At some point in our entrepreneurial journeys, we need to not only ask What am I accomplishing? but instead Who am I becoming?
I spent 10 years building an organization I truly loved, from the early founding days in an office by myself to an exit and transition to new executive leadership. After I was finished, I realized, however, that the journey took an emotional toll. The process of entrepreneurship had changed me emotionally and spiritually.
As I shared my story with friends and other founders – and listened to theirs – I found that entrepreneurs often experience four phases in our spiritual and emotional journeys.
The first phase is the launch. This is fun. Entrepreneurship at its inception is filled with casting vision, convening investors, building a product, growing a team, iterating a prototype, raising capital, and seeing your dream become a reality. Customers, employees, revenue all materialize, it feels, from an entrepreneur’s wild idea. The overriding emotion here is exhilaration.
The second phase is trial. This is much harder than I thought. Now the entrepreneur experiences real difficulty. The product line doesn’t fly; capital begins to dry up; employees quit; investors start pressing for outcomes. At this point, the entrepreneur doubles down and works twice as hard. Stress becomes as normal as breathing, and many times it’s here that entrepreneurs develop unhealthy habits to cope. The overriding emotion now is anxiety.
The third phase is divergence. Can I really keep this up? At this point, the organization has reached some kind of scale, and many entrepreneurs experience a divergence between their external and internal lives. Externally, they project confidence to investors, employees, and customers. “We can do it!” they say. We have to. Internally, however, they face real doubt. They’re not sure if the company will survive. And though their community has placed the entrepreneur on a social pedestal, they now seriously doubt their own gifting. They genuinely wonder if they can make the transition from Founder/Entrepreneur to CEO/Manager. And they feel trapped because they’ve made promises that they now must keep, though they don’t know if they can.
This phase is the most dangerous because here the entrepreneur gets used to being two different people: the confident, risk-taking, leader in the spotlight, and the chaotic, uncertain, stressed, frustrated, even fearful individual who wakes up at 4:00 a.m. solving problems. Sometimes entrepreneurs here start to believe their own legend and disconnect from reality. This is when friendships and family relationships begin to suffer. They also can be drawn into the face-paced speed of entrepreneurship, and find it difficult, if not impossible, to slow down, rest, and truly pay attention to others. The emotion in the divergence phase is doubt. Not far behind is often shame, knowing there’s now duplicity buried in their character.
The fourth phase is reckoning. Who am I becoming? is the question that quietly rumbles under the surface. Generally, before or during an exit (deciding to sell the business), the question of burnout arises. They look for a way out. After putting so much into their business, they often ask daunting questions. What have I sacrificed? What habits have I developed? What is worth it? Did I demand too much from others? Will they love me when I’m gone? Who have I become?
Externally, people wonder why the now-wealthy entrepreneurs who’ve sold their businesses aren’t ecstatic. They lived the entrepreneurial dream. But internally, they often feel lost. Am I now better off than when I started? What will I do next? Who am I if I’m not leading this business?
Our work forms us – and deforms us. Of course, not all entrepreneurs experience these four phases. But I’d argue most do. We might ask ourselves: How might a relationship with God influence the emotional and spiritual journeys of entrepreneurs? And secondly, What practices might help entrepreneurs lead more emotionally and spiritually healthy work lives?
But for now, we need to acknowledge that entrepreneurs don’t just change the world; they themselves are being changed by the world around them. This move toward self-awareness is the first step toward living healthier emotional and spiritual lives as entrepreneurs.
This post first appeared at the Center for Faithful Business at Seattle Pacific University.