkward, but just saying out loud the fears I’d been living with for so long lifted a weight and I looked forward to the next session. The therapist armed me with techniques for dealing with the onslaught and waves of emotion that would inevitably come, and they worked. They took practice and trust in the process, but it continues to be very helpful during times of high stress.
Don’t be a martyr, or a hero, and whether you tell anyone or not, get help.
Share the Worry
One practical thing you can do to alleviate your stress — about money in particular — is to share the info and concern with your trusted team at work.
We teach companies to have a weekly financial meeting, to go through the budget vs. actual numbers, and each of the team members “owns” a few of the lines on the P&L statement. When your teammates are watching the numbers as closely as you are, two things happen. You WILL spend less money as a company, just by deliberately inspecting the outgoing cash, and your team will share the burden along with you. It is a bonding experience and helps develop your leaders to be more educated on the overall costs of doing business.
If this column has bummed you out, I apologize. If it has resonated with you to take action and get some help, I’m thrilled. If you don’t struggle with these kinds of issues, be on the lookout for friends that do and encourage them to act.
The one thing I’m sure of is that I can’t be silent about it anymore, and neither should you.
JT Terrell is a big believer in earned trust and the power of planning, and he’s put both into action in his own life and career. After 10 years as a professional musician, JT founded event rental company Music City Tents and Events LLC in Nashville and grew it into an industry innovation leader. JT attributes his company’s success to his work with Petra Coach and the adoption of the Rockefeller Habits. JT is now thrilled to be on the other side, coaching and engaging businesses to help them uncover opportunities, create strategies, and get focused. Reach him at 888-330-1020 x705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.