The Psychology of the Entrepreneur
By Imani Summer
I have always been an observer of life; never feeling like the mould was meant for me. Conformity, rather than giving me that warm feeling blanket of comfort, security and connection, has always felt restrictive, unpleasant; distasteful even. I decided early on in life that I was different to the norm and that awareness bought about a profound sense of loneliness and alienation that was difficult to stomach but un-ignorable. As an eighteen year old young woman I set about on what was the beginnings of a deeply personal journey of inner self-discovery. I opted to study human psychology as a university undergraduate; all in an attempt to understand myself and the world around me in the best way I could. Fuelled by curiosity, I learned all I could learn about human nature. As the people around me were experienced as an alien species, I studied them scientifically, from the outside looking in. This way of observing my fellow tribe suited me as it almost perfectly mirrored my familiar internal phenomena of experiencing myself as separate and very distinct from the world around me.
I sat back and watched while my peers built and developed their careers, but my own participation in that career building process historically has been largely non-existent and stagnant. After three years of study as a psychology undergraduate, followed immediately by a masters, I realised how little I had actually learned and how much more there was to learn; almost as though the more knowledge you amass about the world and others the more aware you become of life's overwhelmingly infinite complexity and lack of overall sense. I simply was not ready to enter the workplace in the conventional way. I decided rather than build a career, instead I'd build something far more meaningful; a family; so the rearing and nurturing of my two children has been my single focus for twelve long years, all the while I have been financially supported by my husband.
I found this period of child rearing to be both incredibly challenging as well as blissfully rewarding. The downside of this life choice though was that I'd often experience profound guilt and inferiority at times where I compared myself to my female working peers - whether they were the 'have-it-all' breed of apparently perfect working mums, or the high-status high fliers sans bambinos. I continued to feel that painful sense of never ever measuring up to the women around me, compounding the low self-esteem that seemed to be rigidly set in stone. I felt I had fallen into a scenario where I wasn't being ‘a true woman’ and I berated myself for how my anxiety about my perceived inadequacy had forced me into a whole new millennial-yet-still-living-in-the 1950s niche housewife category. I was self-consciously embarrassed to be wasting my intelligence and skills, simply just because I felt too intimidated to enter the workforce. I preferred to stick to the safety of mother and toddler groups and coffee catch ups with other stay-at-home mums than edge very far out of my comfort zone, but that resigned awareness that the corporate world was not for me led me to feel like my life was wasting away, and my university education had ultimately been pointless.
Hurting deeply from a combination of both feeling like I was a pointless failure and then the frightening and life-altering emergence of deeply traumatic once-buried memories; memories which had been festering unexplored since childhood, I promptly suffered a monumental life-shattering life-threatening psychiatric breakdown. My whole life and perspective on myself and the world changed virtually overnight. Suddenly I didn't care that I didn't have a career and that I wasn't fulfilling my female potential. Suddenly I didn't care that I didn't fit into the world and never had done. Finally I had my much yearned for explanation for that achingly horrible alienated feeling of bizarre and inadequate freakishness that had been embedded deeply into my self-image. Plunging into the abyss was as much a pivotal breakthrough life moment as much as a dizzying breakdown. As layers and layers of ever clear awareness were hung over me and then dropped from a great height, with relief I finally grasped those much-awaited answers and explanations. For the first time I could look at myself in the mirror and recognise my own reflection. I began to understand via a succession of a-ha moments everything about myself, and how my personality had been shaped into the very essence of who I am today.
I realised that although it had taken me till the age of thirty six, there was some potential for me here, as armed with this new and vitally important explanatory self-knowledge, for the first time in my life the picture of the box of the puzzle was starting to make sense. I knew where the corner and edge pieces were, and once I'd fitted those important psychologically structural elements together I could then make progress with fleshing out the middle and gradually filling in the gaps.
Trying to create a vision for a life in which I had no idea who I actually was had proved impossible, but now I had this increasingly clear undistorted concept of who I was and why I had turned out the way I had, with a huge sigh of relief I could for the very first time start to picture my future, who I am about, and what exactly it was that I wanted.
