“Worse than losing competence is losing the ability to even tell if you are competent or not.”
It was a sentence I circled around for what felt like twenty minutes. Once I got to “not” I’d find myself back at the start with “worse.”
Not worse. Not worse. Not worse. It began to feel like a mantra where I was trying to convince myself of a feeling opposite of what was happening. I’m “not worse” than I was a year ago. I’m “not worse” than anyone else in my position. I’m “not worse” for wear. Except, I was; at least in this particular moment.
The piece was written by Hanna Rosin for Lenny Letter. She was chronicling her switch from a 20-year career as a working writer to radio, a medium she had no experience in and that landed her back at career ground zero. She is now co-host of the NPR show Invisibilia. It’s a bold switch she made in her ‘40s. Correction, it was an enviably bold switch.
Especially to me, founder of company "X," devouring her words while simultaneously spooning Honey Nut Cheerios into my mouth and wondering, what if I gave it up all too? What if I said screw this entrepreneur thing, the pitching, the selling, the sweat and tears, and pumping my own money into company "X" for the last five or so years, and started over? Would that even be possible? It’s one thing to switch careers, but to shutter your own baby? I don't know, I whispered to myself, I just don't know. Not. Worse. You're not worse.
The last statement is not untrue. My company is profitable, though small. I employee 7 people. They have health insurance and paid vacations and I do the right thing by them. I feel respected by other business people and can hold my own in a conference room full of investors. On the other hand, I don't know.
It's a feeling often pegged as "impostor syndrome." When you're not sure why or how you've made it and that soon those rose-colored glasses through which everyone sees you, will become less rosy and more mossy. They'll see that you don't have the experience, the foresight, and will challenge that you are charging exorbitant prices for your services. (Stick to your money guns, you're not. There's a reason someone paid you *that* to start: you're worth it).
But impostor syndrome that takes a dive down the rabbit hole will land you in the grimy pit of something far less talked about: founder depression. They don't talk about it in business school or boardrooms. Women certainly don't seem to talk about it in front of male peers. From what I've seen, they don't even like to talk about it in front of other female founders. But why?
Starting a business takes confidence. It’s you telling the world, you need this service or this product and I am going to be the one to deliver it to you. Me. Out of the 7.125 billion people on the planet, I have the ability to solve this problem for you. That’s no small undertaking. Telling someone you're depressed feels like the opposite of both confident and competent. Telling someone that being the owner of a company is the hardest, scariest, monster under your bed challenge you've ever stared down? That's also scary.
No one, not even your best, most trusted employee, will care as much as you. There are days when you’re completely disheartened, as if the anxiety is a tide waiting to pull you under. There will be nights when you stare at the ceiling wondering why you started the business in the first place and there are moments where you lose the ability to discern if you’re competent or not.
That is the worst feeling. But it's also temporary. (You should also TALK to other founders and understand that this feeling, this doubt, this low, is so utterly and completely normal.)
As a female founder you don't want to be perceived as weak. This is a mistake. It is our failures that make us stronger. It is our weaknesses that propel us forward. It's running toward the fear that gets you over it.
Look. Here’s what happens on a bad day: an employee quits, three deals blow up in your face, and your dog runs away. You feel completely alone; solopreneur for life.
Here’s what happens on a good day: homeostasis.
Here’s what happens on your worst day: your business folds.
Here’s what happens on a great day: you land an account, something that has been pending for months gets SIGNED, Forbes sticks you on 30 under 30, the most talented copywriter comes to work for you, and your grandma calls to tell you she’s proud.
And that is when you realize, you're "not worse." No. Quite the opposite.
"You are competent." You are brilliantly competent.
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