Zen and the Art of Founder Resilience

Professor of Entrepreneurship Dr. Yuval Engel tested whether Buddhist loving-kindness meditation can help entrepreneurs deal with fear of failure. The results were eye-opening.

September 5, 2023

Zen and the Art of Founder Resilience

The Startup Snapshot Report uncovered a startling reality: 42% of startup founders identify the fear of failure as a significant stressor. This fear is more than a statistic; it’s a pervasive challenge that affects founders’ decision-making, innovation, and mental health, often seeping into other aspects of their lives. The origins of this fear are multifaceted, ranging from potential financial loss and reputation damage to harming others, given the responsibility founders feel towards employees, customers and investors. 

While often perceived negatively, it’s important to remember that fear of failure also acts as a valuable warning system, alerting founders to legitimate risks, and motivating them to reconsider whether to carry on at full speed or opt for a slower and more cautious approach. However, when this fear is triggered too often or becomes overwhelming, it can paralyze and make decision-making appear extremely challenging. This can give rise to persistent negative self-views, or lead to self-sabotaging. The challenge for founders, therefore, is to cope with the fear of failure in a way that reduces its negative emotional impact while preserving its valuable informational signal.

Development Through Exploring Self-Compassion

Driven to address this challenge, my research explored the role of self-compassion in navigating fear-inducing entrepreneurial obstacles. I specifically targeted the role of self-compassion because other solutions that attempt to buffer against fear, for example, using confidence or self-esteem boosters, often backfire as they can promote inflated self-views, biased judgment, or even narcissism. 

Self-compassion is distinct from self-esteem in that it is not a judgment about how good one is compared to a set of perceived standards or pitted against others’ performance. Instead, when facing an obstacle, sensing inadequacy, or feeling distress, self-compassion means relating to oneself with kindness rather than judgment, reflecting on connections to others in suffering rather than feeling isolated or alone, and being present with painful thoughts rather than suppressing or resisting them. 

My team and I hypothesized that self-compassion could help founders cope with the fear of failure more effectively, preserving the cognitive benefits of recognizing obstacles for what they are, without feeling flooded and overwhelmed by fear. 

As a practical tool to boost self-compassion among our study participants, we examined a brief Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM) as an intervention, a technique rooted in the Buddhist tradition that was originally designed to cultivate feelings of compassion towards oneself and others.

Outlining the Experiment: Directing Feelings of Compassion

The experimental study involved a sample of startup founders in the Netherlands who were randomly divided into two groups: One group engaged in a guided LKM session – being instructed to meditate for about 10 minutes, focusing on breathing patterns and directing feelings of compassion and love of themselves and others (click here to learn more). The other (control) group spent the same amount of time listening to a TED talk about meditation, without actually practicing it. 

After these activities, we measured the levels of self-compassion, followed by exposure to an entrepreneurial scenario designed to elicit fear of failure. This allowed us to assess how self-compassion, boosted by LKM, influences the experience of fear of failure among founders, revealing a significant increase in self-compassion, while also showing a decline in the emotion of fear. Importantly, while the intensity of experiencing fear of failure was eased, the threat was still recognized – that is, founders could still acknowledge the obstacle but fear as a reaction to it subsided

The Self-Compassion Effect 

So, are 10 minutes of meditation and an uptick in self-compassion all you need to address the fear of failure? Unfortunately, no, it’s not that easy. LKM and self-compassion are not a cure, nor do they represent the only ways to address fear of failure. Studies like mine are primarily aimed at opening the door toward a better understanding of how founders can constructively process fear. More research in this area is needed to move the needle. Indeed, it is quite likely such research will find that a stable meditation practice over years and continuous reinforcement of self-compassionate responses to fear are necessary for more durable habit-forming changes to stick. 

The Importance of Resilience: Help is at Hand for Those Able to Reach for it

The Startup Snapshot Report’s additional observation that more experienced founders tend to exhibit less fear of failure underscores the role of experience in developing resilience. This might or might not be due to the association between startup experience and self-compassion.

Exposure to various business cycles, learning from past failures, and developing a mature perspective on life as a startup founder may all contribute to this resilience. Indeed, just like practices like LKM and the development of self-compassion can provide effective coping mechanisms for some, the broader journey of gaining experience in and around startups is crucial too in building long-term resilience against the debilitating aspects of fear of failure. Perhaps surprisingly, the Startup Snapshot Report also shows that older founders (over 35) had less of a stigma about seeking professional mental help than their younger counterparts.

In conclusion, the insights from both the Startup Snapshot Report and my research about this topic underscore the need to manage entrepreneurial fear of failure, advocating for strategies that balance emotional well-being with cognitive alertness. This is yet another indication that addressing the emotional and psychological aspects of entrepreneurship is as crucial as providing founders with business advice and financial support.

Creating a Culture of Support 

Since 2017, I have taught about different self-awareness and self-regulation tools, including meditation and self-compassion, to student entrepreneurs in our acceleration program at the University of Amsterdam. I know others, whether at top US universities or alternative  educational settings, have started to pay attention to these effects too. 

If my students – making the very first steps on their entrepreneurial journey – can already notice the value that such tools provide in mitigating fear of failure, just months into running their first startup, I’m confident that more founders can make use of these lessons too. 

There is real promise here that cultivating a culture of open discussion about fears, coupled with practices like LKM and the purposeful development of self-compassion, can be done as a preventive step. By doing so, it allows founders to prepare in advance for potential encounters with fearful events rather than reacting to an urgent real-time need. 

Scaling this approach further could also foster a healthier and more resilient startup community where founders’ mental health is not only safeguarded but also actively strengthened. 

Dr. Yuval Engel

Dr. Yuval Engel

Professor at University of Amsterdam

Bio

Dr. Engel researches the effect of meditation on entrepreneurs and their ventures.

Dr. Yuval Engel

Professor at University of Amsterdam

Bio

Dr. Engel researches the effect of meditation on entrepreneurs and their ventures.

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