Photo by Tom Pumford

(I originally posted this article on 17th March 2016 on medium.com)

I’ve been motivated to write this article by a recent outpouring from a number of entrepreneurs, in particular James Routledge and the sentiment around Mental Health being anything from a hidden secret right the way through to an embarrassment, weakness, or even a failure on the part of the person experiencing it to cope with their world and the pressures it exerts upon them.

I have to admit I find myself unusually nervous about the article because I’m not sure how it will sit yet it is something that sits close to heart because of what I do.

I wanted to come into the debate from a different angle, that is of one who works in this environment helping clients to function better, not just psychologically, but as a whole person in ruthless, competitive, and unforgiving contexts, where, whether they like to admit it at the start of the journey or not, they are, just like everyone else, a vulnerable fallible human being.

My aim with this article is not to provide any specific answers. Nor is it to cram a load of (empty) inspiring quotations that might temporarily make us feel good, but to lay out a wider perspective on the issues that gets people thinking and maybe catalyses new perspectives or learning.

To do this, I intend to cover a few different approaches that I think those operating in this space might consider for their own benefit. They reflect the kinds of patterns that I see in my practice.

You may know all this already, so my intention is not to try and teach anyone to suck eggs.

But first, let me locate myself. I am a psychological coach who takes a whole person view of coaching. To me, coaching is primarily a collaborative learning process, the outcome of which is determined not by method but by the relationship between coach and client and, more widely, how this relationship interacts, in a mutual way, with both the coache’s and client’s wider contexts. It is almost the opposite of the popular individualistic psychological approaches employed by a pretty large chunk of coaches and mainstream popularised psychology. I hope this makes sense…

I work in several different contexts. I cut my teeth researching and then working mostly with motorcycle racers where I help clients to resolve complex performance problems, this practice expanded into wider Action Sports. I operate within the business & organisational context working with entrepreneurs and more widely offer coaching that encompasses leadership and executive coaching, for example. I also have a practice in health rehabilitation which came about as a result of my own struggles to find a rehabilitation process for a long-term condition and also in helping motorcycle racers basically traumatised by major incidents and injuries.

The result is that I am very familiar with patterns of, for example, depression, anxiety, (abject) fear, running all the way to suicidal thoughts in the context of high pressure performance environments. My role is and has been to use an approach of coaching where appropriate but also to encourage and sometimes facilitate the necessary referrals for further medical, or therapeutic assistance.

So, back to the subject of the article. The first, and probably most important point I would like to explore is what I will call the assumptions around ‘individualism.’
Unfortunately, we are constantly bombarded with stuff that gives the impression that success in life is down to the individual. We have star athletes, star CEOs, star actors, musicians & performers, and lets not forget the star entrepreneurs who, we’re given the impression, through their own genius, personal strength & gravitas, singlehandedly change the world and are the creators of untold wealth.

This mirrors the general undertone, the undeclared assumptions, or perhaps even more of the elephant in the room that runs through most, if not all the recent flurry of posts on this subject:

It more or less equates to it’s all down to ‘me.’ I’m the one holding the world’s weight on my shoulders, and if I can’t cope, it’s down to me, but it’s also the world’s fault for putting that pressure on me.

I agree, I think it is the world’s fault. This is not an individual problem of psychology, nor is it down to simplistic notions about resilience, or positive thinking etc. It is a much broader socio-cultural/socio-psychological problem.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it and perhaps alleviate some of the struggle and pain.

My first piece of advice for anyone setting out on their journey of a startup or entrepreneurialism is that you cannot do it on your own. In fact, whilst you may sit there at the top, visible to all around you spearheading the venture, you are, and always will be, just one cog in a complex works.

Practically, this means building a trusted support network. Not just in your friends (who may or may not understand what you’re going through) and co-entrepreneurs, but much wider support network. You need to consider support for your entire self, so support would entail the psychological, physical, nutritional and general life-style, for example.

But more than that, sustainable and successful start-ups and entrepreneurialism are about collaboration. It’s about finding and acknowledging your strengths and complimenting those strengths by creating a collaborative, supportive, organisation based upon mutual trust and recognition where the load is shared between lots of people and other resources. This way the journey becomes a shared one. You cannot be all things to all people within an organisation, big or small.

This goes against the grain, but maybe it’s time to buck the trend.

If there is one book I would recommend on the subject it is one:

A BIGGER PRIZE: Why Competition Isn’t Everything And How We Do Better by Margaret Heffernan

It is a brilliant piece of work on why competition is so damaging and how collaboration is much more effective and sustainable.

The next point which builds upon the earlier one about self support is to ensure a process of ongoing personal nourishment.

I find that working with clients to find and develop an individual learning process tends to the most effective long-term intervention. The world is changing rapidly and if you have found an effective way to continuously learn, this will help you to remain in touch with it.

Remaining in touch with the world and getting out there, not just physically but in consciousness can also be helpful in alleviating the symptoms of mental health, for example depression; as the symptoms of these illnesses are often perpetuated by patterns of retreating inside ourselves and disconnecting with the world. So there is a wider reciprocity here as long as we do it by seeking other like-minded and authentic environments.

As part of this process, recognition that the learning process and self-nourishment is just as much of a process of reflection and incubation, not just about the doing. For example, when we have new ideas, the excitement can bring us to obsessing about it, talking about it, formulating it around and around in our heads. This might give us the impression that we’re actively engaged in doing something useful and valuable, but sometimes the best thing to do with a seed is to put it in the ground and let it do its own thing.

Nourishment may also mean that you must, however difficult it might be, create a structure around you that gives you this. It means time off. Time doing other things, time exploring different areas of life too. We can easily forget that it is mostly in these times that creativity and innovation flourish so it may in fact be much more productive to prioritise these things in your life. If you have developed a good support network, you will no doubt receive feedback reminding you about this, so in a way it feeds back to creating an appropriate social construct for yourself.

This social construct can therefore extend beyond the self-identification of you the start-up creator and entrepreneur to a diverse you. If you have a wider identity it does mean that you can, to some extent, detach yourself from this new entity you’re creating. Just as with parenthood, you need to be able to let go because that is probably the only way your child will truly flourish. This is a pattern that is fairly common with elite athletes. They spend their lives immersed in and consumed by them as athlete. When the career comes to an end, they find themselves in crisis, not knowing who they are or what to do with themselves and this great hole they find in their lives.

Now, I understand that this is not easy. It’s a process, a journey and it involves standing your ground against a swell of pressure. I get a lot of resistance from clients sometimes about this because it’s the opposite of what they think we should be doing in coaching. They often say they don’t have time to give themselves the space, but when they’re brave enough to try it, they find that paradoxically they have more space for these things in their life. And then there’s the question about what is really most important?

Something else to perhaps keep in mind is that you are not alone in this experience of stigmatisation. Some of those I work with, including elite athletes are managing conditions themselves and have the pressure on them from both the media and public, which is not always forgiving either. I experience it myself sometimes when I need to declare to some organisational clients that I manage a complex long-term condition myself. The conversation then suddenly diverts towards my capacity to deliver a coaching engagement because of my condition instead of my ability as a coach to work effectively with these clients. Sometimes I have even had to defend my openness about talking about my condition because I’m told it might put some people off. But then there are a whole host of clients that are open minded enough not to care two hoots because it’s an authentic relationship that delivers on their desired outcomes.

Well done for opening up about the subject as it’s a brave move to make.

I hope this piece provides some supportive food for thought to compliment what you’re doing.

Tom Pumford