Is building a company a spiritual journey? Yes, I think it is. In this article I explore why I think so… and explain three stages that I’ve identified so far. Read on to find out what they are.
Over the years, I’ve written a great deal about my inner life, and in particular about my business life. Much of this has been because when I first started grappling with business, it was pretty well something you did on your own. Kind of suck-it-and-see-what-happens.
Some of those articles include:
- Chasing the dragon, about chasing elusive and shiny ideas
- Entrepreneurial angst, about dealing with not feeling like you fit an industry
- Startup lessons spotted in Manowar songs, which was all motivation-y
- Dear sparkly-eyed entrepreneur, on lessons you need to learn
- Grassroots metrics, which was much more relevant before Twitter became link-pushing-land
- Case studies on ads that I used to run at MaF
- Why being nice pays off
- and so on and so forth.
Much of my writings about my inner life have been about the cyclic nature of life and doing Buddhist things.
ta eph’hemin, ta ouk eph’hemin: What is up to us, what is not up to us.
— Ryan Holiday (@RyanHoliday) September 9, 2014
Building a company is a spiritual journey
This is the most critical lesson I’ve learned. It’s also something that comes up occasionally in conversations that I have with friends and mentors.
My dad, for instance, is a dyed-in-the-wool atheistic type, but he lives moment to moment, doing just what he can in any given point. The most significant thing he’s taught me in my life is about being present: ‘Tomorrow never comes and yesterday has never been, so all you have is today’. We have conversations about all the crazy things whirling around us in our respective companies, and yet we both deal with it in the same way: By ignoring the whirl and attempting do the right thing at any given time.
One of my mentors described his latest venture into a new industry as something that began with really finding out who he is, and what he wanted to achieve for himself. It was from that core, central point that he was able to discover the next challenge that resonated deeply for him, one that he’s since thrown himself into with remarkable results.
Jim Rohn always talked about achieving big things as being something that starts within yourself. He was famous for saying that you can’t wish things were better, but you can wish you were better. Rohn, who was Tony Robbins’s mentor, had his own deep, spiritual beliefs. In fact, he described more than once having a state of ‘ultimate faith’: Things have a plan of their own, and the best way is that of least resistance.
Now, that’s something you expect to hear from a Christian. But it’s not something you expect to hear from your own dad, especially when he’s quite a stoic, god-is-a-fiction kind of bloke. And yet he said something similar to me many years ago, along the lines of: The older I get, the more I realise that life is already mapped out for us so there’s no point worrying about it too much.
It’s quite Taoist thinking: Things are as they are.
One of my friends, who has a much larger company than I do, speaks in a roundabout way of similar things. He describes it as the State of Meh, about how good life is when you stop being engaged in giving too much of a shit about things.
Truly, building a company is a spiritual journey. Before you sigh and piss off to another blog somewhere else that’s going to tell you something concrete, like how to pitch for Series A funding, do yourself a favour and keep reading.
The first stage is learning about yourself.
Perhaps one of the hardest lessons that company building teaches you is how to deal with yourself. There are a bunch of platitudes that entrepreneurs spout at any given opportunity. (If it’s going to be, it’s up to me is one of them.) The truth is, unless you’re one of us, you just won’t get it.
The things you learn about yourself include:
- how lazy you really are
- how people make you feel
- how you make you feel
- what you fear
- why you fear it
- how attached to material things and situations you really are
- how you relate to people
- how you relate to yourself
- what you’ll avoid doing and why
- why you procrastinate
- what you expect of yourself
- what you expect of others
- how you trip yourself over
- how you sabotage things in your own life
- how you sabotage your own success
- how you deal with failure
- what you consider failure
- how your perception of failure changes how you relate to people
- … etc
How many ways are there to learn about yourself? Oh, let me count the ways. That list is just the beginning!
You learn how you work, and the best times for you to work. You learn what kinds of things suck creativity out of you, and the kinds of things that boost your creativity. You become sensitive to the types of people who support you, and those who suck life out of you. You start to understand what looking after yourself really means, and why your version doesn’t fit other people.
The second stage is learning to overcome yourself.
If courage is facing your fear down and doing things that scare you anyway, overcoming yourself is living in a state of courage for an extended period of time.
Once you get into an entrepreneurial pathway, especially if you do it closer to middle age, is that self doubt becomes a demon with real and tangible shape. It manifests in a narrative that throws in front of you all the things you failed at in your life, all the things you’ve regretted not doing better. This is what separates serious entrepreneurs from those who are giving it a go but aren’t wedded to the idea of making it work. Some people simply can’t overcome their own demons.
Self-doubt can be traumatic, paralysing, depressing stuff. It can cause you to stop working, to procrastinate, to feel like a poseur or a fake. It is a narrative that will, if you let it, wear you down throughout the day, and stop you performing at your peak.
Dealing with this during hard times requires either a will of steel or a strong sense of self. One of the things that I have discovered in my own journey is the realisation that every single person is alone. It doesn’t matter whether you have friends, or a partner, or lovers, or mentors. You’re living your life your own way, on your own. Your experiences are shaped by how you react to them, and those reactions are yours (and yours alone).
You only need to see a family going through a significant trauma or grief event to understand what this really means. Every person faces his or her grief, fear, difficulty, alone. How they react is a singular reaction; and even though you can talk about it and feel bonded to others, ultimately you deal with it by yourself.
If you can deal with your own self-doubt, on your own, then you are someone who can overcome yourself.
