Dr. Sherry Walling — The Reality of Burnout for Entrepreneurs

Reading Time: 33 minutes

Few people had an impact on my founder journey as Dr. Sherry Walling — and she didn’t even know. But I got to tell her! We discussed burnout, imposter syndrome, and stress among founders. Sherry explained the need for mental health professionals who understand the unique challenges of entrepreneurship and shared that burnout is a diagnosable issue.

While entrepreneurs have more control over their work, long hours and hustle culture can still lead to burnout. Her book, “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Shit Together,” helped me during a period of burnout while selling my business.

Now, you get to learn from her and her deeply actionable insights into founder psychology.

Arvid Kahl 0:00
Hello, everyone and welcome to The Bootstrapped Founder. My name is Arvid Kahl and I talk about bootstrapping, entrepreneurship and building in public. Today, I’m talking to Dr. Sherry Walling. She’s a speaker, author, and psychologist. Her work had a profound impact on my founder journey. It was the book that I was reading her book, The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Shit Together, that really helped me while preparing my own business for an exit. And it materially changed my stress and anxiety levels for the better after I was done reading it. Unsurprisingly, I wanted to talk to Sherry about mental health topics that every founder struggles with: burnout, impostor syndrome and just being stressed out of our minds. We live through that every day. There’s a lot we have to deal with as entrepreneurs. And it’s very useful to have a mental health professional in our ranks. And Sherry is that person for so many founders. Before we get started with a conversation with Dr. Sherry Walling, let me thank the sponsor for this show, acquire.com. Imagine this, your founder who’s built a solid SaaS product, you acquired customers and the products generally consistent in its monthly recurring revenue. The problem is you’re not growing for whatever reason, lack of focus or lack of skill or just plain lack of interest and you feel stuck. What should you do? Well, the story that I would like to hear is that you buckled down and somehow reignited the fire of get going and getting past yourself and the cliches and then started working on your business rather than just in the business. That would be great. You start building an audience and you move out of your comfort zone and do sales and marketing, all the things we don’t like to do. And in six months, you’ve tripled your revenue. Well, the reality isn’t as simple as this. Situations may be different for every founder facing this crossroad. But too many times the story ends up being one of inaction and stagnation until the business becomes less valuable or worse, worthless. If you find yourself here or your story is likely headed down a similar road, well, let me offer you a third option. Consider selling your business on acquire.com, capitalizing on the value of your time is the smart move here. Acquire.com is free to list and they’ve helped hundreds of founders already. So go to acquire.com and see for yourself if this is the right option for you. And now here is Dr. Sherry Walling.

Awhile ago, I asked my followers on Twitter if they ever experienced burnout and 89% of them said that they have been experiencing it in the past or that they are currently mid burnout. That’s 1 in 10 of my audience on Twitter. And I was extremely surprised by this. If mental health is such an incredibly common problem, 9 out of 10 people experience it. Why do we so rarely talk about it in our communities? There’s still a taboo around it. What do you know about this lack of communication about this very important topic?

Dr. Sherry Walling 3:13
I mean, I talk about it all day, every day. It’s the thing I dug about and there certainly are, I think the conversation around mental health in the entrepreneur community has really opened up quite a bit in the last 5 to 10 years. When I first started in this space, in like 2015-2016, it was really quite unusual. I think one of the things that makes it difficult to talk about is that there aren’t as much as we would like there to be these lovely clickbaity, five things that you can do to solve burnout, they’re harder than that. And so burnout, prevention, burnout identification, they’re actually sort of complicated processes. And they don’t lend themselves super easily to a nice clickbaity soundbite or a tweet. So to talk about mental health in a really meaningful way, it’s actually a pretty nuanced conversation that sometimes founders don’t have the time and energy for, don’t make the time and energy for.

Arvid Kahl 4:22
Yeah, I think it’s a priority problem for many people, right? They see so many other things that they need to tackle that are more tangible, maybe. Maybe solutions are more apparent to these problems. So they kind of dismiss the whole conversation. It’s unfortunate, I feel. I wish people would talk about it more and feel to be more of a problem that they need to actually address.

Dr. Sherry Walling 4:43
There’s kind of like a normalization of burnout. Like you just don’t expect that if you’re founder, you’re going to have burnout. And that’s not correct. And it’s actually very problematic because burnout, which we can get into in more detail if you want to, but burnout, true burnout is actually brain damage. It’s like, directly observable on a functional MRI. And so for us to normalize, oh, we just do this to ourselves. We just run our braids ragged, that’s just part of it, I think is a pretty unacceptable way to operate.

Arvid Kahl 5:18
Yeah, if it’s something real and that’s, I usually compare this to something like imposter syndrome, which isn’t even a syndrome, right? It’s the imposter phenomenon for many people, at least apparently, in the clinical world as much as I know it. So that is something that also exists, but it’s by far not as medically studied and proven. And actually a problem like a mental health issue as burnout is. And I sometimes wonder, people don’t even go to great lengths to talk to mental health or any medical professionals about it. They self diagnose. That was the same for me. Like, I think, I believe I’ve experienced burnout twice in my life. I have no medical trail, like I never went to an actual psychologist or just talk to anybody in the field. I just thought, oh, this is bad. I need to take time away from this and all that. So I kind of even then, knowing that I had a problem, I struggled to seek medical help. Do you know why I did that? Can you diagnose me right now?

