Building in public is not always easy, often caused by problems with our self-image.
I want to talk more about mental health topics because I feel they are severely underrepresented in the conversations around being an entrepreneur in public. Most conversations are about the positive things, the successes, celebrations. While that’s great — who doesn’t want to feel good — I think we should also look at the negative things. There are plenty of occasions throughout the entrepreneurial journey that cause us to be stressed and cause us to feel like we’re failures.
I think these topics need to be talked about, and today I want to talk about maintaining a positive self-image.
Here are a few things that happen to entrepreneurs or creators in any kind of space — anybody building something in public, anybody sharing their journey.
I’ll talk about what can happen, how to stay away from it, and what to do to combat it when it happens to you.
We should talk about comparing ourselves with others, handling imposter syndrome, how to deal with criticism, and how to respond to advice. These four are the major causes of negative self-image. And they’re all caused by your own self-reflection gone wrong. But thankfully, I have found ways out of each of those, and I’ll share what worked for me.
So let’s talk about comparing yourself to others. It is very easy to compare yourself to others on social media. You’re consistently barraged with other people’s successes, their accomplishments —most of which are over the top and highly selective when it comes to how true they are— and how people project their own perspective into whatever they share.
Whatever you see online is very likely to be (at least a little bit) manipulated. Most people only share the best things that happened to them. Even in that case, they often overstate their facts and figures. They make it out to be more than it actually was. They don’t share any kind of vulnerability.
Following the traditional dogma of “admit success only,” most entrepreneurs wouldn’t ever share things that are potentially a signal that they have trouble. This old traditional perspective on how a business should communicate — that you only share the most positive things and you spin everything into a marketing opportunity — makes founders who talk about their business in public sound like a broken record.
Ultimately, being exposed to only the celebrations of others paints a very one-sided picture of other entrepreneurs’ accomplishments. If you compare yourself to that, then you will obviously pale in comparison because you compare your entire experience to somebody’s highly selective and highly edited experience.
And that’s a problem.
A problem that you can solve. Either seek only people that actually share the good and the bad to reduce the opportunity for you to run into somebody who only shares something positive. Cut out the people from your feeds who only ever share the celebratory and glorious accomplishments. Instead, find people that are more balanced in what they share.
Even more importantly, stop comparing yourself to other people.
You don’t need to compare yourself to others to make any kind of progress: the only person you should be comparing yourself to is yourself from yesterday.
That is one of the best ways of still following your human urge to compare yourself to somebody. By making it about your journey, not somebody else’s, you’ll give your brain a daily dose of social comparison. If you compare yourself to yesterday, then any tiny improvement will register.
If you compare yourself to other people and their self-edited and highly selective performance, your small little accomplishments — you coded a couple of lines, drew a little sketch, or you recorded part of a video — won’t really look anything like somebody’s massive project success.
But if you look at yesterday, where you had not written that line of code, where you had not written this paragraph of text, and where you had not yet created your little sketch, all of a sudden, you see progress, and you see accomplishments.
The benefit of this is that you will be less likely to be easily influenced by other people and whatever they do. You focus on your work, and you see it grow over time.
This will be very useful when it comes to competition in your field. If you stop comparing yourself to other people and their accomplishments, then it’s also going to be easier to ignore other people’s products in your space selectively.
Obviously, you still want to know what’s going on, and you still want to make sure that there is no reason why customers would leave your product for your competitors’. But it becomes much easier to run your own business if you decouple your self-worth and self-image from comparison with other people.
There’s a flip side to comparison. The more you stop looking at other people and focus on yourself, the more you may start thinking, “who am I to do this?”
This is most commonly called Imposter Syndrome — believing that you are an imposter, a person that shouldn’t be doing something they are attempting to do.
Imposter syndrome is complicated to understand, and it’s even more complicated to deal with. If you ever feel like an imposter, the best thing that you can do is to realize that actual imposters never feel like imposters. They don’t have imposter syndrome because they are imposters, and they know it. It follows that only someone who is not an imposter can ever feel imposter syndrome. And by definition, if you feel it, that means you’re not an imposter.
The idea is that you understand that even though you may not be fully qualified to do a particular thing, you might think that other people probably do this more systematically or professionally.
If you look at the reality out there, most people — if not all of us — are winging it at all times. That’s certainly my reality.
People don’t know more than you, even though they might want you to believe that. This is why the comparison is such a bad idea. Everybody projects something in their communication: confidence, bravery, intelligence. It’s all a projection.
