Starting your own business, especially for the first time, is a major life transition—and even positive transitions are by definition stressful.
The classic Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory list of life’s 43 most common major adjustments includes at least 10 items relevant to new entrepreneurs:
- Being fired at work
- Retirement from work
- Major business readjustment
- A major change in financial state
- Changing to a different line of work
- A major change in responsibilities at work
- Outstanding personal achievement
- Troubles with the boss (yes, that can happen even when you’re your own boss)
- Major changes in working hours or conditions
- Taking on a loan
While not all of these come with every business startup venture, chances are you’ll have to deal with at least two or three.
Sometimes, the “stress list” doesn’t stop with the above items. Rather than leaving your old job with severance pay or resigning according to well-laid plan, you may be dealing with a situation similar to one of the following:
- Your old employer folded without warning and left you with virtually nothing to live on.
- You were on the losing end of a major lawsuit, and the court took most of your assets.
- You’ve divorced or been divorced by a spouse who was the primary wage-earner for your household.
- A family member for whom you were the caretaker has recently died.
- You’ve just been released from a psychiatric hospital or addiction detox center.
- You’ve just been released from jail.
In such cases, you have to deal with stress-inducing transitions beyond those directly related to starting a new business—transitions that may have seriously shaken your self-confidence or others’ confidence in you.
When you’re simultaneously starting a business and starting over in life as a whole, success on both fronts requires managing your overall life and attitudes with care.
1. Don’t try to jump into a new business venture the day after a major life shake-up
As a child, did you ever find yourself still in bed after a bout with the flu, pouting because you felt well enough to get up but Mom insisted you needed an extra day’s rest to fully recover? Well, Mom really did know best—and the same principle applies when illness goes beyond the physical.
People under treatment for addiction disorder, for example, are frequently advised to spend several weeks in inpatient care after physical withdrawal is complete, getting professional help developing coping strategies to reduce the risk of returning to drug use when life’s old pressures reassert themselves.
Your own life shakeup might not have been drug-related or involved diagnosable illness, but chances are it left you with some emotional baggage that could interfere with the clear judgment essential to entrepreneurship.
Before writing your business plan and applying for any licenses, ask yourself honestly:
- Have I gotten advice from a professional counselor? Seeing a therapist doesn’t mean you’re “crazy”; it’s your best source of sound advice on what you’re ready for and what you need to deal with.
- Do my emotional wounds still feel raw? If so, you probably need more time to heal before taking on major new challenges.
- Do I really believe I can do this? If not, why not? It’s very hard to succeed in a business if you go in with the attitude “I’ll probably fail”—and if you’re coming out of an abusive relationship or have recently seen your world turned upside down, you’re probably harboring serious self-doubts. Face up to these and practice affirming your potential before embarking on a business venture.
- Am I starting something new primarily “to forget”? Think twice before shoving things into the back of your mind and throwing yourself into your work; buried “issues” can sabotage your progress without your even realizing it.
- Do I have any “I’ll show them” attitudes? Try to forgive before you move on; hard feelings are dangerous baggage to carry into any new venture.
There’s another consideration that deserves a section of its own:
2. Take steps toward breaking any old habits that had a hand in instigating your life shake-up
If you don’t, these same habits will almost certainly wind up sabotaging your business progress.
Common habits that wreak havoc on effective living and on success in business include:
- Chasing instant gratification. Symptoms: buying things on credit without a thought of how and when you’ll pay the money back; saying an immediate “yes” to everything that hints at new and exciting experiences or instant ROI; quitting anything that fails to yield obvious results within two weeks.
- Casting blame. Symptoms: sinking into self-pity at every frustration; losing your temper daily; making “not fair” a regular part of your vocabulary; taking appointment-rescheduling requests as personal insults.
- Expecting too much. Symptoms: beating yourself up over forgetting one punctuation mark in an email; cramming your schedule to bursting; counting on luck to achieve what your gut tells you are unreasonable commitments.
- Being overly timid. Symptoms: opening every request with 300-word “if it’s not too much trouble” introductions; constantly saying “but” or “what if”; never actually asking for what you want.
The question of bad habits and the baggage they create leads to the next point:
3. Know what to let go of and what to keep
Even after you’ve dealt with past issues, they can continue to drag your new venture down unless you’re clear on what to let go and what to retain.
What you should let go of:
- Any grudges or self-blame. It doesn’t matter how much was or wasn’t your fault: focusing on “making up for it” or “making them pay” generates chronic negative energy that fogs your judgment and repels progress.
- Obsessing over “what went wrong.” Whether or not you know definitely, constantly thinking about “wrong” only generates dangerous over-caution.
- Worrying about the same thing (or another “disaster”) happening again. Concentrate on what you want to go right, not on what might go wrong.
What you shouldn’t let go of:
- Solid lessons learned. To forgive and forget is advisable, but not when you forget your mistakes to the point of making them again and again.
- Healthy self-respect. Even if you were largely responsible for making a mess of your old life, you aren’t “worthless,” “stupid,” or a “born loser.” Appreciate your good qualities, accept your weaknesses, and use your knowledge of both to chart your future course.
- Willingness to trust. However badly anyone hurt you, a “people are rotten” attitude has no place in business. You won’t win many clients or loyal employees by constantly hinting that they might screw you.
4. If you really blew it—landed in jail or otherwise were caught violating basic honesty and ethics—accept responsibility for convincing others you won’t make the same mistake again
No question, an open black mark on your record makes investors and potential clients uneasy about trusting you.
To minimize problems there:
- Don’t make excuses. If you’re guilty, you’re guilty—no matter what pressures people or circumstances may have put on you. Most everyone these days is so used to (and tired of) hearing public figures try to explain away their failures that an honest “I was wrong” is actually refreshing, and will earn you an amazing amount of respect.
- Be extra diligent about re-establishing a reputation for honesty and dependability. While missing deadlines and producing substandard work are unfortunately common among people of all descriptions, those with mistakes to live down are judged more harshly.
- Cultivate ongoing support. This can come from your family and peers, from your religious congregation or community center, or from formal support groups if you’re in recovery or therapy. Every acquaintance is a potential source of referrals, and regular contact with people who know and believe in you will help counter temptations to get discouraged and give up.
The good news is, as an entrepreneur (as opposed to someone seeking a salaried job), you won’t usually have to deal with “clean record only” corporate policies, generic application forms with “have you ever been arrested?” questions, or extensive background checks. Business owners are more likely to be judged on their present merits, with less probing of their past records.
5. Take the first steps to plan and start your business
If you have a business idea in mind, this is a great time to start putting your thoughts on paper and thinking through what you’ll need to do to get a business up and running. Doing this initial planning can be really hopeful and energizing. Planning now means that when you’re ready to go, you’ll have the right pieces in place.
Here is a free downloadable startup checklist to help you think through all the different aspects of starting a business. It’s also a good idea to work on a Lean Plan or a really brief business plan. You can do it in less than an hour, and you can use this free, downloadable Lean Plan template to get started.
Starting over is as challenging as starting up, and doing both at once is doubly challenging. But don’t give up. You succeeded in surviving when your world was turned upside down—you can succeed as an entrepreneur!