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Mental health and me

Fair warning: at about 4,000 words, this is by far and away the longest blog post I have ever written (and probably will ever write). It’s poor form, artistically speaking, but it is not something that I wanted to break into separate posts. This is a ‘rip the bandaid’ off kind of thing. Please forgive the lack of brevity – if you make it to the end, I hope you’ll understand. 

I was never going to do this. I made a promise to myself a little under a year ago that I would never talk to anyone about my mental health again. It would be easier, cleaner, safer. Distance protects – both myself and others.

I was never going to write this. 

So why, then, is it here? Why are you reading this?

Well, first I guess it makes sense to explain what ‘this’ is. I have a mental health problem. I suffer from a condition called ‘Persistent Depressive Disorder’, sometimes known as ‘Chronic Major Depressive Disorder’. I was ‘officially’ diagnosed about 3 years ago, though I had been having feelings that you would associate with MDD since my late teens. 

For the most part, you probably wouldn’t notice it. I tend to drop off the radar now and again, and sometimes I drink a little too much at social events. But these are usually attributed to constantly being on the move, and having a generically poor but not necessarily sinister relationship with alcohol, respectively. One of the things having a mental health disorder makes you very good at – at least in my case – is perfecting the art of the veneer.


Why hide it in the first place?

The main reason, simply, is the fear of backlash, ridicule, and general defamation of character that such a revelation might illicit. I’m talking about reactions like this:

“To be diagnosed as depressed is the holy grail of illnesses for many. The ultimate passport to self obsession. Get a grip people.”

— Katie Hopkins

Now, obviously, I couldn’t give a tiny rat’s ass about the bile that spews from that vile woman’s mouth. The problem though, is that her view is not an isolated one. As long as people with this mindset (regardless of how far down the scale they are) still have the scope to give this sort of viewpoint air time, there is still a danger that revealing yourself will cause you problems. As someone working in the start up world, you bet your ass I’ve been sat on this post for nearly a month, worried that the knowledge that a co-founder of a company is anything less than perfect might scare people away from business with us.

This isn’t just a hypothetical concern. Up until now, only a handful of people know about my mental health problems. For the most part, everyone has been 100% awesome about it. But there has been more than one instance where telling someone has ended badly, in some cases for reasons that would never have occurred to me. As human beings, we seem to be hard-wired to remember only the bad things, and being shaken as badly as that sticks with you.

There is a third reason; I’m not entirely sure that disclosing my mental health problems is even fair. I could write an entire separate blog post on my thoughts around this. The abridged version, though, is that I hate the idea that I would be a burden on people – that people might have to go out of their way to change the way they act towards me, because I’m more fragile than I let on.


Why am I talking now?

So, the question again. If I promised myself to never talk about this, why have I decided to put it on the Internet – a medium that is infamously permanent in nature.

The honest answer is, I’m not 100% sure. I wrote this as a form of catharsis during a particularly low point. Usually that works – I write it out, file it away, and get some form of solace. Sometimes, if I need more, I’ll stick it on an obscure blog in some far corner of the internet. Lately though, this hasn’t been working – I sensed that I needed it to be ‘out there’ for me to feel better for it. 

That’s not to say it was an easy decision to make – when you’ve been hiding something like this for almost the entirety of your adult life, none of this feels right. 

I read a lot of blogs by people suffering with mental health problems though, a lot of them I thoroughly recommend. This one is particularly good – and there are others at the end of this post. Anyway, I realised the other day that while the majority of them do help, none of them 100% nail what I’m going through. It took me a while to realise why this was: no one is going through exactly what I’m going through – because no two people can experience the same things in the exact same ways. By that logic, there’s no such thing as the perfect blog post for this, but the more content there is out there, the more people in general might benefit. If my account of my issues helps one other person better articulate a small part of what they are going through, that has to be a good thing. Right…?

