As small business owners, we understand the ups and downs. We get that there will be high highs and loooooow lows. There will be days when everything feels like ohmygodTHISiswhyIchosethislife! and there will be more than a few days when it’s more like DearGodPleaseLetMyDreamJobJustBeWaitingForMeOnCraigslist. But what do you do when the lows aren’t black and white. When it’s not because there’s no clients… or because your thing didn’t sell. Instead, it’s something deeper. Something scarier. Something like… Apathy. Or burnout. Or just relentless, soul-level exhaustion. That deep, insidious feeling of, “I just have no more fucks to give. Ever.” That gnawing, grating pull of, “I just don’t care about my work anymore. At all.” That paralyzing loss of inspiration. Of creativity. Of fire.
What do you do when nothing feels right, and the work isn’t what you want it to be, and you know you need to make changes, but you just have no idea what to change into or how to make it better?
First, let’s talk about why all the terrible ideas rolling around in your head belong on the ‘What Not To Do’ list:
- Get a job. Just think…you’ll get to use all kinds of fun words and phrases that you probably forgot existed: 10 minute break, casual Friday, team building exercise, performance review, withholdings, BOSS.
- Fire all of your clients. Tell them they bore you. Seriously. It’s not like you’re doing a good job anyway.
- Stop paying your bills. At least you’ll have a bunch of new friends knocking on your door on a regular basis.
- Move into a cardboard box under a bridge. Upside: no more worrying about a good wifi signal.
- Start a podcast about how you hate everything now. Call it, “A Recovering Entrepreneur’s Guide to Flaming Fuckwads of Failure.” Make it epic.
- Do B-School. Or some other edu-tainment, emotionally triggering, FOMO online course. I’m certain spending $2k will help you care about your business again.
- Go on another retreat. Maybe one with dolphins. DEFINITELY one with vegan food and a lot of tea. Because I know how you have been meaning to eat better.
- Move to Portland. Why not? Apparently, we are where all the inspiration is. Nothing like hordes of naked, bearded white people to help you get a broader world view. I mean really. All this fleece and pot and truck-based food? We are like cosmopolitan AF these days. Suck it Paris.
- Convince yourself that all will be solved by a new [insert material technological object] or [insert anything you can wear on your feet or put money in]. Purchase said item. Roll around in all the endorphins. Really let ’em get all over you.
- Buy a ridiculous amount of new office supplies. I swear to god, someday, I’m GOING to find a copper stapler. It has to exist. And when I find it…LOOK OUT WORLD.
- Spend all day every day on Facebook. But just do it without the, “I have to for work,” pretense. Because who are you kidding? You haven’t posted to your work page in four months.
- Spend a month figuring out whateverneshinysocialmediathing you feel like you should be doing but aren’t. [Can someone please tell me why I need to care about Periscope? DO I need to still care about Periscope? Or did Facebook Live just sort of smoosh it into tiny pieces? Sorry 2017 readers…that ref will no doubt feel painfully dated by the time you read this. Like when I made a similar joke about not understanding the hullabaloo about Vine a few months ago. Who’s laughing NOW Vine people?!]
- Wear only yoga pants from now on. Oh wait.
- Rebrand. The tried and true solution to whatever’s broken. Spend six months choosing the PERFECT font to convey just the right blend of, “I care deeply about you.” And, “Please give me all the monies.” There is literally nothing more important than this. Literally.
[I know, it’s weird that I keep bagging on re-brands since I get paid to help people rebrand. I’ll just let you chew on the irony hypocrisy.] Ok, now that you’ve realized that the viability of moving to Portland or getting a job is maybe not actually what you’re after, let’s talk for real. Because where you are now is where the real work begins. W-O-R-K. This is not the fun part. This is not the easy part. This is the hard part. You are, right now, in what I call ‘The Crucible.’ Dramatic, I know. When I tell clients that, I say it with a nervous giggle because I have a hard time taking myself seriously with such melodrama – and I hear old-radio-show-style thunderclaps in my head when say it too, which doesn’t help. But the comparison is apt, despite the ominous name. You are in the part of business where everything just goddamn sucks. And if you make it out the other side, you will be someone different than you are right now. You will be a business owner. You will no longer be aspiring. You will have earned your stripes and will have a much stronger sense of what you’re actually made of. Because the for the first time, you will have maintained forward motion without the benefit of passion and enthusiasm to keep you going. And let me tell you…passion and enthusiasm can take you a long way. But not ALL the way. For that, you need good, old-fashioned grit. So what are your ACTUAL options for making it through? They are pretty simple, actually. There are only three:
The Fight: Fighting is what most of us think we’re doing when we say things like, “I’m just overwhelmed.” “I’m so exhausted.” Or, “There’s just SO much to do.” But that’s not actually what fighting is. Fighting is when you make a two-mile-long to-do list and just slog through it. Even when you don’t want to. Even when you want to hide under a blanket and watch Netflix for a million years. Even when you’re tired/sick/bored/fried/overloaded. Especially then. The Fight means putting one foot in front of the other every single day for as long as it takes until something changes. The Surrender: Also, probably not what you think. Surrender is not giving up. Not at all. Surrender is the courageous notion that you can’t affect change from where you are right now. It’s letting go and realizing that today is not the day to fight. It’s letting the goddamn boulder just sit at the bottom of the hill for a bit while you just stare at it. It’s not planning. It’s not hiding. It’s patience. It’s acceptance. It’s liminal space. It’s peace. And it’s hard. As. Fuck. The Run: Running is where you really let go – where you quit. Where you cash in your chips, cut your losses, and close the doors. And it is 100% ok to do. Fighting and Surrendering are not more noble. I am a HUGE fan of quitting. And of quitters. I have quit a LOT of things in my life. All were good decisions. If what you’re doing is not at least pointing you in the direction of happiness, pointing yourself in a new direction is the ONLY option. And the real kicker is — no matter what option you choose, this is not a business decision. It’s a life one. But it’s a decision you absolutely have to make. Because your business doesn’t care what you do. Your professional colleagues don’t care what you do. Your clients don’t even really care THAT much. They will survive without you. The only people who care what happens next are you and the people that matter most to you.
Make those people feel happy and valued. And get focused on the value you want to offer to the world.
Then do whatever you need to do to make those two things align. Do that forever. And you’ll make it through.