Dr. Sherry Walling 6:19
I do think that people don’t know that burnout is a formal diagnoseable problem. And I will also say that often the psychological or mental health community is not super adept at dealing with burnout. We often misdiagnose it as depression or we often just misdiagnose it as generalized anxiety or something else. So I think there’s a both and problem when it comes to really getting good care for burnout when people don’t recognize that that would be helpful. And two, it’s harder than it should be to find mental health professionals or medical professionals who really understand burnout, especially the context that comes with a founder. To be honest, if you looked at the psychological profile of most founders, they look a little bit like somebody who’s a little bit manic, has maybe a little bipolar too going on, is a little bit obsessive and then has these sort of fits of depression. And so I think it’s really easy for mental health professionals to pathologize founders and not understand the context and the amount of passion and drive and energy that goes into growing a business. And I think that’s where we miss each other a little bit.

Arvid Kahl 7:39
Yeah, that was exactly what I was wondering when I saw my 89% of people telling me and I think it was 10 ish or 20% that we’re in burnout right now as per their self diagnosis. And I was thinking, man, is that just an entrepreneurial thing? Is that just the founder, kind of people just have an easier time having a hard time? Does it hit entrepreneurs harder than other groups have? Have you experienced this?

Dr. Sherry Walling 8:08
So it’s a little bit tricky because I think burnout is also a nice phrase to describe a number of different things. So sometimes people will say, I think I’m burned out and then you dig into their life and their situation. And it’s like, oh, you are in very significant grief. Or sometimes people will say, I’m burned out and I dig a little bit and I’m like, oh, wait, actually you’re like clinically depressed like, just textbook depression. But burnout is an easier term to talk about even though it is still stigmatized. It’s maybe less stigmatized than some other things. So that’s one of the problems that I think is happening. There was an interesting study that came out relatively recently that suggested that entrepreneurs actually have less burnout than your nine to five employee. And some of that is because there are these key things that drive burnout. Some of them are better for founders, like, one of the drivers of burnout is the mismatch between what you think is important and how you spend your time. So at least entrepreneurs are choosing, right? They are deciding what business they want to build. They are giving their time and energy towards something that they’re choosing. They’re not out of control. They’re very much in control. So that’s a protective factor that helps prevent burnout that’s not present in you know, our brothers and sisters who are working in a cubicle coding for a large company where they don’t have choice or control.

Arvid Kahl 9:44
That’s such a great point. Because as now, after selling a business, I’m very much in control of what I’m doing. And I am my own boss, really. And I’m telling myself that I’m gonna do this and if it’s too much for me, I’m just gonna step back a little bit. I have nobody who’s kind of conflating this for me or telling me to do stuff I don’t want to do so I feel extremely at ease in what I do even though, you know, being an introvert, having conversations with people is not like the most enjoyable thing really, like I think hanging out with my puppy is a more enjoyable thing.

Dr. Sherry Walling 10:18
That’s a relationship for you.

Arvid Kahl 10:20
Yeah, really, it really is. Because the puppy doesn’t challenge me, you know. She does but in different ways. But I know, obviously, that having a conversation with you is an important part of what I can do to help other people. So I know that there’s meaning to this. And it’s what I want to do, right? It’s not the mismatch between I don’t wanna go with this, but I actually want to do this, so I get it. But I do wonder sometimes with founders in particular, who are building their first business, people who still have something to prove if that is a phrase that we should ever use in terms of building a business. They often follow what I would describe as hustle culture or the grind set, right? This kind of put all your energy and all your time into your business or else you’ll never make it. And that seems very disjointed from this I have control over my destiny conversation we’re currently having.

Dr. Sherry Walling 11:18
Yeah, sometimes we say, oh, good, you’re an entrepreneur. You can choose to work whichever 20 hours in a day you’d like. Like you get control and choose. Yeah, I mean, hustle porn, hustle culture much of it is based on a real sort of limited understanding of how our brains actually work. And so a little bit of a scratch into some basic, like neuroscience 101. And I think most people will come away feeling like, oh, that’s not the right strategy. There’s a difference between doing a lot of work and doing our best work. And I think sometimes that’s where founders make maybe a less than ideal trade is this sense that hours logged leads directly to outcomes. And, you know, there are days when that’s true, but generally speaking, the quality of your work time is a much better predictor of your creative thought and of your ability to implement a new or novel idea than just sort of putting in the hours. And I do think that it is sort of hustle culture, hustle porn that is the allure to believe that burnout is not only normal, but like a badge of honor, like sort of like if you’re not burnt out, what are you doing with yourself? You must not care about your company. You must not be motivated. And of course, those things are not true.

