The Lies We Tell Ourselves
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The Lies We Tell Ourselves

Successful business leaders don't waste time justifying failures—even in a year like 2020.
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People are always asking business owners: What does it take to be a successful entrepreneur today? They want to know: How do you do it, day in and day out, as an entrepreneur surviving Covid? Then there’s the classic and slightly overused, “What would you tell your younger self just starting out in entrepreneurship?”

My answer: Be honest with yourself, and take responsibility.

All the rest can be learned. But these two critical items, honesty and responsibility, will be the reasons you either fail or succeed. Some say grit, determination, and tenacity are essential; I agree, but those are either hardwired into you or they’re not. If you have a tendency to give up early, maybe entrepreneurship isn’t for you. If you say “You made me feel” in your business or personal relationships, you might want to carve out some self-reflection time.

When you say, “You made me feel” and finish that sentence with any feeling word you like, my response is likely to be cold and indifferent. I am physically unable to “make you feel.” You alone are in charge and capable of managing your own feelings. Using this phrase is a small but fundamental act of pushing responsibility (for your emotions and actions) onto someone or something else. If you spend much time on social media, you’ll see that mindset everywhere.

Such-and-such client “makes me feel angry and insignificant.” My boss “makes me feel like a failure, every day of the week.” My job “makes me feel afraid and out of control sometimes.” Once you give up responsibility, you’ve let that person or situation turn your emotional state into something you’re not managing. That means you’re less likely to be able to perform at your best, which is kind of essential if you’re an entrepreneur.

Years ago, our accountant, a very well-meaning friend and employee, would somehow always deliver the worst bit of news to me hours before I was scheduled to make a speech. If you do a lot of speaking, you know mindset is essential. This happened enough times that we formed a pact: He would ask me if I had any speeches coming up before delivering bad news. It wasn’t him that was the issue; it was the news that was throwing off my state of mind. We changed how the news was delivered—problem solved.

If you’re honest with yourself and take responsibility for your emotional response, you can explore creative solutions.

This doesn’t mean your emotions are not real, but it does mean they are yours to own. If you’re going to be a business leader, you’ll need to be able to manage your emotions, or your odds for  success aren’t good. It doesn’t mean you don’t get angry or sad (or happy), and it doesn’t mean you don’t express those emotions to others as motivation for them to improve. It is part of becoming more self-aware, being honest with yourself, taking responsibility, and knowing your weaknesses.

The great reset of 2020 has certainly given us a long list of circumstances to blame: the pandemic, the death of George Floyd, protests, riots, a presidential election year, flooding, the death of the great RBG, fires on the West Coast. I wake every morning and check the headlines for a countrywide swarm of locusts, which has to be the grand finale to 2020.

Any one of these traumatic events could be blamed for a business failure. But laying blame on someone or something else puts you into a “Well, I can’t do anything about it” state of mind. In contrast, if you’re honest with yourself and take responsibility for your emotional response, you can explore creative solutions. Extend this to a team of people who can objectively take responsibility for their emotional responses and they can face this pandemic with creative problem-solving.

Examples are abundant. My current favorite is the college football scene. We watched as the Big 10 and Pac 10 canceled the season, blaming external forces for the decision. The rest of college football, and my favorite team, Notre Dame, chose to redesign the season, face the virus, and creatively adapt.

The Big 10 gave up. Somewhere in a conference room, a team of people got together and blamed the virus for a lost season (and then changed their minds). In a number of other conference rooms across the country (ACC, SEC, Big 12, Sunbelt, etc.), leaders chose to find a creative way to carry on, even working with a fluid schedule, canceling games when players tested positive, and allowing players to individually opt out of games. They’re doing the best they can in a pandemic.

What type of team are you building around the virtual conference table? Is your team the give-up, blame-the-virus, walk-away team? Or are you building a self-aware team whose members are capable of managing their emotions and facing any situation with creative solutions?

Uncertainty is for certain. How you respond is yours to own.

Aaron Keller (aaronkeller@capsule.us) is co-founder and managing principal of Capsule (capsule.us), a Minneapolis branding agency. He co-authored The Physics of Brand, physicsofbrand.com.

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