Here's the truth: An exit--even a lucrative one--is not a magic cure-all for the damage done by years of stress you feel as an entrepreneur.
One of the most disorienting periods of cognitive dissonance for me was after I exited a startup. I had succeeded and removed much of the financial pressure that I thought was causing my stress, and I still found myself feeling anxious and out of balance.
I had always thought that experience was unique to me. After all, isn't running a startup supposed to be hard, while the exit is the fun part?
Turns out, I'm not the only one who has felt this way. Even startup founder Aaron Houghton, who's been through 11 startups, shared with me similar feelings about the lowest day of his life. Shockingly, this day was one year after a massive $169 million exit from his most successful company. Thirty years old and newly mined with inter-generational wealth, he found himself lying on the carpet in the grip of a crippling panic attack. Aaron thought his heart was giving out and kept thinking, "How did I get here?"
Entrepreneurs often ignore the warning signs: wild mood swings, a racing mind, an increased heart rate, needing a drink just to get some sleep. Things you once enjoyed--dinner with family, travel, being with friends--are ruined by an obsession with what could go wrong. You may assume this feeling will stop once you sell your company and dial down the stress, but oftentimes it does not. This may leave you forced to admit that the anxiety accumulated through years of building a business may be with you forever.
I found my road back to balance through a lot of meditation, self-examination, and therapy. Aaron has recently launched a program called the Founders First System, to help entrepreneurs manage their stressors through the journey in the hopes of a happier ending. Through talking with Aaron and applying his thoughts to my own experiences, I developed four key principles to help entrepreneurs achieve a healthier state through the journey of entrepreneurship and thus healthier exits.
Start now to avoid burnout
We have hundreds of systems to optimize our companies, but none that focus on preserving the most critical asset: the health of founders themselves. You need a simple set of processes, disciplines, and metrics for keeping yourself healthy.
The easiest one is to ask yourself, what is the journey costing you? How might you change your daily life to make the journey less stressful? The best way to avoid a mental health crisis later is to stop making excuses today. The cost will simply become too great. You still have time to make a change, but changing is easier the earlier it happens in the process.
Track physical and mental health metrics like you track business metrics
The highest-performing founders not only use metrics to review the performance of their business but also to determine the state of their physical and mental health. One easy way to do this is to rank three discrete feelings daily. On a scale of one to 10, how do you feel about yourself, your family, and your business?
Once you're measuring both your business milestones and the corresponding personal cost you can make an informed decision about how hard to push and for how long. For instance, it may not be worth it to keep doing better on your business metric if it's costing you too much on the personal or family side. This makes the tradeoff more explicit.
Find tools that return you to calmness and happiness
From feeling vulnerable to momentum-fueled excitement and mania, entrepreneurs get stuck in an adrenaline-dopamine loop proven to be as addictive as hard drugs. You often crash into a period of reduced motivation and despair, suffering a hangover effect as your mind and body attempt to restore their resources.
Understanding the difference between thrilling excitement and calm happiness is the first step to finding the exit ramp off the adrenaline-dopamine loop. Meditation, conscious breath work, and yoga are tools used by high-performing entrepreneurs to break the cycle.
Maintain hobbies and relationships
Entrepreneurs struggle to identify recent successes in their personal lives because business initiatives have overtaken every part of their time and attention. If that's you, it's time to reevaluate and diversify.
But we can't fall for the trap of redirected obsession: thrill-seeking sports or other activities that feed the same adrenaline spike abusing our minds and bodies. Find hobbies and relationships that deliver calmness and happiness instead, like writing, playing music, or hiking.
The entrepreneurial journey is an incredible ride, one we can be grateful to have experienced. Yet there is no separating an entrepreneur's story from that of their business. The two are infinitely joined. By understanding the personal cost, building habits to restore your resources, and staying connected with the people and things you love, you can continue your journey in a way you'll be proud of.