There’s a story arc on the show Parks and Rec where serial-entrepreneur Tom Haverford and his serial-scammer friend, Jean-Ralphio Saperstein, start a “media conglomerate” called Entertainment 720. They have some starter money because Jean-Ralphio settled in court after getting hit by a Lexus, so things seem like they are off to a good start.
The thing is, it doesn’t seem like they have much of an idea about what they are doing, or even how to do it, so they make up for it with a lot of flash. They lease a massive office space and outfit it with cutting edge furniture and pay fashion models to lounge around on it. They hire NBA players to casually shoot hoops all day and give away free iPads to everyone who comes in. There’s even a tiger at one point.
And, like many new companies, they go out of business.
No doubt, this is an outlandish example.
Most of us can’t afford to hire a part-time virtual assistant when we start our business, much less models and NBA players. There’s a basic premise at work here though, and one that can sink us before we even get moving: starting a business is scary, and we might be inclined to shore up our credentials by investing in the appearance of success.
This happens for a few reasons.
The most visible businesses in our sphere are most likely the most successful ones. They can afford commercials and billboards and those stupid little stress balls with their name on them. People know about them, so we might hear them mentioned in normal conversation, and they can sponsor things around town. Their name is everywhere, so they are a natural target for us to emulate.
This is dangerous.
These other companies, our competitors, have probably been around for a long time. Being successful, they most likely built up slowly, just like we need to do, and what we are seeing is the top of a mountain that it took them a long time to climb.
Thinking we belong on top of the mountain at the beginning of the hike is irrational, and we could leverage ourselves with expenses or debt that we cannot overcome in an effort to appear like we are farther along than we are.
We all like to be comfortable. Much of what drives us is the desire to avoid the discomfort of a lack of food, water, sleep, or sex. We are physiologically wired to address discomfort, so we see it as a negative thing.
This is all well and good so long as we are dealing with something simple like a glass of water or a nap. It becomes complicated when we want a nicer office chair than we can afford or a bigger office than we need.
Learning to tolerate discomfort is a good thing. Learning to embrace it and let it drive us to bigger and better things is even better. We cannot do this if we take every discomfort as a sign that something is wrong.
Imposter syndrome is a very real thing, especially when opening a business. There are so many other people doing what we do, doing it differently, doing it for longer, and we only see the things they want us to see.
Meanwhile, we are trapped inside our own head, and have access to all the doubts and fears and stupid mistakes we make along the way. We start to feel like we don’t belong, that we’re one step away from being exposed as a fraud, and we can even see our successes as dumb luck instead of skillful choices.
This suck, and it’s not any fun, but if it drives us to seek to establish legitimacy through other means – the big beautiful office, the giant desk, free iPads, and champagne – we can get ourselves leveraged into a difficult position before we have a single client or customer.
So, what do we do about this?
Much of this is natural, normal human behavior.
We all compare, we all want comfort, we all have at least a little insecurity floating around in our heads.
What are we supposed to do about normal human behaviors?
The first step in dealing with these all-too-common problems is to be aware that they are there and to learn to strip away all the stories we have about them. There’s this weird thing that happens to us humans:
First, something arises in our mind, a random thought or generic reflection about something going on.
His office is twice the size of mine.
It’s hot in here.
I don’t belong here.
These emerge – we don’t call them out, they don’t necessarily have any correspondence with reality, they are just there. They’re ghosts, and they don’t have to be a thing at all, but they will be if we don’t respond to them intentionally.
Let’s strip it all down.
The first thought – his office is twice the size of mine – is a simple comparison of areas – basic math and nothing more. It has nothing to do with quality or usefulness or location or proximity to our house, but we lose those things in the comparison to someone else’s office.
The second thought – it’s hot in here – is a simple observation about ambient temperature versus what we would prefer. No one said it’s intolerable to be warm, we didn’t address whether or not this will harm us in any way, it’s just not cold.
The third – I don’t belong here – is a statement made concerning learning or doing something new, though not necessarily a fair one. Everything is somewhat daunting at first, and we have no knowledge of the future. A blanket statement like this is dangerous.
Our Response Matters
As we said, these are just thoughts, nothing special, nothing not-special. Just imagination spinning things out.
If one of them popped up while we were asleep, nothing would happen, and we probably wouldn’t even notice it. But, we do this odd thing when these thoughts pop up and we are aware of them, especially if they bring some sort of emotion like anxiety or anger with them: we respond.
More accurately, most of the time, we react rather than respond. We think these thoughts need to be addressed, often by fixing something, even if we have no control over that thing or don’t know how things should be.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Victor Frankl.
I think of and refer back to this quote often, because it sums up a majority of the suffering I see people experience. Something happens to us, and we react instead of respond.
A car pulls out in front of us, we give them the finger, and we’re in a fight.
Our partner makes an offhand comment, we take it the wrong way, we make one back, and we’re in a fight.
Our boss reprimands us for something that seems somewhat valid in retrospect, but at the moment, we react in anger, and we are out of a job.
Response Over Reaction
With each of those thoughts – his office is twice the size of mine, it’s hot in here, and I don’t belong here – we can choose to do nothing, especially if we are aware of the insecurity and comparisons that are driving them. We don’t have to double our rent on a new office, spring for better air conditioning, or go back to get our Ph.D. to shore up our credentials.
These thoughts, while potentially uncomfortable and unpleasant, can stay where they are: in our head. We even find that as we fail to pay attention to them, they drift away, having no effect, and being replaced by new thoughts we can ignore.
I don’t like how this chair squeaks.
I need a break. Stanger Things did just release a new season…
I need an electric bike. I wonder how much they are?
This never stops, and this is fine. Learning to recognize thoughts as being thoughts is the key to freedom from the treadmill of worry, fear, insecurity, and the idea that discomfort must be addressed. In business, it might be the difference between keeping the doors open and trying to sell an oversized desk on Let Go.
The best way I’ve found to deal with thoughts involves a mindfulness practice. It’s super simple and super difficult, but with practice, it gets easier and easier. Start right now.
Take a deep breath.
Rest your attention on the breath, watch it come and watch it go.
When you get distracted (and you will), redirect your attention to the breath.
There doesn’t need to be any discussion or judgment. By noticing distractions, you are no longer distracted.
Do this over and over again – every noticed distraction is a moment of mindfulness.
With time and practice the mind starts to behave itself, and we become less and less attached to the thoughts that bring us so much suffering. It’s not much different from training a muscle or learning any other skill.
Try it for 30 days. If it doesn’t help, the fashion models and free iPads will be waiting.
Thanks for reading. Take care.