Everyone wants a unicorn.  But how to make it?
Everyone wants a unicorn. But how to make it?

So you want a unicorn...

The quest for startup success

In the 1960’s, everyone wanted freedom of speech and equality. In the 70’s everyone wanted a TV. In the 80’s everyone wanted a college degree. Today, it seems like everyone wants a startup.

I think it’s great. A big step forward in terms of human development. Just think about the implications when everyone in the value chain actually understood the full value chain and the impact of every decision. Just imagine what the world would be like if everyone contributed by adding one element that they are truly passionate about. Just for a moment envision what the world would be like when people only did what they loved and cared about.

The world would be a better place without a doubt.

The valley of disappointment

But startups aren’t as easy as they sound. There are many more failures than successes. Grit and perseverance are often more valuable skills than talent and creativity.

Most people think a startup, like any change in life, is a linear progression much like a staircase to the top of a tall building. There’s only one way up, only one step at a time.

The reality, however, is that it is much more like climbing a mountain, with one step forward, two steps back. Two steps forward, one step back…. The higher you get, the less access to resources you have - including precious oxygen — making those last few steps harder than anything you’ve ever done before.

As you slowly make your way up the mountain, you see the remnants of past failures from other startups scattered in the valley of disappointment below. You realize that nothing you’ve learned at school prepared you for this perilous journey and that it is only the crazy that would embark on such an adventure.

You start doubting yourself and your abilities. You even start doubting whether you will ever make it. When you look at those that went before you, you can spot their mistakes, yet you feel powerless to change your destiny to something else.

Startup success and emotional mastery are directly related to each other.

The real reason startups fail

There are many reasons for this, with just a few of the most common:

  • Not having a clear vision rooted in passion.
  • Starting too big.
  • Trying to do it yourself.
  • Not asking for help.
  • Asking for help but not listening to the advice.
  • Thinking money is the answer to all your problems.
  • Scaling too soon. Scaling too fast.

The most essential and primary reasons most startups don’t succeed or turn into a unicorn is however something much more fundamental and often overlooked.

Emotional intelligence.

Not to be confused with suppressing or managing your emotions, but being intelligent about your emotions and its guidance. I have only met one person who I rate and look up to as emotionally intelligent in a sea of humans daily interacting with me.

Most people I’ve met see emotional intelligence as the ability to control their emotions and their emotional reaction towards situations. They carry emotional intelligence as armor around them, hiding the imperfections below and protecting their soft and vulnerable inside fearing that people might hurt them. Emotionally intelligent people, however, don’t hide their vulnerabilities from others, they share their wounds openly and trust others not to abuse it.

Emotional intelligent people do react to their emotions. They listen to the message it carries within. They see an emotional trigger as guide and a beacon showing them where their limiting beliefs are keeping them from breaking the glass ceiling above them.

They don’t try to run away or avoid a painful emotion, they face it head-on and own their shame. They also learn from it and turn their pain into wisdom.

And once they’ve turned their pain into wisdom, they dust themselves off and get up to try again as Diana Krall beautifully explains in he song “Pick Yourself Up”.

Pick Yourself Up

Nothing’s impossible I have found
For when my chin is on the ground
I pick myself up, dust myself off, start all over again

Don’t lose your confidence if you slip
Be grateful for a pleasant trip
And pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again

Work like a soul inspired till the battle of the day is won
You may be sick and tired but you’ll be a man my son
Don’t you remember the famous men who had to fall to rise again?
They picked themselves up, dust themselves off and started all over again

Songwriters: Dorothy Fields / Jerome Kern

Pick Yourself Up lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Shapiro Bernstein & Co. Inc.

Diana Krall - Pick Yourself Up

The key message that any startup can learn from this is not to avoid emotional pain, but to invite it in and learn from it. These painful emotions that you are trying to avoid is the blocks that keep you from moving forward.