Another reason why I’ve decided to break my silence is that it frustrates me how poor the level of dialogue is in general for mental health – and specifically for men’s mental health. This isn’t to say that I have ever helped with this. My attitude to talking about mental health is a little like the NIMBY attitude to nuclear power or to wind-farms – sure, they seem like a good idea in general, so long as it is Not In My Back Yard. Wider discourse in the media and online and whatever PSHE lessons in schools are called these days, sure. But I’ve always been nervous about talking about it from a personal point of view.

xkcd-everyoneworries

Source: xkcd – Pastime

In short, I’m a hypocrite. Actually it’s worse than that – I’m a coward. I think all of these things, yet I still don’t want to be the one to do them. I refuse to talk properly to my doctor, seek a therapist, or approach any of my friends about how I feel. I know all the steps I need to take — all the steps I would tell anyone else in my position to take — to get me to a better place. I just refuse to do them. I hide behind a social media presence that flits between conferences, geeky tweets, and rants to companies that piss me off, rather than using it as a platform to speak about something important that – actually – is a subject on which I have a lot of things to say.

Which leads me to the final reason (or at least the final reason in this list). Opening up about my mental health may well give me more scope to write about my experiences in this blog. How mental health is looked upon in the startup world is something that fascinates me. I’m not saying that I’ll suddenly be spewing out thought pieces that Harvard students will use as case studies in important essays. But a guy can dream, right?

“I am a writer perhaps because I am not a talker.”

— Gwendolyn Brooks


So, what does the black dog look like for me?

I mentioned at the top that I read a lot of blogs on this subject. One of the things that I sometimes find quite encouraging is when people describe how their depression manifests itself in them. It gives me something to connect with. Given that, I thought it might make sense to try that myself.

The first thing to understand about depression – and indeed this is true of any ailment – is that it presents itself in different ways in different people. Often, it will even present itself in different ways in the same person. 

There are a number of ways to describe how I react, and I wasn’t sure how best to frame it. I’ve decided to just talk through some of the most common and/or severe reactions to what I call my ‘down phases’ – periods of time where I feel particularly low. Some of these you might notice in a person, and others you might not.

Unsociability

In my case, perhaps my most common reaction to low points is to withdraw into myself. There are currently only two people who can get me to talk when I feel like that – and that’s only because I work with them, and it’s very poor form to go radio silent from one’s business partners when you’re running a three-man start up. But if you’ve ever added me to a group chat and I don’t pipe up, chances are it’s because I’m going through one of my ‘phases’ and I’m having one of several reactions. For instance, I might be feeling intimidated by the group and convinced that I have little of value to add. Sometimes, responding to a social call is too much effort, and simply pretending I don’t exist is the easiest (if not the most mature) way of dealing with that. Sometimes, and I swear I’m not making this up, I genuinely think that you’ve added me to the group by mistake (perhaps we’re all in the same social circle, and Facebook suggested you add me to the group and you clicked yes without really putting much though into to it but, has you thought about it, you actually would have unchecked my name).

I’m fully aware that ignoring a group chat might make me come across as arrogant, uncaring, or a mix of the two. That’s never my intention. It’s just that it is – somewhat paradoxically – easier for me to deal with that stigma than it is to go through the draining process that is social interaction during a phase of major depression.

It goes without saying that, not every time I respond to a message late, I’ve just climbed out of the dark pit. Sometimes, I am just really bad at replying to things.

Wicked insomnia

My most common ‘non-public’ reaction is long periods of sleeplessness. The cause of this can range from simply not feeling tired, to restlessness caused by anxiety, right the way through to full-blown nightmares keeping me awake.

I’ll talk about how I cope with down-phases in a minute, but when it comes to my insomnia, there’s very little that works. I’ve tried meditation, strict sleep schedules, I even keep a potted lavender plant on my bedside table. Some remedies work better than others, but when it gets really bad I just have to sit it out. I imagine prescription sleeping pills would work, but my condition prohibits my GP from prescribing them – lest I wind up as another statistic.

