Entrepreneurs are often expected to tell a seamless and aggressively positive story about the dauntless progress and profit that our businesses are making and the unparalleled solutions we’re offering. “We’re killing it!” There should be no chink in the armor, not a moment of visible doubt. And there certainly shouldn’t be any breakdown into utter despair and grief.
Yet, we run our businesses in a world where, every day, tragedy abounds. The news brings us an unceasing narrative of illnesses, natural disaster, and social dysfunction reaping inconceivable levels of societal and personal loss. We hear about violent terrorist attacks, instances of environmental degradation on an unfathomable and possibly irreversible scale, and people living in such systemic and wretched poverty that they are reduced to unlivable conditions. Furthermore, we are living with our own personal ups and downs, transitions, heartbreaks, and losses.
Through all this chaos we are working hard, either not allowing ourselves to feel anything as destabilizing as grief or not showing it. Feeling that much emotion can be too uncontrollable, too uncomfortable, too vast. It’s easier to convey confidence and accomplishment by projecting a sense of comfort and ease. In this way, disassociation and numbness become the standard, and we bury our grief deep within our subconscious.
However, that dissociation is the mark of a lost opportunity. We rob ourselves of the ability to see things clearly, to have insight, and to act effectively with clear intention. By not feeling negative emotions we make ourselves numb to real risks and dangers, and cloud our awareness of what is really at stake. Rather than avoiding or hiding the raw grief that arises as part of living in our difficult world, going right into the emotion might be the most helpful thing we can do — not only for ourselves but also for ensuring our businesses are providing solutions to real problems that truly matter.
“In our culture, despair is feared and resisted because it represents a loss of control. We’re ashamed of it and dodge it by demanding instant solutions to problems. We seek the quick fix. This cultural habit obscures our perceptions and fosters a dangerous innocence of the real world.” — Joanna Macy
Here are a few reasons why grieving is a powerful skill for entrepreneurs to cultivate:
For entrepreneurs, relationships are everything and genuine connection is powerful. Allowing ourselves to feel grief enhances our ability to empathize with the suffering and circumstances of others, which is a precondition for deep connections — with family, team members, colleagues, clients, investors, and the market you aim to serve.
At its best, our drive to innovate is fueled by real insight about what the world needs most and how we can best deliver that. With the acknowledgment of pain comes insight and transformation in the way we see and understand the world around us.
“Great sadnesses — they are the moments when something new has entered into us.” — Rainer Maria Rilke
When it feels like all is lost, whatever is most important rises to the surface. How often have we heard the story of the successful business mogul who gave it all up because they wanted to do something meaningful? Many entrepreneurs go through their whole careers denying themselves the opportunity to actually feel their grief, and they typically don’t decide to pursue (or even realize) what they care about until they reach some kind of crisis. By being available to our anguish we are empowering ourselves to lead purposeful organizations throughout our careers.
There are, of course, many reasons why we don’t give ourselves over to grief, the foremost of which is probably that it hurts. Clearly, we can’t very well walk around sobbing all the time, but we can acknowledge that this sadness is a sane reaction to a distressed world. We might be afraid that we’ll be overcome with the sheer force and vastness of our grief, but when we stop avoiding it we can actually receive its gifts. We can develop the capacity to grieve well and to allow that grief to support us in our life’s work.
“Once we understand the art of suffering, we will suffer less.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh
Corey Kohn is founder, member-owner and COO at dojo4, a certified B Corp and worker-owned co-operative that crafts technologies for purpose-driven companies to help make the world a better place. Based in Boulder, Colorado, the firm’s client roster includes Greenpeace, UNICEF, Twitter, Stand up to Cancer, and Off Grid Electric. DOJO4 is a B Corp Best for the World Honoree for many years running.