Arvid Kahl 12:44
Yeah, it often comes from comparison, right? You compare yourself to other people’s stellar performance, the things they choose to share, and you see all these founders crushing it, a phrase that I personally hate a lot because it’s obviously just a reflection on what they want to portray. It’s not the reality of their lives, because no business is ever without problems or setbacks or anything like it. And I wonder, I think it’s human nature to compare yourselves to your peers to see where you stand, because we want to see that the social context in which we operate, and if we’re conforming with the what people expect us to be and you know, there are many layers to this but how can people avoid comparing themselves to the wrong people and then following these hustle culture evangelists who themselves probably even operate in the way that they give advice.

Dr. Sherry Walling 13:33
Right? I think one of the really helpful place of comparison is maybe not the word that I would use. But a helpful way to learn from and be on the journey with other people is to be in a mastermind group, or something where you get a deeper look into how another business is truly functioning. I think another way to do that is to have a mentor, I mean, maybe even someone that you pay, maybe they’re a business coach, but a mentor who has truly done it before, and you get the deep dive gritty look into how they function and how they work. So anybody who is selling you something, or anybody who is proclaiming the benefits of their strategies on social media, you’re just not getting a deep enough dive into who they are and how their business works to know if it’s at all relevant to you. And relevancy is a really key businesses are different different sort of, you know, industries and customer bases are really different. And so having a sounding board with other founders that’s tailored and specific is most helpful to you.

Arvid Kahl 14:55
That’s great. That’s why I’m such a big fan of building and public because people who Build in public and share the ups and the downs with a focus on the failures and the struggle, the mistakes and the learning set they have, they paint a much more realistic picture of what the business is like and surrounding ourselves with people who are honest enough to build in public also creates relationships with honest people who will give you their honest feedback. If you’re doing something you should probably not be doing it. That’s why I’m a big fan of this. And I guess a mastermind is privatize building public group, if that makes sense. You know, like a little, little group of that where people keep it to themselves, but do share with each other. And I think it’s a great step for people to start. Do you have any ideas how people can easily find them? Because I’ve always found not maybe not easily but reliably find good mastermind groups? Because personally, I’ve always had trouble as an introvert, again, talking to people to even get into the door, right to get my foot into the door, that always was a challenge to overcome this person. I don’t know them. Why would they talk to me? Like, I would assume that a lot of founders, particularly the ones coming from a technical background, have a little bit of introversion in them. So how can they overcome that particular self blocking device?

Dr. Sherry Walling 16:08
I mean, not to like promote by husband stuff but MicroConf does have a mastermind matching service at this point. There’s also another one, that I’m not sure if it’s still going. But mastermind jam was a service that a friend can did for many years, I’m not totally sure if that’s still happening. But the MicroConf one is for sure. I think it’s a good, it’s a good thing to even crowdsource right to put out to Twitter and to try to connect with some people who are interested in a mastermind, I do find more value in ones that are like externally organized and have maybe a nominal or a minimal fee, because that puts skin in the game. The worst thing is getting into a mastermind group with people who say they’re committed and then they don’t show up, you know, and it’s, you’re just chasing them to get on their calendar that it that’s not good for anybody. So some kind of like base level of commitment is really important in a mastermind group.

Arvid Kahl 17:12
Yeah, yeah. skin in the game, I think is for any relationship that has a business connotation is an important part. I love that. And by the way, I give you blanket permission to advertise whatever your husband does. family business, because honestly, if it wasn’t for MicroConf, I probably wouldn’t be here. Right. MicroConf gave me the first stage quite literally, for what I had to say when I was there in 2019 in Dubrovnik with Danielle, we talked about having sold our business on stage as an attendee talk. And that was essentially my foray into talking about entrepreneurship. And from there, all the way up. So it’s evening, it’s due to Rob, that is funny, because you are also connected to our sale in the way and I’ll tell you in a second, it’s for Rob’s conference that I got my Twitter situation going. But it was mostly for you a book, the first the first book that I ever read of you, the entrepreneurs guide to keeping a shit together. I read this while we were selling our business. And I was and that was mid 2019. And that was in my my own memory, which is kind of, you know, a bit spotty, because it was a weird and very intense time. Intense time, right? It was incredibly intense. even thinking about it is a heart rate increasing endeavor. For me at this point, it really is I’m noticing a physical sensation right now. I was either at the verge off or mid burnout, I don’t really know. It was it was a strong I had high anxiety levels, I was extremely stressed, trouble sleeping, physical reactions, gut health was off. Like all of that kind of stuff happened to me at the time. It’s one of the reasons that we actually sold the business at that point was because I just couldn’t really handle all the responsibility of being one of two people in a business, Danielle and I never hired anybody. And being the only technical person in that business, being tasked with solving all the problems of our five and a half 1000 customer base. It was a lot. And your book, I remember this still very, very visually gave me a lot of solace and hope for being able to, to weather this time and find the greener grass on the other side of this eye. It may not be as eloquent, eloquently expressed as I would like it to be. But I think reading a book from somebody’s perspective, who understands how stress and anxiety works in a person and what it makes you do and not do, just knowing that I’m not alone, and that there is a way out of this was incredibly helpful. So thank you so much for enabling me to go through this process and holding my hand a little bit right through the magic of authorship throughout this stressful time and enabling me to just get rid of the my own self inflicted and external pressure and make my life better. I’m happy at this point, because in large part to your guidance for this book,

Dr. Sherry Walling 20:25
Well, there’s no kind of words you could give an author to say your book mattered to me, not into my life. So I’m very, very delighted to hear that and glad that it was a useful touch point and sort of guidepost when you were trying to sort out how you needed to move on from your business.