So in answer to my original question, which is 'what makes an entrepreneur', my first answer would be that an entrepreneur isn't always necessarily who you might think they might be, and there are many would-be entrepreneurs out there, just waiting for permission to blossom. All around society there are women who possess all the ingredients for an entrepreneurial life but who are held back and find themselves stuck for so many reasons outside of their control. An entrepreneur in my book isn't someone that necessarily aced it at school, went straight into the workplace, swiftly worked their way up the ranks and then got immediately and confidently comfy in their corporate niche. That isn't what I think the entrepreneurial spirit is about. I’d argue personally that there is a huge potential difference between success and entrepreneurialism. You can be outwardly successful and not be an entrepreneur, and likewise you can be an entrepreneur without huge wealth or externally validated status. What sets entrepreneurial women apart from successful women in my view is their level of independence of mind, and the extent to which your heart informs your work. Someone can be outwardly successful, but lack internally motivated passion. Someone can tick every box competence-wise, but not quite the indefinable ‘x-factor’ box. People can perform extremely well, but all the while lacking that extra ingredient of magic or individual flair. People can also work extremely hard and consistently, but in a line of work that doesn't align congruently with their personal values.
I think overall what sets a female entrepreneur apart is their innate inner motivation and hunger to work, to create, to dream, to plan and to execute; all in a manner that doesn't necessarily come from our pursuit of impressing others, but far more from impressing and doing the best by our own selves. A female entrepreneur in my book, is motivated far more from the heart than the mind. A female entrepreneur doesn't just emerge from life transitions and experiences that have been effortless and easy. I actually visualise entrepreneurial women as the diamonds of this world; diamonds that have formed under immense psychological pressure. Without the pressure, there cannot I think, be the same un-ignorable and unswayable single-minded drive and hunger, an entrepreneur feels hunger and these motivational drives originate from an initial psychological state of ‘lack’. Entrepreneurial behaviour stems I think, from a state of wanting and needing things in life at quite intense and compelling levels. The entrepreneurial behaviour is therefore the self-rewarding compensatory psychological mechanism in place to ensure our hearts don't feel as thirsty. When we strive to excel, some of what we need will always get satisfied. I wonder though if entrepreneurial people are easily satisfied, and anecdotally I have noticed that female entrepreneurs often seem to be fairly perfectionistic in style. I think perfectionism as a trait possibly comes with the territory of having such high standards and expectations of ourselves. Despite perfectionism having its definite downsides emotionally speaking, the flip side is that perfectionism also ensures diligence, conscientiousness, an innate commitment to continuous improvement and a fiercely committed inner drive to meet the needs of others (our clients and customers) in the very best we can.
So for me as I am now, emerging into the world of self-employment post-mental health breakdown, I made the concerted decision to always be honest about my previous (and ongoing) struggles. I feel strongly from my experiences of building an authentic brand and business up from scratch this year that without you knowing my previous struggle, you may well not connect in the same way with my creative output, my goals and my overall ethos and vision. Without first understanding what led me to this place, perhaps it is hard to empathise with the intense drive I have to post-traumatically grow and thrive. I cannot share with you about my breakthroughs without first telling you about my breakdown. My ongoing inner struggle is the precise thing that informs my everyday work and business purpose, so I see no reason to leave the struggle bit out of my story. My struggles of yesterday are the very thing that has awarded me with the strength I have today. I aim each day through the unfiltered sharing of my writing and my drawings to connect with people on deep emotional levels; people that might well be still in the trenches, going through the pain of their own challenges and life curveballs. Emotion doesn’t have to be separated from business, and I would argue that emotion is a vital component of entrepreneurial spirit as women.
