How Being Pregnant Is (Kind Of) Like Running A Startup
Loneliness. Ambivalence. Resilience. This is what happens when you’re trying to bring a new human (or a new company) into the world.
In his June 2012 appearance onstage at PandoMonthly, venture capitalist Ben Horowitz and journalist Sarah Lacy reflected on Ben’s past struggles as an entrepreneurial leader at Loudcloud:
Ben: It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to quit. I wanted to quit every day I was in that job. I felt like throwing up when I woke up in the morning.
Sarah: So you know what it’s like having a baby now.
Ben: Yeah exactly. [audience laughs] I felt like I was pregnant.
A week later, I found out I was pregnant. And then I learned firsthand what it actually meant to feel like you are going to throw up all day long every day (not just when you wake up in the morning). So, I guess by some law of inverse reasoning that must mean that I know how it feels to run a struggling startup through dark days. Well, except I don’t. But I do know what it’s like to coach an entrepreneur through dark days so I will draw on those experiences as a starting point.
While a rough first trimester and entrepreneurial leadership are not perfectly equivalent experiences, I think that they have enough in common that the non-pregnant entrepreneurs out there might learn something from reading on.
Hello Loneliness. Hello Isolation.
I have not known loneliness quite like my first trimester. At first it was exciting and cool. I’m pregnant! There is a person growing inside of me! A-freakin’-mazing! And then, seemingly overnight, I lost control of everything.
First, I lost my body to the hormones doubling inside of me every 48 hours. And the chronic nausea. And the vomiting. Then, I lost my spirit, because my body felt so constantly awful. I could barely scrape together the energy to coach. For months, I didn’t initiate a single networking meeting, I stopped going out with friends, and I retreated even further into what was already a fairly solitary existence running my solo practice.
And then, perhaps the biggest loss for me, my motivation evaporated. It was a fiery kind of motivation, the kind that yields the willpower to train for marathons. The kind that inspires someone to start their own solo business from their dining room and create a legitimate professional job out of nothing. My motivation—my cornerstone of all that was tough and virtuous and successful within me—had gotten lost in the folds of my living room couch. It had gone numb to the endless stream of Netflix I watched all day—desperate for anything that would provide some distraction from the unending waves of nausea.
And yet what was the most loneliness-inducing was how other people reacted: “You’re pregnant? How exciting! Congratulations!” Of course, that’s what polite people are supposed to say. A concerned subset might actually ask, “So, how are you feeling?” And then sometimes I would try on honesty for a while and explain about the nausea and the Netflix stream, but most still never got it: “Oh…Well…but…congratulations!” And many offered the “helpful” suggestion that actually is not very useful at all: “Have you tried ginger tea?” (Note: If it was as magically simple as drinking some damn tea, then trust me I would have lived on that tea.)
They say that an entrepreneur’s job is the loneliest job on the planet. Sometimes I think the reason I am gainfully employed is because of all the ways in which that saying is true. My clients do go through nausea-inducing hell sometimes. But, similar to the pregnant woman, the entrepreneur usually just hears from others some version of: “You founded X? How exciting! How cool!” No one ever asks you how you’re really feeling or asks you to unload what’s been hard lately. And when an entrepreneur might try to open up you usually get: “Oh….Well…it’s cool you’re working for yourself though.” Or the ginger tea equivalent: “Hey, have you thought about trying X?” Where X is the most obvious marketing strategy anyone could have come up with ever and yet you still have to grin politely and say “Yes, actually, and we found that….” (Note: if it was as magically simple as the marketing solution this random person just came up with because they are — gasp! — a consumer…then everyone would be a founder and every startup would succeed.)
Being a pregnant woman who is suffering through a first trimester is especially isolating because not all pregnant women have such strong symptoms. This was insult to injury for me because I started to hallucinate that I was making it all up or exaggerating the pain or, the most terrifying thought of all, I was already failing as a mother.
