Being an entrepreneur can be really hard at times. You get the rollercoaster highs and lows, and it can take a massive strain on the mental faculties. Today Sherry Walling of Zen Founder talks to us about depression with entrepreneurs and how to maintain a good sense of mental health as a founder.
Andrew: Welcome to “The eCommerceFuel Podcast,” the show dedicated to helping seven-figure-plus store owners build amazing businesses and incredible lives. I’m your host, Andrew Youderian.
And today, on the show, I’m joined by Sherry Walling from zenfounder.com. Sherry has a long background in clinical psychology, as well as being an entrepreneur herself and being married to an entrepreneur. You know, mental health is something that doesn’t get talked about a lot in the entrepreneurial circles. It’s so easy when you go to a conference when you’re hanging out with, you know, friends or buddies, to talk about all the wins, how everything is going well.
This is human nature, right? Like, we all show what’s…we show the nice, shiny, beautiful parts of our lives, when usually, there’s some stuff going on under the surface that, you know, isn’t so pretty especially if you’re a founder. Being an entrepreneur can be really hard at times.
You know, you’ve heard this before, but if you get the rollercoaster high highs, low lows, and it can take a massive strain on the mental faculties. So, this is what we talk about today. We talk about things like depression with entrepreneurs, we talk about how to maintain a good sense of mental health as a founder, we talk about if you should work with your spouse. That’s a thorny one, all sorts of things along the mental health line.
So, it’s got a lot of background in it. It’s fun to talk about and it’s important to talk about. So, hopefully, you’ll get some value out of it, and maybe even a few tips on taking better care yourself. I know I did.
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All right, let’s jump into my discussion today with Sherry.
You talk about motivations, your interest in that. So, are people motivated, like I think people, if you ask me, what motivates people? They give some, you know, boilerplate answers you’d expect. Are most people motivated by what you would expect? Do you think there’s a lot of things that we don’t realize that motivate us that actually drive us to do things that we do?
Sherry: I think our motivations are really pretty simple, and I think they boil down to fear and joy. Many of the things, whether it’s, you know, money as a motivator, or power as a motivator, those are really fancy sort of covers for more basic things like fear, the fear of not being significant, the fear of not being able to provide for yourself or for your family, the fear of being lost or left behind or alone. Fear is often the motivator, but then at a higher level, I think joy can be a motivator too.
Andrew: I have this theory that most entrepreneurs are motivated by some level of insecurity or, you know, lacking, that drives them because you’ve, you know, it could be personal, it could be financial. Entrepreneurship’s hard, especially in the early days, and so you have to have something that pushes you through really hard times. A lot of times I think insecurity is that driving force.
Do you think that’s true? Do you see that with all the founders that you’ve worked with? And maybe that’s a pretty terrible, pessimistic view to lead off with, but do you think there’s truth to that or is that me just reading into things?
Sherry: No, I think that’s very true, but I also don’t think it that pathological. So, when you talk about insecurity, I think we’re talking about trying to prove yourself, to yourself, to other people. You’re trying to compensate for things within yourself that you perceive to be as weaknesses or flaws or, you know, things that you’re not good at that you don’t want people to know about. Things that you’re hiding.
I think that’s not that different than what motivates. Most people who are doing interesting things, who are sort of putting themselves out there and working towards something, is that you have something that you’re kind of fixing, something that you’re overcoming.
Andrew: Yeah. You work with so many founders, with retreats, individually and counseling them. Do you have any, either exercises or frameworks, mental frameworks, to help people be able to shift in that perspective of, “I need more, more, more. I need to grow, grow, grow, or prove myself,” to that second stage you talked about, or is that just something that comes with time?
Sherry: I think it certainly is something that can be cultivated intentionally. And I’m old school in the sense that I think that one of the best ways to cultivate an inner life or to cultivate the capacity for self-reflection is to do something like journaling. I mean, just a short journal at the end of each day to take a recap of what parts of your life are a life-giving, where did you find joy, where were you like, “I love this part of my life,” and what parts of your life are misery for you. What’s sucking the life out of you? What’s making you unhappy?