Arvid Kahl 20:46
It was surprised at that point that your work was, I guess, the only book I could find on this whole issue. I mean, good positioning, I guess for you, right? You get all the sales, but in a way, it was surprising. And it it still feels surprising to me how few works there are in the field, intersecting the lives of founders with the lives of regular people, right, like having regular people problems, that that seems to be such a rare thing to find. And I’m glad you you took the time and effort and actually codified it into a book because I think I’ve been recommending this for every single founder that has asked me about dealing with mental health issues, or just stress and anxiety in this whole process of building and mostly exiting a business, that my experience kind of with this book has helped me recommend it to other people. And, yes, I think there’s, I don’t want you to have more competitors in your field, obviously. But I think there should be more helping people get different perspectives on the same issue, right?

Dr. Sherry Walling 21:52
Yeah. And, yeah, I think I do think it’s a conversation that happens, people don’t always call it mental health, sometimes they call it mindset, sometimes they call it you know, they kind of package it under other things. There aren’t a lot of formally trained mental health professionals at this space, which I think is a problem. There’s a lot of founders that have ideas about it, which is super, super valid. But I do think that the professional training is pretty helpful in some of these conversations. So and I think my next book is going to be about exiting your business. So perfect, maybe a little late for your first round. But

Arvid Kahl 22:36
honestly, it’s, I would rather have you write it now than never write it. You know, like, my whole mission ever since I sold the business was to kind of pay it forward. So I feel whatever didn’t exist when I was dead. That’s why I wrote my first book, because I would have liked to read it when I needed it. And it’s kind of the the approach that I have to media now. And let’s talk about the book that you just released, maybe because while I haven’t read it, what I’ve seen, in your very touching, really touching marketing materials around it has been something that I can relate to, even though I haven’t read the book, and maybe I will, I will give you the opportunity to explain first what the book is about. And then I will kind of integrate my actual story into this.

Dr. Sherry Walling 23:26
Yeah. So the book is called touching two worlds. And it is part memoir and then part analysis as a psychologist into the world of grief. So the book was kind of an accidental book, in that it was written, I lost my dad to esophageal cancer and my brother to suicide within six months of each other. That was in 2018, 2019. And so a big part of my just personal process around working through those experiences was to write about them, and was to begin talking to people about grief. And I think what’s so interesting with those of us who are founders are high performing professionals are, you know, we’re the people who are on the go the movers and the shakers of the world, we often don’t give ourselves much space for grief. You know, it feels like I’m busy creating a world I’m not going to mourn the things that aren’t around anymore. And I really found that to be a problem, especially in entrepreneurs and in founders, as they have, in many cases, these really unprocessed losses that shape them in ways that are unexpected, but yet quite powerful. So writing about it is my attempt to work through it myself and to sort of offer offer some notes and guidance to people who are coming after me who’ve had similar losses.

Arvid Kahl 24:55
It’s and that is why I intersect with that story because I think on Process loss is something that I have struggled with without knowing for decades. At this point, I lost my mother when I was 18, to suicide as well. And that was a for an 18 year old and an processable moment, I feel I remember that it was just a fact I dealt with. And I then very slowly, like a background process, the height, everything else I was doing, dealt with it for the next decade. And it was around 28, when I started to actually become a programmer before that, I was just like hanging around University in Germany, because it’s paid for by the Government. So might just as well, I had a great time I learned stuff, and I was coding on the site. And but I really only became a professional software engineer 10 years after that, and it took me that long, I recognize that now being yet another 10 years older, that that was the time that because I had no help, I had to deal with it, and chunks, I had to just deal with all the emotional baggage of how it affected other people around me how it affected my life and my studies. And, you know, essentially what was still somewhat of a child growing into an adult. All of this had to be done kind of by figuring stuff out. And I had really no guidance there and no help. And that impacted how long it took me to even be able to effectively work as a beat as a human being right, it took me a decade, which is like if I hadn’t had the support of the country I lived in and the people around me, that would have been very troublesome for me. So I definitely understand not dealing with stuff for a long time. And it’s a problem, right? It’s a problem that affected me for again, a decade, and it shouldn’t have. So I’m very grateful that you reflect on this in in public with what the book is. And I love the idea that this book is also memoir slash self reflection method for you. I think writing is such a powerful tool to come to, to your own thoughts and understand your own thinking. That is that is one way that I I feel very strongly for the topic. And I’m grateful that you wrote about it. And the other one is now entrepreneurship related. And that is something that I might want to touch on. Because the idea of grief, to me was always, from my own experience, a very person related thing, right? You grieve a person, and you grieve the loss of a person. But when we sold the business, and I’m trying to be very careful here, the business is not a person, right? The business is a thing. It’s an entity you create, and you set up and it runs and you’re operated. It’s almost more of a machine. But we felt a very strong sense of grief when we handed over the keys to the business. Something we did never expect. Even though my my partner and I Danielle and I we were life partners and business partners at the same time. We joked about it being our baby, right? It’s it wasn’t obviously because it doesn’t love you back babies do. But the business was something that we gave over and felt this incredibly intense and mind altering state of grief. And I think I would have liked to be prepared for this. No, that’s why I’m

