Recently I read the book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Silicon Valley entrepreneur, self-made billionaire, and investor Ben Horowitz. Although it’s a book written for entrepreneurs, as the spouse of an entrepreneur,I took a lot away from his message as well. I love how honest he is about how painstakingly difficult it is to build and run a company. It also was a good reminder that the things worth doing are going to be hard and there is no way around it. One of the main takeaways from the book is when Horowitz describes what he calls “The Struggle.” He describes “The Struggle” as an uncomfortable phase that all entrepreneurs go through while building their business. Horowitz says:
“The Struggle is when you wonder why you started the company in the first place. The Struggle is when people ask you why you don’t quit and you don’t know the answer. The Struggle is when your employees think you are lying and you think they may be right. The Struggle is when food loses its taste. The Struggle is when you don’t believe you should be CEO of your company. The Struggle is when you know that you are in over your head and you know that you cannot be replaced. The Struggle is when everybody thinks you are an idiot, but nobody will fire you. The Struggle is where self-doubt becomes self-hatred. The Struggle is when you are having a conversation with someone and you can’t hear a word that they are saying because all you can hear is the Struggle. The Struggle is when you want the pain to stop. The Struggle is unhappiness. The Struggle is when you go on vacation to feel better and you feel worse. The Struggle is when you are surrounded by people and you are all alone. The Struggle has no mercy. The Struggle is the land of broken promises and crushed dreams. The Struggle is a cold sweat. The Struggle is where your guts boil so much that you feel like you are going to spit blood.”
Sound familiar? This passage resonates with me so much because it puts into words what I knew my spouse went through while building his business. For my spouse, “The Struggle” manifested itself through 4:00 AM panicked wake-ups and chronic pain throughout his body. This went on for over a year and anything outside of the business and “The Struggle” was just too much. Horowitz Suggests that “The Struggle” is an inevitable and painful part of starting and building a business, but he doesn’t discuss another important element of “The Struggle.” When the entrepreneur is going through the struggle so is their spouse.
During our struggle, there were many days that I seriously contemplated taking my daughter and moving across the country to be with my parents. That’s because I was seriously struggling too. I was struggling to maintain the household and childcare duties as a single parent when I hadn’t signed up for that. I was struggling with loneliness while my spouse was physically and mentally unavailable to me between long work hours, travel, and the stress he was experiencing. I was struggling with the business consuming every ounce of mental and emotional energy he had. I was struggling with managing the fear of investing everything into the company and the enormous and ever-growing amount of risk we were taking on. I was struggling with how to best support him through all of the ups and downs he was experiencing on a daily basis. I was struggling with the feeling of playing second fiddle to the needs of the business. I was struggling with my own confidence and where my dreams and aspirations fit into the equation. I was struggling with how to maintain our marriage with all of the unique challenges we were up against. At that time in our life, I often felt like I was engulfed in a dark cloud. Sure, there were rays of sunshine that would peak through in brief moments of joy when I would think the cloud had cleared up or lifted, but sure enough they would roll in again blocking the sun.
Maybe you have been there too or maybe you are in the middle of it right now. Every waking second, every ounce of energy and corner of your entrepreneur's mind is consumed by the business and “The Struggle.”
And the situation I described above is just from the earlier years of the company when we were working to get it off the ground, but I think it’s important to also point out that “The Struggle” of entrepreneurship can rear its head multiple times throughout the course of the business. As the business grows, so do the demands and new challenges can arise that may shake the entrepreneur’s confidence, cause added stress, and introduce new pressures. I think many entrepreneurs, as well as their spouses, would argue that you are never truly out of the “The Struggle.”
So, what can you do when the one you love most is trudging through the muck of entrepreneurship and you are on the other side amidst your own struggles? During this time I felt pretty helpless and was unsure how to navigate these choppy waters for myself and our relationship. But just as Horowitz said in his book, “there are no answers to The Struggle, but here are some ideas that have helped me out.”
1. Recognize you are both in “The Struggle.”
I think a difficult aspect of these rough patches is that usually you don’t even realize you are in them until you’ve made it through. I know that was true for us. If you can recognize you are both struggling in different ways, you can walk through it together, while having more empathy and understanding for what each of you is going through. Recognizing and sharing with your partner that you are in “The Struggle” also opens the door for conversations about how you can best support one another through this difficult time.