That is a super simple question. It’s basically like, what was your high? What was your low? But tracking something like that over time, and taking the time to look back and see the patterns about, “Hey, this is my sweet spot, and this is where I’m forcing it,” and really living in to the sweet spots, I think can eliminate a ton of angst and help you get faster toward that sense of generativity, generosity, here’s what I’m building.
Here it feels very congruent with who I am, the things that I’m choosing to spend my time and energy on in the external world.
Andrew: Maybe changing gears a little bit, to relationships, especially significant other, spouses. What do entrepreneurs do, maybe not even realizing it, that sabotages or can really put friction into a relationship? And of course, you’re a founder, your husband is an entrepreneur, and so you’ve seen this from both sides of the table, but what are the things that the biggest issues that can make relationships harder when you throw business in the mix with a spouse?
Sherry: Yeah, I think there are a couple that stand out. I mean, one of the most common culprits is distraction. So, you are thinking about something that’s going on in your business, and you’re on your phone, you’re checking a computer, you’re not fully present during dinner, you’re not fully present as you’re, you know, going to bed together with your partner. Your mind is somewhere else.
I think that, over time, can really eat away at the emotional connection that’s really important for a healthy relationship. Similarly, I think the internalization of the struggles, the ups and downs that go along with the business, mean you’re not really communicating. You’re not talking about what, you know, what you’re afraid of, what’s going well, what’s not going well. You’re not really having the sort of open line of communication with your significant other about the inner life that goes along with the business.
I think finally, or thirdly, one of the things that I see often is really poor onboarding, especially early on. You know, I like to sort of remind people that your significant other is your first customer. They’re your first investor. They are the first pitch that you have to do really well. And I think sometimes, early on when people are super excited about what they’re doing, they forget to really clearly articulate the pros and cons to their significant other.
Or they might say, “It’s gonna be easy. It’s gonna be awesome. We’re gonna be making millions by next month,” and give really unrealistic expectations of what going into a business might be like.
And that might be their own naivety, it might not be intentional, but I think that quickly breeds resentment in your significant other when, you know, it’s like, “You said we were only gonna invest $15,000 of our own money, but here we are at $30,000 and what you said is not what you’re doing, and the way that you’re acting is not what you said you were gonna do at the beginning.” That can certainly be really frustrating for a significant others.
Andrew: Maybe taking that first one, because I think almost everyone listening can relate to…it’s just that business takes up so much headspace, and it’s so easy to completely be checked out from where you are and be lost in your head thinking about things that, you know, 9 o’clock at night when you’re hanging with family. What’s the best way people can try to combat that, that you can, you know, that you’ve counseled people for? How do you get better at that? Because that’s a hard thing to push out of your mind.
Sherry: It’s a super hard thing. But it’s a really important thing, I mean, not just for the well-being of your relationship, but for the well-being of your own mind to not be constantly multitasking in your thought process. That’s a cognitive load that most of us aren’t neurologically super well-equipped to be able to do.
So, to have things that help you make that shift can be really important. And sometimes, that’s a work transition, you know, it’s a ritual that says, “I’m moving from work time to home time.” And, you know, those of us who work at home that seems silly, “All I do is I walk out of one room and I’m in my own room, or I walk downstairs and I’m with my kids in the living room,” but to have rituals like, it sounds silly but even changing clothes, like having sort of work clothes and then transitioning into, “Now I am at home. Now, I’m in my other role as partner or as a parent.”
Having a soundtrack that you play. Having a journal that you write in, where you’re writing down, you know, the things you accomplished today and the things you wanna accomplish tomorrow. These things that help you end your focused work time and then pick up your other role.
I also think that it’s really important in all of our families, in modern times, to have some screen-free time. So, like, you know, at our family in our house, there’s no screens at the dinner table. It doesn’t matter who you are, you can be one of the parents or one of the kids, like there’s no screens at the table. So, we spend at least like 30 minutes together around the table looking at each other without distraction.
Carving out those kinds of spaces in your family life can be important. I know other families that do screen-free Sundays, where they just sort of ban phones and computers for the day.
When you’re running an eCommerce business that can be incredibly stressful, but I think there can also be mechanisms built in where you can check sometimes, or check periodically. But what is so easy for us is that I’m just checking for a minute but yet it turns into 45 minutes later, when you’re responding to an email that really isn’t an emergency, but it’s just caught your attention.