The Stoic philosophy is a fantastic framework for learning how to overcome yourself quickly. It teaches you how to go beyond your own cycling narrative, to interrupt the useless thoughts, and come back to what CAN I do right now? And, more importantly, to find out what right action can you do right now?
Perhaps one of the reasons why so many entrepreneurial types meditate is that when you can wrestle your mind to the ground, you’re in a better state to move forwards. Controlling your own mind takes work: It’s a muscle that you have to exercise. The more you do it, the easier it gets. The only way to train for that is in meditation. It teaches you how to identify the flow of thought and life, and how not to engage in it. The more you do it, the more capable you become at overcoming the things your mind throws at you: From anxiety to despair.
The third stage is acceptance.
This year I learned, through meditation actually, that I am a self-sabotager. By quietly interrogating myself over a period of months, and communing on situations in my life and business, I discovered a tendency to disengage with things when they start to become successful.
In real terms, this means that when things are well and I am busy – and have a full calendar – that my tendency is to become overwhelmed, cancel things, and disengage from everything that can move my company forwards. I discovered that I do this because of baggage from my past. I learned that I allowed myself to feel like I wasn’t coping, on the assumption that keeping at a frantic pace would destroy my relationships.
It’s bullshit, of course. It was a narrative that I’d created as a result of past situations, and used it to stop myself from getting hurt. The more I held onto it, the less happy I became. It transpired that this protection was harming me, and continually stopping me from reaching my own potential.
Very often, our own protections and defaults exist because initially they protect us. Over time, as we change and as our situations change, they stop helping and become harmful.
In my case, the harm was to my company. Cancelling appointments and events stops your company from growing. Disengaging from people stops work coming in. Not having work coming in stops you from getting paid, and before long you are running out of cash.
Once I realised this, I could spot the behaviours when they started to emerge. The feelings that preceded them started to become obvious to me, and I was able to unravel how I related to them. From here it was a short hop across to a deep understanding about the ebb and flow of life.
It wasn’t until this happened that all of my intellectual understandings about accepting things became meaningful. The idea of acceptance isn’t that you just sit back on your arse and accept everything that comes your way. What it means is that you accept that life is a certain way at a certain point in time. Once you know this, then you can see much more clearly what is real and what isn’t. The anxiety I felt about being too busy emerged out of a falsification of events. The narrative I told myself was a different story from what actually was.
Beyond this? I’m still finding out
Right now I’m still in the flow. I’ve learned – finally – how to identify the right action to take at any given moment, out of a swirling wind of a million potential things that I could be doing. When I feel overwhelmed, now it’s a sign to gather myself and push forwards, rather than to disengage.
Building a company is just one of the things in my life. I also contribute to a marriage, keep a house clean, cook and shop, grow a garden, have a creative life, and a reading life, and friendships. It just happens to be the dominant thing in my life right now, and by ‘dominant’ I mean ‘the thing that occupies 95% of my working hours, which are longer than many’.
Accepting the flow of life can be really challenging. The challenge is because you can feel the whirling things that you have to deal with. They whirl, constantly. Even when you are exceptional at managing everything, you know the vortex is there. When you are able to focus on one single thing without getting fizzy, you know you’ve reached a point of spiritual maturity.
Now I know that my business life is a spiritual life. This weekend, while watching The Exorcist series with my husband, I got into a conversation with him about monastic life. Really, monastic life isn’t that different from startup life: You rise early, work long hours, learn a lot about yourself and others, and – hopefully – grow as a person in a compassionate way, so you can benefit others.
Building a company is less difficult when you see it as personal development
Personal or spiritual development feels like hard work for many people because it’s not an integral part of their lives. For others, the word ‘spiritual’ is off-putting to start with, mainly because it isn’t the New Dogma, science. But as a Buddhist monk will see every chore and action as an opportunity for growth, so too can you see your business life as an opportunity for growth.
This isn’t new thinking, by the way. Writers have been dwelling in this space for a long time. From this Entrepreneur piece in 2007 to Lotta Alsen at the Huff Post last year, many writers have realised that spirituality and business are not separate things. There are also a ton of books on the topic; and if you’re familiar with Seth Godin’s writings you’ll notice how they often seem to overlap with Buddist thinking. And that’s just the spiritual side of things; we haven’t even started thinking here about philosophy like Stoicism. (But if you haven’t read Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way then that’s your first thing to do after you finish reading this.)
In any case, once you know how you are feeling, and understand why you’re feeling that way, it makes knowing your next task a hell of a lot easier. For example, if I feel rushed, busy, like I have a million things to do right now, that’s my cue to sit down and meditate for half an hour. Once the gushing winds in my mind have settled down, every action I take seems to be chosen. Because it’s chosen, it’s effective.
Meditation gives me back my ability to function at a high level, even under pressure. It doesn’t do this because I am calm, or not-stressed. It does this because it stops me being reactive, and it re-enables my capacity to make clear, measured choices about how I spend my time.
The integration of business into my life as a spiritual practice also teaches me other things that I also learn in meditation, just in a different way. It teaches me focus, concentration and single-pointed thought. It teaches me to let go of the things I can’t control. And it teaches me how to identify when I’m unnecessarily caught up in something in my own mind.
That’s when building a company becomes much less difficult.
Well, I say this now…
And despite having been through this process with a number of previous ventures, I’m still in the baby years of this one. But, if there’s any indication that this one might work out, it’s that I’ve learned more about myself in the past three years than I ever did in any of my previous ventures.
Time will tell whether or not it serves me as well in five years as it is serving me now.