Even in good phases, my sleep is pretty screwed. The bright side is that I’ve managed to start a business that means being awake at 3am is beneficial to the events I run. The downside is literally all of the other things associated with insomnia.

braininsomnia

Source: The Awkward Yeti – Impending Doom

Guilt complex

Guilt, feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem – for me, they all pretty much merge into one. Really, with this ‘symptom’ there’s not any way I can win. It could be that I’ve not had a particularly productive week, or maybe I’ve offended someone, or perhaps my actions have caused a series of events that have ended badly.

The thing about these is that it’s more or less irrelevant whether or not any of these things actually happen. I can’t count the number of times I’ve felt bad about a situation and spent hours worrying about it, only to be met with surprise that I’d even thought anything was wrong if I bring it up. The flipside, of course, is that there have been just as many situations where this hasn’t been the case. One tends, as we know, to focus on the bad.

Things don’t even have to have happened to bring this on. Often, it’s the thought or imagined outcome of a situation that can leave me with sometimes crippling anxiety. As I mentioned earlier, this post, for instance, has caused me to worry a lot about the affect it will have on people who read it, vis-à-vis their interactions with me. This is entirely separate from my worry about how people will view me as a person. The best way I can explain it is by giving the scenario where someone has issue with something I’ve done. I wouldn’t want that person to hold back on their criticism of me because of the perceived (or actual) fragility my condition causes.

The thing is, I’m fully aware of how ridiculous that sounds. Yet the amount of decisions I’ve taken, based on nothing beyond the desire to mitigate the harm I cause to others, is frankly concerning. Guilt – whether caused by past actions, or by potential future actions – is a powerful thing.

Thoughts that are… darker…

I’m not going to talk here about me, not yet, and maybe not ever. But as this is a post about depression written by a man, I feel compelled to add the reminder that such thoughts can lead to the most common cause of death for men aged between 20 and 49 in England and Wales. 

I also wanted to make the point that, for some, this is a constant state of mind. No matter what therapies they are going through, or medication they are taking, or actions they are engaging in, sometimes just waking up in the morning is the most challenging thing that they will ever do.

I mention this to counteract the fact that I’ve cited the disgusting harpy that is Katie Hopkins in this post, and her inexcusable fuckwittery on the subject.


How do I cope with it?

I wasn’t sure whether to write this section, mostly because 80% of the time the simple answer is “not well”. There’s also a large part of me that really resents reading articles with title such as “11 of the best ways to beat the blues”, or “Feeling depressed? These 6 foolproof methods will perk you right up. You won’t believe number 4!“. Whatever well-meaning place they come from, they almost always over-simplify the condition, and are universally naïve about the supposed healing powers of camomile tea.

That said, there are a handful of things that I do fall back on, so it seemed fair to share them.

Build something new

One that I stumbled on almost by accident a long time ago was the act of creating something. I guess the idea is that I feed off of the notion that something exists in the world because I exist. I used to bake, but my down phases usually occur alongside bouts of vicious insomnia (see above), and clattering round the kitchen at 3am isn’t particular considerate towards people I live with. Coding, on the other hand, one can do in ones own time without bothering anyone. The vast majority of my coding prowess (yea, I said it) comes from trying to salvage some kind of productivity from many a sleepless night. 

Otherwise add value

One doesn’t have to build something new to make one’s dent in the universe. For instance, I have mentored for a lot of the same reasons. Someone said to me once that it was amusing that they could rely on my God-complex (their words, not mine. Honest.) to ensure that they could call me in for a training session at short notice. I laughed (because it was funny), but actually that’s only half the story. It’s not a God-complex that means I’m at the end of the phone at 2am, it’s a desperate need to prove my worth to a cause I care about.

Be outdoors

Some studies have posited a link between anxiety and depression, and use of creams containing SPF (eg. sun creams, some moisturisers). The theory goes that, as well as blocking the harmful UV radiation, it also inhibits the body’s ability to absorb all the lovely Vitamin D that the sun is so generously throwing at us. Vitamin D, in turn, is a key ingredient in making monoamines, such as serotonin, which are the body’s natural anti-depressants.

