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Opinion | Startup founders embrace the fear, don’t run away

Stoicism can be thought of as an operating system to thrive in high-stress environments


These are testing times. Unprecedented. Empathy is on display everywhere. “Don’t let fear rule you. This too shall pass", is being heard often, especially in startup circles. Incongruity of lecturing braver is that it’s a cliched response that doesn’t incite any activity or action. Fear does that.

Take a handle at your own life, some of our most noteworthy achievements come when we are afraid – that sudden job interview or a presentation —that overwhelming question that made a huge difference. It’s the very channelizing of this fear that leads us to reach the upper limits of our potential.

So,it is not necessarily fearlessness, but channelizing a right set of fears is what we need.

Stoicism—a Greek philosophy (Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca) based on the tenets of self-control and fortitude—offers a complete reframing of the fear experience.

There’s a Stoic practice called negative visualization in which you intentionally expose yourself to conditions that, by your standards, would be undesirable: cold showers, fasting, limiting clothing options, and the like.

It is done to evoke the question in the words of Seneca, “is this the condition that I so feared?"

True thriving requires that we perform the mental equivalent of this practice with such resolve that it creates in our minds a bulletproof state, such that the actual realization of our worst fears is no match for us.

In the words of Seneca, “The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive".

It is now time for startups to ask themselves what precisely their worst fears are. Fill yourself up to the brim with it. Be consumed by it.

It is hardly an alien concept. Stoicism has spread like wildfire throughout Silicon Valley in the last five years, becoming a mental toughness training system for chief executive officers (CEOs), founders, coaches, and players alike.

Building emotional resilience for coping with negative experiences in life, Stoicism can also be used to maximize the positive. This is important, as these times are more trying. The mind is racing too fast while the real world is slow.

There is pain. The pain is the struggle. The pain is the anxiety. The pain is when you want the mind to stop thinking. The pain is where you are the guest on your mental chat show and answering questions which no one asked. The pain is when you are giving assurances to your employees which you don’t believe in.

The pain is when you see your competitor being so well capitalized and you have run out of ways to belittle that. The pain is when you internalize that quitting is more shameful than death. The pain is when you know that your burn rate is a ticking time bomb and you don’t want to look at the calendar. The pain is this and more.

Experts posit that Stoicism can be thought of as an operating system for thriving in high-stress environments. This kind of bullet proof mental shield is not only what Stoicism professes, but also what even seasoned venture capitalists do too.

According to veteran investor, Ben Horowitz, in situations when a company is fending off an imminent existential threat, which can come from a wide range of sources including competition, dramatic macro economic change, market change, supply chain change, and so forth, it requires wartime CEOs.

In his book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Horowitz goes on to explain the difference between Wartime CEOs and Peacetime CEOs quite beautifully.

He says a Peacetime CEO knows that proper protocol leads to winning. A Wartime CEO violates protocol in order to win. Peacetime CEO always has a contingency plan. Wartime CEO knows that sometimes yougotta roll a hard six. Peacetime CEO knows what to do with a big advantage. Wartime CEO is paranoid. Peacetime CEO spends time defining the culture. Wartime CEO lets the war define the culture.

Amidst all such intense conversations on surviving downtimes, there is a huge sliver of opportunity that is being seen : Future of everything is already here.

There is a “rebooting of the new world order", if you will, about everything that we do —work, shop, live, talk, bank, spend, conference, congregate, party, sleep has metamorphosed —the situation is less like a field trip and more like what it truly is!

This just means a new Renaissance in the VC world.

Shrija Agrawal is executive editor, HT Ideas Lab, Hindustan Times Digital. Due Diligence will cover issues in India’s venture capital, private equity, deals and startups space.

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Updated: 30 Mar 2020, 01:15 AM IST
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