The Founder is Present

The Founder is Present

It would be out-of-character for me to offer you a conclusion of this blog posts series that would be a simple summary of my learnings. Instead, I want to leave you with a provocative thought, and with an opportunity to integrate all the learnings I shared previously into a new perspective on reality.

Every founder in unique. Founder experience is universal.

There is one timeless way of building. It is a thousand years old, and the same today as it has ever been. The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way. … It is a process which brings order out of nothing but ourselves; it cannot be attained, but will happen of its own accord, if we only let it. - Christophe Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

When you set out on the journey to become a founder, naturally, you want to learn. You seek knowledge about navigating the creative tasks of building a startup out of nothing. You learn to motivate , sell, negotiate, lead, etc.

The more you learn, the more the journey shifts inwards. You realize that most of the resources that make you unique as a founder have been with you for a long time before. You become aware of the previous experiences that have shaped your style and the choices that you’re making as a founder today.

At first, and for a long time, I tried to fight it. I wanted to outgrow myself and, through the founder experience, learn to become a better version of myself. I did everything in my power to resist those previous experiences, and show up in my role as founder in new ways — including dressing differently!

I read autobiography books of famous entrepreneurs trying to learn those new ways. Yet, what I’ve learned was the uncomfortable truth that successful founders do a lot of work on themselves. They cultivate a strong relationship with their emotions and experiences, a thorough self-awareness, and a precise sense of what they don’t want to be or become.

Those founders I studied had very little in common. Their days looked very differently. Their habits, their values, their communication styles, their view of the world — everything was different. Yet the transformative experience they all were living was universal.

The founder journey is about the relationship with the self. The most important learnings come when you start making the journey while also looking inwards.

When you are creating an organization, you are essentially working with people. Investors, clients, employees. People. It is people, with their hopes, drives, and energy that constitute your organization and that eventually make the organization thrive. Regardless of what you tell yourself about what you did to make the organization come alive, in reality you have very little power over people and, by consequence, over your organization.

Your real contribution, as a founder, is in removing the obstacles and creating the conditions for your organization to come alive, rather than directly making it alive. Often the obstacles are within yourself. And it is by working on yourself, on your worldview and your attitudes that you are creating those conditions necessary for letting your organization come alive.

What you resist can push you further, and what you’ve learned to tolerate can keep you stagnating.

Yoda: A domain of evil it is. In you must go.

Luke: What’s in there?

Yoda: Only what you take with you.

- Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back

As your startup faces challenge after challenge, it may seem to you as if a malicious invisible mastermind had engineered your path with personalized obstacles tailor-made to keep your goal out of your reach. It may seem that achieving your goals requires a person who is everything that you are not.

I definitely felt that way on many occasions, especially in areas related to sales — a practice often achieved by harboring a set of illusions totally on the opposite of what I have grew up to believe.

You’ll see others moving forward by adopting attitudes and behavior you have learned to resist. In fact, resisting them has shaped who you are and has allowed you to survive and maybe even thrive up until that point.

Talking with hundreds of other founders I realized that this feeling of walking a path filled with personalized obstacles tailor-made to trigger your weaknesses is in fact universal. While I don’t claim to have the explanation of the phenomenon, I want to draw your attention to a possibly related phenomenon — trauma.

Most great instigators of social change have intimate personal knowledge of trauma. Oprah Winfrey comes to mind, as do Maya Angelou, Nelson Mandela, and Elie Wiesel. Read the life story of any visionary, and you will find insights and passions that come from having dealt with devastation. – Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

Toxic stress in childhood is related to a number of neurological changes in the structure of the brain and its function. The effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences can be long-lasting, affecting people in their adulthood. They are correlated with pre-mature death and an underachieving journey in life. Adverse Childhood Experiences are prevalent. A massive study has shown that more than half of the population is likely to have experienced an Adverse Childhood Experience, and 20% experienced more than one.

According to trauma researchers, in order to cope with an overwhelming adverse experience, a child develops responses both necessary for survival in a given situation and maladaptive in everyday life.

Being a founder, creating something out of nothing, engages the whole person. Body and soul. If you have been traumatized, the founder experience will take you straight to the lion’s mouth. Maladaptive attitudes and behavior that you have been harboring will have you fail and stagnate facing seemingly ordinary situations.

The origins of those frictions are often deep. Learning new skills is rarely enough. What it takes to overcome them is rather a process of healing.

What you hate about yourself is likely your power.

Because what I know for sure is that everything that has happened to you was also happening for you. And all that time, in all of those moments, you were building strength. Strength times strengths times strength equals power. What happened to you can be your power. – Oprah Winfrey, What Happened to You

On their path to healing, traumatized people commonly face the feeling of guilt and shame related to what they did or didn’t do or related to the way in which they managed to survive. In the aftermath, there seems to be a denial of a part of the self, or at least some sort of tension within the self.

When these maladaptive attitudes and behaviors meet the all-encompassing challenges of the startup growth, one is naturally compelled to struggle with self-worth, seek to overcome the self and become someone different. Yet it seems that running away from yourself is running in circles.

In my own struggles with the self, trying to learn radically different behavior, I caught myself challenging the most efficient attitudes and behavior I had. This tension within the self has led me to sabotage myself at my goals, and create drama in otherwise simple situations.

