Entrepreneurship is the route to freedom, wealth and everlasting happiness, right? Well, the truth is that it can be for some people. For others, entrepreneurship brings stress, uncertainty, financial pressure and relationship breakdowns. There is no guarantee of success with entrepreneurship. In fact, we know that despite the money, sweat and tears invested in them by their founders, start-ups have alarmingly high failure rates. It’s no wonder, then, that many entrepreneurs struggle with mental health issues. In her new book The Entrepreneurial Myth, Louise Nicolson, an entrepreneur, coach and consultant, challenges some of the illusions that abound when it comes to entrepreneurs. In this Q&A, she explains why poor mental health, in particular, is a major issue for entrepreneurs and the implications of this for organizations that encourage their people to have an “entrepreneurial mindset”.
Sally Percy: Why do entrepreneurs tend to suffer more with mental health issues than people in paid employment?
Louise Nicolson: Research reveals that entrepreneurial work is more uncertain, more complex, more stressful, more pressured and less lucrative than corporate work. Nevertheless, entrepreneurial success is oversimplified, failure is romanticized and churn – the rolling pace of business creation and insolvency – is celebrated. There is a cultural clash between this entrepreneurial myth and the brutal, messy reality of a small business.
One of the first studies to link higher rates of mental health issues with entrepreneurship was led by Dr Michael Freeman at the University of California. He found that 49% of the sampled US entrepreneurs reported mental health conditions. Furthermore, 30% of sampled entrepreneurs experienced depression compared with 15% of the study’s non-entrepreneurial control group.
Percy: Do you think people go into entrepreneurship with expectations that don’t live up to reality? Why is this?
Nicolson: Many people enter entrepreneurship for freedom, money and a dash of glamour. Sometimes there are glorious surprises and triumphant stories, but this isn’t the real business experience for the majority.
Compare the entrepreneurial myth that is promoted through politics, education and the media with the real-life, first-person experience of running a business. In newspaper pages, the entrepreneur fizzes with energy. He or she is bold and creative, comfortable with risk and uncertainty.
But in the cold light of day, the founder at the heart of real business is just a man or a woman. Invisible to most, he or she shoulders grueling hard work and the gnawing anxieties that come with running small business.
Percy: What is the truth about entrepreneurship?
Nicolson: The truth is that success doesn’t always involve a sale. There is an assumption that a proper entrepreneurial business involves a glossy multi-million-dollar exit. The truth about the entrepreneurial journey is more interesting – and satisfying – than that.
Also, the truth is that success takes time. There is an assumption that an entrepreneurial business is a high-growth business. But bursts of rapid growth often follow years in a market. We expect entrepreneurs to move fast, shake things up and break things, to work from accelerators, to hustle, crush it and kill it. But what is the rush? Let’s slow down, stretch and think. A more reflective, contemplative approach would refine business decision-making.
And the truth is that failure isn’t always personal. Attitudes to failure burden and isolate entrepreneurs. Statistically, most entrepreneurs and businesses will fail, but systematic study of this failure is muted. Ironically, systematic analysis of business failure would empower more businesses to succeed.
Percy: Which lessons could leaders in large organizations learn from the mental health challenges faced by entrepreneurs?
Nicolson: If your business nurtures opportunities for entrepreneurial thinking and innovation, the entrepreneurial myth is at play. Many people claim that entrepreneurs are psychologically different, marked out from the crowd by distinct traits. The label is permanent: once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur. Others reject this trait theory and consider entrepreneurship as an activity completed by different actors, at different times. Like basketball, entrepreneurship is a game you can start, stop, then start again later if it suits. So, how do your employees play? Does your business value entrepreneurial behaviours? Where are the invisible lines for what you want the team to do and how you want them to act? Entrepreneurship is an expectation, an action, and a decision. Just as creativity or safety or fiscal responsibility can’t be siloed in healthy businesses, you won’t find entrepreneurship buried in the guts of a special individual. It is cultural.
