In the startup scene, companies are occasionally referred to as our “babies”. It’s not a bad analogy: they absorb a lot of time, money, resources and headspace, they keep you awake at night. They’re dearly loved and protected, and nurtured to the best of your ability;they might just die if you leave them alone too long.
Before going too much further in this vein, I’ll assure that I do know it’s not the same: and not having kids myself, I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like.
But perhaps I can imagine baby brain.
Burnout is all too familiar to startup founders. You can’t think, you’re exhausted and irritable, remembering and coordinating details is between hard and impossible, and life is just a challenge. And yet somehow you just have to keep things going.
For at least the last year I had been battling it like a cold that just wouldn’t go away.
It finally reached a crescendo and I just had to stop… Hence my impromptu holiday when Mum invited me to Italy. I promise that I did not grow up with a silver spoon - life to date has been really damn hard tbh - and this invitation was completely unexpected, but so very needed. I got back a week or so ago, and am happily finding a new rhythm.
While absent was when I started to notice how many things I’m just not keeping in my head. Like, what on earth did I feel like eating that I walked into this cafe to get? Then, I was meant to download something while I eat.. What on earth was it? It’s only then that I notice that I actually need to go to the bathroom quite desperately, and it’ll be half an hour before I remember that there’s a complementary lunch coming in an hour or so, so I probably didn’t need to buy food at all.
Etc etc ad nauseam.
It was frankly quite distressing. But I imagine that it’s not too different from what I hear of baby brain, so I thought I’d share my reflections from the plane on how I’ve handled it. Please do let me know if my tips help you, or pay it forward and share them with someone.
1. Just know that it’s a growth process.
I met a gastrointestinal surgeon in a Da Vinci exhibition in Venice: lovely guy! Of course we hit it off, because his expertise includes bariatric surgery and medical interventions of other affects resulting from precisely the poor nutritional habits that I’ve designed Mashblox’ to easily improve from kids' first experiences with food.
But then I started getting really anxious. Would I be able to explain my stuff properly? Am I even using the right words? Does it matter that half my vocabulary is missing? Will he think I’m stupid? Will he notice?
He certainly noticed my anxiety and shallow breathing when I spoke on the subject, so over dinner I told him my experience with burnout and how I was feeling.
And you know what? He told me about having gone through the same, 4 years into uni.
A friend dragged him on a holiday, and he repaired - better than he was - after a two week break.
He told me, that to build something great, you need to break to re-form. … Or something similar. To integrate new personal growth into your core being, sometimes you need to excavate what else was there.
I wasn’t sure if it was true, but I chose to believe it because it was incredibly comforting.
Sometimes, if we’ve outgrown so many beliefs and habits so rapidly that we feel a bit lost; Or we’re really applying ourselves to develop our mind;
Or our priorities have suddenly and radically shifted;
And particularly if we’ve been working really damn hard to improve life for ourselves and those we love:
Your mind just need to start fresh. So bits and pieces check out for a period so that they can re-form. (Or at least that’s been my experience since I’ve started coming back)
2. “Baby brain” - or burnout - surely serves an evolutionary purpose.
Otherwise why would it be so common?
If you choose to believe that your mind could be paused so it can re-form, then surely that is so that mothers will develop the mental resources and flexibility to manage and coordinate the immense day to day of caring for a family? We (- as mostly women reading this, I assume) know that the mental load can be as enormous and consuming as it seems to be unappreciated.
(The mental load of startup is another reason why it’s my “baby”)
Equal opportunity and gender roles aside, there’s no denying that this invisible load at least with family, has been our responsibility for aeons. Maybe at some point, natural selection applied baby brain hormones to better prepare new Mums for their next life stage?
Plausible? Helpful? Comforting? You're welcome 😃
3. Recognise it as an opportunity to reflect and rebuild your mind how you would like it.If you’re familiar with and subscribe to Angela Duckworth’s research on grit, an awareness of neuroplasticity is the most important factor in establishing resilience and endurance serving long term goals, then it’s not a far leap to conclude that you can design your mind however you like.
