Entrepreneurs and CEOs, are you playing the long game or the short one? It is an important thing to distinguish when you’re growing a company and one that I have been paying much attention to this year.
Equally important, remember that you may be playing the long game but your team may not be, and that’s okay. It is good for a company to have some balance between sprinters and marathoners.
I have now been a founder/CEO for 3 years and it feels different entering year 4 than it did entering year 2 or year 3. Vastly, so. For one thing, I know where I can consistently win the race and where I will lose it. I also know the ebbs and flows of our business. Moreso, I know the ebbs and flows of my energy and how they affect my team and our ability to perform optimally.
Furthermore, I also know that I’m running the equivalent of a Centurion Marathon, not a three-kilometer sprint. I am in it for the really long game, and it matters greatly for how I set my pace. If you’re of the same persuasion, read on, this post might just be for you!
The Telegraph published a great article about UltraMarathons in 2014 that highlights three things about these races that I believe apply equally to entrepreneurs who are running for distance, not speed. I’ll highlight them here and then unpack each one below:
- You can run really slow: The key to covering 40 miles without collapsing in a heap is taking your time.
- Its mental: Some say completing an ultra-marathon is 50 per cent in the mind, others say it’s as much as 90 per cent. Either way, it’s much more about your levels of determination than about the size of your muscles.
- You’ll probably cry: Going without sleep can run emotions raw; couple this with the euphoria of completing a challenge you didn’t know you were capable of, and it’s easy to trigger the waterworks.
Simply acknowledging these three elements of ultramarathon racing can prep an entrepreneur for the challenges that will inevitably come over time. For the sake of framing them topically, I’ll call them ‘pacing,’ ‘mind care,’ and ‘getting real.’ Given my own entrepreneurial journey, and friendships with over 30 founders since 2008, I’d like to unpack each of these elements below. In each category, I’ll offer some tips I have learned that have helped me unpack the nuances and run smarter.
As a former swimmer, I am all too familiar with the importance of pace in winning a long race. When I first learned how to swim, I was one of the fastest kids in the pool, for the first lap or two. But by the time I reached the 100m mark, I often found myself exhausted and beginning to lag behind the other swimmers who had stored up enough energy to complete another 100, or sometimes even 400, meters. Over time, I learned from my coaches and teammates that the key to swimming a good race was to keep a consistent pace and save some energy for sprinting in the last lap.
Great marathoners know the importance of pace and they have developed a stride that remains consistent throughout much of their runs. They don’t rush rapidly for certain parts of the race and then bowl over onto the ground from exhaustion. Rather, they set up a pace that is sustainable and that pace is often visibly slow.
The point of an ultramarathon is not to outrun all the other runners, it is to get through the race. Likewise, the point of entrepreneurship should be to pace yourself in such a way that the finish line is attainable. Setting a pace that works for you is about tuning into the rhythms of your breathing, finding a cadence for your strides, and taking care not to ‘rev up’ too much when the terrain is flat, rather than rugged. Your pace will not look like that of the other runners, but that’s not the point. The point is to find what works for you and stick with it.
The point of an ultramarathon is not to outrun all the other runners, it is to get through the race. Likewise, the point of entrepreneurship should be to pace yourself in such a way that the finish line is attainable. The point is to find what works for you and stick with it.
For me, pacing has meant finding a time of day to start work that allows me to operate at my best and sticking to it. It has almost meant prioritizing self-care, consistently leaving time for breaks-sometimes really long ones. It has also meant creating habits around my entrepreneurial routine that help me to sustain it: spending one hour writing, meditating, or walking each morning; exercising regularly; or cooking a fresh, homemade dinner every time I get back from a long trip to get grounded quickly.
When it comes to running a company, I can’t say enough about mind care. A few years ago, when I started coaching startups I began to realize just how important mind care was for an entrepreneur’s ability to scale a venture. So many founders think that good ideas are what make for good companies, or that good teams are what make for good companies. But good ideas are worth nothing without execution. And good teams are only as good as their ability to keep on performing, and moreso as their leaders’ ability to keep on shepherding their quests, cogently and thoughtfully.
It turns out that endurance isn’t just about physicality; it is also about mental energy: the ability to get up and do something again and again and again. Research has shown that the best athletes ubiquitously enter a state of flow, which helps them to perform optimally and block out all impediments to said performance. Fascinatingly, a 1999 paper on the topic of flow in athletes reports the following characteristics as nearly universally reported by top athletes who experienced flow states: “total concentration and involvement, control, a unity of mind and body and a sense of personal fulfillment at an optimal level of performance.”
Last year, I began to get serious about flow and mental energy in my own entrepreneurial endeavors and hired a coach to help me in this quest. My coach, Kathleen, specializes in working with creative leaders and helping them achieve peak performance. Working with Kathleen is what caused me to start creating the habits I mentioned above. It is also what caused me to create new routines for how to manage stress, like stepping away for a cup of coffee when I feel overwhelmed, or going for a long ‘walkabout’ when I need to work through a gnarly problem.
I now consistently end my work days on time and I don’t let clients or collaborators push me around the way I used to; I set my own boundaries. When I need to tackle big challenges, I use techniques like visualization and even positive self-talk to get myself into the zone. Recently, I have even set rigid boundaries around work and play, powering down after work and not taking my laptop or phone into the bedroom. These boundaries help me to refuel when I need to, and turn on fully when I am working.
For more on this topic, and why it is so important, I highly recommend checking out some of Arianna Huffington’s recent musings on sleep. Meanwhile, I will move into my last theme: getting real.
Last year, I read an incredible book called 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. One of the 15 commitments I have really taken to heart is called “feeling your feelings all the way through to completion.” This commitment is about allowing yourself to feel things with your body, and releasing them rather than holding them in. So, the idea is that if you are angry, you should find a way to express your anger. The idea isn’t to get violent, but it might involve finding a deserted place to let out a scream or developing a simple mechanism for releasing anger like gritting your teeth and exhaling rapidly. Sounds crazy, huh? But it really works.
If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you’re going to need to get used to being emotional. And not just at work. It is going to be hard, even grueling at times. And you are going to have to let yourself cry sometimes to cope with the toughness of it. To do this effectively, you should consider inviting your friends and family to let you shed tears when you need to, and not try to fix you.
If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you’re going to need to get used to being emotional. And not just at work.
I experienced this sort of “getting real” in a visceral way earlier this year when I had to let go of a team member. Before this point, I had never laid off somebody in my life, and honestly had never considered that I might have to. This team member did nothing wrong, but we were not growing rapidly enough to sustain her pay. The experience of letting this teammate go left me raw and exhausted. If I hadn’t committed to feeling my feelings all the way through, I might have internalized the sadness of the loss of this woman’s potential and shouldered a lot of guilt. Instead, I broke down later that same day, and let out all the tears. I allowed myself to cry for over an hour, and it felt really freeing. If you’re going to build a real company, you’re going to have to get used to this sort of “letting it out,” and you’re going to have to get used to asking others to let you.
Finally, and most importantly, as you contemplate the themes I have highlighted here, I cannot emphasize enough the value of creating your own support system. Invite others to come alongside you in your entrepreneurial journey who are not colleagues. I recommend looking for the following:
- A coach: someone who can help you perform at your best, and hit stretch goals
- Running buddies: fellow entrepreneurs who get it
- Mentors: pro athletes who are retired or late-career
- Cheerleaders: friends who will support you from the sidelines with lots of energy
These people should be individuals you don’t mind getting real with, and people who will be real with you. Never be afraid to ask them for help, or even a shoulder to cry on. After all, marathons are hard work.