Mike Buonaiuto, Executive Director at Shape History, London’s Social Change Communications Agency, quit his job to regain perspective & ended up exploring why more young business leaders should mind their mental health.
I’ve spent the last few weeks doing something I’ve not done since founding Shape History, a social change communications agency in London. I quit my job and took a break for longer than a single weekend. No emails, no financials — nothing. The result taught me more about the artificial sense of urgency many young business leaders face, and how overcoming this regains true perspective.
I’ve been lucky enough to craft a career for over a decade in an area of work I truly love — including building an agency which works only with good causes and helps others through storytelling. The team are absolute godsends, but when work is what you enjoy — as a business leader when do you know when it’s time for a break?
It had been too long. We’d just been through some considerable team growth, including establishing a firm senior management level at the agency, and we wanted to test how successfully the company could operate with the new processes, independent of myself — for a short time. To scale, a business needs to be somewhat autonomous of its founder, and I was finding it extremely tricky to step away.
With the support of the team, I was persuaded to clock off and travel to the seemingly only place with Winter sunshine in Europe — the Canary Islands. I wanted Bali, but my pre-christmas budget demanded somewhere a little closer! So like something out of Eat Pray Love, I planned a trip of mountain climbing, meditating and audiobooks — all in a bid to use the time to really learn some new things about the world, about myself and where I wanted the agency to go next year.
“There is a huge difference between succeeding through self-discipline & succeeding through artificial urgency.”
All was going well (I hadn’t checked my emails once,) until around 5 days in, when I woke up with a sudden overwhelming feeling of anxiety. It was the first Monday morning I hadn’t spent organising my week as I usually do. My mind went into panic mode, and I couldn’t shift this feeling of guilt because I wasn’t with the team; feeling selfish for taking some extended time off. Like most phobias, it was completely irrational.
That day I had already planned to visit Pico de las Nieves & Roque Nublo, the highest points on the island at 6,500ft above sea level. Once at the top I remember sitting against the awesome panoramic view and just breathing deeply. The air was so clean up there, it was unbelievable. I just sat trying to clear my mind of anxiety, mostly by concentrating on how it felt within my own body.
I was inspired by what I’d heard on Russell Brand’s “Under The Skin” podcast the previous day, during his interview with Ruby Wax discussing the effects of cortisol on the brain. I was particularly curious in how this research could help young business leaders, notorious for overworking, manage their own mental health.
Cortisol is a hormone released in humans when under threat or pressure which forces a lymbic reaction. It was useful in early times when a saber-toothed tiger was coming to eat us. We’d surge our bodies full of the stuff and have the ability to fight or flight. But whilst modern society has evolved to protect us from such dangers, our brains have not. Our minds therefore can have a tendency to flood our bodies with cortisol when other seemingly benign dangers emerge; anything from forgetting to pay bills to messing-up at work. And what’s worse — the brain can create a habit of doing it, if it’s successful in getting you out of “trouble.”
Cortisol causes your body to flood in adrenaline and quicken your heartbeat, and your mind will therefore often fill with curt and critical thoughts at the same time. Wax argues the chemical desperately needs to be controlled, and brought down to regularity using mindfulness and meditation. We need to learn that self-criticism is a natural part of the brain’s bid to keep us alive, but by teaching ourselves to be present in the moment, shifting such thoughts should turn down the critical volume to resemble the radio on in the next room — present but ignored.
It takes work. As Wax says “It’s like a sit up.” Your brain will try to distract you away, but through practice, you can rewire your mind to relax your body more intuitively, which helps then in those moments day to day when you start to fill with cortisol; reacting on panic rather than perspective. I’ve paraphrased her work hugely. Feel free to check it out yourself here and here. (She’s also hilarious.)
So here I was at the top of mountain, looking at this immense view unaware of the mountain I was climbing in my own mind — to self-discovery. And then it hit me — the route of this anxiety I was feeling. I hate to bring it down to sexuality — but really… most issues gay men face in the modern world are due to growing up around the toxic masculinity of our fathers, the patriarchal systems of society and let’s not forget, the overwhelming fear of being outcast. But these demands are felt and affect all of us, in fact.
In my case, my dedicated and often strict approach to work has given way to a lot of success, even since school days — but this has often be due to the constant fear of failure driving me forward. I’ve been so anxious of stopping rather than enjoying the journey, spending a huge part of my career in fight or flight mode.
There is a huge difference between succeeding through self-discipline & succeeding through artificial urgency. The two aren’t mutually-exclusive, but I believe my success, like many entrepreneurs, has most often been inspired through a twisted survival tactic learnt as a millennial child — to always be “the best.” Throw in a splash of internalised homophobia and you have a child who develops the unshakable belief that they should always be ready to survive alone — because they are hiding a secret that, if discovered, would see them abandoned by the only support system they’ve ever known. And even though my family, parents and loved ones have always accepted me, shattering those lies were all fed as kids; the lasting damage has been done — the fear has been hard-wired.
“Success was never a race to begin with, and the only way to move forward is to coach ourselves with the same compassion we would expect others to coach us with.”
Succeeding through a state of fear isn’t really succeeding at all — and what’s worse — as a boss I’m aware I can either inspire passion, vision and drive — whilst at the same time because of these conditions, also put those around me under the same insane pressures as I put myself.
Shape History as an agency is not just my support system anymore — freeing me of a life working for big corporations. 4 years on, Shape History supports its employees and endeavours to help countless charities with its work. So I, like many other entrepreneurs, need to continue to shift my leadership away from artificial urgency and fear of failure, and encourage those moments of self-discipline, helping entice staff out of their comfort zones, and into their potential — seeing the best in people but letting them get there at their own pace.
I see this time and time again in the entrepreneurial world, especially in young leaders. They believe success is an identical race that everyone is running together, when in reality everyone’s road looks different and we all start from very unique places. Success is also strangely the only race you can ever run that never finishes, so it doesn’t matter how much self-discipline or self-inflicted urgency you muster, the goal-post will always move away ahead of you. We must learn, as leaders, success was never a race to begin with, and the only way to move forward is to coach ourselves with the same compassion we would expect others to coach us with.
This trip has taught me to be more conscious of my own thoughts — because when it comes down to it, consciousness is the only thing which can affect your reality and future. Your present is happening in a fraction of a second. By the time you finish reading this sentence what you thought was your future, will now be your past. If we’re not making conscious choices in the moment, we’re not fulfilling our potential.
Sharing your story is also super important. It can be difficult and feel a little self-indulgent, but the number of people who have reached out to me during this trip in response to my social media updates on self-discovery, saying they feel the same or they appreciate the honesty, is astonishing. Many many people feel the same.
So much more needs to be written and understood about the mental health of entrepreneurs, especially young business leaders. When so much can sometimes be at stake, we need and deserve the skills to achieve balanced thoughts, because what we think — we become.