The science is somewhat disputed, but I can vouch for a lack of sunshine correlating with poor moods.  My point is that being outside is something that I find helpful. The caveat to this is that actually there are a lot of things required to get a depressed individual outside – especially if they wake up and decide that bed is their domain for the day. With that in mind, I have a list of things under the ‘be active’ umbrella that also help (and yes, I am aware that this is inadvertently turning into one of the articles that I – not moments ago – lambasted).

  • Shower and change into clean clothes
  • Do some housework – tidy your room (which, if you’ve spent days holed up in, will be a mess. Not sure how it’s possible to make a room messy when you haven’t really left the confines of your duvet, maybe it’s a superpower we depressed folk have acquired), clean the dishes, take the vacuum cleaner for a spin, whatever.
  • Have a banana. Seriously. In fact, if you’re up to it and you have the ingredients, make a smoothie. Two reasons: blitzing loads of things is oddly satisfying, and bananas have all the brain-friendly chemicals.

If you can make it outside, the next step that many self-help sites will tell you is to do some exercise. Sure, endorphins are great, but my struggling to get out of bed doesn’t morph into me wanting to become Mo Farah just because I changed clothes and ate some fruit. Good news is that even a walk helps.

depressionshower

Source: Depression Comix – Trapped

Medication

I have something of a checkered past with anti-depressants, but it seemed remiss of me not to include them here. I’ve been on half a dozen prescriptions over the last few years, from SSRIs such as Prozac to NaSSAs such as Mirtazapine. By and large, I’ve hated them all. That said, I have recently come off medication, and that has coincided with a somewhat-severe decrease in my mood. I wouldn’t like to say that one caused the other – but it is interesting to me that maybe the medication was doing more than I gave it credit for.

In either case, regardless of my personal journey with meds, I don’t have time for people who dismiss them as a valid form of treatment. VICE ran this article a while ago that articulates this better than I ever could.

Camomile tea

Yea, I know what I said. Shut up…


So… now what?

People are a mix of things – a kaleidoscope of hobbies and quirks and opinions and skills. No one person is seen the same way by two other people, and no one sees themselves as the same person in front of different people. That said, I do think that most people have a ‘default’ way of looking at themselves – kind of like the real-life version of your headline on LinkedIn.

For me, that headline is my diagnosis. It’s what I immediately return to whenever I self-reflect, and it is the lens through which the majority of my actions are taken. My condition causes my ‘default’ view of myself to be a negative one: I detract from social situations, I leech off of other people, I don’t add any value to scenarios – and in fact in most cases, I detract from it. 

For the majority of the time I interact with people, I try to keep a lid on it. I do so for any number of reasons ranging on a scale from ‘actually I’m not too bad today’ through to ‘no one should have to deal with this level of crazy’. In the process of trying to write this post though, I’ve had to really think about my condition, and articulate it in a way that is coherent within the medium. The problem is that people are far more complex than that. I’ve not begun to scratch the surface of how my condition has shaped me as a person, I’ve skimmed over things that deserve more attention, and I’ve probably given certain things a narrative importance that they don’t necessarily deserve. 

I have no idea how I’m going to react to this being in the public domain. Firstly, because it presupposes that people will actually read this. But also because I’ve spent nearly a decade deliberately trying to make sure that ‘real-world Will’ and ‘depressed Will’ are entirely separate entities, never the twain to meet.

I’m not sure it can go on though. Not because I have a burning desire to talk to everyone about my mental health – I really, really don’t. But the subject is far more important than one person’s view on it. We’re retrospectively told – all the time – that whatever social issues we face are always solved given enough time. But time isn’t the solution. It takes action to make change, whether that’s a change in discourse about mental health, or in something else entirely. 