Not all entrepreneurs suffer equally as well. So, in your isolation, you also start to worry that you are the weak link of your entrepreneurial generation. You are the one who is destined to fail. You are the one who everyone else was deluded to invest in or work for. I can’t tell you how many times one of my most powerful and honest acts in a coaching session is to simply tell a client, “I’ve seen this before. You are not the only one out there, not even the only one in my small subset of clients to go through this exact same challenge.”
The Arithmetic of Ambivalence.
This one I owe to my coach Ed Batista who, after listening to my lamentations about others’ reactions to my first trimester suffering, remarked: “You can feel good feelings and bad feelings at the same time—and they don’t cancel each other out!” I was excited about having a baby—and I also felt miserable about my pregnancy symptoms. My excitement did not cancel out misery—they co-existed alongside each other.
Entrepreneurs face similar ambivalence in their emotions. Yes, your cool new product or hyper-growth or spunky team is exciting and you feel proud—but you can also feel legitimately terrified or even oppressed by the exact same things. And those feelings co-exist for you every day—they never cancel each other out.
I have found that many well-meaning friends or colleagues unintentionally promote a view that the positive emotion cancels out the negative. I don’t entirely understand why this happens. Maybe they are all inherently glass-half-full optimists? Maybe they want to move away from their own emotional discomfort of dwelling on something that feels sad? Maybe they can’t help but assign themselves the “helpful” role of cheerleader and pep talker to their sick pregnant friend or their struggling entrepreneur colleague? There is a definite time and place for a cheerleader or a pep talk. But if we could talk with more people who understood the arithmetic of ambivalence, I bet we would all feel less lonely and talk more honestly about the negative emotions that arise for us in times of struggle. Sometimes we don’t need someone who will “fix” our negative emotions. Sometimes we don’t want to hear the umpteenth suggestion of ginger tea or the ultra-obvious marketing idea….which brings me to….
Sometimes Nothing Helps. Sometimes Things Just Suck.
My friend and fellow coach Michael Terrell coined this phrase: “Sometimes you don’t need to make lemonade out of lemons. Sometimes it’s enough to just hold the lemons.” When I am meeting with a client who is in a really dark place, I have to remind myself of this. (Because I too can forget the arithmetic of ambivalence and I must forcibly quiet the voice within me that starts rationalizing: “If I can just help them to leave this session on a happy note, that will be better, right?”)
My first—and sometimes my only—job is to “hold the lemons.” If my clients want to start exploring how to make some lemonade out of their latest crisis, I am armed and ready with the exploratory questions and provocative perspective that will push them towards a three-step action plan. But sometimes what they need is for me to say, with total sincerity, “Yup. That sucks.” And not try to “help” any more than that.
And then you emerge on the other side.
For the pregnant woman, that other side might be the second trimester when the nausea dissipates, or when that beautiful baby is finally born, or when that screaming newborn finally is sleeping through the night.
For the entrepreneur, the other side might be that blissful period right after the successful product launch (but before the first recall scare) or the deep satisfaction that comes when you close that next round of funding or some other friggin’ awesome startup milestone high.
Then, the self-protective amnesia of your struggle starts to set in and you start to re-frame your suffering in the hindsight glow of what it enabled you to achieve. But before you lose sight of (or block out) the dark days completely, I strongly encourage you to take the time to reflect on your new resilience—this precious and emotionally costly gift. You are stronger for having survived to make it to the other side. So, what do you want to learn? What do you want to take away from this experience?
For me, I learned very intimate lessons about how I cope with being out of control and vulnerable (quick answer: not well) and how I might try to do that better. I also learned how strong the core of my product really was. I learned that I could go to a café to meet a client, throw up in the café bathroom before and after a session and still somehow (magically) coach for those middle 75 minutes and enable my client to walk away with better clarity and insights to move forward. Talk about quality assurance and product robustness testing.
For my entrepreneur clients, they often learn: a new skill to add to their personal manager playbook; a set of steps for how to cope with a challenge they will likely face again; or a deeper sense of confidence in their own ability to rise to a high-pressure situation.
I have already seen how these lessons enable my clients to launch great products and be more resilient leaders for their teams. And that gives me hope that these lessons—the hard-earned ones that sometimes only emerge from profound struggle—will enable me to be a more resilient mother.