You know, I think there’s also lots of commentary where we can talk about the mistaking the important and the urgent. You know, it’s really easy to get pulled in when we are checking our email or checking our social media in a way that isn’t intentional and isn’t like I actually have the time to sit down and respond to email right now.
Andrew: Yeah, I’m sure you’ve seen the studies, like isn’t there a pretty clear association between the increased screen time we’ve seen in the last 10 years just across the board in depression rates? Have they proven it? Is it just a correlation or have they actually proved it?
Sherry: Well, there’s certainly a body of research that particularly points to the amount of screen time and the link between screen time and depression for adolescents. And I think we’re increasingly seeing that level of data for adults as well, particularly social media use. So, screen time is of course not all created equal, but social media use, things like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter to some extent, tend to be significant drivers of depression in modern people.
Andrew: You know, you look at so many founders, and one thing that’s really hard is it’s nearly impossible not to tie your own self-worth into the success of whatever business you’re running. I mean, you just invest so much of yourself into it, and you put so much time into it, which is why probably this is gonna be like just purely, you know, you could hit ecstasy level moments and then you can just have these horrific crashes, right?
Have you seen many founders be able to successfully separate those two or is it just part of the territory and it’s really hard to disassociate at least a portion of your self-worth with how well your business does?
Sherry: I do think that being an entrepreneur means high highs and low lows. I mean, there is a roller-coaster nature that goes along with what it means to put so much of yourself into something that you can’t control. But I think we can minimize that the burden of that, or minimize the wear and tear on our inner selves that happens with those ups and downs when we’re really consciously investing in sort of a…I guess diversifying your personal portfolio is maybe a way to see that.
Like, yes, you have your business, and it should be important, like, let’s all choose work that is important, that’s satisfying, that we’re emotionally invested in. That’s a great gift, to be able to be intellectually and emotionally stimulated by your work. But in addition to that, making sure that we’re putting in effort and time to keep relationships healthy, that we are taking care of our bodies, that we, you know, are taking care of our intellectual selves.
I think being a well-rounded. You know, it’s sort of like this lame advice college or high school counselors give kids who are on the way to college, but it’s really very true that when we diversify the things that are important to us, we just create a buffer between going all in on one thing that we, again, don’t have perfect control over.
Andrew: What about working with your spouse? I mean, there’s a lot of people in our community that work with their spouse or significant other, and I feel like it’s a very mixed bag. I’ve had people say, “Do not do it,” because they’re totally such different roles, and other people works really well. Is it just like a case by case basis from people you’ve seen? Or, if you had to blanket recommend, like, “Should you work with your spouse?” and that’s all you know, you don’t know any other details of the couple, what would you say?
Sherry: Proceed with caution. Yeah, I mean, you can’t say yes or no to that question, because like you’re pointing out, every couple is different, every business is different. But I think that the spouses who I’ve seen work really well together are people who would make sense as co-founders if they weren’t married anyway. So, you’ve got a designer and a technical person, or you’ve got a coder or a marketing person.
You’ve got two people who have truly complementary skill sets independently of the fact that they’re married, so what they bring to the table is truly this meeting of separate but equal strengths, and that tends to, I think, create the most healthy dynamic.
It’s also what you would look for in co-founders that weren’t married, right? It’s like, do you wanna go into business with your college roommate? Probably not, unless they really have the skill set that you are seeking for your business.
Andrew: Yeah, it’s sort of like part of it too would be you’ve got, you know, a romantic long term relationship, you have certain things that you let slide because they’re not big deals, right? They’re small things and you love the person for who they are, and if you’re always nit-picking, that just kills a relationship, right? Where if you are, you know, in a business role and the partner role, maybe less so in a partner role but in any working relationship, you have to have hard discussions, right?
Like, to develop people. The way you develop them is by pointing out their weaknesses, helping them improve, and even if you do that in a really kind and gracious loving way, you’re still pointing out somebody’s weaknesses, right? So, do you think a couple in a business can really help each other become the best versions of themselves and also have a really sweet and tender, romantic side of that too, or do you think they’re mutually exclusive?
Sherry: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive, but I do think it depends on the extent to which each of those individuals is carefully cultivating the best version of themselves independently, right? I think if it’s a co-founder relationship where you have to do a lot of prompting and a lot of correcting, or a lot of challenging, then that is gonna wear and tear on any co-founder relationship.
