∿ Return to the center
The only way I know to hang onto my sanity and my loved ones while enduring the gruelling highs and lows.
In startup lore, the analogy of the roller coaster is an oft-mentioned one. The daily or hourly ups and downs you can experience: an investor you were counting on sending a casual email to say, while they're impressed by you, they can't get there on traction/distribution/conviction. And while you're wallowing in the depths of despair you get another email from a big account you've been trying to sell for months, that they're in. That sale will put you over your annual target with a healthy margin.
The instinct is to fall into the deepest depression with the first news, letting the negative self-talk drown out everything else - it's a sign you’re a fraud, that this will never work … what will you tell your team?
Then you whiplash on the latter is to believe you're a god. A chosen one that can see things and do things that no one else can. That it's a sign that this is meant to work and change the world as we know it.
The truth, as you know deep down, is somewhere in the middle.
And the middle is exactly where I've learned to live.
I can remember distinctly the summer of 2016, after a brutal, relentless year of having gotten Poppy off the ground, recruited an amazing founding team, gone through YC, and finally closed our seed round. I felt wrung out as a human. My relationship with my husband, my friends, my kids, my team all threatened by my inability to process this wild swings.
We finally had the team, the cash in the bank and the roadmap we needed to really crank. And I felt like I was going to kill the company with my inability to anchor myself in something real.
I serendipitously came across this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, most notably the author of Eat Pray Love, but my idol for her funny, honest and deeply human insights. In this one, she talks about feeling as untethered after the wild rise of Eat, Pray, Love as when she was an unpublished waitress fielding constant rejection. She was surprised at how the highs of success could in any way feel the same as the lows of failure.
This clip hit me in the heart:
So think of it like this: For most of your life, you live out your existence here in the middle of the chain of human experience where everything is normal and reassuring and regular, but failure catapults you abruptly way out over here into the blinding darkness of disappointment. Success catapults you just as abruptly but just as far way out over here into the equally blinding glare of fame and recognition and praise. And one of these fates is objectively seen by the world as bad, and the other one is objectively seen by the world as good, but your subconscious is completely incapable of discerning the difference between bad and good. The only thing that it is capable of feeling is the absolute value of this emotional equation, the exact distance that you have been flung from yourself. And there's a real equal danger in both cases of getting lost out there in the hinterlands of the psyche.
But in both cases, it turns out that there is also the same remedy for self-restoration, and that is that you have got to find your way back home again as swiftly and smoothly as you can, and if you're wondering what your home is, here's a hint: Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself. So that might be creativity, it might be family, it might be invention, adventure, faith, service, it might be raising corgis, I don't know, your home is that thing to which you can dedicate your energies with such singular devotion that the ultimate results become inconsequential.
What I took away from this: “Figure out my middle. My center. My steel. My reason for doing any of this. And return to it. Endlessly.”
I realized then: I do this for my users. For the very real impact I see day in and day out. And as long as we're making that impact, then I'm going to be okay. The funding doesn’t crater that. The press or the accolades doesn’t distort that.
Ever since then, whether on the daily ups and downs or the longer stretches of slogs or frantic growth, whenever I feel myself sinking or rising uncontrollably, I play that clip in my mind.
I take a deep breath. I pull open my folder of user testimonials or I go talk to a parent. And I return to my middle.
It’s what keeps me grounded for the long slog of building in years. What makes me bearable as a mama and a wife and a daughter and a friend. What keeps me in the arena, day in and day out.
Of course, this is neither perfect nor easy. It makes me slow and infrequent on the team celebration of milestones. I was notorious for not knowing the true birthdate of Poppy to be able to celebrate it in the years following. I would turn my attention to the next thing after hitting big months or achievements. Luckily I had teammates that I deputized to fulfill that role.
Because my job then, my job now, is to stay the course. To be the Chief Believer. To be steady in vision and roadmap and funding.
It's not as so easy though - I'm human enough to feel the devastation, the elation. I'm vain enough to see company flaws and successes as extensions of my personal abilities. I try to exhaust myself during the days so there is lesser chance I'll wake up at 3am because thats the hardest time. When all my defences are down and all the doubts creep in.
But even then I remind myself over and over. This is not the time or the place. Building startups are an exercise in superhuman feats with human capabilities.
The hardest bits come in managing my psychological state.
So I share the only truth I know: figure out your center. The reason you’re doing this really hard thing in the first place (it’s also why, btw, the founders who are mission-driven last longer - their center is more solid).
And then keep it front and center. Work to return to it, over and over.
Never putting too much store by your highest highs or lowest lows.
Finding your work and your worth flourishes in the fertile, anchored, in-between.
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