How to spot emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is like a bright, beautiful red apple. It might be shiny on the outside, but it’s what’s inside that matters. Here’s some of the most obvious things to look out for when evaluating emotional intelligence:

1. Emotional intelligent people are responsive.

The first sign to tell the level of maturity a person has in terms of emotional intelligence is their responsiveness.

When people don’t respond — whether it is answering a WhatsApp message or being asked a direct, but difficult question — it can indicate that they are not willing to face a difficult situation. Emotional intelligent people do not avoid difficult situations, they meet them head-on and with compassion.

It can also indicate that they don't value other people and are selfish. Emotional intelligent people respect others as much as they do themselves.

2. Emotional intelligence welcome feedback.

Another sign to look out for is closely looking at how people respond to feedback. Do they defend their point of view or project by blaming? Or do they open up and welcome your perspective without judgement?

When people are emotionally intelligent, they don’t see praise as good and criticism as bad. Rather, they value both as feedback. It’s simply hearing what people think or how they perceive you in an attempt to correct.

When you view feedback as criticism, it means you see your perspective as right and anything else as wrong. Emotional intelligent people focus on understanding other perspectives and look for ways to include different views to make an even more beautiful painting together than what you could do on your own.

3. Emotional intelligent people own their mistakes.

Everyone makes mistakes. The difference between more and less emotional intelligent people is that a less mature individual will try to hide their mistake. A more mature individual will own it, they say “I am sorry” and adapt their behaviors as a result of the mistake.

Even when the other person was wrong, an emotionally mature person will admit their part in the conflict, realizing that it always takes two to tango. There can only be a victim if there is a perpetrator. The one can not exist without the other. So is the other person really so bad? Or are you playing victim to look good?

When you are not willing to admit you made a mistake, you are invalidating the other person and denying both of you to learn and grow.

4. Emotional intelligent people start with heart.

Difficult conversations are bound to pop up on a startup journey. You can be guaranteed of that. You can’t always be the good guy, but you can always have good intention and attempt to find a mutual beneficial resolution to a situation.

There will be times when you are pushed beyond your boundaries, other times when you have to say no. Sometimes you will need to say something that the other person doesn’t want to hear. It’s inevitable.

An emotional intelligent person is not afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear, but they do always start with heart. They start the conversation with an attempt to resolve and understand. If the other person is not willing to come to the table, or not willing to engage in the conversation, there is little you can do about it. But it is always better to give feedback than to keep quiet and let the resentment build inside.

Bad feedback is better than no feedback.

There are ways and means to give feedback more gently, but sometimes you have to open the wound in order for it to heal. Not giving someone an opportunity to look at their wounds are by far more cruel than hurting them a little in order for them to heal a lot.

5. Emotional intelligent people accept rejection as part of the journey.

If there could be a single item that differentiates emotional intelligent people from less emotional people, it is their ability to deal with failure and rejection.

For a startup to succeed, more than anything else, you need to be able to recover from failure. You need to be willing to accept rejection and try again.

Sometimes you will fall flat on your face for the world to see, and get up and own your shame.

Startup success is not about avoiding failure, it is about perseverance and commitment. A less emotional intelligent person will give up when they’re faced with shame, unwilling to own it and learn from it.

Being intelligent about your emotions

As startup founder you will find emotions boiling to the surface at crucial breakthrough times, much like a locked door hiding a treasure behind it. A strong emotion is a sign that there is something blocking you from reaching your goals that you need to look at. When you choose to ignore it, a bigger opportunity resulting in an even stronger emotional response will pop up until you finally do listen.

Being intelligent about your emotions is not avoiding the pain and failure, it is about becoming aware of how you feel (not merely good or bad), understanding the message it has for you, and letting go of the limiting belief by choosing differently.

Startup success is when you’re able to break through your own glass ceiling. It takes courage and a willingness to master your emotions - both good and bad.

Originally published in The Startup: https://medium.com/swlh/so-you-want-a-unicorn-f5172e774b17