I’m not arrogant enough to suggest that my ramblings here – only some of which were entirely coherent – will play any significant part in that change. But if just a few of those words make someone think differently about their situation – just as countless other people have made me reconsider mine – then that has to be better.

Doesn’t it?

xckd-positiveattitude

Source: xkcd – Positive Attitude


Postscript: Some things I’ve read

In no particular order, here are some of articles and blog posts that have particularly resonated with me in some way or another. For anyone looking for other things to read, as you’ll probably notice, I highly recommend Medium as a good way to get in front of content.

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On starting a business with a Chromebook

So, its probably not a surprise to many of you that I own a Chromebook. Whether you know me in real life, or just through my social media, it turns out I happen to talk about it quite a lot. I try not to be too evangelical about it, but in the last couple of months I’ve gone through the process of starting a company, and given that the Chromebook is currently my only laptop, I did think this was worthy of a post.

When I had to give back my work Macbook at the end of my last job, I dutifully returned to my old Windows machine. Having not had to use it much for nearly 2 years, you can imagine my despair at seeing how poorly it had aged. Not wanting to spend a fortune replacing it, I did a quick inventory of the things that I would actually use a laptop for (emailing, social media, writing) I decided to invest in a new Chromebook.

It wasn’t a scary decision for me – I had actually bought the original Asus Chromebook when it first came out, and loved it. But I also had the aforementioned Windows laptop, which at the time was a very powerful machine, so there wasn’t really much I had to think about. With this new purchase to be my only computer, I did wonder whether or not it (and more importantly, I) would cope.

6 months on I can honestly say that, for the most part, I don’t even notice. The vast majority of the stuff I do is either via email or other cloud-based services. If I have to edit a Word document and it isn’t appropriate to convert it into Google Docs, Office online is good enough for me.

There are a couple of caveats though. Anything that was made with an Apple program – I’m talking Pages, Keynote, etc – won’t work. It’s annoying, but then this would also be an issue if I was rocking Windows 10, so I don’t think this is a particularly strong mark against the Chromebook.

The other main caveat is in the more ‘creative’ range of applications – I’m talking photo and video editing. You aren’t going to be able to edit feature-length films on your Chromebook – partly because the hardware just isn’t up to it, and partly because there aren’t that many good Premier Pro alternatives.

Photo editing can be done, and there are some passable Photoshop alternatives, such as the web-based Pixlr (which I think is fantastic). There is also Canva, which is great for generating quick social media friendly images.

I’ll level with you though. While the Chromebook is fine for 90% of the things I do, I have gone a little bit rogue. Using a tool called Crouton, and the Developer Mode of your Chromebook, you can actually install a Linux operating system on a partition of your hard drive. This isn’t necessarily for everyone, and it almost certainly voids all manner of warranties, but it does give you access to the Linux ecosystem and the delights therein.

I’ve opted for XFCE as my distro of choice. Its basically Xubuntu, thus giving you the reliability and usability of Ubuntu, but with some of the bells and whistles stripped out to improve performance on the admittedly slightly underpowered hardware.

What this means is that I can install things like GIMP, Inkscape, and Filezilla – all tools that I think are vital to the discerning individual looking to get the look of their website just right. I won’t spend time reviewing them – a quick Google should sort you out in that regard. Sufficed to say that GIMP and Inkscape do for me everything I would need from Photoshop and Illustrator, and that when it comes to managing your own website Filezilla rules the roost as an FTP client. Also, great news, all three of those run on both Windows and OSX, so you can try them out before making the jump.

Running Linux also means I can install Skype – something I naively thought I wouldn’t miss, especially given that I have an iPad and Web Skype is now a thing. Neither option though gives you the same usability as the desktop client, and I noticed yesterday that Microsoft has actually disabled the video element for the Chrome browser.

A quick note about the hard drive. Most of the Chromebook’s superpowers – long battery life, lightweight, quick speeds, ability to be dropped from mediocre heights – it has by virtue of its SSD, which is only 16Gb. This is fine for 90% of users, as most of the things you’ll use a Chromebook for will be online. If you’re working on a lot of locally stored content though, or if you’ve decided to install a whole other operating system on the machine, you’re going to run out. I’ve opted to permanently leave a 32Gb Sandisk Cruzer plugged into the USB3 port to get around this.

