Going Inside Out: Melancholia and the Entrepreneur-Changemaker's Dilemma

[This is not a review about Inside Out, but a long overdue article prompted into existence by the said movie further helping the author feel okay with talking about things not being “okay”. The movie does not talk about entrepreneurs or changemakers, but the author uses some references or screen captures from the movie, because well, emotions.]

“Hey! Long time no see! How have you been doing? I’ve seen your posts on Facebook and things are looking amazing with you and [insert startup / organization / advocacy here]!”

Moving in both startup as well as “change-maker” circles, I have the unique opportunity of meeting a lot of amazing individuals who are fiercely passionate about their work and are making things happen. On the outside, we see their success and admire them for their work, and we see them as often very driven individuals with a single-minded focus, with nothing to distract them from achieving their goals.

With the exception of perhaps 1%, underneath all the accolades, awards, grants, investments, traction or other support they receive, even when it seems so clear and apparent to the outside world and to themselves, many of these individuals still have moments of doubt and questioning themselves: Is this really my place in the world? Is this where I can create the greatest impact with my knowledge, skills and network? I’ve been at this for a few years now, have I been approaching things correctly? I’m still a ways away from where I had set out to be, should I change direction or keep going? Is the future hopeless, the system too complex, and people too uncooperative, and money too hard to come by this way? Should I just surrender and quit?

The Stages of Grief and the Trough of Sorrow

When one gets to this point, it may help to take some notes the stages of grief [1], to better understand one’s feelings, feel them and perhaps cry (because it’s okay to), and then more importantly, figure out how to productively move forward. Let’s walk through it together, shall we?

Stage 1: Denial. Otherwise known as the relentless pursuit of happiness and undying optimism.

“When we hit a wall, we don’t stop, of course! We get back on the horse! We know our place in this world, and when you put out work that is valuable, people will support you! I will take only the validation that I need, and chalk the rest of you up as envious or bitter or shallow, worldly naysayers. I will keep any doubts to myself because they will not serve my purpose when made public. It will not help others, it will not help me. If anyone comes in probing about problems, well, I’m okay! Minor hiccups! No worries!”

Stage 2: Anger. May also be called frustration.

“Why aren’t people buying into this much needed product / service / advocacy?? @&#%$! Ugh, it must be because of that other startup / organization getting all the attention, or that half-assed teammate of mine!! @&#%$! No, it was me. They say there are no bad teams, only bad leaders. So this is my fault. UGH. Stupid me! And damn this existentialist mindset putting the weight of the world on my shoulders! Damn you, Sartre! AUUUGH!!!”

What if I had done things differently? Or pursued this path vs. that? If only my partner didn’t leave me. If only we got funding. If only I could build my team. Huhu lord / God / universe, please help meeee.”

Stage 4: Depression. And then we wallow.

“Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems” – Sadness, Inside Out

“What am I doing? This is useless. This is hopeless. This is shit. I am shit. Can I just stay in bed all day? Can I just be completely selfish? I don’t want to do anything anymore.”

When we come to this point, it is akin to what giant tech incubator Y Combinator’s Paul Graham has dubbed the “trough of sorrow” (which the awesome StartUp podcast tackles in Episode 7 of Season 2). It is when the obviously brilliant spark of an idea is dampened by the realization that things are really not going to be as easy as we may think. [2] And in spite of all the wonderful potentialities that come along the way, they remain only that: potentialities. But what we need is for actual things to happen now, and in spite of all our efforts, we can’t quite take things where we want them to be due to this limitation or that.

Stage 5: Acceptance

Got this from my friend Julia.

They say that in the stages of grief, not everyone gets to acceptance. [3] And it is true that we all have different ways of dealing with things that happen to us in life. Some people put on an extra armor of resilience and soldier on for the tough times ahead on the same road they had embarked. For others, they gear up similarly, and take a detour, not knowing where the new road will lead, but traveling in the same general direction. For others, they set their sights on other things instead.

I don’t know where you are at in the point of your journey (we can sometimes pingpong back and forth), nor do I feel I am in a position to say with so much assurance and certainty that things will be okay or that what you’re doing is right, but here’s some advice I’ve picked up from conversations I’ve had with many dreamers and doers:

  1. Muni-muni. Every now and then, it pays to take a step back and really assess the situation vs. obsess on the day-to-day firefighting. Identify the root problem you are trying to address, what your strengths, weaknesses and available resources are (finances, networks, infrastructure, etc.), and put your ideas and life on paper to better organize it.

  2. Resist the shiny, new idea. The problem with creative folks? We’ve got tons of ideas. And we meet so many people with other great ideas we can intersect with, however tangentially. So much so that when facing difficulties in executing one idea, we can get so drawn to just starting over with another project instead of properly analyzing how to work on the existing one. When we give in right away, we don’t give the previous idea a chance to really come to fruition or reach its full potential. Watch Scott Belsky’s talk on idea plateaus on 99U.

  3. Celebrate little wins. When we get caught up with the big goals, we forget to relish the smaller successes that come along the way, and doing this is absolutely crucial to keeping ourselves motivated to keep on hustling. While it may be easy to say, no, we haven’t even gotten close to where we want to be, this is needed for morale of both the leader and the team, and it does not have to mean putting on reality blinders or resting on one’s laurels at all.

  1. Have a support group. These are not just for alcoholics, or cancer patients, or people going through PTSD, as I’ve found that a lot of people in these circles through their bouts of depression and psychological stress. It helps to have others who are going through similar things, and find ways to move forward together, bearing in mind that this is not a competition and that success will vary for each individual.

At the end of the day, it’s really about immersing yourself in the process of putting your ideas into action and giving it a good go. And if there’s anything we can all learn from the movie Inside Out, it’s about the importance of feeling our feelings. They are valid. And just because we want to radiate positivity, it doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed moments of doubt and despondence. And then past that 4th stage, I hope you come back and continue to hustle and hope, because fervent hope for better days will make life more bearable and meaningful at the same time. I’m with you! 🙂

So much to be said about this topic (and this movie), but let me end here for now and save more for another post!

[Editor’s note: Connect with other creatives and aspiring changemakers at 99U Local: Manila on September 16, 2015 at Ayala Museum, and at THRIVE & Muni Market in October.]

[1] [2] [3]

She took up psychology from De La Salle University, then pursued other creative inclinations like entrepreneurship, design and writing after graduating. She is inspired by creativity, good design, wellness, sustainability, and dreamers who are doers. She is also the Manila ambassador for 99U by Behance, a creative’s resource on Making Ideas Happen, and current vice-curator of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Manila hub. 

#troughofsorrow #founder #depression #dilemma #startup #insideout #grief #melancholia #entrepreneur #changemaker #sadness

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