Dr. Sherry Walling 28:20
writing my next book about exits. Because your experience is not unusual. And just to sort of clarify from even, you know, the professional psychologists perspective, grief is the emotional reaction to loss and loss has many forms. So we think about it maybe most often in reaction to the loss of life. But I mean, I think the the pandemic was so interesting, because it created so much grief around our loss of plans, our loss of mobility, our loss of travel, you know, these things that are not human, but yet were very significant things to lose, and the loss of a business. You know, you say your business is not your baby, and I get it, it’s not. But there’s a there’s a really interesting study that looks at fMRI of entrepreneurs brains when they’re thinking about their businesses. And the activation in the brain is very, very similar to the brain activity that is in play when a parent is thinking about their child. So there is a deep level of attachment and identification with your business that is undeniably this form of bonding. And so to lose that attachment to lose that connection, whether it’s by a sale or by a financial crisis, implosion that results in the closing of the business. Grief is a really important part of that process. And I think people forget about that, especially with an exit you know that it’s supposed to be the happy story. It’s supposed to be your cry Passing the finish line, it’s everything you’ve been working for, and people expect that it’s going to be, you know, you’re the envio. But in reality, it’s very emotionally complicated. I think maybe a fair comparison is sort of what it feels like for parents who are sending children off to college, or out of when they’re launching their kids. It’s like everything you’ve been working for, and everything that you, you know, are ready for. But then when you’re walking by their empty bedroom, it’s there’s a desperate amount of grief, it’s very painful.

Arvid Kahl 30:38
Yeah, it’s something that I’m not a parent, so I did not expect it in the slightest. Like, I’ve never, never experienced anything like it. If I felt like my, my source of passion was drained away from me, I get that that was the perception that I had, I was doing this, not because it made us money. But that was great. But that was not the reason we built the business. We wanted to help these people. And in our case, it was online English teachers. And these people still existed after we sold the business. And I still wanted to help them because that was what I found so much joy and passion and purpose, mostly purpose in as well. And with giving away the business, the purpose of what my day was about, was not something that I had any kind of connection anymore. I was so connected with the business that it was kind of I was tethered to it, that rupturing the tether that had backlash. It was there was a kind of tension

Unknown Speaker 31:31
artery. Yeah, exactly.

Arvid Kahl 31:32
And sometimes I think that entrepreneurship is all about balancing two extremes. And this is one of those examples to me, you have the extreme connection that you have with your business. And then something that that I have experienced myself, and that I see so many other founders experience, you have a lack of connection with the people around you that don’t understand what you’re doing. That to me, is a big, big entrepreneurial problem as well. And I want to talk to you about it, because there’s the story that a fellow founder Dagoba Renouf, he tells this, I think it’s in his Twitter bio as well, that his father in law did not want him to start the business with his wife, right? The story is that it didn’t understand or condone that the couple, the newly married couple would start a bootstrap business together, he was not a fan of this. And that must be super stressful. If the people you need to support you the most are disconnected from you, because they just do not, they don’t support you, they don’t understand you. And at the same time, you’re building this very intimate connection with this inanimate being that is your business, right? It kind of pulls you to both sides, you want to connect here, but there’s no response. And you you do connect here, there’s also no response. Entrepreneurship is hard, right? It’s just such a such a struggle. What do you think about this? What do you think about like family support, when it doesn’t exist? When people don’t understand what you’re doing? How can you deal with this as a founder,

Dr. Sherry Walling 33:02
you don’t think it’s the, it’s the lot in life for many creatives and money. You know, I had dinner with somebody last night, who’s a professional circus artist, and she was like, Yeah, my family cut me off. When I decided to be a circus artist, they were like, if you’re gonna do that, you’re doing it by yourself. And anytime that someone is taking big risks that feel scary and difficult to understand, for those who love them, there’s a level of distancing that happens, and it happens fairly commonly. And it’s, in some ways your families attempt to protect themselves from the downside from your failure, which is not pleasant right into it. It’s sort of abandoning you and the risk. But um, I think it’s important. It’s tricky. And entrepreneurship, because again, it is the center of your world, and it’s the center of your life. But there’s also an argument to be made for the fact that it can be kind of a job. And you can have relationships with people who don’t get it, they don’t understand. I mean, there were times in Rob’s professional life when I really didn’t quite understand what he did. Like, I’m not technical. I was just like, I don’t know what your what are you doing all day? Are you typing zeros and ones like what is what is? So I’m at but yet I loved him no matter what, like I loved him, despite not really being able to understand similarly in my life as a clinical psychologist, you know, early on, I worked with post traumatic stress disorder and recently returned veterans and he was like, that’s a whole other world. Like, I’d never I couldn’t think about how I would do that. You know, it was just the separateness was tolerable. And so I think it’s important for entrepreneurs to recognize you need a posse of people that do get it you need that mastermind you need that community you need some people that you can really talk shop with. But you are not so special in your life as a business owner, that it’s not also important for you to have meaningful and deep connections with people who aren’t entrepreneurs, and just don’t care what you do during the day. So those are also really important relationships. And I think sometimes entrepreneurs sacrifice those relationships, because they are so attached to their business, that it’s so painful that they aren’t understood as an entrepreneur, and it shouldn’t be it’s just a part of you.

