In 2004 my wife and I went to visit an elderly gentleman friend in the hospital. He had suffered ill health for a few years and once again found himself in the hospital. His wife had served him well, battling the healthcare system of the Veterans Administration. Her health was beginning to show the signs of wear.
After our visit we walked down to the parking lot to our car. As we got in the car I had an epiphany. I looked at her and said, “I don’t think I can do that to you.” It was an awful indictment of our friend, but I didn’t mean it like that. Fact was, his health issues mostly had nothing to do with abuse or neglect. He wasn’t responsible so much for his poor health. My comment wasn’t meant to reflect poorly on his character…but more on my realization that IF I could better manage my health, then I felt I owed that to my wife. At the time we had been married 26 years. I suppose mortality was beginning to be more and more on my radar.
It had been years since I had taken my fitness seriously. But the wellness revolution was in full swing. Evidence of it was everywhere. Back in 1977 is had hit American society in a big way with Jim Fixx’s book, The Complete Book of Running. Ten years before publishing that book Fixx had been very overweight and smoked…a lot. But he took up running, took his health more seriously and created – almost singlehandedly – an exercise revolution. These were the days before you’d see lots of people out jogging, or cycling, or even walking. Sadly, Jim Fixx died at 52 of a heart attack. Proof I suppose that the gene pool is largely responsible for our health outcomes. But American society would see a major shift. A revolution.
Today, fitness chains are everywhere. Here in the DFW area we’ve got all the usual suspects like L.A. Fitness, Gold’s Gym, 24 Hour Fitness and more. Even in the foulest weather you’ll spot runners, walkers and cyclists. Then, the food revolution hit. Enter Whole Foods and other grocery stores specializing in healthier food choices. Today gluten-free, fat-free, sugar-free and every form of free has invaded the grocery aisle.
This is all positive. Mostly. I mean how can you argue with focus – or a renewed focus – on our physical health?
About a week after I told my wife that I didn’t think I could do that to her I joined 24 Hour Fitness. And I’ve mostly gone 5 times weekly ever since. It may not look like it, but deep down I feel very fit. 😉 Okay, not so much, but I’m putting in the work to make good on what I told her. The wellness revolution started happening in my life and I don’t see it stopping any time soon. This is a revolution with no end.
I See The Mental Revolution Needs To Happen
Sometime in the 80’s I started noticing friends struggling. It was shocking because we were all still young. Too young to be hospitalized with stress induced physical problems. And worse. Some even figured the way out was to end their life. Before this, the only people I knew who took their life were idiot teenagers who dropped too much acid. That was rare where I lived, but it did happen once in a blue moon. Now, here I was at the helm of a business, still in my 20’s and I was seeing a toll. The pressures of building a business, growing a business and successfully operating a business were causing people to go crazy. It wasn’t a medical or psychological diagnosis. It was just street lingo for pressure – consistently exerted over prolonged periods – causing people I knew to crack, physically – mentally – and emotionally.
I know it’s sexy to be called an “entrepreneur,” but I’m going to burst your bubble. I’m not an entrepreneur. Back in the 80’s I didn’t know any. I knew plenty of business people. I knew plenty of business owners. It wasn’t sexy or glamorous. It was grueling. A life sentence of devoting your life to days that blended into each other because no sooner did you get home until it was time to go back. We often wondered why bother…then we realized it was because there were no showers at work. You gave up a lot to be an operator. And I was an operator. A roll-up-your-sleeves-get-the-job-done kinda guy. Nothing glorious about it.
But these were the days before the Internet or the business press. Well, Fortune, Forbes and BusinessWeek existed, but they covered Wall Street kind of businesses. Not Main Street kind, which is what we were. Shoot, In Search Of Excellence was published in 1982 and thanks to authors Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, business books became mainstream and somewhat cool. Prior to that you’d have been hard pressed to find a section in the bookstore called, “Business.” And if there was one, it was dominated by books on selling, thanks largely to the insurance industry, which spawned all the best sales advice at the time. You were just as likely to find something worthwhile in the “Self-Help” section.