Maybe it’s partially correct, perhaps they are more confident than you, but it’s pretty likely that they’re not confident or brave.
Your imposter syndrome primarily exists because everything you do in comparison to others looks less professional than the final and fully polished product that they choose to share and that you end up consuming. It’s the curse of knowledge: you know all the little problems of your own life, but you only get to see the surface of theirs.
The antidote to this is a positive-sum mindset that leaves room for improvement: there is always space to learn. There is always space for you to grow into to become better at what you’re doing.
The feeling of imposter syndrome is the back of a coin. On the front of it, you will see the word “growth.” Feeling imposter syndrome is the byproduct of personal growth. It just means that you’re becoming better at some. You are changing, and your self-image is trying to adapt to that.
Often, you’ll feel imposter syndrome directly after being criticized. People talk to you about what they think you should be doing, which is likely something different than what you’re currently doing.
One of the benefits of criticism is that you can learn from it. And the drawback of criticism is that it can quickly crush your self-image.
What helps me when I take criticism is to decouple it from myself as a person.
Here is the mindset I have developed: if people criticize my videos, it’s about the lighting. Or it’s about the way I deliver the content. Maybe it’s about the writing that went into the script. It’s not about me as a person making a video. It’s about some technical aspect of the whole content journey, either creation, delivery, or editing.
When people criticize my writing, they found my book too long, or they thought they wanted to read something else, and they’re surprised that it wasn’t in there. Then they don’t criticize me as the person who had all these experiences that then made up the book’s content. They essentially criticize their purchasing choice. They criticize themselves by criticizing my work because they wanted a different book.
They were looking for a different book. They bought mine — and maybe it was not for them. My books are specific in that they solve a particular problem that is common and critical in the entrepreneurial bootstrapping space. So I don’t get much feedback from people who bought the wrong book: my readers buy their books very intentionally.
Consider criticism to be feedback that is just about your product, not about you. It comes from how other people perceive what you made and what it does for them. From that angle, criticism becomes much less of a self-image problem, and it becomes a product problem. And the product is something that you can always change. You might have trouble changing yourself, but you can rewrite a paragraph and re-record a video.
Creating becomes much easier once you understand that criticism is not about you.
It’s funny: when comparing yourself with people, you focus on yourself. When it comes to criticism, you deflect it from yourself and deflect it onto your product.
Your human need to compare yourself should not cause damage to your self-image. Comparison —with its targets wisely chosen— can lift you up.
It’s equally important for criticism to impact what it can influence: your products and the things you create. Criticism isn’t supposed to change you as a person, but it should change the product that you’re putting out there.
Finally, one of the things that often comes in a shape very similar to criticism is advice. When people give you advice, it can often feel like they know so much more than you do.
Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes, people have decades of experience, much more than you ever had, but here’s the thing: their experience is their own. Their own unique understanding came from their own unique work in their own unique circumstances.
Most advice is very contextual to the life of the person that gives the advice, which means that it might not be advisable for you. It’s advice for themselves.
In a way, that’s how I wrote my first book, to be quite honest. I wrote it as if I was advising myself five years ago because that’s the point just before I started building my own first successful business. The person that Zero to Sold was written for is me five years before I wrote it.
At least that was the first draft. It then went through multiple editors, through alpha and beta readers, and I made it more applicable to other people’s entrepreneurial journeys. But this means that I had to add a lot of context to the advice I was giving.
When advice comes without context, it’s meaningless because you can never understand what particular details need to be added for it to make sense.
The advice that you get needs to be contextualized. It needs to be examined for which parts of it can actually apply to your own life and to your own journey.
Consequently, most advice you get out there is pretty meaningless unless you contextualize it for yourself. Ultimately, that means that it is through your own journey that the advice becomes useful. It’s only ever useful when put into practice.
Building in public is complicated. It is hard because you are exposed to a lot of direct feedback from people. You’re seeing many other people doing other things than what you’re doing.
Be selective and experiment with what you take in. Your journey will be more enjoyable if you control what you expose yourself to.
I will leave you with one thing: look for kind and welcoming and friendly people. Suppose you’re building your business in public, and you’re doing it in front of a cynical and aggressive audience. In that case, you will get cynical, aggressive, and unfriendly replies and feedback to whatever you do.
If you have the choice of finding a better, kinder, and nicer audience, go out and find them. Look for friendly, supportive, and empowering people because that will heavily impact if you feel good about what you’re doing. It’s one of the most critical components of Building in Public and sharing your journey in the long term.