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The emotional challenges of being an entrepreneur

Feb 6, 2016 | Entrepreneurship

Note: This article also appeared in Entrepreneur Middle East, and can be viewed on the site here.

There are very few of us out there who can truly say we are zen-like reflections of calm, infecting others with the chilled out vibes of a practicing Buddhist. And for those who appear that way or say they are that way, believe me, they too have those buttons that, when pushed, will set them off. Everyone is capable of getting their feathers ruffled, and when that happens, things can get messy.

Of course we’re all aware of the importance of keeping our emotions in check, remaining in control and acting with professionalism at all times, but the fact is that we humans are far more complex than that. Even the business greats that we all so admire are prone to flying off the handle every now and then.

Let’s take the seemingly mild-mannered Bill Gates as an example, who has suggested on many occasions that he is the master of his emotions. There are in fact countless tales of the Microsoft impresario losing his cool in product review meetings, with one former employee describing a grilling by Gates as “being interrogated by a genius who knew it and was in a hurry”. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen seconded this notion, once describing Gates’s frequent explosions as like “being in hell”. And yet another former employee recalls how staff at Microsoft would keep a running tally during each product review meeting of how many times Gates would drop the ultimate curse word (the one that starts with an f). Anything less than 10 was seen as a positive.

Of course this is not to single out Gates. There are countless other examples, from Steve Jobs, who makes Gates indeed look like a Buddhist monk, to Google’s Larry Page, who apparently encouraged his senior executives to “fight the way he and [fellow Google founder Sergey] Brin” fought.

No, the business world is absolutely not a zen-like one.

Learning to control your emotions

According to a study carried out by the UK’s Mental Health Foundation, 45% of us admit to losing our temper at work regularly. So what does that tell us? That it is inevitable, or that we are not trying hard enough to control it?

And it is serious enough of an issue. Case in point: a recent study by the Duke University Medical Center in the United States found that we increase our heart attack risk by more than eightfold in the short period after an intense anger episode. The report also concluded that “temper tantrums” (and yes, we can certainly use that expression for adults as well) can lead to issues with sleep, irregular heartbeat and even strokes.

We increase our heart attack risk by more than eightfold in the short period after an intense anger episode.

One of the main problems I see in general with all of this is that we are not really doing much to acknowledge how difficult emotions are to manage, and because of this lack of awareness we take no action that could lead to us having a better level of control over these more complex of emotions. But there are some essential things we can do in our lives to get and maintain a more balanced level of control, and we’ll now explore these below:

1. Sleep

Sleep has a massive bearing on our emotional state, in particular how well we handle stressful situations. A recent study published in The Journal of Neuroscience highlights how a lack of sleep can leave us with a short emotional fuse and lead to increased anxiety and stress as a result of seemingly minor triggers.

One of the biggest entrepreneurial proponents of regular, quality sleep is Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post. She cites it as a key factor in her success and urges others in the business world to take it more seriously, suggesting that for her the benefits are clear in terms of greater creativity, ingenuity, confidence, leadership, decision-making and emotional regulation.

A lack of sleep can leave us with a short emotional fuse and lead to increased anxiety and stress as a result of seemingly minor triggers.

2. Don’t lose perspective

Could this be the number one reason why so many of us lose our cool in the workplace? We are so invested in the job we are doing that we react in the moment without taking the time to step back and assess whether an emotional outburst is really necessary. Reacting in this way means that our response is skewed by our current perception of the events that are playing out, rather than where the situation you are in sits on your list of “things that are worth getting worked up about”. As a result we literally end up losing control of our emotions by creating a certain “false illusion of importance” around a certain issue.

A simple way to reframe your thinking and maintain some perspective is to remember that while you can’t control the thing that is causing you stress – be it an unrealistically tight deadline or a colleague who has dropped the ball – you still have complete control over the way you react to it. This is a hard one for people to understand. It is a matter of training yourself to react differently at the “point of reaction”.

In other words, you have to train yourself to “catch yourself” at what would be the point where you usually get upset, reminding yourself that you actually have control over the emotional response instead of it having control over you. It is very hard to do, because it literally means being on guard in the moment leading up to the point of potential outburst or emotional unravelling.