But if both members of that partnership are carefully cultivating themselves, and are carefully bringing their best to their work, then I think it just requires less wear and tear that you would have within the relationship. So, it can be done, but it’s not often done well because it requires so much emotional maturity, and patience, and dedication to being your best self at home and at work.
Andrew: Do you see depression springing up among founders at higher rates than average? And if so, why do you think that is?
Sherry: There’s only one research study that I know of that’s really done a comprehensive assessment of depression within entrepreneur communities, and that was by a doctor named Michael Freeman at University of San Francisco. His findings did indicate that the rate of depression is a little bit higher.
It’s an interesting question. For me, I think in some ways it’s sort of a chicken or the egg question. I think sometimes people with ADHD, elevated anxiety, a propensity toward depression, they might not do as well in a cubicle 9 to 5 kind of job, but they do much better in a flexible environment where they can really design their time and they can focus their energy on things that are most meaningful to them.
So, in some ways, I think entrepreneurship as a construct calls for those of us who are a little bit deviant. And I don’t mean to say that people who are experiencing depression are deviant, because depression is a really super common phenomenon, you know, 25% to 30% of the population the US are experiencing that. But there are folks who have something going on within themselves or within their lives that don’t wanna stick on the treadmill of the 9 to 5 job.
That’s done. You know I do think that the demands of entrepreneurship and that sort of deep entanglement of who you are with your business can make all of us a little bit more psychologically vulnerable to things that can drive depression. Feeling helpless, feeling hopeless, feeling isolated, feeling alone, feeling just unable to solve problems, and really feeling all too aware of how little control we have over the forces that really dictate a lot of our lives.
Andrew: You’ve talked about, you know, being wrapped up in…your identity being wrapped up in a business, and depression as some of the downsides of entrepreneurship. There’s a lot of great things that entrepreneurship lets you do, especially once you get to a level where you’re more sustainable, I mean, in terms of income and flexibility, the reasons that a lot of us went into this in the first place.
But thinking through how to balance that well, if you had to…for someone listening, if you could just, you know, give them three things to do, maybe the three aspects of their life that they could focus on, or three steps they could take to be able to mitigate some of these things.
We’ve been talking about depression, over attachment to your self-worth with the business, what would those three things be that someone is gonna walk away from this podcast and implement that would really make a positive difference in their mental health?
Sherry: I think the number one thing I would say is not to compromise on the basics. And by the basics I mean sleep, I mean reasonable nutrition, I mean moving your body regularly. Those three things really determine how well we are able to cope with stress, how well we are able to bounce back when things are discouraging, and really how well our brains are functioning, period.
But I see many, many entrepreneurs who under the demands of time and stress, think a four-hour night of sleep is sufficient, or that, you know, shortchanging like, “I’ll eat tomorrow,” or, “Oh, wait, I forgot to eat and it’s 3 P.M.,” those kinds of practices where we’re really neglecting the basics of our physical health almost always come back to bite us in the end. And we do short change our psychological resilience, and we shortchange our cognitive capacity to solve problems and be creative, and do many of the things on which our success in business is based. So, that’s number one. Like, do not shortcut on those things. Take care of your body.
I think a second one would be to really carefully tend your friendships and relationships. That don’t let the demands and the busyness, and the head down drive toward being successful pull you away from the relationships that you will want in your life, whether you’re successful or not successful. You know, if you make it big, you want people to come to that party, you want people to celebrate that with you, and if you fail, you want people to be there to pick you up off the floor, you know?
I think we can easily short change those when we are heads down in a business, and not seeing that as a valuable investment, but it’s one of the most valuable investments we can make in our lives, from a psychological perspective.
Andrew: Isn’t, from a mental health and discover happiness well-being, aren’t relationships, you know, by far the number one thing that can indicate people’s happiness in the long run? Is that right?
Sherry: Yeah, we also talk about them as the number one protective factor. So, when you think about things that break us as humans, think about terrible experiences, traumatic loss, disasters, those things can often sort of tip our coping skills one way or the other. They can push us into no longer having the resources to cope with the demands of our lives, and therefore, sort of into this mental health crisis.