Who said that women in business have to adopt the business values of men? I don't want to get too heavily into the sticky world of gender stereotyping but it is an objective fact that there ARE neurological and psychological and behavioural differences in how women and men respond to emotional pressures, and women do more readily express what is going on in their hearts and have a drive to make links and social connections on that basis. In no way is emotion a sign of weakness or inadequacy. There is absolutely no logical reason I can think of that emotion and business need be separated. You can be a female entrepreneur and still readily tap into the wisdom of your emotions and your intuition to make decisions that sit well with the gut, our intuitions and our emotions are incredibly vital sources of information and guidance, and I think if we think there is no room for emotion in the boardroom we are missing out on exploiting the gift it is to be female. As goes the nameless quote floating round the internet, "you can cry and still get sh*t done!"
I don't separate myself out from my emotion, nor do I think we should ever feel any pressure to do so. Part of being a female entrepreneur I believe is independence of mind, and the motivation and commitment to focus on ploughing our own fields, leaving behind our own unique tracks. Why stick to well-trodden paths when there is a world out there to explore! If you're a female entrepreneur who bosses it like a badass while juggling the myriad demands of family, friends, work and the world, possibly managing a co-existing mental health condition, join the club! Don't hide your unique gifts. Authenticity beats perfection every time; truth beats the most beautiful of façades; emotion trumps mind, and we must never feel guilty as women for putting mechanisms in place to take regular good care of ourselves, cut ourselves some emotional slack when we need it, and celebrate our quirky and original uniqueness!
I thought all the way through my early life that I was sad for being different. Now I know being different is advantageous and good. Being different has turned out to be my super power! All along there was a reason why I couldn't conform and complete tasks set by other humans. All along I wanted to boss it in the world of self-employment! Today I have the courage to happily do just that!
Your back story is a part of your growth and an integral part of the very essence of you, but your future as a female entrepreneur is one where you get to call the shots and set the agenda and show the world with confidence, everything you are about (even if you sometimes get the urge to cower and hide behind pillows). Anxiety doesn’t have to stop you. Anxiety is a sign that you are about to do something that matters to you. Vulnerability is ok, and vulnerability can happy co-exist alongside strength. You don’t have to choose which category you fall into. We are all both sides of the coin at different times, and our confidence will ebb and flow in unpredictable cycles. The important thing is to always check in with the deepest part of ourselves; our intuitions and emotional states; to learn who we are, exactly what we’re about, and where we’re heading, and with a succession of small and large actions, we will move ever closer to our ultimate entrepreneurial vision.
2018 is the year I finally learned who I am. I learned after all those years of self-doubt, I was an entrepreneur all along.
summerSHINES illustrator, writer & ‘queen of quirky’
I am the creative mind behind summerSHINES studio; a colourful and visionary brand aiming to create uplifting SHINE from the shadows. I am a firm believer in post-traumatic growth and the whole notion that we can capitalise on the challenges we face in life and use them to deepen our spiritual and personal growth and ultimately spin them into gold. I studied Human Psychology, then worked for my MSc in Work Psychology and Business, both at Aston University, and since then, in-between the hustle and bustle of family life has been committed to her ongoing personal development, pursuing ongoing training in counselling, mentoring and psychometric testing. As an open survivor of childhood abuse, living with two serious diagnosed mental illnesses (complex-PTSD and Borderline Personality Disorder), I have worked hard to develop a voice to enable me to assertively advocate for survivors and those of us living with trauma-generated mental health disorders. The character of summerSHINES organically developed throughout my time as a mental health and trauma survivor blogger on my recovery blog Summer Starts to Shine. My deepest emotions are expressed in a humorous way through the quirkily drawn alter ego character of Summer, shining a light on usually taboo topics such as suicide, self-harm, and the lasting emotional effects of childhood sexual abuse and assault; providing a much needed ‘keep-it-real’ element to the usually perfectly curated world of social media. I am an active media volunteer, writer and campaigner for UK mental health charity, Mind, and have amassed an array of shining light moments working on behalf of them and other North East-based charities such as Tyneside and Northumberland Mind and Victims First Northumbria, using my voice to provide comfort, reassurance and sparkly inspiration to those of us battling our own emotional vulnerabilities.