Atlas Year-End Reflections

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This year, I dove headfirst into supporting leaders of startups at the same time I became the leader of a startup for the first time.  I’ll offer a few reflections now that Atlas is having its first birthday. 

Ask for help.

Since I was two years old, I’ve been a “do it yourself” type of person.  When we started Atlas, I was the marketer, bookkeeper, program developer, coach, event planner, and operator.  One year later, I’m still many of these things but am slowly learning to let others help.  The best part is that, as we grow, Atlas benefits from increasingly more talented contributors.  My business partners often say, “you can do anything but you can’t do everything”.  Each time I think about accepting the support of others in the company or in the network, I get this tight pit in my stomach and my internal voice starts to tell me stories.  I’ve come to recognize this feeling as the fear associated with vulnerability.  Asking for help, as Mutewatch founder, Mai Li Hammergram says, is like “letting someone into your garden”.  Once they’re in, they can trample it, judge it, or steal from it.  Alternatively, once they are in your garden they can cultivate it and help you harvest your bounty.  The voice in my head often tells me that letting people in will lead to confirmation of my imposture beliefs, that “I’m doing it all wrong”, “I’m not good enough” and that if someone does the job better than me, “I might as well quit”.  I’m increasingly reminding myself that letting someone into my garden who’s better than me is exactly the goal. I want them to improve upon what I’ve started, to teach me something new, and in that process they may actually judge or trample something I’ve created, and that’s ok.  My challenge to myself for 2019 is to see this as a gift and smile when someone talented wants to help grow a garden with me.

Take away: No one can be everything a growing company needs.  Surround yourself with the best of the best and check your ego at the door.

Type two fun.

I first learned of type 2 fun from my friend, Jesse Merz.  He is literally the expert at this type of life experiencing (www.pdxpanam.tumblr.com).  A notable brush with type-2 living, for me, was on a long bike ride from the west coast to the east coast.  I learned on this trip, and am reminded of every day, that type-2 fun hurts, is hard, and ugly while you’re doing it.  However, the fun it provides when it’s complete is unparalleled.  

Creating a startup is very much like riding my bike through Appalachia when 3-4 times per day I reached the peak of a death hill and saw beautiful views of lush green forests and lazy rivers AND 3-4 times a day I was looking straight up at an 11% grade hill.  To me, days in this startup can feel like the ups and downs get me nowhere; when looking forward and seeing endless hills in the distance, it’s easy to become discouraged.  

However, in moments like this when I’m standing on a peak and looking backwards, I see all of the hills and valleys I’ve crossed.  This is ultimately what type-2 fun is all about.  Upon reflection, I can see that the person who started this journey has been left behind and a new person has emerged.

Some of us are born with an appetite for dynamic living and crave experiences that allow us to make an impact on the world.  To make this sustainable, we must also allow the experience to make an impact on us and remember, when the vantage point is good, to look backwards.

Take away: Ups and downs are normal and it’s vital to recognize every undulation as progress.  Slow down, especially during high moments, and notice how far you’ve come.

Walk the walk.

Wow, this is a tough one.  I’m fully convinced that I became a therapist to avoid the task of providing for myself that which I provide to my clients.  This is to say; practicing what I preach has been one of the hardest pieces of my work this year.  For about 6 months I’ve been building Life Boards of Directors for startup leaders and members of the startup ecosystem.  Meanwhile, I’ve been the poorest I’ve ever been, the busiest I’ve ever been, and the most stressed I’ve been since graduate school.  This year I ate more crap, exercised less, had to restart my yoga and meditation practice constantly and have gone months without adequate socialization.  On one hand, I get it, I’ve been there/I’m there right now, on the other hand, wowza, what a ride.  

Just yesterday, I reminded myself of the benefits of having a Life Board and decided that I need help to be accountable to my wellbeing, the same as all of you.  Money has served as a convenient excuse for not getting the support I need around my wellbeing.  What you can all count on is that in the Atlas budget for 2019 is a line for personal wellness for all of Atlas’s employees, including me.

Take away: Personal wellbeing is not a luxury or a right it is a necessity.  Treat it like your life depends on it, because it does.

Optimism as rocket fuel.

I first experienced depression when I was in my middle childhood.  In fact, my nickname growing up was Eyyore.  I’ve often benefitted from my cynical and pessimistic outlook.  It caused me to question everything, to think for myself, see things as they really are, and to push myself to achieve and improve as if my life depended on it.  However, in running a company, this type of outlook often leaves me with my gas tank empty.  

There are infinite ways that startups can go wrong and when only looking for places to improve, it starts to feel like looking at millions of death hills and having a flat tire…  I’ve learned that what ultimately gets me out of bed in the morning is the belief that I can make a difference. Which requires optimism and the willingness to see constructive feedback as an opportunity to increase and improve Atlas’s impact.  

Now I try to learn quickly from mistakes instead of dwelling on them and turn to the present moment and future for inspiration to keep me moving forward.

Take away: Optimism is contagious, it’s not only better for you, it’s better for business.

Why?

Finally, my why. My obsession with self-care actually started in my undergraduate years when I was a D1 rower.  Rowing is a particularly demanding sport in that it requires its participants to begin practice at 4:45am and is a monotonous activity inflicting both boredom and pain.  To succeed in rowing, I became an expert at dissociating from my body and pushing beyond my physical limits. About 5 years into my rowing career, I discovered meditation.  My first brush with meditation was through the lens of Metta, and a book written by John McKransky, Awakening Through Love.  

I would have never considered myself a spiritual person and definitely was not into anything with “love” in the title.  But, as I worked through the exercises in this book, my life transformed.  For the first time I could focus on a book for more than 2-3 pages, the colors of the world looked brighter, I considered myself a part of something larger… and I really felt my body.  After beginning meditation, rowing became impossible. I could no longer ignore the signals of pain my body threw up to protect me and my rowing suffered.  

After this I became obsessed with the question about the link of wellbeing and success.  I couldn’t believe that being mindful and aware of my body would always block me from the success I sought; it must be that success and health can co-exist.  In my graduate training, I studied the link between employee wellbeing and decreased turnover, increased productivity, and organizational effectiveness behaviors (people doing extra things) and hypothesized that if people are happy and healthy that their businesses would prosper.

Alongside my research, I was experimenting in my own life and finding that regular travel, socialization, and a yoga practice increased my success in school and my joy in work.  To help me stick to my new self-care regimen, I hired a therapist, a yoga teacher, and a naturopath; I planned regular travel and adventure; and set times each week to connect with my non-psychology friends.  I did not stick to this every week and there were months when it was almost impossible to fit it all in but despite this I learned, that wellbeing is more than looking fit, more than feeling calm, more than having a lot of friends, and more than being successful, it’s all of these things. Thus my passion, my why, was born. Now, I know and believe from research and personal experience that wellness and success can not only co-exist but are intimately linked to one another.

Take away: What’s your “why”?  Where does your own personal self-care stack up on your list of priorities? 

I know that tending to each part of yourself and your world is vital to live a fulfilling, sustainable, and successful life… and that all three of those must be present for you to thrive.  That’s why I strive each day to maintain my own life board of directors and to help those making a difference in our world do the same.  

I’ve shared a lot here, I’d love to hear your story with starting a business, learning about self-care and the way you fit it all together.  Post your story in the comments!

Kari SulenesComment