But the number one thing that can protect us and keep us mentally sound and mentally safe, especially when we’re under stress is the quality of our relationships. And we don’t have to have a ton of relationships. We don’t have to have the most fabulous network ever, but we do have to have a couple of people who we care about, who care about us deeply.
Andrew: Are there any things that, you know, society, especially in the business world, our expectations, public expectations that other funders feel like they need to, you know, meet, that in your opinion are a really unhealthy and toxic? So, maybe for example, one that I threw out there is the sad idea that if you don’t get back to people on text message or email within like four hours then, you know, you’re brushing them off, being rude.
To me, sometimes I think days to reply to text, and I think I don’t necessarily think if somebody sends an email, it’s an automatic, like you have an obligation to get back to them, something like that. So, anything like that in our society that you think that founders should think about differently and not feel stressed about that society says they should be?
Sherry: And that’s actually the one that came to me top of mind, it’s like that 24 hours…
Andrew: Yeah, sorry for stealing it.
Sherry: No, no. No. You got 24-hour availability is an expectation that really nobody can meaningfully meet. And it’s not healthy for us, it’s not healthy for our business, it’s not healthy for our relationships, for people to expect that we are able to respond all the time.
Andrew: And you’ve got a book, can you talk about that a little bit?
Sherry: Yeah. It came out last February. So, it’s called “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Sh*t Together: How to Run Your Business Without Letting it Run You.” I co-wrote it with my husband, Rob. Really is pulling together much of what we’ve learned over the last couple of years in talking to different founders and entrepreneurs about mental health, the things that we found to be most helpful for people, pulled into one condensed place.
So, you don’t have to listen to 200 hours of podcast, you can just read it in, you know, 200 pages.
And that is interesting. It’s been my sort of entrepreneurial struggle to get that done and then get that out there, and then go through the process of launching a book and marketing it. And those are new tasks for me as a psychologist, to really put myself and my work out there so publicly.
So, you know, it’s one that I think has been well received. And we really wrote it with the intention of making it easily accessible, high quality psychological information that people can use in their day-to-day lives.
Andrew: Yeah, and we’ll link up to that in the show notes, or you can just google that on Amazon and it will pop up. You also have a podcast that’s very well done, great topics, where I guess you ask super insightful questions. I’ve enjoyed that. And you do retreats too, for founders and I believe, couples too, right?
Sherry: Yeah. We’ve done some couples retreats. We are tentatively looking at one next early March or so, so if people are interested in that…I think it’s been really helpful for us as a couple and for the couples that we’ve worked with, to get people together with their peers, right? With other families who have the similar kinds of stresses and freedoms that go along with the entrepreneurial life.
And I think as both a founder myself, and the significant other of a founder, you know, there’s a lot of complexity that goes into sharing your marriage with a business. It can often feel like the third wheel of our relationship is whatever business Rob is working on at the time. So, we have some great conversations.
Andrew: Cool. Before we sign off, I’ve got a quick lightning round, if you’re up for it.
Andrew: Perfect. So, feel free to just throw out just short, fast answers for the title, but what’s something you’ve changed your mind about recently?
Sherry: E-books. I’ve gone back to buying paper books.
Andrew: Really? Just the feel or like the note taking, or what was it that pushed you over the edge?
Sherry: I felt like I was getting too distracted. So, when I’m on my phone, I don’t have a lot of notifications enabled. I would just sort of find myself doing other things. And I didn’t wanna have a Kindle and a phone and, you know, whatever, but e-books. I now have a pile of paper books again, and I’ve been reading a lot more, so it’s working for me.
Andrew: Who’s your favorite psychologist, and why?
Sherry: Oh, I struggled with this one. I’d say it’s a tie between Carl Rogers and Viktor Frankl. Carl Rogers, of course, is person-centered therapy, but has this really lovely approach to understanding people as folks who are working toward their own growth, toward their own actualization, but who are often living in environments that are not conducive to cultivating a healthy inner self. So, I think he has a high regard for people and for their motivations.
And I think that that has worked really well for me as a framework, especially with founders who are often highly motivated, highly intelligent people who are working hard, but often encountering a lot of obstacles in their environments.
Andrew: What are you currently spending too much money on?
