The Emotionally Fit Founder, Part One: What Is Emotional Fitness?

The most successful founders and CEO’s are not necessarily the most cognitively stable. The task of starting a company requires a certain type of obsessionality and the ability to push forward with an idea even when all evidence points to defeat. 

Founder life is unpredictable and involves more than a healthy amount of rejection and setbacks, and thus might be best suited to those who have built up a bulky set of defenses. Nevertheless, a founder sets the tone and ethos for the entire company, and for that reason, it is imperative that they be emotionally fit.

Recently, light has been shed on the dark truths of being a founder and the intense depression, anxiety, and self-doubt that they often face. A study done by Freeman et al. suggests that as many as 72% of entrepreneurs have mental health concerns, but as Y Combinator’s Sam Altman writes, “There is a huge amount of pressure as a founder to never show weakness and to be the cheerleader in all internal and external situations.” 

To combat this stigma, prominent and respected founders and CEO’s are beginning to speak up about their own struggles and are helping to destigmatize and normalize the need for mental health support in the startup community. This is of the utmost importance, and the conversation is long overdue.

That being said, we need to be careful not to create a polarization where at one end we have a founder who is barely treading water under crippling anxiety and depression, and at the other end we have a supposedly “healthy” founder who needs no emotional support. It’s time to start a conversation about the reality that in between complete bliss and debilitating mental illness lies the majority of our emotional lives. 

In addition to helping founders get the mental health care they need, we should also encourage a commitment to working on their ability to communicate, cultivate empathy, and have productive and healthy relationships. We need to start talking about more than just mental health.

What Is Emotional Fitness?

Although emotional health cannot be compared 1 to 1 with physical health, it can be helpful to think about it this way: everyone has a body, so everyone has physical health. Some people have chronic illness that they have to attend to, like diabetes or high blood pressure, but everyone catches a cold sometimes, everyone could stand to take better care of their body, and everyone has unique physical strengths and limitations. 

Many people believe that if they aren’t feeling ill, then they don’t have to attend to their physical health. But people who are physically fit (ie. exercise, eat well, and get enough sleep) know — just because you are not ill, does not mean you are healthy.

Emotional health is similar. Being “emotionally fit” takes time, patience, and persistence. Emotional fitness is not characterized by the absence of major psychological disorders, in fact, a person can be dealing with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, etc. and still be emotionally fit. 

Emotional fitness is an ongoing commitment to looking inward, processing through difficult emotions, and working toward self-awareness and self-improvement. 

Like any fitness regimen, it needs to be maintained and will prevent more serious issues down the line. Becoming emotionally fit is not always quick or easy, but those willing to invest in themselves will see huge payoffs down the line.

Continue on to Part 2 of this series to learn about the 7 traits of emotionally fit leaders.