Solitude and loneliness are interesting bedfellows. One full of wonder, learning and deep study; the other dangerous and damaging.
Solitude has many positive associations – it is healthy, mind-expanding and brings about a greater sense of self-awareness. It is the state of being alone without being alone. It leads to a deeper awareness of your intimate self, as well as of the wider world around you. It’s a wonderous state, full of exploration and discovery. Solitude is essential for deep learning, reading, and being at one with nature. Solitude can be an energising experience.
Ask yourself how self-aware you are. You will probably come up with many social faux-pas with friends and relatives where you inadvertently put your foot in your mouth. Akin to asking the larger woman at a party, “are you pregnant?”, with bemused looks and the answer you don’t want to hear. Solitude can be the answer to preventing this, by getting to know yourself and surroundings better.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is a negative state. They are terms often used interchangeably, but to be alone is where the similarity ends. Loneliness is anxiety-inducing and defeating. Although solitude is usually self-imposed, loneliness is an involuntary sense of estrangement.
Paul Tillich, German theologian, said: “Language…has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”
In the UK, it is estimated that more than 9 million people, almost a fifth of the population, suffer from loneliness.
While loneliness is a social epidemic, its time we start acknowledging it within the startup world. If you experience feelings of loneliness as an entrepreneur, know that you’re not alone. In fact, it may be one of the greatest challenges you face as a startup founder.
Starting a business is a challenging venture, and often a lonely one. Entrepreneurs are more likely than other kinds of workers to report stress and worrying a lot. Meanwhile, half of CEOs report feelings of loneliness, and of these, 61% believes it hinders their performance.
It’s difficult being alone, whether at the top of an organisation in a position where you have no one to turn to in times of stress, or as a lone entrepreneur. It can feel like no one understands you: you may wonder if your business’s Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is attractive enough to customers and investors alike, or if your business partner, if you even have one, has the business’s best interests at heart.
Loneliness shouldn’t be taken lightly – research shows the effect it has on both our physical and mental health. It increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%, and is a well-known risk factor for other diseases, comparable to obesity or cigarette smoking.
By cherishing our time alone, we can turn loneliness into solitude, and replace bitter worry with thoughtful reflection. And by recognising our loneliness, we can take charge over our own lives to take better care of ourselves, reach out and network, or seek help. Taking steps to identify and address loneliness will not only improve your well-being, but that of your business.
Recognising signs and symptoms
The first step to alleviating loneliness is to recognise the signs, though there isn’t a set standard. Some signs of loneliness are engaging in compulsive behaviours, such as shopping a lot or binge-watching TV. Other times it can manifest itself with physical problems, such as the onset of sleep disorders. The latter, although no less severe, can exacerbate the problem. Any drop in your level of health means you are increasing pressure on yourself, when what you need to do is take care and rest.
There are many solutions, but the first is recognising the symptoms. Understanding the impact loneliness has is the first step to tackling it. Research has shown that loneliness and depression go hand-in-hand to diminish well-being. The lonelier you are, the more depressed you feel, entering into a never-ending cycle from which it becomes challenging to escape.
Loneliness increases the likelihood of cognitive decline and is thought to increase the chances of dementia. One of the most recognisable symptoms here is the onset of depression and anxiety. A lack of sleep can also lead to lowered immune response, and in turn more frequent bouts of cold and flu.
Don’t add too much pressure to your workload. As an entrepreneur you may fail in certain endeavours – and it would be unusual if you didn’t. That isn’t to say we need to accept failure, but don’t let yourself become too anxious about minor set-backs.
There isn’t a list per se of actions you must take, as psychological issues are complex, but suggestions to consider when setting up and running your startup include the following:
Search for ‘entrepreneur meetups’ or ‘startup meetings’ on the internet and you will probably come across the ‘Meetup’ website. Starting a business is challenging at the best of times. Finding a local Meetup group can provide useful, practical advice and support from like-minded individuals. Depending on your profession or business discipline, if it’s in a technology sector, a local university or similar technology cluster or a business incubator may be an option as well.
There are also online business incubator groups such as Y Combinator’s Startup school, which provide some great networking and startup advice for budding entrepreneurs.
All of the above are great for alleviating the feeling of loneliness and may provide you with some actionable advice from people who have been there for setting up and running your startup.
- Find a mentoring group
Depending on your stage of business, business only networking groups might be worth considering. They can be expensive but prove invaluable to setting up and developing business with a group of dedicated individuals. Examples are The Alternative Board, Vistage, Business Networking International, Young President Council, and Entrepreneurs Organisation.
As a former member of Vistage, I was surprised to find so many of the problems managing directors and owner-managers have are universal regardless of the industry. These groups are a great way to share, in a safe, confidential environment, problems which every member wants to contribute to solving, including many work-life balance issues.
- Make time for family and friends
When you set-up shop, the dedication and often long hours you spend focusing on the needs of clients, employees and business issues mean family and friends suffer. It is so easy to say in a few hundred words, make time for family and friends, but this is your ‘mental health foundation’. Without them, you would struggle more than you imagine. Familiarity breeds contempt, and it’s usually family members who have to listen to your complaining and face the shared stress of your business startup.
Make time for to appreciate life, and your relationships in it. That means turning off work and going for lunch or dinner on a regular basis. If you are in a relationship or have kids, set up a date night. If Michelle and Barack Obama can do it, then so can you.
- Try meditation or yoga
Meditation gets a bad reputation among many business people because it conjures up images of making ‘Omm’ sounds and contorting yourself into a strange position. However, if you consider that deep thinking or relaxing to favourite music is a form of meditation then it becomes a much more benign experience.
Any form of meditation, such as focused yoga or even just stretching can be a great way to set yourself up for the day. The physical exercise combined with the quiet focus helps prepare you for the day ahead.
Eighteen years ago, I had a discectomy or back operation to remove a damaged disc. Long periods of sitting stationary in a chair mean I have to prevent myself from ‘locking-up’, or the onset of Sciatica, with a morning 15 minute ritual of stretching exercises. These sedentary lifestyles are becoming known as the silent killer of our generation.
If you recognise the onset of loneliness, then therapy offers many benefits to help alleviate these feelings, especially if the problem is becoming more acute with feelings of anxiety, panic or other feelings of helplessness. A common form of therapy is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which provides training on outlook and adjusting your actions to cope with loneliness. A recommended introductory book on this is by Jules Evans – Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations.
Setting up a business does not have to be a lonely endeavour. Share the problems and successes with family and a wider group with shared interests and values. The old adage, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’, is good advice and there are people out there willing to listen and help. Don’t do it alone.
Disclaimer: The author is not a healthcare provider. If you are starting an exercise regime or experiencing feelings of anxiety or depression then seek the advice of a medical professional.