"Entrepreneurs are so passionate about what they are creating — and often, so fearful of letting their team and investors down — that they will do almost anything to realize their startup’s potential. Stories of sacrifice abound in founder blogs and startup post-mortems, with entrepreneurs forgoing sleep, friendships, family relationships, exercise, and good nutrition for their startups. This startup-above-all-else approach can lead to chronic stress, which wreaks havoc on entrepreneurs’ physical and mental health. A UCSF study found that entrepreneurs may already be prone to mental health conditions more than the general population, and in our personal experience, anxiety, self-doubt, depression, and loneliness are rampant among entrepreneurs.
What if compromising yourself for your startup isn’t necessary for success? And further, what if it’s possible to teach entrepreneurs to work through the stresses of entrepreneurship more effectively, so they don’t compound into chronic issues?
At MIT Sloan School of Management’s delta v accelerator this past year, we took a step toward answering that question, creating a first-of-its-kind, exploratory self-awareness program to help 84 founders and their team members prioritize their individual well-being while building their businesses – and measuring the results. By the end of the program, 93% of our cohort felt that self-awareness practice can help entrepreneurs create more successful businesses. “More than anything, it gave our team a neutral, common language to build our relationships and culture,” said a participant.
Self-Awareness Training for Better Decision-Making
In developing the program, we knew that recommending particular self-care strategies — creating a wind-down routine before bed, eating well, or taking breaks, for example — would not be enough to shift the ingrained view that outsized stress and sacrifice is necessary for entrepreneurship, or to convince entrepreneurs to spend any of their extremely limited time on something other than their startups.
Instead, we (the authors) designed a test program to help accelerator participants develop greater self-awareness. We hypothesized that if entrepreneurs understood more about the mechanics of themselves — their thoughts, feelings, and automatic physical and emotional responses — they could make better personal choices in the face of the everyday stresses of entrepreneurship. Participants were taught a simple framework for building self-awareness:
Noticing: Bringing attention to your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in the present moment.
Labeling: Assigning a simple label (e.g. feeling annoyed at my co-founder) to what you notice, every time you notice it.
Getting curious: Without judgement, reflecting on the patterns you notice over time. (e.g. Huh, I’m feeling annoyed at my co-founder a lot. Why is that? Am I expecting something from her and not getting it, perhaps?)
Active choice-making: Making an informed choice, based on your self-reflection. (e.g. Rather than stewing in this feeling any longer, I think I’ll chat with a mentor about the problem and plan a sit-down with my co-founder to talk about how I’ve been feeling.)
Our framework is an expanded form of mindfulness — defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” To practice the framework, participants were taught mindfulness meditation, which has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety and help regulate emotion, among many other benefits. They also learned short mindfulness practices that they could integrate into their lives. In addition, we conducted small, peer group sessions, where we discussed key choices entrepreneurs face. Participants could use these sessions to vent and get feedback and perspective in a confidential setting. The small group meetings were mandatory, and everything else was optional.
Entrepreneurs Making Healthier Choices
To measure the impact of this methodology on our student entrepreneurs, we surveyed them before and after the delta v program, with 60 participants responding. The results were significant.
By the end of the program, 88% of the participants had independently established their own regular, weekly meditation or mindfulness practice. Before the program, 65% had never meditated, and only 21% were regularly practicing meditation or mindfulness. We didn’t require that they start their own practice. We simply presented the research-backed benefits and showed them how it was possible to integrate it into their already-packed day. They decided that it was worth their time, and that they didn’t have to view it as one more thing on their “to-do” list. While some participants chose to meditate regularly, others chose, for example, to make their morning subway commute into a mindfulness practice, taking five minutes (from stop A to stop B, for example) to pay attention to what they were hearing, seeing, and experiencing. As thoughts or feelings arose, they would label them, and go right back to focusing on their environment.
We also found that their practice was paying off and creating behavioral change. After the program, 53% of participants were more frequently utilizing a deliberate tool or technique to work through stress, and 40% were more aware of their emotions. These entrepreneurs were making active, moment-to-moment choices to change their habitual responses to stressful situations.
Finally, participants became more aware of themselves by sharing their challenges with each other. One third of the participants, via an open-ended question, said they found particular value in the learning, camaraderie, and openness they experienced in their peer groups. “I became more open to sharing inner challenges with others,” one entrepreneur said. “Listening to perspectives and stories of colleagues in the cohort helped me be wiser about how I can approach complicated [issues] with higher confidence.”
How Can Self-Awareness Help the Broader Entrepreneurial Ecosystem?
Self-awareness isn’t a magic bullet. The program didn’t alleviate stress completely. In a post-program survey just a few days before “Demo Day,” when they would pitch their startups to more than 1,000 people, 40% of our participants were experiencing more difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep than they were at the beginning of the accelerator. Incredibly though, and in contrast with previous delta v cohorts, they were making the active choice to sleep.
The culture of delta v changed. While in previous years, members valued their startups above all else, in this cohort, they not only valued their own well-being, but they more often offered and accepted help. They demonstrated that they didn’t have to be harried and constantly stressed to show their passion for their startups.
Will the startups in this delta v cohort be more or less successful than cohorts before them? We can’t say, yet. As we continue the program, we will build on our data set and track our participants. But we think that the additional tools the program provided will help them in their entrepreneurial efforts now and over the long-term. Rather than a state of being, self-awareness is a habit to be practiced over and over again. The 12 weeks of the accelerator gave entrepreneurs the chance to practice what they were learning, see the consequences play out over time, and integrate their learnings into their startups. We feel confident they will continue to do so as they build their companies outside of delta v.
We believe that integrating self-awareness into the entrepreneurial ecosystem — entrepreneur by entrepreneur — will lead to healthier startup cultures. This benefit won’t just accrue to founders, in our estimation, but will create a ripple effect and extend to their team members, their stakeholders, and their customers, resulting in healthier — and more successful — businesses."