But it can be done, and one key trick for pulling it off is to transition from the type of person who loves to point out problems and assign blame to the type of person who is all about finding solutions to the everyday challenges we all face. Do not look for problems, because you will find them everywhere; rather, always be the first to point out what needs to be done to make things better.

3. Meditate

The US National Library of Medicine recently found evidence to suggest that meditation can aid the areas of the brain which control learning, cognition, emotional regulation, empathy, and compassion – while shrinking the areas affecting anxiety, stress and fear. That sounds like a perfect recipe for keeping a level head.

And if that were not enough, meditation has also been shown to numb the link between the medial prefrontal cortex (which allows us to look at things from a rational or logical perspective and moderates our emotional responses) and the body’s reaction to outside stimuli. This, in turn, leads to a more rational outlook and a decrease in stress levels – ideal when your days are spent making sink or swim business decisions.

Meditation can aid the areas of the brain which control learning, cognition, emotional regulation, empathy, and compassion – while shrinking the areas affecting anxiety, stress and fear.

I have heard meditation being described as the “rewiring of the brain”, and I have also heard from those who are regular meditators that the emotional control they had before they started meditating compared to that they enjoy now is like night and day. This is no longer solely the pastime of hipsters and hippies, and in fact many of the business elite are now incorporating it into their routine as if it were an essential part of their business plan. Some of the big names to have jumped on the meditation train include William Ford of the Ford Motor Company and Marc Benioff of Salesforce.

4. Don’t give away your power

Here’s a way of looking at things that I find particularly interesting: any time we lose control and act on emotion rather than logic in the workplace we are effectively giving away some of our power in the situation to the person or thing that we are angry at. What this means is we let that person or that thing take charge of our feelings.

In order to combat this, Dr. Christian Conte in his book “Advanced Techniques for Counselling and Psychotherapy” advises that we visualise our power as a physical object, one that we can see getting smaller and smaller each time we give some of it away through an overly emotional or misappropriated response. The rationale is that if we place value on this visualisation of the physical embodiment of our power, we are then far less likely to give it away by losing our cool next time something gets under our skin.

5. Understanding different personality types

A lot of entrepreneurs are proponents of studying up on different personality types and using that information accordingly in their dealings with others. The Myers-Briggs personality tests and categorisations, for example, are considered by many to be one of the most useful systems for personality analysis, and for the individual well studied in Myers-Briggs, observing what others say can over time reveal quite accurately what their personality type is. This information can then be used to decide how best to deal with the person in various situations that have the potential to get complicated, anticipating what might set them off or knowing how best to work with them to bring about results.

With this approach also comes the notion of not taking things personally. That is where a lot of conflict develops in the first place. It is very easy in a tense situation to mistake someone else’s comment or opinion as an attack, or to believe that someone else’s bad mood is being directed at you. It is very important at some point in your entrepreneurial journey – and the earlier the better – to completely stop this way of thinking. People are often the way they are for reasons that have nothing to do with you. It could be their personality, it could be that they are experiencing a lot of stress due to a personal situation, etc. Do not automatically think it has anything to do with you.

Being human

To borrow a line from one of my favourite comedians, Louis CK, “Most people are ok as long as they’re ok.” That is to say, it’s incredibly easy to conduct yourself well and actually stay in control when everything in your life is, in fact, pretty much under control. But how quickly we can fall apart when things fall apart.

Should we allow ourselves to excuse our behavior based on the fact that this is a part of being human? Excuse ourselves perhaps no, but forgive ourselves to some extent, sure. What we really need to do though is rather acknowledge that while it is extremely hard to keep emotions in check during times of, for example, financial stress, a lost project due to a mistake by an employee, or whatever it may be, it is up to us to find techniques – such as those outlined above – to better cope. Because while emotional outbursts can on occasion be advantageous, that’s a rare occasion indeed. The reality is that all those negative emotional outbursts have a far more serious potential to damage relationships, business partnerships, and your business as a whole.

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