The entrepreneurship story often told by the media centers on one specific narrative arc: the overnight success.
This myth says that if you only work hard enough, you too can take your company to space. In reality, there is often either a lot of struggle or a lot of privilege behind those stories. Comparing yourself to unrealistic examples or chasing a version of entrepreneurship that doesn’t align with your values, lifestyle, or goals can lead to burnout.
What’s the life you want to live? Entrepreneurship should support that, rather than the other way around.
“When our trajectory doesn’t match someone else’s trajectory, we see it as a personal failure,” says Nora Rahimian, co-founder of activist network #CultureFix and a business coach who specializes in working with creative entrepreneurs. “What’s the life you want to live?” she asks. “Entrepreneurship should support that, rather than the other way around.”
An advocate for mental health, Nora explores intersectionality and environmental factors that contribute to stress and burnout among founders.
A Q&A with Nora Rahimian
We spoke to Nora about entrepreneur pitfalls and how founders can wield their creative super powers to design their business—and their life—in a way that puts their mental health first.
Your work centers on anti-capitalist business coaching and advocating for mental health. How did your own experiences and trauma from early life influence the direction of your career?
My life has been shaped by socio-political and geopolitical conditions that are completely outside of my control. These things, for better or for worse, have made me who I am. Everything I’ve experienced and the resiliency that I’ve had to develop show up in my entrepreneurship work today.
I lived on three continents before I was three. I learned before I could talk to build relationships with people quickly and across cultures. The skills I had to develop early on make me unique and are now the things that I lean into most deeply. They’re often the reason why someone would come to me versus a more mainstream coach.
When you talk about “creative entrepreneurs” what do you mean?
There’s this idea that creatives are only artists. The way I define it is anyone who’s trying to do it on their own terms. Because that requires creativity. I work with someone who does harm reduction work, which might not traditionally fall under our definition of creativity, but they are thinking differently about how to communicate messages and how to change stigma.
We often think of creativity as the outcome or the product. But, you can get creative with what entrepreneurship looks like for you. We don’t lean into that piece enough. We’re not thinking enough about how that same creative process can be used in building the business side.
Giving yourself permission to make mistakes is really huge. A lot of the pressure that I see entrepreneurs feeling is the expectation to do it perfectly.
Can you talk about any systemic challenges that impact entrepreneurs and their mental health?
There’s a real struggle in the US, for example. You don’t have universal health care. Housing and transportation are not affordable for many. Many people have student loans. It’s hard to talk about entrepreneurship and doing it on your own terms without also making adjustments for the real cost of living in a country. I have clients who are working three jobs and are caregivers to elder family members. We don’t recognize that as labor.
Do you know why discipline is so hard for folks? It’s not because we’re lazy or lack work ethic. It’s because we do so many things that require our energy that are not recognized as work. So when it comes time to “be disciplined” we’re simply burnt out and exhausted.
— nora rahimian (@norarahimian) June 7, 2022
The mental health stuff isn’t just about being an entrepreneur. Hustle culture is a response to this stress, because if I just hustle, hustle, hustle, hustle, I feel like I have power. Being workaholics, we don’t have to face these things that we don’t have any control over.
As an individual it feels impossible to contend with the external stressors beyond one’s control. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs to take care of their mental health within the boundaries of what is in their control?
Giving yourself permission to make mistakes is really huge. A lot of the pressure that I see entrepreneurs feeling is the expectation to do it perfectly. Or that you only get one shot. I think it is especially true for people who’ve been systemically oppressed.
I tell all my clients to create a shine page where you talk about all the wonderful things you’ve done. Develop an active practice of fact checking negativity. We need a reality check in a world where we’re constantly receiving negative messages. You need a space where you can love yourself unapologetically.
We’ve been indoctrinated into thinking that success is scaling, and you don’t have to do that. You can choose what success looks like for your business
How do the typical portrayals of entrepreneurship in the media negatively impact entrepreneurs and their mental health?
There is a lot of mystery around entrepreneurship. When we see stories of successes, we don’t see the struggle. Or people are like, “Oh, I’m self made,” but we don’t see that Mom and Dad wrote them a fat check.
Luck is a huge part of success in this country. But that goes against the mythology of the American dream that you can just work hard and pull yourself up from the bootstraps. And so, there’s some real cultural gaslighting around the reality of entrepreneurship. Unless we do real work at unpacking the mythology, people are comparing themselves to a standard that’s not real.
We’ve been indoctrinated into thinking that success is scaling, and you don’t have to do that. You can choose what success looks like for your business. But those stories don’t get told. There are a ton of musicians who are successful and touring and living their best lives. Because they’ve chosen not to scale to that big level, you don’t think that they exist. Without the amplification of those smaller stories, you might never hear of them.
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How can entrepreneurs reframe the concept of entrepreneurship to align with their lifestyle and values?
We tend to think about that type-A go-getter, but I think that reinforces the ideas of patriarchal leadership. The alternate perspective is, “I don’t have to be in competition with you to be an entrepreneur.” Even though we might work on the same thing, we can actually be much more collaborative. We don’t have to be front and center all the time—we can lead from the back.
I can work at four in the morning. I take my dog to the park in the middle of the day. I can be responsive to what my brain needs from me. That’s why it makes sense to lean into this creative entrepreneurship space, doing it on your own terms rather than having to do it the way that hegemony has decided we should work.
Feeling inspired? Check out more inspiring stories and resources on our mental health and wellness hub.
Feature image by Loren Blackman