Arvid Kahl 35:40
Balance, right, you need to balance the, the the people who are on your level. And I mean, there’s not as a, you know, ranking system, but who aren’t you frequency maybe who vibe with what you do. And you still need to have the external, different the other another group of people who are different from you. So you can kind of see, Am I overreacting? Am I spending too much time with this. And I think like lots of founders, particularly solopreneurs have this problem, where they focus so much on the business and they see the opportunity, they see the potential, right, they see oh, wow, if I keep growing this, this kind of harkens back to the whole grain set thing from earlier, if I spend more time doing marketing, reach out to more people get this going, then this will be the wealth generating thing that I want it to be, and then I can finally retire and buy a house for my parents, right? They have this dream that involves other people, but the process does not. And I think that’s what that’s such a dangerous thing to to consider. But it’s also apparently something that many people assume to be the right way, and that they don’t need help they have trouble asking for help. Is do you see this in entrepreneurs? Is this a founder thing that they are taught that they can do and should do everything by themselves and don’t ask for help. And that kind of transforms into the self inflicted loneliness.

Dr. Sherry Walling 37:01
I mean, most of us have a family story that necessitates that, I mean, you with the loss of your mom, are really used to doing things yourself and figuring out how to do it by yourself. I mean, I grew up with parents that had really significant physical medical problems, my mom was disabled in a wheelchair. And so that was part of my story to just I needed to figure things out myself, if I needed to get something I need to get up and go get it like there’s nobody going to do it for you. And a lot of entrepreneurs have stories like that, it’s sort of what qualifies us to believe I can do that. So it’s a it’s a strength, in a lot of ways. And often, it’s a way that we’ve made sense of difficult experiences in our lives. But of course, the downside is the isolation. And we believe that just because, you know, someone else isn’t in the nitty gritty of our business and isn’t pushing the business forward the way that we are, we sort of believe that they can’t understand or that they can’t care about us. And that’s the that’s the isolationist mistake that we make.

Arvid Kahl 38:10
How do we pull ourselves out of this? Like, how do we open up our lives? So we can have these people in it without risking not focusing on up on on our business? Like, where? Where do we balanced us?

Dr. Sherry Walling 38:24
You know, one of the things that I think is really, really helpful is to have a hobby, where you have a coach. So if you follow me on social media at all, you know that I have a funny hobby, which is, I’m a circus artist. And I came into that late in life, I was 40 when I started. But it’s been a really, really important part of life. For many of these reasons. I regularly train with other people, I regularly train with a coach. So I get practice being helped, being taught listening, following directions, going when somebody tells me to go. And then I hang out with this whole community of people who does not care what my monthly revenue is, or what my churn was, or you know, they just don’t care. They just care if I show up and do my stretches and come on time and like, do the thing. So having a hobby is something that I think is a really lovely offset to the stresses of entrepreneurship, especially if it gets you in your body and sort of out of your desk chair not looking at your laptop, it just varies the way that you’re using your time and your energy that can be super, super valuable to our neurological health. And then we’re also mixing up the relationship dynamics. Like it’s really good for me to not be the boss sometimes. You know, I’m the boss of my kids, sort of. I’m the boss of my team. I’m the boss of my business. Yes. And so to go somewhere and just be a student, and be a learner is really, it’s really good.

Arvid Kahl 40:07
How you bring you bring to mind something that I just read. This week in Wired magazine, I have a print subscription to Wired Magazine. That’s how old I am. I read things in print. And then there was a writing letter to Wired magazine was somebody asked the column, this advice columnist. I’m not ready to pay for therapy. But I see these mental health apps, these mindfulness apps all the time, right? Is this useful? That was the question. And the answer was, right, mental health apps. Yeah, they’re not a replacement for therapy, definitely not. And what they actually are, are like a digitized version of self help books or self the self help approach. That was what it said. And it had it ended with the phrase, I don’t want to talk about the whole art whole article, I’m gonna put it in the show notes, because I think it’s on the web as well. But what it ended with was, Hey, you are when you use these apps, you try to control your breathing, and you track your pulse, and you start this kind of biohacking, try to interpret every single data point from your body, you don’t want to get on the couch, you need to get off the couch, you need to actually hang out with other people. Because if you hang out with other people, if you do collective sports, or you engage in conversations with other people, then you’re not focused on breathing anymore, because your body is capable of breathing all by itself, that was kind of the answer to this was stop focusing so much on optimizing yourself, right and self help self self care is important. But it’s not the solution to all of your problems, the underlying problem might just as well that you don’t have enough exposure to other people to put put you back into the social context that you live in. And I love this idea, like do stuff with people and your body will keep breathing, just trust it to keep breathing. That’s what it reminded me of, because you said you’re the boss of your family, your business, you’re also the boss of yourself, right of your own physical being. And if you start micromanaging your physical process of breathing of, you know, when do I do this? When do I do that? I don’t think that’s necessarily a good way to deal with with problems that you may be having

