What Is Emotional Fitness?
The most successful founders and CEO’s are not necessarily the most cognitively stable. The task of starting a company requires a certain type of obsessionality and the ability to push forward with an idea even when all evidence points to defeat.
Founder life is unpredictable and involves more than a healthy amount of rejection and setbacks, and thus might be best suited to those who have built up a bulky set of defenses. Nevertheless, a founder sets the tone and ethos for the entire company, and for that reason, it is imperative that they be emotionally fit.
Recently, light has been shed on the dark truths of being a founder and the intense depression, anxiety, and self-doubt that they often face. A study done by Freeman et al. suggests that as many as 72% of entrepreneurs have mental health concerns, but as Y Combinator’s Sam Altman writes, “There is a huge amount of pressure as a founder to never show weakness and to be the cheerleader in all internal and external situations.”
To combat this stigma, prominent and respected founders and CEO’s are beginning to speak up about their own struggles and are helping to destigmatize and normalize the need for mental health support in the startup community. This is of the utmost importance, and the conversation is long overdue.
That being said, we need to be careful not to create a polarization where at one end we have a founder who is barely treading water under crippling anxiety and depression, and at the other end we have a supposedly “healthy” founder who needs no emotional support. It’s time to start a conversation about the reality that in between complete bliss and debilitating mental illness lies the majority of our emotional lives.
In addition to helping founders get the mental health care they need, we should also encourage a commitment to working on their ability to communicate, cultivate empathy, and have productive and healthy relationships. We need to start talking about more than just mental health.
So what exactly is emotional fitness?
Although emotional health cannot be compared 1 to 1 with physical health, it can be helpful to think about it this way: everyone has a body, so everyone has physical health. Some people have chronic illness that they have to attend to, like diabetes or high blood pressure, but everyone catches a cold sometimes, everyone could stand to take better care of their body, and everyone has unique physical strengths and limitations.
Many people believe that if they aren’t feeling ill, then they don’t have to attend to their physical health. But people who are physically fit (ie. exercise, eat well, and get enough sleep) know — just because you are not ill, does not mean you are healthy.
Emotional health is similar. Being “emotionally fit” takes time, patience, and persistence. Emotional fitness is not characterized by the absence of major psychological disorders, in fact, a person can be dealing with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, etc. and still be emotionally fit.
Emotional fitness is an ongoing commitment to looking inward, processing through difficult emotions, and working toward self-awareness and self-improvement.
Like any fitness regimen, it needs to be maintained and will prevent more serious issues down the line. Becoming emotionally fit is not always quick or easy, but those willing to invest in themselves will see huge payoffs down the line.
7 Traits of Emotionally Fit Leaders
Now that we know what emotional fitness is, you might be wondering what it actually looks like.
The following is a list of seven characteristics that emotionally fit leaders strive for. These are not traits to “achieve,” but rather, to work toward:
1 Self-awareness. Emotionally fit leaders are self-reflective. They have taken the time to understand their triggers and biases and continuously check in with themselves. They are patient, resilient, and willing to be vulnerable with others. They can tolerate frustration and manage their emotions. They understand that the feelings they have about others have a lot to do with their own selves.
2 Empathy. Emotionally fit leaders can (and do) put themselves in others’ shoes on a regular basis. They recognize that what they feel about things might not necessarily be what others feel, and they strive for empathy even when it is difficult. Although they must sometimes make unilateral decisions, they consider how those decisions will affect others.
3 Willingness to play. Play sparks spontaneity and creativity, and is a crucial part of emotional health and interpersonal cohesiveness. To play with an other means trying on thoughts or concepts to see how they feel. It means having a free exchange of ideas and a meeting of the minds. Emotionally fit leaders can and do engage in this type of interaction regularly, and encourage others to do the same.
4 Curiosity. Although being a founder sometimes necessitates a willful suspension of disbelief, emotionally fit leaders understand and tolerate the difference between what they want to be true and what is true, and they make it a habit to ask questions and be curios. They have awareness of their limitations in affecting and changing others, and they endure this without denial or defeat.
5 Mindfulness. Emotionally fit leaders can sit with and process through discomfort. They know they will survive it, and thus do not take impulsive or destructive action to escape it. They are able to have tough conversations, be transparent about uncomfortable information, share complicated feedback, and sit with a problem until it has been fully thought through.
6 Resilience. Emotionally fit leaders know that more is to be learned from failure than success, and can bounce back during difficult times. They can maintain optimism when things get tough, and can take in difficult feedback. Ultimately, their desire to grow is genuinely greater than their desire to avoid criticism or failure.
7 Effective communication. Emotionally fit leaders are able to put words to their needs and expectations. They understand that conflict within any relationship is co-created, and they are able to talk through issues rather than reacting with denial or exertion of power. They can balance flexibility with maintaining their authority and appropriate boundaries.
Why Is Emotional Fitness Imperative?