So there you have it. There are a few things that an ‘out of the box’ Chromebook still can’t quite manage. But by and large, I am very happy with my choice of laptop. It weighs next to nothing, 6 months in of heavy usage and I’m still getting a little over 10 hours of battery life, and it cost me less than £200.

Nice work, Google.

My Chromebook is the Toshiba CB30; spec: 1.4Ghz, 16Gb SSD, 2Gb RAM

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On staying humble amidst success

Humility is one of those characteristics that seems to divide people. In some ways, traditional business seems to train us to be boisterous and proud. At the risk of conforming to stereotypes, the image of a successful business person tends to be a city-dwelling male with a flash car, the latest gadgets, and – lets face it – a bit of an abrasive personality.

We’re all grown up enough to realise that this, as with all stereotypes, is misleading. And yet the image prevails. Even the heroes of literature can on occasion scorn humility as a trait. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, to take one example, famously held a distaste for modesty, saying: “to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers”.

Humility is seen as a character flaw, not a trait, and so being humble doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. Even the word ‘humility’ sounds like a bad thing. It sounds weak, and who wants to be seen as weak in business?

So before I offer suggestions as to how to stay humble, I suppose it might first be prudent to explain why humility is even a good thing.

Firstly, it is important to define humility, or being humble, in the right way. Much of the negative connotation of the word comes from is near-homophone ‘humiliation’. But despite the similarity of the words, humility and humiliation are not the same thing. True, they do both share the same root – the Latin ‘humilis’ which roughly translates as ‘from the earth’ or, as we might say now, ‘grounded’. But while the root word is the same, ‘humiliation’ as we use it is a verb – to put someone down – compared with the noun ‘humble’, which is to be down to earth. The latter is a character trait, whilst the former is a derogative action.

So with that mini lesson out of the way, what is so good about being humble?

Well while Sherlock Holmes is one example of a fiction character scorning humility, literature also has its fair share of humble heroes and accounts of humility as an aspiration. Even the ancient Greeks, who are seen by many experts as pretty clever, recognised its importance. The Iliad – Homer’s epic poem, widely regarded as one of the oldest surviving works of Western literature, recounts the final weeks of the Trojan War. The entire account is a warning against Pride – the antithesis of Humility. And that was a message strong enough to warrant a film starring Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom.

So humility is a good thing. But how do you stay humble? It’s the easiest, most natural thing in the world to want to share your success with others – and you should be proud! But there are a few things to bear in mind. Here are just a few:

Don’t take criticism personally.

As far as being humble goes, this is pretty early on in the rulebook – and it doesn’t just apply when you’re working your way up to success. Once you’re at the top, you’ll still receive your fair share of criticism. Whether its people who are genuinely trying to help, or if its people who are bitter and just trying to knock you down, you need to be mindful of how you react.

Don’t constantly name drop, or otherwise show off.

Of course, if the reference is relevant, or you are bringing the name up for a legitimate reason, then that’s fine. But doing it for the sake of it is definitely not in the spirit of humility.

You’ll have noticed that in this article, I’ve referenced a famous author, a classic Greek poem, and given a micro-lesson in Latin. Now on the surface this could just be to give as full an account of the idea of humility as possible. But the cynical amongst you will question whether all of that was necessary – why not just give a simple dictionary definition and move on? Was I perhaps just trying to show off how clever I am? It’s a fine line – and if you tread the wrong side of it you’ll go from being that helpful guy with good connections and knowledge, to that smarmy guy who is just trying to show up everyone who hasn’t read The Iliad.

Know that your success is rarely down to you alone.

