For Founders

Healthy Leaders, Healthy Returns: Emotional Fitness for Founders

Startup founders are the Olympic athletes of the business world, asked to push their emotional and cognitive faculties to extremes every day. But what’s the equivalent of training for the strenuous task of running a company? In this essay, Dr. Emily Anhalt, co-founder of Coa, argues that emotional fitness is key to success in the founder role, and gives us a guide on how to achieve it.

 min read
March 28, 2022
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Note: If you’re an early-stage founder anywhere from pre-idea through pre-seed, consider applying to On Deck Founders

Note: This article is adapted from a live discussion for the On Deck community featuring On Deck alums Ming Lu and Vik Duggal. If you’re an early-stage founder, angel investor, or exec interested in joining our community, consider applying to one of our programs - you’ll be in great company.

Note: If you’re an early-stage founder anywhere from pre-idea through pre-seed, consider applying to On Deck Founders.

Note: This article is adapted from a live discussion for the On Deck community featuring Josefin Graebe. If you’re an early-stage founder, scaling founder, or senior exec interested in joining our community, consider applying to one of our programs.

This article is the first in our annual series Year in Preview.  In the 4 years since we launched the On Deck Founders program, we’ve seen +1000 companies get started and raise over $2B in funding.

Most people understand it’s a lot easier to work on your physical fitness and health proactively than to wait until you’re having health problems before addressing them, just as we know that doing cardio now is better than waiting until you have heart disease before taking action.

But with mental health, we tend to wait until it’s falling apart to do anything about it.

Emotional fitness is the idea that, just as with your physical body, your mental health is something you can proactively work to train and strengthen before it reaches a critical point that forces you to act.

While emotional fitness is important for all of us, it is especially critical for founders. This is because being a founder is not a normal occupational life. 

Founder life is similar to being a professional athlete competing at a high level. Athletes must train constantly to be in peak physical condition, while also giving themselves the time to heal, repair, and nourish so they can perform at their best. 

Similarly, founders are required to push their mental faculties and emotional tools —  communication, empathy, resilience, and more — to perform at a high level every day. For founders, working on emotional fitness is a core part of the job.

Why founders should prioritize emotional fitness

When I talk to founders about working on their emotional fitness, one objection that often comes up is that they are too busy with the many tasks of running a company and don’t have time.

But this is the wrong way to look at it: saying you don’t have time to work on your emotional fitness as a founder is little like an athlete saying they are too busy training for the Olympics to eat healthy. If you’re filling your body with fast food, you can do all the training you want, but it’s not going to get you very far.

While neglecting your emotional fitness may save you time today, in the long run it’ll cost you. I can’t think of a better investment for your business and yourself than improving your ability to build healthy relationships.

In fact, I’d argue that the emotional fitness of a founding team is an existential issue for a startup. If you look at any failed startup, it is often clear that emotional fitness and relationship conflict played a role. In fact, 65% of failed startups cite co-founder conflict — not lack of money or talent or product-market fit —  as the primary reason for their failure. 

In Silicon Valley or in the tech world at large, there's plenty of money and there's plenty of talent. Actually the runway that most founders run out of is not money, and it's not talent. It's the emotional capacity to handle the grinding of the gears that is required to have a successful company.” 
- Michael Dearing of Harrison Metal

Emotional fitness shores up your ability to keep pushing through obstacles as a startup so that you have a better chance of succeeding and not harming yourself irreparably in the process.

World-class performers and emotional fitness

“Starting a company is like eating glass and staring into the abyss.” - Elon Musk 

Athletes themselves are starting to recognize the importance of emotional fitness in maintaining a high level of performance. 

NBA All Star Kevin Love (one of our investors and advisors at Coa) and Olympic gymnast Simon Biles are examples of athletes who have been outspoken in recent years about how, if your mental health is not being supported in a really active and ongoing way, it’s going to deeply impact your ability to perform at a world-class level. 

“We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day, we’re human, too. We have to protect our mind and our body.” - Simone Biles

In 2018, for example, Kevin Love wrote a player tribune article about the experience of having a panic attack on the court, and how that was a wakeup call to start working on his emotional fitness as well as his physical fitness and his craft as an NBA player.