Facing inward, I realized that I had more to gain, and that I could evolve much more by focusing on accepting aspects of myself rather than focusing on what I wanted to become. The more I turned inward, the more I accepted, the more I was free to become.

The road to overcoming myself starts by acceptance. Acceptance of both myself and of my circumstances.

Holding the tensions means tolerating the self.

What you’re doing is not important. What is really important is the state of mind from which you do it. – Marina Abramovic

What it takes to create an organization is to face chaos, befriend it, and morph it into dependencies that did not exist before. It means refusing at least a part of the status quo. And that creates a tension.

Once you get into that tension, the reality of your experience gets uncomfortable. As a founder you must learn to live with the discomfort of many experiences. Often the tension is high and you just want it to pass. Things break under tension.

This discomfort is everywhere. In uncertainty of revenues, in inability to control the outcome of your efforts, in relativity of what you think you know for sure, etc. As a founder, you are tasked with learning to tolerate the discomfort and hold the tension.

You won’t be able to hold any such tensions unless you have learned to hold the tensions within yourself. A major part of the creative process is in fact related to building a state of mind able to tollerate paradoxes, contradictions and conflicting parts inside the self.

As you build your startup, you become the product of your work.

Each of the leaders in our study found that their own story occurred within a context of up to five others, just like Russian dolls nested one inside the other. The smallest doll was the leader’s personal aspirations, health and well being. Outside this was the leader at work. But it wasn’t just a personal story. The transformation extended to his executive team, then his extended teams, then his organization, and last his up-line environment, including his board, parent company or government. The most positive results came, not surprisingly, when all the dolls fit neatly together. - Peter Fuda, How Leaders Spark and Sustain Change (Harward Business Review)

Regardless of how much you try to emancipate your startup from yourself (which is indeed necessary), the situation of the startup and of its founder are always, to a certain extent, intertwined.

Obviously, getting your startup to succeed at its goals will bring you joy, and you’ll feel good about it. But what we often neglect is that this relationship goes both ways.

When you start feeling better about yourself, when you get to a better state of mind, automatically things change for your startup. It is true that I don’t have any scientific proof for this perceived correlation. I’ve observed it in others, I’ve heard stories and at some point, I have allowed myself to take time to work on myself and on my state of mind. I was surprised with the results. It is not because we don’t see how things are connected that they aren’t. Also, you really do not need a scientific proof that working on yourself will impact your startup. You need no excuse to start working on a positive change to your state of mind. In fact, you have no excuse not to.

It is as if the state of the startup and the state of mind of the founder were mirroring each other. They seem to be evolving one through the other.

To be unique is to be ordinary.

A turning point in neuroscience was the discovery of mirror neurons in the 90s. When we observe someone performing a movement, the same neurons activate in our brain as if we were performing the movement.

Since then, the insight into how we might understand the others through the self, and the self through the others has flourished. The other seems to be an important element of our cognition.

While many implications are still subject to ongoing experiments, there are already emerging certainties, like the following quote by one of the scientists who participated in the original discovery of mirror neurons:

It seems we’re wired to see other people as similar to us, rather than different. At the root, as humans we identify the person we’re facing as someone like ourselves.— Vittorio Gallese

I am fascinated with mirror neurons. It is as if the brain used the self to model the other and predict what will happen next.

Our experiences are universal, or at least we are only able to perceive them as such. I have found that accepting this universal and ordinary nature of our experiences has helped me be quicker at making sense of things that are happening to me and around me.

Other founders go through the same experiences. They too struggle with themselves. They have to look inward and find resources within themselves to overcome situations that come their way.

Yet every situation is unique. Choosing the adequate responses requires a great deal of presence in the moment, holding the tension and calmly making choices that are yours.

Sometimes, when you put those choices in the context of universal founder experience, you’ll think that probably any other founder would have made the same choice. And sometimes it will be obvious to you that through everything that you’ve been through you have engineered choices that others didn’t have or that they didn’t know they had.

On the other side of the struggle with the self is the acceptance of the ordinary. One loses interest in the struggle, and in their own unique way learns to savor the ordinary presence.

For me, gaining insight into the state of being present, as a founder, remains an ongoing quest. From what I know for now, here is what this experience of presence looks like for me:

In that experience, we are one with the paradox. We are not compelled to resolve seemingly conflicting truths — we rather hold the tension.

We owe no allegiance to the worldviews we adopted in the past (even when they have served us well), and we drop them when they no longer serve us. Our wisdom is not embodied in our worldview, but in the visceral self and its sense of agency. It is the body that learned that by the act of being applies its wisdom to the situation at hand.

We’ve made peace with the unknowable. We are humble about what what we know. What we know may be limited but it feels real. Our actions are ours and meaningful.

We see ourselves in others, as we see others in ourselves. Our experiences are universal, but our sense of presence is unique in our particular situations and in the story that is ours to write.

Further Reading

  • Ben Horowitz, The Hard Thing about Hard Things
  • Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
  • Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
  • Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey, What Happened to You
  • Chip & Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
  • Cristopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building
  • Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People
  • Jessica Livingston, Founders at Work
  • Robert-Vincent Joule & Jean-Léon Beauvois, Le Petit traité de manipulation à l’usage des honnêtes gens

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