After a decade of working clinically with executives and founders as a researcher and therapist, I felt I had a strong understanding of the in’s and out’s of the founder personality. But it wasn’t until I became a co-founder myself and experienced these psychological concepts firsthand that I gained a deeper understanding.
In working long hours, navigating fundraising, and enduring the constant pressure of decision-making, founders often sacrifice their own mental health for the success of their start-ups. And, even after years of studying these behavioral patterns, I’ve found it’s hard to avoid falling into this trap.
Related: 8 Ways to Improve Your Mental Focus
This is because the very traits that make a founder successful can become the root cause of their challenges. Said another way: strengths, when left unchecked, often become weaknesses—which is why self-awareness is so essential to emotional fitness, strong leadership, and entrepreneurial success.
Over the years and through my own experience, I’ve identified eight double-edged traits that founders often exhibit, sometimes with pride and often with a sense of burden. Not all entrepreneurs show all of these traits, but if you identify with any of them, ask yourself: are these traits a source of drive or of self-doubt? A vital strength or a problematic blind spot?
1. Work Is Identity
Founders believe deeply in what they do—a belief that is necessary to create something that has never existed before. But the more time and energy they invest in their companies, the blurrier the distinction between work and personal life becomes. When they center work at the expense of all other aspects of their identity, their self-regard hinges largely on the success, at any given moment, of their company. To counteract this, it’s essential for founders to invest in other parts of their lives that bring purpose and joy. Or in start-up terms, diversify your identity for greater returns.
2. Ability to Delay Gratification
Founders make big personal sacrifices (e.g., relationships, salaries) in hopes of an eventual payoff, “working like no one else will so we can live our lives like no one else can.” The flip side of this strength is a tendency to fixate on the next big goal at the cost of celebrating wins along the way. You might think that this keeps up your momentum, but pausing once in a while to celebrate your accomplishments actually improves performance and gives you the morale boost you need to bounce forward from setbacks.
3. Importance of Autonomy and Independence
Founders want to be the creators of their own destiny and have a unique faith in their capabilities. Unfortunately, this can come with a reluctance to ask for help or support. While no one creates a billion-dollar company alone, founders often forget that it is a sign of wisdom, not weakness, to lean on others. If you find yourself feeling like the success or failure of your company rests solely on your shoulders, practice asking teammates and fellow founders for support by folding it into your regular schedule: communicate with your investors, join a founder group, and get comfortable delegating.
4. Higher Instance of Mental Health Struggles
Do people with more mental health struggles become founders or does founder life cause more mental health struggles? Spoiler alert: it’s both. Studies show that 72 percent of entrepreneurs have mental health concerns (though I have yet to meet a single founder who has none). Founders should shift their notion of therapy from being something they do when they are unwell, to something they do proactively to maintain wellness.
5. Something to Prove
Whether they’re trying to prove something to themselves, their families, or the world, founders won’t quit until they’ve succeeded. Of course this kind of tenacity makes for a highly motivated leader, but what happens when you reach the milestone and realize to your dismay that it doesn’t fill the void? When your only motivation is to win, you miss out on the many opportunities for satisfaction, meaning, and joy along the way. Pause to appreciate your team and enjoy the journey, rather than putting all of your purpose in the destination.
6. Socially-Acceptable Masochism
In the hustle-porn culture, burnout is glamorized as proof of dedication, and skipping meals or losing sleep become badges of honor. Sure, the ability to power through can get founders from point A to point B, but running on empty isn’t sustainable. Rather than waiting for a crisis to refill your tank, you must pay attention to the warning signs and prioritize your health as a business asset. A healthy company culture begins with a healthy founder.
7. The Narcissism/Imposter Syndrome Cocktail
The word “narcissism” may have a bad reputation, but a strong belief in your ability to create something that one else thinks possible is necessary to make the imagined real. At the same time, because founders are largely making things up as they go, they often worry that they have no idea what they’re doing, that people will see through the facade, and that they’ll be exposed as frauds. These mixed feelings are not mutually exclusive and are best worked through by speaking them out loud with others who understand: peers, friends, or a therapist.
8. A Large-Scale Desire to Change the World
Last but not least, founders are a distinctively tough, passionate, and capable group of people who want to make a change on a massive scale. Their unique combination of vision, skill, and drive allows them to carve new paths off the beaten track. It’s not an easy path, but when it calls, some people just have to answer.
Learning how to use these psychological truths to fuel success instead of burnout is the linchpin for many entrepreneurs’ success. This means carving out time for rest and self-care, and engaging in practices that support emotional fitness: find things that matter beyond work, check in frequently with trusted loved ones, mentors, and colleagues, and make space to be proud of current accomplishments. You may not have reached your finish line, but each step in that direction can be celebrated—either as a small victory or an opportunity for growth.
Strong companies take shape when emotionally fit founders are sitting at the top. And the first step to emotional fitness is to ask yourself where these traits work for you and where you find yourself working for them.