“In the NBA, you have trained professionals to fine-tune your life in so many areas. Coaches, trainers, nutritionists have had a presence in my life for years. But none of these people could help me in the way I needed when I was on the floor struggling to breathe.” - Kevin Love

Founders are world-class competitors with similarly high degrees of stress and scrutiny. In order for founders to lead something as large and complex as a growing organization full of people with their own needs and fears, they have to be stable and supported in their own right. 

But what about those founders and athletes who seem to do just fine without investing in their emotional fitness?

If they don’t, why should I?

Not all successful founders that attract the limelight appear to prioritize emotional fitness, which gives the false impression that if they don’t do it, as a founder looking to emulate their success, you don’t have to either. 

We don’t often hear about the emotional fitness practices of legendary founders like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Steve Jobs. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t work on their mental health, and it doesn’t mean that their success can be emulated without doing so. 

The problem is that focusing overly on two or three examples of highly visible people who’ve been successful without necessarily prioritizing their ability to build healthy relationships with themselves and others doesn’t mean it works that way most of the time.

Often, there are trade-offs involved that few would want to pay. If you look at some iconic founders’ personal lives, there’s a sacrifice being made in the pursuit of success including some of the healthy, loving relationships most important to being satisfied in life. 

These tradeoffs are rarely worth it — a lot of people think that success is going to fill holes that it’s not actually going to fill. It’s very common for entrepreneurs to be driven by thinking that when they succeed, they’re going to feel something that they’re missing. 

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. What I’ve seen personally working with a lot of founders, including some very successful ones, is that when they get to the top they think “I’ve achieved everything I set out to, why do I still feel empty and sad?”. This is a pretty common experience; we have to remember that success is not a panacea for all of our problems.

It’s also a false tradeoff. Emotionally healthy leaders, who continuously work on and prioritize their emotional fitness, are more capable of building healthy relationships with themselves and others that are critical to startup success in the first place.

When a strength becomes a weakness

When it comes to any kind of success, the very things that move us towards our goals can simultaneously jeopardize them. Our strengths and weaknesses can be opposite sides of the same coin. 

For example, the same charisma that gives founders the ability to lead and influence people may make it difficult for people to speak up and tell you what you need to hear if things are going wrong later on. There’s a tipping point where every strength becomes a weakness, and recognizing when this happens is very complicated, which is why self-awareness is so important.

Founders tend to share certain traits and similar constitutions. There’s an element of obsession that’s needed to stick with the startup journey through the hard times and the obstacles. Not everyone could make the cut as an Olympian, and not everyone can achieve great success as an entrepreneur. 

Truth be told, being a founder is not the healthiest career choice. Just like professional athletics takes a toll on your body, being an entrepreneur takes a toll on your mind. If someone wanted to have the healthiest body possible, it wouldn’t be a good idea to regularly push it to its limit. The same is true for founders running a high-growth, competitive business.

To a certain extent, founders have to ignore what others think and hold to their unique beliefs to reach the desired outcome. A person who wants to be liked above all else may not make a great founder. Similarly, someone who is deeply uncomfortable with confrontation or difficult decisions may not be cut out for the role. 

But the tipping point between healthy and unhealthy determination, or healthy and unhealthy confrontation skills is subtle — and this can be said for any trait that makes someone a strong founder. 

The same traits that push founders upwards may eventually be their downfall if not carefully mitigated through reflection, mindfulness, and other emotional fitness practices. 

A case study of Travis Kalanick’s leadership at Uber provides a prime example of this phenomena. As one report described it:

“Kalanick had a reputation for being argumentative. His brawler persona was useful for Uber, which, unlike other giant tech firms, was born into conflict: opposition to lawmakers, competitors, and the media is in the company’s DNA. But it also frequently went too far and .. provided cover for misbehavior and transgressions of the worst sort.”

Founders therefore need a bulky set of defenses to achieve and maintain success. Self-awareness is key here. If you have knowledge of the dark side of your super powers, you can be more attuned to when your strengths are turning into weaknesses. 

This can be thought of as a matter of dosage: at the right amount, certain traits are helpful. But at varying dosages, they can be ineffective, or downright toxic. Founders need to pay attention to when something is no longer serving them, but this is a hard thing to do on one’s own. 

A large part of emotional fitness in this regard is making sure that as a founder you have people around you  — whether that’s a therapist, a community, family, or friends — that lets you access an external point of view that can reflect a different perspective back to you.