So, learn from the entrepreneurial myth. Is your business broad enough for struggle and failure? Do you speak a business language that includes “but”, “not too good” and “help”? “Resilience” risks becoming a buzzword that fizzes through corporate culture without settling. At first glance, it is a defensive construct to bolster people under pressure – sell a personal solution to mitigate an institutional pressure. But resilience is really about becoming stronger or more resourceful as a result of experience.
Finally, does your success rest on entrepreneurial shoulders or a community of talents? Moving from your star performer as hero, to the team as hero, is a delicate but essential strategy. It is the first step toward redesigning an entrepreneurial business for the next generation.
Ever had an Entrepreneurial romance?
The language of business often sounds like the language of love. The 30-year media sample at the heart of The Entrepreneurial Myth revealed the romance of business creation. Entrepreneurs are courted, wooed and seduced; advisors chaperone deals, mergers become nuptials. Beyond newspaper semantics, you might feel a pinch of pleasure when you collect the keys to a new office or a spike of adrenaline when a client wants you. These moments nod to the invisible emotional core of great business.
Instinctively, founders know these moments prove business is more than the sum of people, strategy and revenue. Start-ups are stitched together with spirit and soul.
If you seek recognition of this “essential, intangible something” in your business, or the relief of knowing other founders feel the same, read Ranjay Gulati’s The Soul of a Start-Up in Harvard Business Review. “Company founders sense its presence. So do early employees and customers,” says Gulati. “It inspires people to contribute their talent, money, and enthusiasm and fosters a sense of deep connection and mutual purpose. As long as this [organizational] spirit persists, engagement is high and start-ups remain agile and innovative, spurring growth. But when it vanishes, ventures can falter, and everyone perceives the loss – something special is gone.” Not to be confused with culture, Gulati proposes we stubbornly protect the emotional core of our businesses by prioritising three things:
Business intent or an “animating purpose” to make history and be part of something bigger. Gulati’s research saw business intent edge into the existential. It defines why we might get out of bed, why we work as hard as we do.
Customer connection or that intimate understanding of who your business serves and what they really think and feel.
Employee experience or the ability to give colleagues a voice and a choice through that seductive start-up mix of creativity and autonomy.
Intent, connection and experience can’t be bound by a spreadsheet square. But you know when they are missing.
It’s not you, it’s me
“That’s when I knew it was over,” shares a founder in The Entrepreneurial Myth. “A project delivering 360 degree feedback revealed a bitter truth. I went through the motions, of course. I projected the results on the glass wall of the conference room. I tried to talk to the team about the sale, about growth and opportunity, but I was hurt and self-conscious. Those with me from the beginning were already interviewing elsewhere. It was time to wish the new partners every happiness.”
If ownership of a business changes, so does its loves and loyalties. Despite this, many VC and private equity firms discount the emotional core of an organization as either an illusion or irrelevance. Only later, hard-won dollars are spent trying to recover the original ‘entrepreneurial mindset’. Defending organizational spirit seems to help secure the long term success of deals, industries and economies.
Gulati’s research is a timely reminder to embrace intangible value in an imperfect market. And to enjoy the courtship while it lasts.
Join Louise Nicolson and her special guests over dinner at a restaurant in London’s Covent Garden. The Chapters’ Dinner was convened to thank contributors to Louise’s book, The Entrepreneurial Myth, published in the UK this week.
These stories from entrepreneur Dean Hunter, psychotherapist Colin Brett, Paralympian Lora Fachie and aviation industry leader Gretchen Haskins illustrate how we might redesign entrepreneurship for the health and wealth of all. Charge your glass and take a seat…
Meet our jean-wearing, blue-sky-thinker; our economic-saviour and espresso-drinker.
You know each other already. Of course. He is an entrepreneur. Over £196 Billion thrums from entrepreneurial ventures to the British economy. But it’s so much more than money. There is a pinch of alchemy, a glance of magic. The thirty-year media sample at the heart of my book, The Entrepreneurial Myth, revealed the vivid caricatures created by journalists and a newspaper-loving-public in the pages of national broadsheets. Male entrepreneurs – and they were nearly always men - are portrayed as wolfish charmers, supernatural gurus, saviours, corruptors and skyrockets. The bold words below are plucked straight from the pages of newspapers sampled, no poetic licence is necessary. Listen to this.