Sherry: Okay, so Ariel yoga teacher training. So random, I know. But it was the first thing that came to mind. So, I’d love to Ariel yoga, which is yoga in a sling or in a hammock where you’re suspended from the ceiling. It’s sort of like circusy version of yoga. And I occasionally will substitute teach aerial yoga, but I keep going to teacher trainings, which are really expensive and time intensive. They make me happy, but they’re probably not a very good investment, considering like when I teach aerial yoga, I get paid like $25 an hour or something.
Andrew: Look at the emotional return versus the…maybe it’ll pencil out a little bit better.
Andrew: What’s something you’re currently not spending enough money on?
Sherry: I’m probably not optimizing my own website very well. I’ve not spent a lot of money on ads. I’ve not really, I don’t think invested in marketing as well as I could, so, yeah. Thanks for that reminder.
Andrew: Yeah. Warning, you may get a bunch of people pitching you on internet marketing services. If you wanna give your email for where the pitches can go right now, feel free. What’s one of the top three things on your bucket list? Something you wanna do before you die.
Sherry: Nothing. I mean, I really could not think of anything. Which made me super happy, actually. So, I’m turning 40 soon.
Sherry: Yeah, I made it. I made it this far. And I’ve been thinking a lot about this question, like, you know, I’m staring down the second half of my life, what do I need to do? And thankfully, so many of the things that I would have wanted to do, I’ve crossed off the list, you know? The Great Wall of China, and Paris, and scuba diving, like a lot of the things that I thought I really wanted to do, have been done. So, I’ll have to go back to you on that if I think of anything by the time I turn 50, I guess.
Andrew: That’s awesome. That’s a good sign, a few regrets. And then finally, what’s the number one thing you’re trying to optimize your life for right now?
Sherry: Calm. Just being calm. You know, like many of your listeners, I run a business, I’m married to someone who runs a business, I have three kids, each of my kids has their own needs. It can get really fanatic and frantic around my house really fast, and I feel like my superpower as the queen of this castle is to try to keep as much calm as we can, as each member of our family goes through the ups and downs of their individual lives.
Andrew: You should definitely check out Sherry’s podcast. It’s called Zen Founder. You can find anywhere you get your podcast. Also, her website, zenfounder.com, you can hook up with the podcast, the book, her retreats, everything Sherri at that website. And she’ll also be speaking at ECF Live this year in New Orleans, which is gonna be fun.
So, if you wanna get on the wait list for that event, you can do that at live.ecommercefuel.com if you’re a member of our private community. Sherry, this has been a lot of fun. Looking forward to hanging out in New Orleans, and thanks for coming on the show.
Sherry: Hey, my pleasure, Andrew. Thanks for asking me.
Andrew: That’s gonna do it for this week, but a few important things to know about, especially if you’re a store owner before you go. First, if you’re looking to hire for your eCommerce business, make sure to check out the eCommerceFuel job boards. We’ll get your job in front of thousands of qualified job seekers to find you the perfect candidate. And if you’re looking for work, you should check out the dozens of handpicked opportunities along with lots of other roles that pop up every week at ecommercefuel.com/jobs.
And if you’re an established store owner, you absolutely should be a member of our private community for seven-figure-plus store owners. You get access to our discussion forum with over 1,000 vetted experienced eCommerce entrepreneurs, invitations to our in-person member-only events, and access to our private review directory with over 5,000 software and service provider reviews. If that sounds interesting, you can learn more and apply for membership at ecommercefuel.com/forum. That’s F-O-R-U-M.
And then finally, a big “Thank you” to our two sponsors who help make the show possible. First, Liquid Web, best place to host your WooCommerce store anywhere online. If you’re using Woo, you need to check them out, ecommercefuel.com/liquidweb. And also Klaviyo, who makes email marketing automation incredibly easy and powerful. You can learn more and get started for free at ecommercefuel.com/klaviyo.
That will do it for this week. Thanks so much for listening, and I’m looking forward to seeing you again next Friday.
Want to connect with and learn from other proven eCommerce entrepreneurs? Join us in the eCommerceFuel private community. It’s our tight-knit, vetted group for store owners with at least a quarter of a million dollars in annual sales. You can learn more and apply for membership at ecommercefuel.com.
Thanks so much for listening, and I’m looking forward to seeing you again next time.
Flickr: Matt Cornock