Relationships & Emotional Fitness

Business can be thought of as a series of relationships. As a founder, you’re constantly interacting with investors, coworkers, employees, customers, vendors, and other stakeholders who can both affect your success and be affected directly by it. 

I like to frame emotional fitness as the process of improving your relationship not just with yourself, but with these key others. In this sense, there is not a better investment in your business and yourself as a founder than improving your ability to maintain these relationships. 

For example, to maintain a strong relationship with my co-founder Alexa Meyer, we draw on a large toolkit of practices including weekly check-ins about how we are feeling and in what ways we’re feeling supported or not supported. We also go to co-founder therapy once a month, and have a carefully developed foundation of communication.

This hard work on learning how to communicate has allowed us to get through some very deep conflicts and come out the other side even stronger as a result. Conflict in a relationship can be thought of a lot like exercise to a muscle. Exercise damages the muscles, but as you rest and heal, the muscle will grow back stronger than it was before. It’s the same with relationships. Conflict is not a bad thing to be avoided, but rather an opportunity for healthy growth. 

For some founders, this is going to be more difficult than for others. Founders sometimes find that they need to build their emotional fitness skills for the first time as they go through the startup process and learn how to navigate leadership, conflict, and the volatility of startup life. 

This doesn’t mean it’s too late to be intentional in working on your emotional fitness as a founder. If you weren’t raised as an athlete from a young age, for example, it’s going to be pretty difficult to become one as an adult. That doesn’t mean you’re broken, or that growth is impossible. It just means that you have to work a little harder if it's important to you.

It’s never too late to invest in yourself and your relationships by shoring up your emotional fitness. A key part of this growth is about how well you’re able to tolerate being uncomfortable. 

Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable 

A major component of growing your emotional fitness is becoming more comfortable with things that make you uncomfortable. 

For example, I once worked with a founder who was uncomfortable with awkward silences. Whenever a silence presented itself in a conversation, she would feel compelled to fill it. Later, she would feel shame or embarrassment as a result because she felt like maybe she cut someone off as they began to speak, or said something she shouldn’t have. 

As she learned in those moments to take a deep breath and just deal with her discomfort, all of a sudden she found she had many more options in that moment about whether it actually made sense to talk or not.

A lot of what we do in life is in service of moving away from discomfort; the urge to escape some kind of discomfort drives a lot more of our behavior than we often consciously realize. So as we learn to tolerate being uncomfortable better, we effectively increase the choices we have, because we’re no longer hurtling towards whatever will make us feel comfortable again. 

Imagine you’re outside on a cold day, and you’re not good with dealing with the discomfort of being cold. The only thing on your mind is going to be how to get warm — your mind will be absorbed with thinking about getting a jacket or going inside or some other way out of the situation. 

But if you can handle being cold, and if you can say to yourself “OK, I’m cold — I don’t love it, but I’m not going to die”, you can instead decide what to do based on what makes sense in the situation. Should you stay where you are because you’re having an amazing conversation? Should you move everyone inside? Your choices open up, and so does your agency, because of your ability to tolerate discomfort.

Part of emotional fitness is the ongoing ability to increase your agency in all kinds of situations because you’re not being ruled by your inability to tolerate an uncomfortable feeling.

Emotional fitness training

So how does a founder begin to work on their emotional fitness? Both a long term, consistent emotional fitness regime and daily “emotional pushups” are integral to help you push yourself slightly out of your comfort zone and better tolerate being uncomfortable.

A regular emotional fitness routine can look like therapy, a daily meditation practice, going to a support group for founders, or journaling. It can look different for everyone, but therapy is a proven way to get what you need from a skilled professional. An emotional fitness routine is like your gym habit, and a therapist is like a coach you can enlist to help you get out of your own way and meet your goals. 

An athlete can train on their own all they want, but until they have a coach saying, “Hey, why don’t you try it this way?”, they might not know what they don’t know. We all need that support.

If you truly don’t have time to commit to therapy or another consistent routine, consider incorporating emotional pushups into your day. 

An emotional pushup is any small emotional exertion that puts you just a little out of your comfort zone. Doing them regularly leads to emotional growth. And what’s a little out of one person’s comfort zone might be way out of another person’s, so it’s important to figure out what your personal emotional workout routine should be (using that self-awareness trait).

For example, If you’re someone who says yes to everything that’s asked of you and then you end up feeling overwhelmed and resentful, an emotional pushup for you might be just saying a kind but firm no to one small thing today; whereas, If you tend focus on yourself, an emotional pushup might be to offer to help someone with a small task.