And that’s exactly what we seemed to need — HELP.
Unfortunately, helping ourselves wasn’t so easy. In spite of what the gurus of the 80’s preached, we were business guys (sorry, we were mostly guys back then…thankfully that’s changed and now women also enjoy the pain of business). Nobody was interested in feel-good-philosophy. We were busy. We were young. Resilient. We could take it. We could take anything.
We were foolish. Ignorant. Not knowing any better.
Not realizing that our mental health was being fractured by the stress that drove us. I know. I was a – and still am – a stress junkie. Thriving on the chaos of operating a business is an adrenaline rush that fuels us. It was worse back then. Probably because I was younger. And more foolish than I am now.
How can you know when it’s TOO MUCH stress? I couldn’t. Non-business type friends couldn’t understand the drive. Or the pursuit of more pressure. Greater challenges. Higher accomplishments. And I was operating in the small business world running a small chain of retail stores doing about $14 million. No matter. I was also in my 20’s and I may as well have been at the helm of General Motors. All the same to me.
Working 80-100 hours a week. Too many days living on Twix bars and Dr. Peppers. Thankfully, my religious convictions prevented me from drinking alcohol, smoking, doing drugs or having an affair – all the common behaviors of too many people I knew. They convinced themselves they deserved whatever vices they took up. Because of their hard work. Because of their success. Or their failure. I never bought into that. Again, my faith kept me grounded, along with my wife and two little kids. Not a single hour passed that I wasn’t driven by the three people who meant the most to me.
But that also took a toll. I was more often in the doghouse at home than not. Missed supper dates. Last minute cancellations. Late nights at work. The typical crap that goes with being a good operator. Which is what I still suppose I am. I’m not an entrepreneur. I don’t even like the word, but it’s in vogue so who am I to resist? We were business people. Period. Doing the best we could. Sometimes failing. Sometimes not. But always like a dog chasing a car. Never satisfied because the game just kept on moving.
Until something stopped us. A health scare. A fainting spell. A heart attack. A stroke. Exhaustion. Mental collapse.
Then it all got very real. Very fast.
I’ve seen it up close and personal too often.
About 6 years ago I began to see a real need. The need for business people – owners, CEOs, Presidents, leaders and executives – to take their lives more seriously. I’ve told more people this one thing than any other thing in the past 6 years. “You’re a finite resource. You’ve got limits. You’d better get busy knowing what they are so you can take better care of yourself.”
Mostly, people (clients) hear me, but don’t change. Some do. Most don’t. People who are unwilling to help themselves can’t be helped. Hence, I’ve come to put greater stock in that book category, “Self-Help.” It’s not that you have to go it alone, but if you’re not willing to help yourself…nobody is going to be able to help you.
The Mental Revolution Has Never Been Needed More Than Right Now
The Internet has made entrepreneurship sexy and desirable. Forget that most will fail. And many will fail big losing everything they have, and owing large sums of money. Forget that Snapchat lost over $500 million last year. Just focus on that mythical valuation of $22 BILLION. Besides, it’s other people’s money they’re losing. Real money costing other people.
I could vomit every time I hear some kid talk about losing money and failing at a business as though it’s a rite of passage. Something every modern entrepreneur must do to earn their stripes. The stripes they ought to earn are the whipping they should take from every investor who lost a single dollar betting on them. Many feel it’s the education they deserve. Those Snapchat kids ought to be earning double PhD’s by now.
Real business is hard. Exhilarating for the right people, but hard. The focus and intensity required by the market – I don’t care if it was yesterday’s market or today’s – is always demanding. And the market makes winners or losers of us all. It’s not a life for the timid. And for the stress junkies it’s home. But grow too comfortable with it and it’ll eat your heart and take your mind.