Let me unpack my perspective a bit:
My interpretation of her work, is that if you’re able to accept the idea that even something as fundamental as your brain’s hard-coding can change, therefore everything about the way you experience, approach or navigate the world can change.
Because this is inherently beyond your imagining, then you’ve also opened the door to believe that *anything* in your wildest dreams is possible.
Therefore, they’re worth continuing to work towards, because you will find a way.
This is obviously an awesome mindset to approach big, tangible life goals too, but some goals to start with in context might be:
Less stress, more charisma or more positive relationships, less fluster, more opportunities, easier efforts on anything.
- These are just examples of what might be required to make your dream life possible and realistic. More energy, clarity, focus; being less easily distracted etc.
I would recommend to just start by believing that this is possible, and that it’s not that hard. “Life is always easier than expected” is one of my favourite regular affirmations.
The next step is to reflect on any situations that could have gone better, and realise what you could have done differently. Note that sometimes this reflection and realisation happens long after the fact, and sometimes knowing what you could do differently isn’t enough - and that’s okay.
Also reflect when you are happy with how you’ve handled any situation, and realise why. Focus on that. 😃 Bit by bit, you build, reinforce and rebuild.
4. Mindfulness meditation
(Or equivalent practice, like yoga, or maybe dance or painting)
This helps you bed in changes, or release what stress that you’re ready to.
I find a regular practice wonderful to clear habits and nagging negative self-talk also.
5. Keep Lists!
My notebook is a Godsend and I’m never without at least one. I’m currently building my habits so that lists for different things are organised and discrete. e.g. Groceries stay home, contacts and follow ups come with me, and to-do lists are at a remove. Like you might keep lunchbox checklists on or near the fridge, carer or school contacts with you, work stuff at work. Maybe this sounds daft, but sometimes the most important growth really does start with the very basics.
(I know that I could once carry all of this in my head. It was okay until adulthood starting getting involved.)
6. Pay attention to your diet.
I also read somewhere that an elderly lady reversed her Alzheimers with a diet emphasising oats, sweet potato, blueberries, broccoli and kale, and figured it was worth a shot. I added couscous, walnuts, spinach, and reduced sugar. Everyone’s different and responds differently to foods, but this helps me.
I started by noticing how different foods affect me, immediately or over time. Overdoing sugar makes me really agitated almost instantly, for example. Overdoing bread makes me sluggish within a week or so.
I’ve found this experience a powerful motive to consciously maintain a health-promotion diet on permanent basis, which is surely a win too.
Even before my new surgeon friend verbalised the idea, I had made an early decision to use my experience as an opportunity to reshape some of my habits to better serve my personal growth.
(“Use your struggles to transform you” is another affirmation I love)
Part of this process for me was simply deciding that I had no interest in enduring such incredible stress as I had been. It doesn’t help change things, it might even slow down solutions, and could only drive me to an insane pace of work that ultimately doesn’t help at all with bigger opportunities, which I need to be present to capture.
So I've started taking breaks when I need them (hallelujah!), and getting comfortable with having things left on my to-do list. I’m saying no to stuff that doesn’t matter, or doesn’t serve core priorities.
I’ve also been pushing back on some of the mental load in my life, by demanding people take accountability for their own concerns, and foremost taking care of mine. (I know as well as anyone that sometimes this is trickier than it sounds - especially for a parent)
And so far, this stuff seems to be helping maintain my new frame of mind.
Maybe it’ll help you if you’re struggling with similar to me a few months ago. It sucks, but you’re not the only one.
- Alix O'Hara, Mashblox Inventor Founder CEO
There are some extraordinarily exciting opportunities that have started coming together while I was in Europe, relaxed and rested enough to make them happen… I can’t tell you how happy this stuff makes me, but make sure you’re subscribed to our newsletter for an inside look coming soon 😃
Pic credit: The Women's Business School '19 Europe Trade Mission, London https://www.thewomensbusinessschool.com/
(Right after my first speaking engagements at the Women's Economic Forum, discussing Mashblox research case, and the proportionate commercial opportunity to the impact of For-Purpose enterprise)