The stress that a founder is under constantly is extremely taxing on the psyche and spirit. Beyond being in a healthy place mentally and having good coping mechanisms to deal with anxiety, depression, and self-doubt, a founder must be proficient at forming and maintaining good relationships. They must be able to communicate effectively with their cofounders, investors, and employees, and instill a sense of trust that they are looking out for the best interest of the company.
If business is just a series of relationships, then the relationship a founder has with their own self is going to mitigate everything they do. I had a conversation with Evan Bailyn, CEO of First Page Sage, who put it this way:
“Literally nothing has helped the success of my business more than my own personal therapy. Being aware of how I react to challenges, loss, and disappointments has made a huge difference in how I run my company. It has given me a better understanding of how I’m perceived, it’s improved my ability to communicate effectively, and it has allowed me to have greater empathy for those I’m working with and serving.”
In many ways, a tech founder is like a parent, and a company is like a family. Parents who are able to sit with and express difficult feelings create a safe environment for their children’s emotions and struggles. Parents who try to repress their vulnerability and need for support often encourage the same in their children, usually without realizing it.
Similarly, a founder who has not done the necessary (and often difficult) work on themselves to understand their triggers, biases, and areas of struggle will transfer many of these issues into their company and onto their employees.
Kyle Wild, co-founder and CEO of keen.io, has made it a priority to incorporate emotional health into his company. He explained his perspective to me this way:
“Time and time again I’ve seen that being in touch with my vulnerability has made me a more capable and effective leader. Our organization and our culture is remarkably resilient to dramatic change, and I believe it is because we’re a tribe of people who have invested in trust and self-inquiry. It’s crazy to me that the argument even has to be made that emotional fitness is an important part of company culture.”
In Silicon Valley, where so much of the culture and community is rooted in the tech scene, having emotionally fit and healthy founders will have a hugely important ripple effect on society.
Young people working in tech are taking their example of how to collaborate and lead from current CEO’s and founders. If they are working in an environment that teaches them how to be communicative, transparent, and empathetic, they will take these lessons with them when they become the next generation of founders. This turnover happens quickly, which means we have a real opportunity to change the way companies are run.
There will inevitably be many who do not see the value in investing in emotional fitness from the start. A similar situation has played out with design in the startup world:
Ten years ago, many founders did not prioritize design thinking until later in the startup process. Over time, it became clear that design plays a huge role in the success of a tech product and needs to be part of the equation from the beginning. Now it is not uncommon to see design co-founders and CDO’s from the start. I believe the same will be proven true of emotional fitness.
7 Ways to Kickstart Your Emotional Fitness Regimen
Now that you’re ready to develop an emotional fitness regimen, it can be tough to know where to start.
In any given relationship, the standard rhetoric is “I’ll take care of you, if you take care of me.” Instead, I believe it should be, “I’ll take care of me for you, if you’ll take care of you for me.” Becoming emotionally fit is a lifelong pursuit; it takes practice and patience. The following are seven ways that founders can begin to work toward emotional fitness:
1 Get into therapy. Many people think that therapy is only for those with psychological disorders or huge life predicaments to process. In reality, therapy is for anyone who wants to better understand the way they conduct themself in the world. As a founder facing countless stressors, therapy also provides a space to process anxiety, frustration, and other feelings so that they don’t leak into the business and onto employees.
2 Integrate emotional health into the culture of your company. Being fit is much easier if you exist in a fit environment. It is the founder’s job to create an ethos of emotional fitness in their company. Add emotional fitness to your company’s mission statement. Start meetings with a check-in. Institute postmortems, fireside chats, and AMA’s. Have a meditation space. Invest in the emotional fitness of your employees. It will pay off.
3 Integrate play into your daily routine. According to psychologist Michael Parsons, play functions to sustain a paradoxical reality where things can be real and not real at the same time. Let yourself and others “try things on,” approach problems in unusual ways, be silly, make space for yourself and others to change over time. Get involved in the creative aspects of your company, and have an open mind whenever possible.
4 Recruit other minds. Sometimes we are so close to something that we cannot see it clearly. Sometimes we are so invested in a particular truth or outcome that we ignore evidence that suggests something different. By bringing in others minds, you allow yourself to see reality from multiple perspectives, and thus have a more complete picture of the truth.
5 Get more comfortable being uncomfortable. If you are making a decision or taking an action purely to move away from discomfort, take a moment to reflect on whether the discomfort is really so intolerable. Sit in it for awhile, take a deep breathe, and prove to yourself that you can handle it. You do not need to break every silence, fix every issue immediately, or avoid difficult conversations.
6 Build your self-confidence. People who have a strong sense of self are less likely to be torn down during difficult times. To build self-confidence, talk back to your harsh inner critic, celebrate your wins, allow yourself to take in positive feedback (and save it in a folder so that you can refer to it when you’re feeling self-doubt). Don’t be afraid to seek validation from the people who believe in you and see your value.
7 Find your community. Having a community of like-minded people is a huge asset when starting a company. Meet regularly with people who understand your experience as a founder and who are also working on their emotional fitness. Join a founder group, commiserate, support others, and reach out for help when you’re having a hard time. Connect with people for who they are rather than what they can do for your business.
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