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The Big Lie

A member of Havard Medical School's Department of Psychiatry offers five strategies to avoid burnout.
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Burnout, and how to beat it. Five strategies from a leading expert on entrepreneurial stress

The big lie is not that the check's in the mail. The big lie is the myth that the start-up phase of a company is the bad part, the struggle -- that once the cash starts coming in, satisfaction and happiness follow.

Of course, entrepreneurs face stress in the early years of getting their companies off the ground. But just as companies pass through phases of growth, so, too, do company builders pass through predictable phases of a stress cycle. That includes feeling invigorating stress (what psychologists call "eustress") as well as a range of detrimental emotional states that go from disappointment that the thrill is gone to outright depression. The key to preventing the downside of success is to understand that it is predictable, governed by rules, and, most important, preventable.

During the start-up phase, you're essentially working to gain self-esteem; you're working for bragging rights. Daring the devil (and those naysayers who say you are crazy) and beating him makes you feel smart, confident, and powerful. And those feelings are the keys to psychological success.

The start-up mantra goes like this: Got no business, got no cash, don't have time, have no management team. Those are the challenges. You can be overworked and physically exhausted. But you have no difficulty getting up and going to work, because you feel energized and full of the belief that you have a better idea, system, or sense of how things should be. Do you know any well-established company that doesn't romanticize those start-up days? That's because, contrary to popular opinion, on the entrepreneurial journey, getting there is all the fun.

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Here are the psychological phases you should anticipate throughout your entrepreneurial career:

· Starting up. In the beginning you suffer appropriate trepidation; only a fool would ignore the risks inherent in launching a new business. But as you get moving you feel fresh-scrubbed optimism: you're too naïve to know how hard it's going to be, and you're in a good psychological state as you experience the joy of learning how competent you are.

· Building the business. Over time you develop a sense of accomplishment and commitment to your enterprise. We naturally stay devoted to those people and things that enhance our self-esteem. Despite ups and downs, eventually you'll reach a point of optimal competency. The challenges posed by your business are essentially equal to your abilities or skills. That is but one moment in time, but it's one to savor. You are not threatened by challenges that are too great, nor are you bored and grossly underchallenged by too much of the same old thing.

· Reaching maturity. After you've attained a measure of success, after you've passed that optimum point of competency, you typically begin shepherding the business rather than creating, developing, or expanding it. And there's the rub, because a sense of creating is the core psychological gratification that you as an entrepreneur are after. Whatever your expectations -- and the expectations of others -- be certain that when you've attained the pinnacle of success you've been striving for, your sense of challenge, creativity, and drive will cease to exist.

That's the point at which you're at the greatest risk of being scorched by success. It's here that you must avoid passively accepting your success. Remaining unchallenged is the main cause of psychological burnout in an entrepreneur. In a word, challenge will prevent the malaise that comes when you stop striving for success. The key, however, is to understand how you can incorporate appropriate challenge into your life.

For the entrepreneur, a novel challenge could be a diversification of some sort, perhaps a new product line or a new marketing approach. When you diversify you create feelings of eustress -- the good stress -- by seeing just how high you can raise that proverbial bar. As long as you feel capable of making the jump, the stress will be revitalizing. Inevitably, however, the cycle repeats itself. After diversification you'll again reach that moment of optimal competence and optimal challenge. Eventually, you'll reach a point where diversification in your company will not be enough. Unless you figure out how to put challenges into your life on a regular basis, burnout will follow.

There's a fundamental distinction between stress and burnout. Stress comes from facing demands that are beyond your sense of competence. Burnout, on the other hand, comes from facing goals that are too readily achieved or have already been met, which results in boredom or perceived worthlessness. The burnout mantra goes like this: Been there, done that, seen it, felt it, had the thrill.

Because people often fail to distinguish stress from burnout, they frequently try cures that aggravate rather than relieve those conditions. Stressed chief executives, exhausted by confronting threats, need a two-week vacation. Burned-out CEOs, bored and doubting that they still have the vitality they once had, go stir-crazy on a "relaxing" vacation. Those CEOs need a challenge. (Challenge is not all good, of course. Just as too much oxygen can kill you, too much challenge can kill as well. You also risk threatening your self-esteem if you reach too far, too fast, and too often.)

