Overcoming Founder Isolation


No one is immune to the effects of isolation, especially founders.

We rarely think of isolation being part of the entrepreneurial journey. Yet in my experience as a founder, this is a very real and confronting experience. Most outsiders are probably scoffing right now but until you have put everything on the line and until you find yourself faced with uncertainty and failure every single day in your venture its pretty hard to empathise. Isolation consistently rates in the top 3 concerns facing founders personally, hence why we thought we should bring it out into the open and address it in detail.

Social isolation is a growing epidemic — one that’s increasingly recognised as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent. On top of this alarming trend and despite social networking platforms, which have shown to increase isolation, on the whole, founder isolation compounds this problem for many reasons.

Founder isolation is unique, many founders we see at our founder peer support groups sight feeling isolated due to the pressures of being the CEO of their company, the pressure from responsibilities to staff, investors, boards and customers that you are the all seeing all knowing sage who has the answers to all the business challenges, can create a virtual prison cell. The correlation between isolation and poor decision making, lack of self-care and depression is scary.

Loneliness does not come from having no people around you, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to you. Carl Jung

General isolation is an especially tricky problem because accepting and declaring our loneliness carries profound stigma. Admitting we’re lonely can feel as if we’re admitting we’ve failed in life’s most fundamental domains: belonging, love, attachment. It attacks our basic instincts to save face and makes it hard to ask for help.

Founders are always trying to learn, adapt and grow in the face of compounding fatigue, rejection and failure. Founders regularly admit that they didn’t expect to have to wage such a sustained campaign to stay in market long enough to achieve their vision. The last thing they also expected was that they would feel alone in this battle, seemingly surrounded by people but isolated by the sheer pressure and lack of understanding from others at just how hard a founders life can be.

When combined with a ‘Crushing it’ culture thanks to the media and shallow conversations at pitch events, many founders begin to regress to believing there is something wrong with them, furthering their isolation, making it even harder to seek help. Studies have shown that when comparing yourself to others, such as on social media, whose live’s seem perfect, our own sense of self-worth is impacted and judged, by ourselves. On top of the mounting challenges, this is the last thing any founder needs.

Very little research exists on the impact of founder isolation, the impact of isolation on human beings is limited as well but in 1951 researchers at McGill University paid a group of male graduate students to stay in small chambers equipped with only a bed for an experiment on sensory deprivation. They could leave to use the bathroom, but that’s all.  They wore goggles and earphones to limit their sense of sight and hearing, and gloves to limit their sense of touch. The plan was to observe students for six weeks, but not one lasted more than seven days.

Nearly every student lost the ability “to think clearly about anything for any length of time,” while several others began to suffer hallucinations. “One man could see nothing but dogs,” wrote one of the study’s collaborators, “another nothing but eyeglasses of various types, and so on.” This type of isolation is extreme, however, it does illustrate just how bad things can get, even if its just perceived isolation.

The data on the impact of isolation are concerning:

  • Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26% (Holt-Lunstad, 2015)
  • Loneliness increases the risk of high blood pressure (Hawkley et al, 2010)
  • Loneliness puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline (James et al, 2011)
  • One study concludes lonely people have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia (Holwerda et al, 2012)
  • Lonely individuals are more prone to depression (Cacioppo et al, 2006) (Green et al, 1992)
  • Loneliness and low social interaction are predictive of suicide in older age (O’Connell et al, 2004)
  • One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.
  • Another analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years and that this effect was largest in middle age.

Researchers found that the ventral striatum—a region of the brain associated with rewards—is much more activated in non-lonely people than in the lonely when they view pictures of people in pleasant settings. In contrast, the temporoparietal junction—a region associated with taking the perspective of another person—is much less activated among lonely than in the non-lonely when viewing pictures of people in unpleasant settings. It would be easy to extrapolate, therefore, that founders who feel isolated are less able to connect with customers, staff and investors, impacting how well they design solutions to customer problems and how they lead their staff, impacting their business greatly.

New research suggests that loneliness is not necessarily the result of poor social skills or lack of social support, but can be caused in part by an unusual sensitivity to social cues. Lonely people are more likely to perceive ambiguous social cues negatively and enter a self-preservation mindset — worsening the problem. In this way, loneliness can be contagious: When one person becomes lonely, he/she withdraws from his social circle and causes others to do the same. This, in turn, affects your venture, leading to staff feeling that they need to withdraw as well.

We sometimes think we want to disappear, but all we really want is to be found.

By now I hope that we have convinced you that isolation is not only bad for society but bad for you as a founder. So what to do about it, the following list is meant to ease you into addressing your founder isolation:

  • Founder peer support groups - Attending these groups is the easiest first step, you will quickly realise you are not alone and that every founder from beginners to serial founders struggle. The reason they work is that they build trust networks that go deep. We run Founder Circle’s to address this challenge, they are held under Chatham House Rule so confidentiality is assured and facilitated by experienced founders who have shared your struggle, enabling issues to be brought out to the open and be understood.
  • Mentors - Reaching out and committing to an experienced founder/mentor can be a great way to get heard and feel supported. Great mentors are people who have lived your journey or are still doing so and have their own experience to share in how they overcame isolation and other challenges that are typical of the startup journey.
  • Coaches - Securing a coach who has startup experience is also beneficial, in my experience coaches differ to mentors in that they help you understand better mental models for navigating life and your business journey. It's not just experience you are looking for but methodologies that have worked at scale.
  • Vulnerability - In my experience, being courageous enough to ask for help leads to more empathy in conversations and relationships. We are hard-wired for empathy, thanks to our mirror neurons but if you don’t take the first step in being vulnerable no one may ever know. This can be done in small steps at first until you feel you can trust your confidant before asking deeper questions to get more support.
  • Radical Self Inquiry - What typically creates a sense of social isolation is our own belief that asking for help will mean that we are viewed as less able and weak. Inquiry into whether that belief is true may help you realise that asking for help is, in fact, a strength. In my experience, I have discovered that it is, in fact, an amazing skill, it tells the other person that I trust you, it gets your needs out in the open to get met and it opens you up to possibility.
  • Group Exercise - If isolation creates more isolation that leads to depression then one way to curb the lack of energy is to get out an exercise with others. Shared experiences in exercise has been shown to improve community and fitness, the accountability and shared goals dynamic improves sense of belonging despite exercising with non-founder types :)

A great paradox of our hyper-connected digital age is that we seem to be drifting apart. Increasingly, however, research confirms our deepest intuition: Human connection lies at the heart of human well-being. It’s up to all of us — founders, citizens, neighbourhoods and communities — to maintain bonds where they’re fading, and create ones where they haven’t existed.

To learn more about our free Founder Circle’s following this link and see you at the next one. They run weekly across various locations in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

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