However successful you are, in whatever field you’re in, nobody can make it to the top alone. And when you get there, you’d do well to thank the people whose shoulders you’re stood on. From the massive cash injection your business received from a sponsor, right down to those little words of encouragement from a friend at 3am from when it looked like it was all going to fall apart, so many people have an impact on what you do. Make sure you thank as many of them as possible – they will appreciate that you’ve remembered them in your time of glory.

Talk about your route to success, not the success itself.

Its easy to be caught up in the hype of being awesome – and at first people will be happy for you and may even allow to you brag a little. But if you keep talking just about the present – how rich you are, how well respected you are in your circle, whatever it might be – your listeners will quickly get bored and may even start to resent you.

Instead, talk about how you got there. People love a success story – so make sure its the whole story, not just the last chapter, that you talk about. You may even act as an inspiration to others, as you prove success is achievable. (Really, that’s a win-win – you still get to talk about yourself, and you get to inspire others!)

Don’t forget why you went into business in the first place.

Every business has the aim of making money – and there is no shame in that. But simply making money isn’t the be all and end all of what you’re company should be about (unless you work for the Royal Mint…).

Even Apple – a company famously richer than the United States of America – admit that money isn’t everything. Jonathan Ive, has said that: “[Apple’s] goal isn’t to make money… Our goal and what makes us excited is to make great products.” He goes on to say that if they make great products, they will be a success. Because business success is so often measured by its bottom line, its easy to become obsessed by the money. Remembering why your business exists in the first place can help keep you grounded.

And as we learned from our little Latin lesson earlier, being grounded is what being humble is all about.

See – I wasn’t just showing off.

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On believing in your project or business

Entrepreneurship is a tricky thing, and success is a coveted reward. As a result, no matter how much you believe in your idea, there will be plenty of people who want to see you fail. That isn’t meant to sound melodramatic, it’s just that  while people enjoy a good success story, they also like to see people crash and burn. The former inspires them to feel like they can do anything, whereas the latter reminds them that its ok to be a mere mortal.

Of course, not everyone is going to be on a personal mission to sabotage your every move, but equally in life there aren’t that many handouts. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and you do have to make your own luck. (And with that, I’ve just exhausted my quota of cliches)

You will (hopefully) have the support of friends and family in your venture – and you will need them to succeed, but this won’t always be enough. You may also need investment from third-parties, or advice from other professionals. The phrase “people buy from people” is a well used one in many circles. How many of you have heard of (or even witnessed) someone with a great idea, but they didn’t get investment because they weren’t a nice person – they just didn’t feel right?

Hold on a second. Why is that even a measure? They don’t ‘feel’ right, or they ‘lacked passion’, or ‘the product was good, but I didn’t believe in the person’. These things should have no bearing on whether or not your product should appeal to investors. What matters is the hundred of hours of market research you’ve done, the countless prototypes you’ve made, the minute attention to detail you’ve put into your product. These are things that determine success, surely? Who cares what you’re like as a person, or how much passion you have?

Well, it turns out pretty much everybody – including those investors. When you think about it, it’s not that hard to understand why. A lot of investors don’t just put their money into your idea, they also put in their time. If you’ve ever seen Dragons Den, you’ll know that the Dragons put a lot of stock in the characteristics of the individual, and on more than one occasion they have put offers on not only the product in the room, but for a number of – at the time hypothetical – subsequent products. They do this not just because they have faith in the showcased item, but because they believe that the individual trying to sell it will be a good business partner.

Sticking with Dragons Den for a moment, you may have heard of Reggae Reggae Sauce, a caribbean inspired condiment that received an investment from the programme. If you haven’t seen the pitch, I urge you to check it out. In short, what Levi Roots did was deliver his pitch as a song, with a guitar accompanyment, that he’d written. It was obvious from the get-go that he loved his product, and his confident and assured approach to selling it told us that he believed in himself. He got the funding, and the rest, as they say, is history (oh look, I had one more cliche left in me afterall).