It just doesn’t have to be that way. Fact is, it should NOT be that way. The people who make the economy roll deserve better. YOU deserve better. Business owners and leaders deserve better!
For 6 years I’ve held these thoughts more closely than I should have. Mostly because they’re not yet popular, but I’m convinced they will be. Eventually. After enough people commit suicide. Or after enough people drop dead of heart attacks. Or after enough marriages end in divorce. Or after enough kids endure repeated stints in rehab. Something bad will happen to you if you don’t take care of your mind. Then you’ll listen. Then you’ll pay attention. And it’ll be too late to fix whatever bad thing caused you to finally get a grip. That thing you can’t see right now will suddenly become crystal clear like one of that pictures with a hidden word or image that you have to squint to see. You’ll see it some day. Unable to take your eye off of it you’ll wish you’d seen it sooner. So will I.
Your life. Your family. Your company. Your employees. Your customers. Your partners (whether they’re vendors, suppliers or some other kind of partner). They all hinge on YOU because you’re the business owner. Specifically, you’re the small business owner. That’s where my heart is because that’s where I’ve spent my life. Companies that likely do under $50 million a year, don’t have a big org chart and are in the trenches fighting the fight every single day! Oh, I’ve seen some that are doing a few hundred million dollars a year who fit the bill. It’s still small business.
Not operating on other people’s money. Not listed on Wall Street. Not hobnobbing with the Boston Consulting Group or the kids from McKinsey & Company. Just guys and gals putting in the work. Making payroll again this week. Making another sale. And another. Buying a new truck or forklift. Leasing a new warehouse space. Hiring a new web design outfit. Pumping millions of dollars every year into an economy while other people whine and moan about who is in the White House. We’re operators. Our lives don’t hang in the balance because of some politician. Sure we care, but only because they get in our way of making money – and growing a business! We’re capitalist who want to make something happen. Something we believe in. Something worthwhile.
And all that imposes more pressure on us. Happily so. Pile it on, we say. We’ve got broad shoulders.
It’s got nothing to with strength. Or resolve. We’re mortal. Vulnerable to prolonged and/or extraordinary pressures. Even the kind we mostly relish.
Business people are like the professional athletes of a bygone era who suffered concussions. We refuse to acknowledge our injury fearful somebody else may replace us, or fearful others will think we’re weak. Cowardly even. So we hide our loneliness, fear and anxiety. When asked how things are going we’ll always reply, “Fine.” Many of us grew up to the mantra, “Never let ’em see you sweat.” We’ve lived that way always. It’s hard to change, but not impossible.
Why You Need To Pay Closer Attention To Your Mental Fitness
Every business owner – every business leader – is really paid for one fundamental thing. To solve problems.
In solving the problems I focus my work on three specific areas: 1) making better decisions, 2) executing improved actions and 3) doing both of those faster (preferably in real-time). It begins with improving our ability to make the wisest choice in real-time. Guess what helps that? Mental fitness.
Fatigue, fear, loneliness and anxiety are among just a few things that hamper improved decision making. Do you really think you’re going to make your best decision – do your best at problem-solving – when any of these emotions are prevalent in your life? Then why do you do it?
Because you’re paid to solve problems.
Because you’re afraid. Afraid to be vulnerable, and fearful of letting employees or anybody else see you as weak. It’s head trash. Your head trash that’s standing in the way of your improved mental fitness.
When we’re facing a business problem we commonly ask ourselves, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” I’m encouraging you to ask yourself that same question when it comes to your own mental and emotional fitness. Ignore the problems, the stresses and all the other issues confronting you and the worst thing that can happen is you crash and burn. You won’t be operating at your best. Face the problems, admit them and be open to letting others help you and you’ll find yourself relieved, supported and feeling more confident.
Question: Which version of you would you want to hire?
Then why are you resisting help?
