2018 / 21 August

The cognitive dissonance of an entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs are described in many ways. Depending on who you speak to, they might be brave, courageous, inspiring, foolish, stubborn, different, and a multitude of other descriptions.

In reality, entrepreneurs are probably a mixture of all those things. There is a tension that exists between wanting to do something new, struggling within existing structures, projecting confidence, dealing with new challenges and trying to piece together the building blocks of something meaningful without a manual to show you how.

As these tensions increase or pull in different ways, how entrepreneurs present themselves and what they share starts to dictate how they are viewed and described. When things are going well, we are deemed inspiring and exciting, but when things are not going well, we’re viewed as being tired, despondent or angry.

We’re expected to be upbeat and to be positive and to always find a solution, when the reality may be the opposite and we may be struggling under the weight of the unknown. Praise and positive feedback may trigger a dopamine release which the brain responds positively to. It feels good. So to share positive news and find good things to talk about can create a positive feedback loop, where we’re receiving a dopamine kick for our version of the truth, not necessary the truth. It’s the truth we concoct when we recognise that the person asking really doesn’t want to know the dirty realities.

When it comes to sharing the journey of starting a business, people want to hear about the rags-to-riches or the underdog story. We focus on the “overnight success” that has actually been toiling away for half a decade or more. No one wants to listen to the fact that many entrepreneurs are laying awake at night, sleepless as they contemplate cash flow issues and deal flow and scenarios that either see them become a sustainable business, a complete failure or (hopefully) the next “overnight success”.

This creates a state of cognitive dissonance. An inconsistency between what we’re talking about and what we’re thinking. While it’s always worthwhile to highlight the positives and what’s working, to let that become the reality sets aside very real, potentially make-or-break hurdles that are coming up. When this occurs, some may even feel like frauds: what they’re saying and what they’re thinking do not match up and this sets off a voice inside that starts to question the reasons why the decision to take this crazy endeavour was even considered.

Strangely, while we love the stories of success, we are equally as enamored by the stories of failure. “Trying and failing makes you an entrepreneur” is one common narrative that is engrained in our environment (see my thoughts on this here). We have whole nights dedicated to screwing up.

But what about the middle ground? The space in which 99% of us exist? Where is the space to discuss, embrace and draw inspiration from the actual daily ongoing grind that is starting a business. Topics of conversation like “we’ve just lost a core member of our team, now what?” or “this deal is taking six months, not three, how do we compensate?” or even square-one type stuff like “are you sure your team is invested in your vision, and if not how do you make that happen?”

Being an entrepreneur means being in a constant state of ambiguity. There may always be a tension between thought and voice. And if we can accept that for what it is, it will enable a more open forum to discuss those middle-ground issues. The more we embrace ambiguity as a means of educating and supporting one another, the more “overnight successes” we’ll see. Except these outcomes will be presented in a more realistic, warts and all narrative and will help put others at ease with their own journey and point-in-time position. This in turn will enable a more balanced discussion of what’s really going on, and reduce the internal second-guessing. We don’t need another reason not to sleep, after all.

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