As early as 1989, entrepreneurs are described in the daily news as the supernatural magician at the heart of it all, with near magical powers and the ability to cast a spell and make it all alright. Founder of Cowboy Ventures, Aileen Lee, recently coined the term unicorn for any tech start-up that reaches a billion-dollar value. The fantastical label has captured commentators’ imagination who embellish stories with descriptions of the shiniest horns and cleanest hooves. The BBC’s reality show where entrepreneurs pitch for cash, Dragon’s Den, played with similar metaphors of Herculean beasts and pitches going up in smoke. Magical imagery surges through the 30-year sample with frequent references to conjuring and bewitchment. Entrepreneurs are portrayed as sprinkling magic dust on businesses, producing ideas and concepts like a magician might fling confetti out of a top hat in a mysterious modern form of alchemy. Business protagonists take the secret magic sauce to become Goliath, Gandalf or a titan of the internet.
Stranger than fiction.
At least one entrepreneur is rumoured to have inspired a superhero’s foil as real-life Tony Stark. You can meet his peers as Welsh wizard, pirate, Marlboro man, Aztec chieftain, iconic legend or master of the universe. In a spectacular piece of modern media mythology, Richard Branson is granted supernatural powers as a bearded shadow … hovering over the market. Features paint the entrepreneur as Darth Vader, or the sun king, or Peter Pan, working as a whirlwind, in the labyrinth, striving to take away the poison to create the blinding glow of profit.
At the beginning of the 30-year sample, the entrepreneur might have been described as blessed with resources or God-given opportunities. By the noughties, he is described as God himself. He is a priest architect, guru, godhead of an extraordinary network of power or, in one brilliantly underplayed commentary, at least like the Archbishop of Canterbury. Disciples, followers and fervent believers in product are urged to put their faith in the entrepreneur’s parable and build Jerusalem. The entrepreneur is granted power to answer prayers, evangelize, prophesise, even defy original sin. Business people create temples of endeavour, a new artistic Eden, peace in heaven or the reincarnation of economic policy. The entrepreneur is a technological missionary madly pursing the Holy Grail. Biblical weight is given to an entrepreneur’s decision to return to Britain: the land of free enterprise calls back lost prodigal sons. The Entrepreneurial Myth builds impossible fantasies of world domination, a brave new world and a masterplan for life. The entrepreneur is an untouchable demi-god who needs worship. The audience is happy to oblige and obediently sit at leaders’ feet for ten top tips to achieve insane success.
Words make worlds
This entrepreneurial mythology is not mere journalistic licence or editorial narrative. The potency of imagery ricocheting from ancient myth to your daily newspaper – and the world it creates in your mind – cannot be underestimated. If the guru entrepreneur is an all-powerful magician, distorting time and space like God, you unwittingly hold stratospheric expectations of the business protagonist in front of you. If they are depicted as a charming eccentric on an inevitable climb to riches, perhaps it’s harder to believe business success is possible for people like you.
Warm white wine
This Entrepreneur strides through the daily news as an all-powerful, never-fail guru. His personality fizzes with energy; he’s bold, creative, comfortable with risk and uncertainty. He is courted by politicians as the personification of a healthy, dynamic economy. The Entrepreneur creates jobs and drives growth. You know the names of The Entrepreneurs; Richard and Steve, Elon and Jack. They need little introduction.
But the entrepreneur at the heart of real business is just a man or a woman. Like you. Invisible to most, you shoulder the grueling hard work and gnawing anxieties of small business. You drink warm white wine at networking events. You accept responsibility for your workplace family, to the detriment of your own. The vertigo of a successful month still sparks anxiety.
One bears little relation to the other. There is a yawning gap between the mythical Entrepreneur promoted through education, politics and media – and the messy, fallible, real thing. This gap matters. This gap - the Entrepreneurial Myth - damages people by isolating, stressing and exiling real business creators.
Consider the collateral damage to entrepreneurial mental health: entrepreneurs are significantly more likely to present mental health concerns than a member of the general population. Consider the lazy celebration of appalling business success rates. This must change. And I’m going to show you how.