You’ll dispatch all kinds of resources to solve much smaller problems, but you’ll ignore yourself as the owner or chief leader.
That’s the big culprit. It fuels our fears. Anxiety is elevated. Stress builds.
Peer advantage and peer disadvantage are things our parents understood. That’s why we were urged to have good friends and hang with kids who were well-behaved, got good grades, were committed to sports or whatever else our parents valued. Those kids at school who consistently got in trouble all hung together. It all seemed and was so cliquish. But we were learning, even as kids, that we tended to behave and perform like the people around us. The troublemakers didn’t make good grades and got in trouble more often than others. The Honor Society kids did well and were highly regarded by faculty. The best athletes were friends and stuck together on and off the field. We mostly met the standard established by our group.
Enter the business world and we suddenly think we can go it alone? Or that who we surround ourselves with doesn’t matter so much?
Of course it matters. And no, we can’t go it alone – not if we want to be a high performer!
Enter the problem, even if you want to surround yourself with people who can help.
Not that there’s anything typical about business people getting together because there are breakfast meetings, association meetings, Meet Ups, networking events, social events, Chamber events…we have more opportunities to get out and about than ever before. But these are very different than being surrounded by people who only want one thing – to help each other improve their mental and emotional fitness by becoming better decision makers, better action takers and faster at all of it.
It’s common to encounter a CEO or business owner who has an informal board. Sometimes board members have invested money in the enterprise. Sometimes not. Often times these board members have their own business, but they almost always have some vested interest in the company. They’re on the board because of some other relationship with the company or the owner.
Business owners can have an employee-based inner circle. Maybe it’s a VP or a CFO. Maybe it’s a handful of people in key positions. Good people. Hopefully, rockstars in their own right. But again, they have a relationship with the owner or CEO. She’s the boss. Their careers are somewhat in her hands.
Associations, especially industry associations, surround us with people just like us. Folks in the same industry, reading the same trade rags, whining about the same industry woes and generally sharing the same outlook about whatever space we occupy.
Now you’re beginning to understand the problem of eliminating the isolation. You can easily remedy the social isolation, but that’s not going to help you improve your mental and emotional fitness to grow your business. There’s a big difference in feeling better and getting better. Growth isn’t always pleasant, but it’s rewarding.
To each his own.
I’m not pompous enough to tell you there’s a single solution for everybody. I think there are solutions that any of us can apply. And some may be more universal than others.
Purpose. That’s the foundational issue when we’re looking to solve our isolation and grow as owners. Growing our business is so important to us. It should be.
Just ask yourself why this group or event is happening? Look past the surface answer. Sometimes it appears to be instructional, but really it’s about selling attendees. Sometimes it pretends to be educational, but instead it’s promotional. Sometimes it’s a broaden your network, but really it’s people hawking their products or services. We’re in a world of platform performers speaking 45 minutes so they can spend 2 hours selling books or courses at the back of the room once the presentation is over.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. It’s just the way the world works, smoke and mirrors. Bait, then switch.
How can you find a remedy with a purer purpose? By making sure you surround yourself with people whose primary focus is in helping you grow your business…and in helping you grow as a leader.
I’m forming a very small group – just 7 business owners from around North America – expressly for that purpose. To help each member grow their business. And to help each member grow as a leader. It’s about helping each other make better decisions and take more meaningful actions. It’s called the Bula Network Owners’ Alliance.
There’s a reason support groups are so popular. Because they’re effective. If you’re scared, get over it. Put yourself in the best position possible to experience greater success. Surround yourself with people willing to help you. Then allow yourself to be helped. That may be the toughest ask of all for some of you. Find the strength and courage (and humility) necessary to accept help. It’s also one of the best paths toward helping others, too.
The mental wellness revolution is coming. It’s already started, but it needs more fuel…more people willing to join. It’s a 2-way street of helping and being helped. You need to be part of it because there’s nothing you can do for yourself and your business that will be more valuable.
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