2. “Embrace the suck.”
During my work with the U.S. Army, there were a couple of phrases I learned that have really stuck with me and ones I apply in my own life when going through hard times. A favorite is “embrace the suck.” As a soldier, you are put in many uncomfortable, unpleasant, stressful, difficult, and downright sucky situations. In those moments you can choose to complain and have a bad attitude, not give your all or quit; or you can choose to “embrace the suck,” which means having the mental toughness and productive mindset that allows you to stick it out. I use it in my running as well. No one feels good or is enjoying the race at mile 23 of the marathon! Once you accept this, you don’t try to avoid the pain. You welcome it and work with it, because you know it is a sign that you are one step closer to your goal. Then when you’ve pushed through and crossed the finish line, the accomplishment is that much sweeter. You never regret the effort and perseverance that was put in.
I want to be clear that “embracing the suck” does not mean that you have to put your head in the sand and pretend that it is all good. You can look at the situation and acknowledge that yes, this is hard and I don’t like it and it sucks, but it is about making the choice to accept it and then focus on what we can control: our mindset, attitude and perspective of the difficult situation. The sooner you can accept where you’re at, the more likely you are to take action toward what you can do.
3. Become “Battle Buddies.”
This is another term I took from the Army. In simple terms, a “battle buddy” is when service members are assigned to each other to mutually assist, protect, and help each other both in and out of battle. I have been told by many soldiers that there is no stronger bond than the bond that is formed when you go into battle with someone. When you literally trust them with your life and vice versa. “Battle buddy” has also become a term of endearment among soldiers to describe those closest to them who they can count on to have their back through trying times. Having someone you can truly count on during moments of difficulty is extremely important to our resilience. It’s reassuring to know that when you are in the midst of a battle that someone is there by your side to cover for you and that they have your back no matter what. Often when couples lean on each other through difficult times they come out stronger and closer on the other side. Walking through hard times together can bond you as a single fighting force to create a “yes, this hard but we are in this together” mentality. How can you become battle buddies to mutually support and lean on each other during difficult times to help you come out of “The Struggle” stronger together?
4. This too shall pass.
You must remind yourself and each other what you are going through is just a phase and it too shall pass (easier said than done I know!). When we were going through a really tough time with the business and in our marriage, someone told us to think of our life as a book. Books are made up of many chapters. In any good story, some chapters are happy, exciting, or easy to read and fly by, while others can be long or sad and more difficult to get through. You have to stick with it and get past the hard chapters to see how the story ends. So, if we are in a difficult chapter in our life or relationship, reminding ourselves that it is just a hard chapter and we have to get through to get to the good stuff has been comforting to us. It serves to lessen the tension and keep us focused on the long term goal. Sometimes the simple act of looking at each other in the eyes and saying “this chapter sucks and I can’t wait for the next one” brings some comfort and usually a smile.
5. Don’t underestimate your contributions and the importance of your role.
This may be the most important takeaway. So,remember: You are the one who reminds your entrepreneur why he started the business in the first place. You are the reason your entrepreneur doesn’t quit when everyone is telling her that she should. You are the one telling your entrepreneur that he is not lying to his employees even though they think he is. You are the one making dinner (or at least ordering the take out) and making sure your entrepreneur eats. You are the one drilling all of the reasons why he should be the CEO into his head. You are the one that still loves your entrepreneur when their self-doubt becomes self-hatred. You are the one on vacation with them when they are trying to feel better but you know they feel worse. You are the one by her side during the unhappiness and the cold sweats and when she feels alone. You are the one holding his hand through the land of broken promises. Our job may be behind the scenes, outside of the spotlight or even unnoticed, but it is no less important! They couldn’t do it without us!
“The Struggle” will sure as hell change your entrepreneur and it will change you too, but it is your choice to decide how you want it to change you and how you want it to change your relationship.
Will you let it build up resentment and distance between you and your spouse? Will you let it destroy you and your marriage or will make the choice to embrace “The Struggle” and let it bring you closer together as a couple? Thanks for reading and I’d love for you to share additional ways you and your entrepreneur get through “The Struggle” of entrepreneurship in the comments below. Also, check out my article on self-care during difficult times for more information about how you can take care of your well-being.