“The lead engineer is about to quit”. Feels like a lion attack. But it’s not.

Managing Startup Stress: the tl;dr

  • stress is a physical reaction to a mental condition, at least in the modern world. it’s purpose is to get us ready to respond to danger: to move quickly, to be alert and strongly attentive. in our modern condition, “danger” is something like “the lead engineer is going to quit”, or “we’ll lose this deal”, not “that large animal is about to eat me”.
  • but the body doesn’t really know that, so it’s jacking up the chemicals as if we are really going to get hurt: our rational brain is minimized, our heart-rate goes up, we get ready to run and ready to fight. the problem with modern stress is that it can be continuous. if you get away from a large animal that’s about to eat you, you’re done. if you’re running a startup, you’re never done.
  • so we have two possible approaches 1) is to change the mental condition. two things work here: asking “what is true?” (or similar “balancing” questions) to get a handle on reality. thought: “the best engineer is about to quit!!”. balancing thought: “how likely is that, really? 50%? 80%?” think it through. and meditation, which slowly, and steadily points out that this is only a mental condition, and allows us to detach from it. we become practiced at seeing our thoughts as just thoughts. “we’ll never get funded” is just a thought (and a very black and white one, at that).
  • approach 2) is to work the body to change its state from one of “emergency”. this works well, and has lots of good side effects. running, workouts, bootcamps — all, and any of that stuff. anything. it Just Works. move, in some way: walk, stretch — do something physical. you need to change the state of the body.
  • yoga is good because it works the body in such a way that tension gets released. but if going to a studio is going to stress you out more (all those beautiful, balanced people!), then don’t. play handball, go to a soccer game. something.

I’m more and more of the opinion that baking a couple of very simple anti-stress habits into your life is an important part of managing well. you’re not at your best when you’re stressed. and running, or just working in, a startup will provide you with endless, apparently “dangerous” uncertainties, which our poor, unprepared systems interpret in ways that our not in our best interest.

good luck!