Do you break like wood? Or like steel?

Julie Penner
Feb 24 · 4 min read

It’s a question I ask founders when I’m trying to get to know them, learn how the work and think about how to help them. We’d all prefer it if no one ever broke, or hit a wall, or fell in a hole. Whatever you want to call it, it happens. Entrepreneurs in startup land go at warp speed for so long that they don’t see it coming- their humanness catches up to them. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk wrote this famous book in psychology circles that comes to mind in those moments: The Body Keeps the Score.

It’s one of those life axioms that I’m yet to disprove. Founders usually come equipped with a lot of drive and passion. They tend to be hard-working types, achievers. Founders as a group are also remarkably bad at recognizing and acknowledging their limits. They push through. They make it work. They fake it until they make it. But they can’t fake the toll driving that hard for that long puts on their bodies and their minds (not to mention their relationships).

So I ask them what it looks like when they hit their limit. Breaking looks different for different people. For me, I get angry, easily upset, generally agitated and I’m unpleasant company. One of my colleagues gets tired. This is one of the hardest working people I know who rarely complains, when he says he’s tired, I know the edge is near. For another friend, she gets sick. Breaking for her looks like a two week spell of bronchitis. Another founder rebels against his own self-imposed routines of healthy diet and exercise, swinging to excess in food, drink, TV, whatever feels good. It happens to all of us. We do our best to rest and recover and practice self-care, but we also push our limits, and sometimes past them, for too long.

So founders, do you break like wood, or like steel? Wood is more easily broken, it withstands less pressure, but it’s also more easily repaired. I tend to break like wood. If I have a bad day, I can usually get a good night’s sleep and feel pretty repaired the next day, and those bad days happen occasionally, a couple bad days a year. I even had one founder say that he breaks like paper, all it took for him to feel repaired was a walk outside! Others break like steel. Steel withstands more pressure, but when it breaks, it shatters. It’s difficult to repair. It happens rarely, not every year even, but when it does, it’s hard to ignore. It could be a few weeks before they are back at full capacity.

Images by Holger Grybsch and Rupert Kittinger-Sereinig.

I think of it as more of a spectrum than a binary outcome, but it’s a very helpful analogy, and if you ask, most people if they think back can tell you about their pattern. It really doesn’t matter what founders respond, wood or steel, that’s not what’s important about the question. I’m checking if they know themselves well enough to recognize their own patterns. Some of them have never thought about it and have a moment or precious self-realization!

The only answer that worries me is, “I don’t break”. This question about breaking not so subtly asks founders to share their vulnerability, what do they look like at their worst. Some founders aren’t willing to go there, to explore the edges of their humanity, either with me or even with themselves. But the delusion of invincibility is dangerous. It sets founders up for a big fall at some future date, because the body really does keep the score.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Before I started helping founders think about their patterns, I worked with colleagues who used this idea of breaking and the body keeps the score to learn our own patterns. One mentor in particular was very helpful in helping us think about what happened and why a few days after I’d had a very bad day. I was very stressed that day, and not my best self. At our morning check-in, I said I was orange, though in retrospect, I was red. Days later in a debrief, our mentor asked, “How did your tools fail to tell you that was going to happen?”

I was stumped. What a question. Luckily my partner chimed in. He realized that in preparing a program launch, we had created a “week 1” list of work to dos, but we still had an equally long list of things to dos in “this week”. We had without noticing signed ourselves up for two weeks of work in one weeks time. No wonder I was experiencing visible stress. It was an “Ah ha!” moment for us. We never made the same mistake again in our workflow, and that issue didn’t arise again. We also looked back at the check-ins I’d done in the weeks proceeding, and for me, they got progressively worse. A lot of days in a row checking in yellow eventually lead to a day in the red. But that’s how I work. I know the warning signs for me, but everyone is different.

Now I ask founders all the time about the tools they are using to know that they were about to hit a wall, or fall in a hole, or break. It looks different for everyone. What does it look like for you?

Special thanks to Zach Nies for teaching me this question, and Natty Zola for exploring it with me.

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