So you’re a likable and trustworthy person, and you are passionate about what you are doing. Great! You’re well on your way to becoming fantastically wealthy. Success, though, still isn’t guaranteed. We all know famous examples of people who, at the start of their careers, couldn’t seem to catch a break. From The Beatles to JK Rowling, history will always be littered with examples that, in retrospect, have made fools of the first people they went to. This wasn’t because what they were trying to sell was bad, but because it was believed that ‘guitar groups are on the way out’, or ‘people won’t want to read books about wizards’.

It’s in this scenarios where believing in yourself couldn’t be more important. You’ve done your homework, you’ve created something that you love, and you’re damn good at what you do. Make sure you remember that, even while other people apparently fail to see it. People will reject your idea, and it will sometimes be an incredibly demoralising ordeal, but by believing in yourself, in your product, and in your team you’ll be able to pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and try again until you succeed.

To take a slightly different angle from this, you might want to check out this TED talk by Simon Sinek about why people buy products. The angle is different, but the message is the same – you need to believe in yourself and know why you are taking on this challenge. Whether it’s a project, a campaign, a business, or something else entirely, you need to first be able to sell the why. And for that you need to believe.

And if you need more convincing to stay the course, just think what would have happened to the music world if the Beatles had listened to the people that rejected them.

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On what I’ve learned from conferences

As part of both my interests and my job, I spend a lot of my time going to social enterprise conferences. As a result, I thought it would be a good time to share a handful of the more common lessons I hear again and again. And what better way than in a listicle?

Anyway. To business:

This is the most fertile/opportunistic time to start an enterprise

This is something that comes up all the time, but I heard it in spades at a panel talk I went to at the British Library during Global Entrepreneurship week. Amongst the panel were Anya Hindmarch and Sir Charles Dunstone, who both stressed this independently of each other. The numbers don’t lie either. A study by Barclays showed that in the first half of 2014 small businesses grew by 4%. This might not seem like much, but firstly consider that UK growth in 2014 hovering at just over 2.5%, and secondly that small businesses are traditionally in a sector of the market that doesn’t actually grow.

Your venture needs to address a need

This one, I’ll flatter myself, I knew already. But my background is in social enterprise so that’s not particularly surprising. What I did find interesting was that this was a recurring theme in the more ‘enterprise’ talks. This should form a core part of the business plan – answer the question of what you are doing. Why do you exist as an organisation? To put it in business spiel, what is your value proposition?

This goes further than just knowing that your business/product/service has to exist for a reason – that much should at least be clear to everyone. The important thing here is that whatever you do doesn’t just have to satisfy an idle want, it has to firstly and foremostly address a need.

Hire smarter than you

This one’s said so much now it basically a cliche; but for that reason its also a good point to make. In fact, Sir Tim Smit (of Eden Project fame) gave a closing keynote at the RISE conference in Bristol and was very scathing of people who are too afraid to do so.

It is so very tempting as the leader of an organisation to worry about hiring better than you. But if you think about it logically, why would you do anything else? The focus here shouldn’t be about battling insecurities, but rather looking at the skill set you have, and trying to fill in the gaps. Think of ‘smarter’ in this context as people who know different things to you – people who’s skills are different (and complimentary) to your own.

Entrepreneurship should be about creating an environment, not about being in the limelight

Anya Hindmarch put this very eloquently: “There is too much talk about the celebrity, not about the craftsmanship”. And on a panel that included the founder of the Carphone Warehouse, the CEO of the MOBOs, and an Apprentice winner, this was strong.

Being a good entrepreneur – and a good leader (the two are similar, though not the same) is as much about taking people on the journey with you as it is about being a trailblazer. No matter how good you are at what you do, nobody can make it big on their own.

So that’s just a snapshot of the common themes I’ve taken away from a number of conferences and panels. One thing I would say though is that you can’t learn any better than by actually being there – in fact, I would go so far as to say that if you are interested in being a part of the social enterprise sector – a good conference is the best place to start. So next time you see a conference, or a panel show, or anything that looks vaguely interesting – give it a go!

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