Embrace the Struggle through Reflection
Entrepreneurship is hard. Succeeding at it is even harder. People starting a company usually know about this on an intellectual level but have no idea about how it feels emotionally. The saying goes that in a startup each day is either the best day of your life or the worst. It’s true to a certain point. The question is how to deal with the setbacks and downswings.
Imagine you’re lifting weights in the gym. In order to see progress you have to go to the edges of your comfort zone. You perform one more repetition than you thought you could. The effect is, that you basically destroy a small part of your muscle fibers. That’s why you feel the pain during the exercise and the soreness 1–2 days after. The good news is, that your body embraces the pain and quickly rebuilds the muscle in a stronger way in order to avoid the pain the next time.
Progress = Pain + Reflection
That’s the success formula, pointed out by Ray Dalio. In startup life you’ll face challenges all the time. Your best employee quits. Your customer won’t pay. The investor pulls out last minute. Your girlfriend/boyfriend leaves you… Now imagine all those things happening in the same week. Doesn’t sound good? No, but its totally realistic. The question is just how to deal with this kind of shit.
In my opinion the setbacks are the same as in the gym. Small destructions of your muscle fibers — just on an emotional level. You’ll need them to progress. The problem in this scenario is that your body won’t just repair the damage automatically. That’s why you’ll need to reflect.
You won’t build up muscles without the pain. You won’t grow as a person without the pain.
I can’t overemphasise how important reflection has been in my startup life. I realised this way too late. Without reflection the damage will just pile up and make you crack at some point. Even the most thick-skinned among us can’t deal with constant setbacks indefinitely. But if you frame the backlashes as an opportunity to learn and grow the world suddenly starts to look very different.
My reflection routine: Daily, monthly and yearly
Daily: Personal progress
I ask myself the same 3 questions every day:
- What did I do well today?
- What can I improve?
- How will I improve it?
Easy, right? I write down the answers in an app. It takes me about 3 minutes daily and I usually do it just before going to sleep or just after waking up.
Those daily reflections are the most valuable part in my routine because they directly impact my behaviour and act as tiny gains that compound over time.
Just like every habit this takes around 20–30 repetitions to internalize. In the beginning I used notifications from the app to remind me — now it’s pretty much automatic for me.
Monthly: 30-day reflection on business, personal life & relationships
This is my EO routine. The monthly meetings force me to reflect on the last 30 days in the categories a) business b) personal life c) friends & family. I write down the High- and Lowlight as well as the significance and the associated feelings. This takes about 30–60 minutes monthly.
The most useful part of this exercise is the focus on the feelings. It may be unusual in the beginning to think about one’s own emotions (esp. for the males I’d say) but it’s totally worth it. In the end we’e all just mammals driven much more by emotion than by our intellect.
Yearly: Goal- and value-based recap
I use the quite time around Christmas to look back on the year, reflect on my goals, set new goals for the coming year and write them down in Evernote. I also started to write a couple of paragraphs of reflection on each of my 10 values (e.g. health, business success, relationship, personal growth). In the end my document is 3–4 pages long. The procedure gives me clarity and sets the stage for the next year.
While the daily and monthly reflections are rather tactical, the yearly exercise is much more strategic. Just like in a startup you’ll want to spend most of your time doing the work but reserve some time to regularly think about which direction you’re going.
Build your own system
My system is far from perfect but at least it has kept me out of the loony bin in the last couple of years. I advise you to find your own system by experimentation. Maybe a weekly habit makes sense for you? Maybe you’ll need different questions or categories? Maybe use paper instead of an app?
Stretch your goals and seek the pain
One last thing: If you have your reflection system in place use the gym analogy and increase the pain. That means set more ambitious goals. Remember the pricinple behind OKRs is to set stretch-goals that are not easy to achieve. If you accomplish your goals every time they were set too low. You’ll probably feel some sort of discomfort and uncertainty in the moment you set them. Remember you must stretch yourself and go through the pain if you want to get strong. Yes, startups are masochistic. Get over it and enjoy the ride!