Some other examples of emotional pushups:

  • Apologizing for a mistake
  • Asking for feedback from a direct report
  • Meditating for 5 minutes in the morning
  • Letting yourself feel sad about a loss
  • Celebrating a win with your team
  • Pausing before you pour yourself a drink to ask what you might be trying to avoid
  • Putting your phone away after 10pm and paying attention to how you feel
  • Taking a day off where you don’t check Slack

If you want to come up with some emotional pushups on your own, the following exercise should help you get started:

  • Sit down and make a list with three columns
  • In the first column, write down the parts of your job that make you uncomfortable
  • In the second, write down what you currently do to avoid that discomfort
  • In the third, write down what you could do instead

Your last column contains your ‘shock absorbers’ - things that absorb some of the impact of an uncomfortable situation. This could be by making sure you feel supported while doing the uncomfortable action, or are as prepared as possible and have the emotional tools you need to be uncomfortable for longer than you would normally be. 

The idea here is to create a cycle of reflection and action where you are consistently pushing yourself out of your emotional comfort zone and growing. With both therapy and emotional pushups, you are putting yourself in training mode rather than recovery mode, bolstering yourself up to a secure, strong place rather than spending time going from a negative state back up to neutral. 

You don’t have to be broken to start the work. This isn’t about fixing, this is about strengthening.

Humans are complicated, and no one thing will work for everyone. I’ve dedicated my career to better understanding what makes both founders and humans in general healthy, happy, and thriving. 

In surveying hundreds of entrepreneurs and psychologists, I’ve come up with the seven traits most conducive to successful leadership. These traits are self-awareness, empathy, willingness to play, curiosity, mindfulness, resilience, and effective communication. 

It was astonishing to see that something as nebulous-seeming as emotional health could actually be boiled down to certain traits that could be worked on actively.

While having a well-rounded emotional fitness regime is best, the two traits most critical for founders to start with are most likely mindfulness and self-awareness. Mindfulness is important because it makes you better able to withstand the discomfort of improving all the other emotional fitness traits, while self-awareness gives you the tools to see things clearly in yourself in order to begin to change them. 

As long as you are as proactive as you can be about working on your areas of weakness, discomfort, and frustration, you will grow stronger in these traits across the board. 

If you want to read more about the complicated human psyche and the things that drive us, check out this thread of my forty favorite psychological concepts:

Firsthand lessons from the founder journey

I had been working with founders for many years before I became one myself. Over the course of my career, I’ve matched more than 600 people into therapy and collaborated with companies like Google, Asana, TEDx, Salesforce, and more on emotional fitness in the workplace. 

I thought I understood what it meant to become a founder, but it wasn’t until I became one that I realized how hard it truly was to do things differently. As a therapist, I was telling founders that they need to rest, and as a founder, I was thinking: I don’t have time to rest, the business takes priority.

The founder journey triggered all of my deepest insecurities: Am I good enough? Do people like me? Do I deserve success? One of the things I couldn’t truly wrap my heart around until I was a founder was the rollercoaster. The highs are so high, the lows are so low, and there’s whiplash from that, and deep-seated fears get shaken up when we’re being whipped around.

Now that I’ve experienced the founder’s life firsthand, I believe in the importance of emotional fitness more than ever. I don’t know how I could run Coa if I weren’t in therapy.

I take time to work on my emotional fitness in a variety of ways. Aside from regular therapy, I meditate, have weekly emotional check-ins with my cofounder, try not to use my phone in the mornings, and check in with my community often. I try to eat healthy, exercise, and get solid sleep to bolster my reserves for the work to be done. 

Emotional fitness is important for everyone, but even more so for founders, who are nearly three times as likely to suffer from mental health issues than the average population. The goal of Coa and my research is to make working on emotional fitness as normalized and destigmatized as saying you’re working on your physical fitness. 

As you strengthen your mental fitness traits through emotional pushups and a regular practice like therapy, you will be better able to take notice when your strengths are turning into weaknesses, nurture your relationships with yourself and others, and ultimately be more comfortable being uncomfortable. 

And through this process, you’ll be giving yourself and your business the greatest odds of success.

Note: If you’re an experienced professional looking to gain clarity on your next move, check out Execs On Deck

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