In this article I explore the importance of resilience to entrepreneurial success – and how a lack of resilience slowly leads to failure.
I outline several approaches to developing more resilience, and a list of questions you can use to assess your current levels.
Resilience: noun the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties
Exploration stage entrepreneurship is characterized by repeated failure, large amounts of uncertainty and a rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows. One of the few things that is certain is that there will be days when you question why you ever thought entrepreneurship was an attractive or viable career path!
This prevalence of setbacks means that resilience is an important trait as an entrepreneur, and it will be tested repeatedly by the numerous difficulties you encounter during the exploration stage.
The key word in the definition of resilience is “quickly”: your resilience is all about your speed to adapt, how quickly you can recover from setbacks. At its most extreme, resilience means not being knocked down by adversity in the first place, by bouncing back instantly.
In entrepreneurship, adversity comes in the form of:
- Failure (getting your hopes up, just to have them dashed again, iteration after endless iteration)
- Rejection (the customer didn’t like your pitch; that investor never emailed you back)
- And loss of belief (this is taking much longer than you’d expected – maybe it’s never going to work?)
Resilience – the ability to withstand these knocks – is important because entrepreneurship is a high-performance discipline, and demands peak performance. In peak performance, we do not indulge in doubts and negative thinking. When we are knocked from this peak, by definition we do not perform at it.
- You may start questioning your commitment and whether you can keep going
- You start to consider alternative options, craving certainty and validation
- You begin to take rejection personally
- These doubts lead you to resist working on your idea
Resilience is not a fixed capacity, and it will deplete after repeated knocks: when you start off, you brush off failures. By the end of month 6 and you still don’t have a business idea, even not getting a response to an email can feel like another sign that it’s just not meant to be.
But, just like resilience can be depleted, it can also be built up and strengthened. You will always have bad days, but you can learn to bounce back faster. You can learn not to be as badly affected by knocks. You can learn to expend less energy to remain in a good headspace.
We have these bad days as entrepreneurs for one reason: because we are pushing ourselves beyond the limit of our comfort zone. We are learning, we are challenging ourselves, and on some days the challenge is beyond our capabilities. If we’re demanding the most possible from ourselves, then it’s only natural that sometimes we’ll demand too much. It’s only when the bad days begin to become the norm that the problem requires more direct attention.
Developing more resilience:
1. Recognize the subtle impact of low resilience
The first order effects of low resilience are your “bad days”, days where you have yet to rebound from a setback. Perhaps you worked hard building up a round of customer development interviews, but now they are done, you’re none the wiser on what direction to proceed and you’re questioning your commitment (instead of getting on with better customer development interviews). You hit a series of bad days where you don’t get much work done.
The second order effects are more subtle. This includes the time and effort spent getting over the setbacks and recovering from the bad days. In the above example of the failed customer development test, sure, you’ll be able to regain perspective, but this takes effort! We have a finite amount of energy, and if you need to expend 60% of it just to keep things in perspective, then your performance and effectiveness is bound to suffer as a result. Notice how much time and energy you are spending just to maintain a positive perspective.
Additionally, consider the type of work you can’t do on your bad days. You cannot think creatively, see the bigger picture or get those flashes of inspiration needed to move your project forward.
So the impact of low resilience is a combination of the bad days, plus the energy and headspace you need to dedicate to keeping the bad days at bay, plus the repeated loss of creative energy vital to your project’s success.
Sidebar: a method to measure the cost of low resilience
You can measure the cost of low resilience by considering the delta between your performance in a positive headspace and negative headspace and the frequency at which this occurs.
- How many days do you spend in a negative headspace? e.g. 4 days per month
- What is your performance capacity on those days (as a % of positive headspace performance)? e.g. 25% (you are only 25% as effective as you would be if not “knocked”).
- 4 x (1-25%) = you lose 3 days a month or perform 15% below capacity (3/20 workdays per month)
This is of course a very rough estimate, and can be considered from many angles. For example, perhaps you have more regular periods of less severe poor performance e.g. every second day you perform at only 75% – losing 12.5% of your capacity (50% of days losing (1-75%) capacity).
2. Experiment with ways to get support against those knocks
Once you’ve got a sense for your current level of resilience, try experimenting with ways to increase it.
At a macro level, there are 3 buckets to consider:
Now that you’re introducing so much uncertainty into your working life, it’s important to counteract that with certainty and balance in your personal life. You can’t rely on work as your sole source of self-esteem. You no longer have access to the steady stream of validation and progress that work may have given you in the past. What are you living for outside of work? What makes you feel good about yourself outside of work? What hobbies or causes are you passionate about? It is worth spending time considering what changes you could make in your personal life to offset the changes you have made in your working life and keep your progress (or lack thereof) in perspective.
