Some observations of myself and others and an exercise that might help.
I was brought up in a household that was not focused on money, financial success and ‘getting ahead’. My dad used to say to us “Do whatever makes you happy and that is useful to others.” and to this day he still does.
Yet, despite this upbringing, somewhere along the way I become heavily identified with business, financial and material success.
I believe that it is OK and in some cases even very healthy to make lots of money and to build successful businesses.
I also believe and have experienced that it is extremely unhealthy to derive your sense of identity and self-worth from your business or financial success that you have or have not achieved.
Material success is neither good nor bad, what matters is how it affects you.
There is a powerful line to this effect in one of my favourite poems ‘Desiderata’ by Max Ehrmann:
If you compare yourself to others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
But what am I talking about here practically speaking in the day-to-day?
I interact with a lot of entrepreneurs and business leaders, most of which are successful. I interact with a lot of these people in forums that are set up to be safe spaces to share without judgment. I have come to observe in myself and in many others, the tendency to, as an entrepreneur or business owner derive ones’ current sense of confidence, self-worth and place in the world from the current state of ones’ business and financial health.
For me, this has shown up in my ability to interact socially in meaningful ways. When things are going well in business and personal finance I am open, connected and keen to socialise. When things are not going so well, am reserved, withdrawn and prefer not to be around other people.
This was not healthy and I wanted to change it.
I want to share some of my observations in myself and in some others that have helped me to overcome this to some degree.
Get to the root cause.
Whenever there is insecurity, the root cause is seldom the same as where it is manifesting.
For example, if you are terrified of what the world will think of you if your business fails or if you have to downsize, look deeper at what you are really scared of because it’s almost certainly not the actual event but something deeper.
- Is it that you are worried that you will be viewed as a failure?
- Is it that you believe that you will never be able to do again what you have already done?
Try to understand what is at the root of the need to succeed and you can begin to work on that.
People just aren’t that interested in you.
A massive realisation that I have had is that other people aren’t paying that much attention to me, they are more worried about themselves.
We tend to think that everybody is watching, scrutinising and paying close attention to our every move when actually in reality most people just don’t care that much because they are thinking about themselves, just like you are!
I was recently at an event where the speaker was demonstrating that most of what we fear is not even there. He asked the audience to raise their hands if they are scared of public speaking, many of the hands went up. He then asked what is scarier than public speaking…his answer, public singing. He then went on to get every single person in the room (70 odd people) to come up on stage and sing to the room for 10 seconds. If you are sweating reading this you are not alone I can assure you— terrifying stuff!
But here’s the thing, standing inline listening and watching the people in front of me sing for their 10 seconds of terror all I am thinking about is, am I going to sound worse than that? Better than that? What are people going to think of me?
It became apparent that everybody was thinking the same thing. They were only worried about themselves and nobody cared that much about whether the person currently singing was great or terrible but only how that would effect how everybody else perceived their own performance when if was their turn.
This is massively liberating when we can accept it. People are too busy worrying about their own insecurities to give much attention to yours.
Take stock of your accomplishments, skills, experience and knowledge.
This is something that does not come easily to me. While I continue to do it, have always struggled with gratitude and celebration practices. If 99 things are going well and 1 is going badly, tend to fixate only on the 1 bad thing.
Being made aware though of the things you have done well, the achievements you have accomplished and the knowledge and skills that you have gained is a powerful tool in the identity decoupling process.
It might feel uncomfortable and even futile but regularly making lists of these things and taking moments to acknowledge them can really make a difference.
An exercise that helped immensely to shift my perspective.
A while ago I was sharing deeply about how my identity was so dictated by the current state of my business and financial position with someone that I trust and respect in business and he looked at me like I was nuts. He looked at me and said, “this is madness Mike, you are the only person that can’t see the reality here.” He went on to say something that I did not expect, “honestly man, you are in the top 10 people in the world that I admire most”.
This hit me like a ton of bricks in a strange way. It didn’t go to my head like it usually would. Rather it made me start thinking about what I would need to hear from people that knew me well and that I knew would be honest with me in order to begin to shift this perspective. This question led me to an exercise that I would encourage you to do if you are still reading and if this is resonating with you.
I selected 7 people that knew me well and that I knew would not tell me what I wanted to hear but rather would give me honest and candid feedback that I could rely on and work with.
I sent them the following email:
You are getting this email because you are one of only seven people that I am asking something of.
This is a very vulnerable action for me but something that would mean a lot to me and something that I feel is important for me right now.
What I am asking of you is to write a bio for me in the most honest and unfiltered way.I am not looking for compliments but rather for blind spots both positive and negative. This could be as short as a one-liner or as long as you like, there are no boundaries.
I’m asking you because I care about what you think and I’m working through a process that requires this kind of reflection from people that I know will be honest and direct and who’s opinions I care deeply about.
I’m also mindful that you are busy and might not have the time or inclination to do this and that’s totally OK. I’ll respect and understand if you don’t reply to this.
The responses I received were fascinating. All but one replied and the replies were considered and honest. There were some uncomfortable and difficult to read parts which were valid and useful and there were some really moving parts which made me feel valued, understood. The combination of the ‘good, the bad and the ugly’ without filter was very valuable.
This exercise showed me that the value that I bring and the areas that still require work have got little to do with the current state of success of my business or my current financial position. This exercise allowed me to step away from being so identified with material success and towards focusing on things that I already do and can work on to continue to provide value to those that I interact with.
I am by no means through this challenge and I suspect it will be something that I work with my whole life but it is certainly a lot better. As with most things of this nature, the value is in the process. As a result of this work, am able to make better decisions and to focus more on the things that matter in business and personal life and ironically that is likely to lead to more material success…but in a healthy and less attached way.
If you are still reading, the chances are that you too have been or are currently struggling with this so I hope that this has been helpful even just because you now know that you are not the only one experiencing this.
I am the co-founder and CEO of Nona where continuous improvement is a way of life.