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Unfortunately, burned-out CEOs don't readily accept the notion that new challenges are critical. Instead, they offer two rebuttals. The first is "If I really love the business, why can't I continually diversify products and services within it?" You can, but the chances of your getting satisfactory challenges from your company for an indefinite period of time are not great.

The second typical response of CEOs who believe they're burnout-proof is "Can't my hobbies suffice?" Well, do the arithmetic. You get one hour's reward for every 20 hours of drudgery. Can that be psychologically gratifying? One weekend a month on your yacht does not compensate for four weeks of waking up and not wanting to go to work.

In my experience the CEOs who fight against challenge-infusion strategies are the ones who are most likely to ultimately need clinical interventions. Often, they push harder and harder on the course that brought them their success. That's a very normal behavior -- the reason they succeeded in the first place is that when adversity got in their way, they fought it. But there are times in life when it's counterproductive to keep pushing. One of those times is when you stay too long on a particular course, ignoring other options because you believe the strategy that brought you to the top is the one that will keep you there.

The reason denying the severity of burnout is so dangerous is that so many self-destructive behaviors can follow. I've developed a summary of the symptoms that I call "The Four A's": aloneness, arrogance, adventure seeking, and adultery. If you're a successful entrepreneur, you're usually alone at the top. But when you start feeling arrogant, negative consequences are inevitable. Rather than seeking challenges or opportunities to dare the devil, you seek adventure to spit in the devil's face. That, in turn, blinds you to the need for people as supports, sounding boards, and allies. With an arrogance-fueled sense of self, committing adultery -- professionally as well as romantically -- is a relatively easy thing to do.

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You can pursue a number of strategies to prevent burnout. The five I've seen entrepreneurs use most successfully follow.

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Strategy Number One
Diversify your skills
Pablo Picasso was a great role model for those who want to use their current skills to the greatest effect. Picasso, not committing himself to one product but, rather, to the principle of cubism, would have five or six projects in different mediums going at the same time in his studio. He'd have a sculpture, he'd have an oil, he'd have sketches, he'd have a collage. And when he felt frustrated with an oil that wasn't working out as he wanted, he might go bang out his frustrations on a piece of marble. Or he might do a sketch for another project. Picasso used diversification to counter frustration and burnout.

Diversification should be sequential, building on skills you've already proved you have. Metaphorically, when you diversify you build or place your self-esteem on a tripod rather than a pillar. The diversified entrepreneur has self-esteem that's more stable, more confident, more anchored. In short, you can more readily take a hit if you have multiple sources of self-esteem.

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Strategy Number Two
Teach
In teaching, you pass your skills along to others and see them rejuvenated and expanded upon. When you teach, you get feedback that reaffirms your competence and increases your self-esteem. Best of all, you can teach both within and outside your business with close to the same result for yourself.

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Strategy Number Three
Plan your succession
Every entrepreneurial dream should include the vision of passing the business on to reinvigorate it and yourself. Succession planning is really the ultimate form of teaching within your company. By planning your succession you recognize the need to move on to your own encore performances and recognize that new blood is essential to revitalize any enterprise. To be envisioning the future as you live in the present is psychologically beneficial -- unless, of course, you're lost in fantasy as an escape from a painful reality.

As you think about the future you can cut out what you don't like to do (or feel you don't do well) and give those responsibilities to someone else. You can also identify areas of your business that don't challenge you and try to rectify that.

What you're saying when you start succession planning is this: Whom do I trust to shepherd my baby? What qualities do I want in that individual? In asking those questions, you can't help engaging in self-analysis. Consequently, you can name a successor who can offset your weaknesses while the challenges you seek can and will exploit your strengths.