2.2 Social Support
For many, their foray into entrepreneurship means working alone, often for the first time. The intangible support network of working in a larger company is no longer in place. Added to this are the increased stressors of being an entrepreneur (no salary, no external validation, and often no progress). Knowing that you still have people there for you regardless of your entrepreneurial success is vital to being able to maintain a healthy perspective
Personally, this can be family and friends and perhaps a therapist. Professionally, this can be peers, a more formal support group, a coach or mentors.
2.3 Cognitive & Emotional Development
Resilience is ultimately a result of how you think and feel. There are numerous ways you can develop emotional resilience, for instance via meditation, coaching or therapy.
- Cultivate awareness of how you’re feeling. Notice recurring patterns and blocks
- Write or journal as a method of release
- Keep a gratitude list to keep things in perspective
- Work with a coach. I work with clients to explore their level of entrepreneurial resilience and how they can strengthen it
- Work with a therapist. We may have deeply ingrained vulnerabilities that make us susceptible to being knocked that could benefit from being worked through with a therapist
2.4 Resilience as an entrepreneur
At a more micro level, within your entrepreneurial work itself, here are some tactics you could consider:
- Vary the types of work you do depending on your energy: there are some types of work that you can do even when you’re feeling low, for instance admin work or outreach etc. Even if this is not the most important work you can do, it is better than nothing and simply taking action can often lead to a renewed sense of motivation. It is hard to do more creative or deep work when your head is screaming that it is a complete waste of time…
- Maintain realistic expectations: a sure fire way to feel bad is to constantly fall short of your expectations. Expect to find a billion dollar idea in 3 months; expect to find a perfect co-founder on your first attempt; expect to strike gold on the launch of your first MVP and you can expect to feel dejected and miserable when these events don’t come to pass
- Find a co-founder: working with a co-founder can give you the motivational boost you need to stick with entrepreneurship. It becomes a lot easier when you’re in it together
- Take a break: sometimes it’s right to quit (see below)
- Time off: sometimes the answer is a couple weeks off, not thinking about work
- Freelance: perhaps time off is the last thing you need, instead you need to get stuck headfirst into some work, for instance doing freelance projects or helping other entrepreneurs on an accelerator program
- Get a job: or maybe you need a break from the game altogether, working on someone else’s project or in a job for several months or years
3. Notice results
You can become more resilient simply by becoming more aware: aware of your resilience levels, what causes you to be knocked, how long does it take you to rebound, what helps you rebound faster and how much energy it takes. Experimenting with different techniques and noticing the results can lead you to find what works for you.
Sometimes quitting is the right decision
Sometimes it’s right to quit. Whether that’s to quit on an idea – maybe it’s just not going to work out at this time – or to quit on entrepreneurship as a whole – maybe it’s all too much for you right now. Sometimes continuing is an easy but foolish decision. You’d be better off retreating, taking time to lick your wounds and rebuild your confidence.
On the flip side, most times it’s wrong to quit. Low resilience can cause you to give up too easily: moving on to another project as soon as the going gets tough. Hitting these periods of slow progress on a project is hard for overachievers:
- We have many other options – the opportunity cost is high
- We are not used to failure – it feels particularly unpleasant
That said, overachievers have overachieved because they have stuck with difficult things in the past. They understand what it takes to win. With the right mindset shift, I believe that overachievers have what it takes to become great entrepreneurs.
So, how do you tell if it’s the right time to throw in the towel? Of course, it’s a gut call. You need to trust your intuition. But at the heart of this decision is a question about your resilience: are you feeling resilient enough to keep going, or would you be better off recharging?
Assessment: how resilient are you lately?
At its most extreme, resilience means not being knocked down in the first place, or bouncing back instantly.
- When was the last “bad day” you had? What happened?
- What does it take to knock you? How robust are you against everyday failures and rejections?
Resilience varies over time, and it’s useful to be aware of your resilience levels in any given period.
- How often do you get knocked? How many bad days do you have a month? How has this changed over time?
- Do you tend to under or overestimate your resilience?
Repeated knocks will lower your resilience, resulting in lower lows of increasing duration.
- How deep are the knocks? How fast do you bounce back from them?
As the knocks get deeper, they begin to have a larger impact:
- How do knocks impact you? How much do they affect your quality of work, or ability to work at all?
If you’re interested in exploring strategies for developing resilience or any of the above questions in a coaching session then please get in touch to arrange an intro call.
- Academia: here is an overview of the current state of entrepreneurial resilience scholarship, published in March 2021
- Although not aimed specifically at entrepreneurs, Option B is a book about facing adversity and building resilience written by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton Psychologist Adam Grant