The way we work was designed for a different age.
Following the Industrial Revolution, workers had to gather around heavy, immovable machinery to get the job done. The next Schumpeterian wave — the Digital Revolution — freed some of us from the factory but a deskbound, hours-served mentality persists. There are creative exceptions, of course. Possibly your business has unlimited holiday entitlement or flexible hours? But the fact these arrangements are noted, boasted about, proves the rule. In the same way, our attitude toward leadership is archaic.
We assume there is a hierarchy to navigate and a boardroom to conquer. There is a ladder to climb to the top of the tree. We’ve got to lean in. We’ve got to break the machine. And we’ve been thinking this way for centuries.
German ethnologist Bastian suggested our minds trace elementargedenken or ‘elemental ideas’. Jung followed and believed in a universal psychological inheritance to accompany genetic inheritance. Archetypal stories make sense of our motivations, values and personalities. Stories shape our psyche with a hidden, universal language.
Consider this tale. An ordinary woman, scorned and ignored, steps on the stage. She defeats her detractors to reveal drive, flair and skill. Material wealth follows, of course, but is just symbolic of what’s happening inside. She’s passed the test and is at last fulfilled. It’s a plot that might describe your path to the top. You know you can do it. You just need the break. It’s not about confidence, it’s not about the money. It’s about that impatient knot of potential.
This is also a ninth-century rag-to-riches story from China. It is a plot that has been repeated, in a multitude of different forms throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and North America, for nearly three thousand years. Our modern stories of ambition and leadership have been told before.
But plots twist. If you see the script and understand the cliché, you can change the outcome.
Don’t do what’s expected: step out of the story. There is more than one hero. Connect with her. Ask for a sponsor. There is more than one play. Check you are on the right stage. Switch genres for fun. Ignore the hecklers and critics. Everyone gets a bad review now and then. To paraphrase Roosevelt, their clean faces don’t count. And start with an authentic ending in mind, not just a happy one. You are the best author of your future.
Are you sitting comfortably? Here’s an epic tale about storytelling.
British journalist Christopher Booker squeezed almost every story — from the Greek gods to the Ugly Duckling — into seven universal plots. Global stories defeat monsters with magic weapons or tell tales of renewal and rebirth. Shared plots chart heroic quests or revealing rags-to-riches transformations. Comedies and tragedies follow fortune around Aristotle’s wheel. The voyage and return plot traces our hero’s travels to a brave new world and back home again, forever changed. All seven plots share a protagonist summoned to adventure. Our hero follows a path peppered with existential challenges and thrilling near-death escapes. But triumphs!
We all need a hero.
A third of us crown a family member as hero, a third name fictional characters in tight spandex suits, a third pick a public figure who excels in sports, entertainment, politics or business. Our heroes’ characteristics mirror what we seek in leaders; someone who is charismatic and courageous, accomplished and wise. Our choice fulfills a basic psychosocial function. The hero we pick is shorthand for our identity and our affiliations. Defining what we admire, defines our potential. But while fictional heroes always get the girl, heroic mortals reveal real treasure. So pick carefully because the path towards your hero shapes life’s purpose.
Embrace your hero’s humanity. Go for Clark Kent’s geeky glasses over Superman’s glossy quiff (that’s dating advice too). Pick a hero that doesn’t always get it right. A true hero must be a bit like us: incomplete, flawed, hungry. Their inspiring qualities must be a stretch, just beyond our fingertips, but without a sniff of superiority.
Try and try again.
If your hero fails, they must persist. Hercules didn’t stop after meeting the multi-headed Hydra of Lerna. Instead he persevered through ten new trials to glorious release. Greek myth teaches us to admire the struggle, share the failure.
Pick more than one hero to curate the qualities you need. Classic heroes build a squad for support and encouragement. Pick a team that completes you: mine includes humour from Celeste, soul from Florence, words from Malcolm. Who makes yours?
Remember: heroes evolve. Sometimes we catch them up. We look them in the eye and, in a moment thick with nostalgia, we know it’s over. If it doesn’t work out, make your half-time substitution. Don’t look back. Boldly play on.