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Strategy Number Four
Network
As the CEO of a profitable company, you can't help finding yourself atop a pyramid, no matter what organizational structure you have in place. You're in a rarefied zone, and you're in a restricted circle of peers. That means, among other things, that you probably lack the intellectual stimulus that's so crucial to psychological and entrepreneurial health. (Who will tell the person at the top that an idea is inane or needs major reworking?) Networking with peers in groups like Young Presidents' Organization (YPO) will ensure you'll get feedback from people who aren't intimidated by your stature. Consequently, whether your intent is to schmooze or to solve problems, you'll be challenged by divergent points of view that your position and success often block you from receiving.

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Strategy Number Five
Renew your passion
The core component of every 60 Minutes story is that it's about something that ticks you off. It may be federal waste. Or some poor guy railroaded onto death row. Or a disease that isn't getting the proper attention because of some snarled mass of bureaucratic red tape. The stories stir our passions and motivate the feeling "I've got to do something about this."

If you want to seek challenge in your life and retain your entrepreneurial venture at the same time, find something outside your business that makes you passionate or angry enough to stop what you're doing to invest time and energy to address it. Writing a check will not correct burnout. Instead, use your power, position, and skill to fight for a cause you're passionately committed to.

* * *

You may be nodding your head in agreement, but in your heart you may decide that however bad the psychological consequences of burnout are, there's no way you're going to give up your profitable company or throw more challenges at yourself at this stage of your life. And with good reason. People don't reach a point in their companies where burnout is a threat because they are lazy or phobic about challenge. At a purely narcissistic level, there are accoutrements of success that you don't want to let go. The reserved parking spot, the nicer car than you ever dreamed of to park in it, and the charge accounts. That lifestyle is a form of bargaining with the devil rather than daring him. In fact, you can take it to an extreme by becoming a pampered pet. But regardless of how you end up in a pampered existence, the result is a lack of challenge that will inevitably bore you out of your skull.

Among entrepreneurs, what's more likely to occur than the pampered-pet syndrome is a variation of being trapped in golden handcuffs, which I call "the provider paradox." As you attain a certain level of material wealth, you feel obligated not to disappoint or change the lifestyle of those you love. You find yourself yoked to their aspirations. So while you might feel like Sisyphus rolling the stone up the same hill day after day at work, you feel you can't deprive your loved ones because of your desire for challenge. Unfortunately, that only exacerbates feelings of burnout by seeming to entrench you further in a circumstance you long to escape.

The entrepreneur -- in contrast with people in other careers -- suffers the provider paradox most acutely because he or she feels the added sense of needing to nurture, and remain committed to, parts of the business that feel like family. In time, though, you'll come to resent, and probably lash out against, those who force you to sustain a Sisyphean existence. Better to seek challenge early than to act out in the long run.

There are other, far less altruistic reasons that entrepreneurs are reluctant to seek new challenges, chief among them the memory of the early days. However heady and self-esteem-enhancing those times may have been, you were begging for money and support, and that can be a demeaning position. And many entrepreneurs tell me they'll never put themselves back in such a humiliating, one-down posture again. So as your business attains status you, too, derive status. But what you're not feeling is the joy that you get from building or striving to attain new heights. You risk feeling insignificant because all you're doing is holding power instead of earning it.

And, finally, entrepreneurs often don't let go of success and rechallenge themselves because of the fear of the unknown. While I'm talking about the downside of success and the boredom, depression, and alienation that can ensue when you reach the top of your game, believe me, I understand that failure is lousy, too. I'm also aware that far more people go to shrinks because of failure than because of success. What I'm advocating is a very counterintuitive, risky posture in the world. I'm saying, "Let go of something safe and physically secure in exchange for psychological challenge." But I promise you, if you don't, the burnout you are feeling -- or almost certainly will feel -- will only increase.

Psychologically, you must have meaningful goals that give you an internal sense of well-being and self-esteem. And after working with scores of people who have earned more money than they dared dream of when they were starting their companies, I'm positive that those feelings cannot be bought at any price.

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Steven Berglas is a member of Harvard Medical School's Department of Psychiatry and is the director of Executive Development Resources, a management consulting firm in Chestnut Hill, Mass. He is the author of three books that detail the deleterious effects of success on individuals and organizations.

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