Dr. Sherry Walling 42:14
was sort of dissecting us into too many different parts, I actually think breathwork is very helpful, and I practice it, I have an app that I really like. I think meditation is helpful yoga is helpful, like these practices do teach us the capacity to regulate our bodies, which many of us have sort of lost those skills, but they aren’t the end result, like I do breath work, so that I can perform well on a flying trapeze. You know, it’s it gets me where I’d like to go in my life where I do meditation so that I can prepare to give a talk in front of hundreds of people, and feel grounded and connected to myself. So those tools are tools and having a bunch of them is great, but don’t glorify them as the outcome or as the end all be all of self care. I like a hobby because it’s about joy and play, and lightheartedness and laughter and connection. And those are really good, juicy parts of life that don’t need to be hacked or optimized, but they do need time to take place.

Arvid Kahl 43:26
Does that is a really nice and very nuanced position on this. Because I also I have found through Danielle, thankfully, that meditation and journaling and mindfulness and breathing work is actually helpful to me, I consider these things in the past to be purely esoteric, that to me was an adult that was meant as an insult at that point, right. And now I consider them surprisingly useful, which is something I’ve tried it out I actually, again, MicroConf story, the day that Danielle and I were giving the talk in Dubrovnik in Croatia back in 2019. I was very excited. First time I would ever stand on stage in front of my fellow founders, many of which, at that conference I had have been admiring for years, and sharing a story that I with my imposter syndrome at the time. And it never really went away thought I was just lucky to even be in this place at this time having done all these things, standing on the shoulders of giants really. And I was sitting there in the morning of that day in our little hotel room looking at the Adriatic Sea, beautiful place. And I was I was feeling my anxiety. And what I did was I just journaled for half an hour I did a stream of consciousness journaling, which I think is called Morning pages by some other people. Well, you just Yep, exactly. And it was the morning so it was adequately described as morning pages, but just me stream of consciousness whatever was on my mind, I put it on paper, and then I just kind of threw it away. I never looked at it again. It was not meant to be read it was meant to be written. So So I could take those thoughts out of my mind, give my mind the, the understanding that it was noticed somewhere. And now you don’t have to keep running through the ideas. And in real time, you could just put it in the background and worked super well. For me, it was such a surprising thing. And I’ve been doing it before that too. So I knew it was going to work, which is why I did it, that Danielle introduced me to these concepts while I was dealing with the whole business side, right, the burnout in feedback panda before we sold it. And it really helped me ground myself. And I never thought before I met Danielle, and with her had the opportunities of a lifetime building and selling your business, which is great, she’s awesome. I never thought that I would be the person that could employ these techniques. So now that we are talking about it, how can technical people who don’t believe in this and engineering backgrounds solopreneurs approach these soft topics like meditation and mindfulness?

Dr. Sherry Walling 45:59
I’m sorry, I just love the like soft topic quotation, because we have very robust research from very mainstream places like Harvard Medical School, to really understand what’s happening in our bodies, when we engage, meditation, breathwork, or journaling, let’s just use those as three. They’re widely accessible, they’re available, and they both have very significant scientific support. One of the things that I think has happened to us as modern humans is that we’ve really separated our minds from our bodies, and especially as technical workers, we, we’d love a big juicy mind. Like we like being able to solve problems and code and very nuanced ways to stay focused for long periods of time. But we’ve forgotten that everything that happens in that organ, is part of a larger body system. And we do much better when we can integrate our physiological well being into our neurological well being, we’re doing it all the time, it’s not a choice, it’s how our brain works. But things like meditation, journaling breath work, are very, very helpful to keeping our physiological system regulated, so that it can optimize the functioning of our brains. And so I would, anybody who like doesn’t believe in this science, like, just do it, just do a little lit review on a medical journal, or like Google it. And, you know, I think it’s fairly undebatable at this point. And the good thing is that these tools are very, they’re really accessible. Like, you can do a five minute breathwork practice and sort of reset your body for a while, or you can do a little meditation app. And it’s not a replacement for exercise. It’s not a replacement for therapy. It’s not a replacement for friendship, but it is a strategy to help nourish your brain and calm your body down when you need to perform at a high level.

Arvid Kahl 48:10
Yeah, and that’s why I kind of put it in quotes too, because it is obviously working. Right. And it’s obviously also like, scientifically, not just described, but proven and integrated. I mean, if calm, the app has such a wide range. And honestly, if it has so much success as a business, it must be doing something right. Right. Like even for, for somebody who only wants to think in technical terms, this is a very logical conclusion that you have to come to. And I’m kind of I’m talking from a current perspective to the person that I used to be when I didn’t believe in it. So that’s kind of where my phrasing is coming from. But I still feel a lot of people have trouble with the way it is presented. You know, like the way that solutions to mental health problems are presented for many people are, I don’t really know, the let me think about this. How would I phrase this in a very wishy washy kind of way? Is that a phrase that translates from German? Because, you know, like, people want like very discreet methods. People want the quick hack, that is the right people want.

Dr. Sherry Walling 49:18
That’s kind of where I started in our conversation, right? Like, why isn’t why aren’t more people talking about this? And I’ll tell you, because the honest to God, truth is that there’s not a lot of like, click Beatty, things that you can say that are going to make a big impact. Because I can tell you and I can show you research studies that say if you meditate for 20 minutes a day, you’re going to improve your focus and creativity and overall brain health. But there’s a whole lot of complexity behind how you create space for something like that. What gets in the way of you sort of disciplining yourself to do that, do you value wit, do you even really care if your brain is I mean, that’s where we get pretty complicated. So the problem isn’t so much whether or not these tools work, the problem is our human complexity around implementing them effectively.

Arvid Kahl 50:18
Certain educational problem too, like you think this should be way more front and center in the way we teach people to be people.

Dr. Sherry Walling 50:26
Yeah. Again, I think we’ve segmented the brain and the body, or the mind and the body. And that’s, that’s a kickback from Decart. Like, these are long held beliefs that are that are fundamentally incorrect.

Arvid Kahl 50:45
Yeah, to me, it reminds me of this division that we have between knowledge work, and non knowledge work. Like as if the person doing the knowledge work wouldn’t have a human body that is acting physically, it’s often confuses me to think like, just because I’m not moving stuff around. I’m still physically, like burning energy to fuel the brain that controls these things.

Dr. Sherry Walling 51:14
We got lots of work to do with our conversations around mental health. But I’m glad we’re having this one.

Arvid Kahl 51:19
I am very glad we were having this one too. And I think I just wish it was easier to talk about it in our communities, I feel a lot of people have this kind of notion that if they share anything that is potentially showing that they are not at peak physical and mental health, they’re vulnerable. And they’re not worthy of being surrounded by all these other high performers. I think that’s such a such a bad situation to start with. I

Dr. Sherry Walling 51:49
just think that’s increasingly not true. Like we’ve had people like Gary Vander Chuck talking about depression, you know, within our own technical people like Steli Efti, in his podcast about inner work, like, being quite open about things that he’s learning and trying about his own inner world. Most MicroConf, for example, have some element of mental health or mindset present, if I’m not doing it, somebody else’s. But

Arvid Kahl 52:17
maybe the next one. I know somebody who might be there talking about these topics. Yeah, it’s it’s, it’s, it’s, I’m glad that this happens. Because with every conversation that we have around the topic, we show other people that it’s Okay to have a conversation about this topic. Yeah. Right. That’s, that’s just, which is why I’m, let me bring this to a close, which is why I’m so happy that you’re here today, and had this conversation with me right now. Because I hope that a lot of people who are listening to this will not just take something out of it, but also encourage other people around them who they see struggling or not struggling doesn’t matter, you often don’t see people struggle, right? Even though they do to, to listen to it and find encouragement to talk about these things themselves. And to learn from you again, like I’m, I’m not going to push anything here, but people should really read your work. Because it was it was quite really, yeah, they should. It was quite helpful.

Dr. Sherry Walling 53:13
Yeah, a couple of books. I have a podcast, I just did a TEDx talk.

Arvid Kahl 53:17
Where can people find you? Maybe let’s let’s codify it like this? Where do you want people to find you?

Dr. Sherry Walling 53:22
My professional work is mostly on Zen founder.com, which is also the name of my podcast. And you can see links and descriptions of the books that I’ve written, or the retreats or events that I’m hosting. And then you can also follow me on social media. If you’re curious about how a psychologist also was a circus artist, I do a lot of that on on Instagram, and Twitter and LinkedIn. So

Arvid Kahl 53:47
I highly recommend that follow because it might like if you’re listening to this, and you think, yeah, I think I need to deal with a couple of issues that I haven’t thought about much, following Sherry’s a very good idea. And it will be it will make your journey easier, and you’ll come out as a better person with a better understanding of yourself. So thank you so much for being on today and talking to me about all these complicated and often heavy things. It was a real eye opening conversation. Thank you so much.

Dr. Sherry Walling 54:15
Yeah, thank you!

Arvid Kahl 54:17
And that’s it for today. Thank you for listening to The Bootstrapped Founder. You can find me on Twitter @arvidkahl. You’ll find my books and my Twitter course there as well. If you want to support me and the show, please subscribe to my YouTube channel and get the podcast in your podcast player of choice. And please leave a rating and review by going to (http://ratethispodcast.com/founder). Any of this will truly help to show. So thank you so much for listening and have a wonderful day. Bye bye

What We Talk About

00:00:00 Introduction to Sherry Walling

00:03:13 Mental health in the entrepreneur community.

00:09:17 Do entrepreneurs have control over their destiny?

00:15:22 How do you find good mastermind groups?

00:21:52 Mental health is not always called mental health

00:28:20 Grief is the emotional reaction to loss

00:34:06 You can have relationships with people who don’t get it.

00:40:24 Mental health apps are not a replacement for therapy.

00:45:59 Why aren’t more people talking about mental health?

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