How to be resilient when self-employed

High school was not pleasant for me. Regular teenage angst was definitely a culprit. There was a bigger one, at home. My dad. 

It’s not that my dad was a bad guy. (He wasn’t and still isn’t.) My teenage years were tough because he was relentlessly focused on mindset. Or, I should say, he was focused on my mindset. He didn’t see problems, he saw opportunities. That’s how he wanted me to see the world too. Dinner was always fraught. I worried about talking about my day, especially if it was a bad one. I knew what his response would be, that my mindset was the real problem rather than whatever I was facing. I used to joke that my dad's response to my teenage angst was, "Don't worry. Be happy." like he was a damn Bobby McFerrin song.

He spouted his own aphorisms like: 

  • Good decisions get better. Bad decisions get worse.
  • It's not what happens. It's how you react to it.

Teenage me hated it. I felt like I had no control over my grades or whether someone liked me. I just wanted to wallow. To just be angry or dejected for as long as I wanted, even if it meant my whole senior year of high school. But he wouldn't let me. He lectured me and my siblings on the importance of mind over matter. He taught us that what happened was far less important than our reaction to what happened.

It was like a dang Tony Robbins seminar in my house every night.

I spent most of my high school days and college resenting my father, wishing he just understood my problems. That changed in my third year of college. My best friend got into a car accident. She'd been drinking. Luckily she only hit a parked car and no one was seriously injured. Still, she was hauled off to jail, charged with a DUI. I found out the next day when her sister bailed her out.

I was distraught over the thought of my friend being in jail and worse -- that she'd have to go back. I was paralyzed with fear. I was sure it was a tragedy. Finals were coming up the next week. I needed to find a way to deal with the situation without letting it drag me into a morass of emotions. I decided to time box my feelings. I told myself I could be upset all day but when I woke up the next day I needed to move on or transform my feelings. A few hours later the anxiety passed.

I finally began to understand my father's wisdom. It wasn’t about being relentlessly positive. He wanted me to use my mindset to my advantage during challenging times. I could let an event break me or I could shift my perception of it. 

It turns out my dad was right. 

Your perception of an event is more important than what happened.

Being able to quickly bounce back from a negative event is what's known as resilience. The popular belief was that you were either born with the ability to persevere — or you weren’t. We saw those who overcame enormous odds as invincible, nearly super human. Resilience was seen as extraordinary. Since then, psychology research has demonstrated that we all actually have the ability to self-right when under strain. It turns out we all have the innate ability to bounce back and — it’s something you can develop. 

My dad didn’t study psychology. He learned to manage his mindset through life experience. Growing up in the Great Depression, he lived in 10 houses by the age of 16, moving every time another company closed, his father’s employment ending along with it. They had enough to eat, barely. When the Depression started to ease, his dad opened a business, also not an easy path. Instability was a constant in the first 16 years of my father’s life. It taught him how to persevere through challenging times. Later this attitude was helpful in his work as a design engineer, building prototypes for GM. His ability to see opportunities, rather be stopped by problems in building, was essential to finding his way around obstacles inherent in building innovative products. He learned to use his tough upbringing to become resilient, a skill he wanted so badly for his children. 


I was broke, recently laid off and had just moved 1800 miles across the country when I first started working for myself.

There were plenty of business challenges too: not only was I introducing my business, I was also introducing it in a brand new industry. Oh, and it was the middle of a severe economic downturn. Having my own business showed me that I too had developed resilience, and — that it was one of the most important skills needed.  

The biggest key to being resilient is your perception. Longitudinal studies showed many factors for resilience in children with hard childhoods. One factor in particular though, stood out: locus of control. A locus of control is a belief about whether the outcome of a situation is based on what we do (internal locus of control) vs what happens to us (external locus of control). Children who were more resilient to childhood trouble had a higher belief that their actions could influence what happened in their life. Here’s a great chart of the difference between the internal and external locus of control mindsets.

It’s how we explain an event to ourselves that matters. 

We can see something as traumatic, becoming helpless to outside circumstances or we can see it as a chance to grow. Now I’m not telling you to set intentions or to just think positive. Or that everything will be sunny skies if you just 'see every challenge as an opportunity!’ Ugh. I hate that crap.

I’m also not saying that all you need to be successful in your business is to be resilient. There are far too many factors that influence this. What I am saying is being resilient is one of the most important skills you can develop. And — you won’t build a long-term, sustainable business without resilience. Running a business is a wild obstacle course, not a leisurely 3k sprint. Resilience is everything.

Be resilient when working for yourself

Working for yourself, offers plenty of opportunities to exercise your resilience muscles. When you view a negative event as a challenge rather than a horrible setback, you’re more likely to recover quickly. You also strengthen your ability to persevere. Resilience is highly correlated with stress. The more stressors you encounter, the more your resilience is tested. Stress can help your competency with it — or break you down. Since there will always be stressors when you work for yourself, making resilience critical.

There will always be challenges:

  • Tense contract negotiations
  • Delays you can't foresee
  • Proposals will be rejected
  • Clients want more work for less money
  • You get sick, or someone in your family does

There will likely be stress around the financial aspects of your business. Though most think the financial stressors are the worst, as my friend Andy describes, the emotional rollercoaster can be just as tough. Challenges just come along with being in business. They're just part of the deal.

You can manage your business — and these challenges better, but you can never eliminate them completely. Not only will there be challenges but you will fail. Probably many times. Your product doesn't sell. A client project is a disaster. You lose money on an engagement.

You can’t prevent failure. No matter how in control you think you are, zero failure isn't a realistic goal. Believing you can escape it is silly and will become an obstacle to developing resilience.

Accept failure as part of having your own business. 

Once you accept that you will fail, you have a few options.

- Don't allow failure to seep into you like a toxic mold. Failing, especially in something as challenging as having your own business, doesn't mean you're a bad person, or that you won't succeed. See the failure as an opportunity to learn rather than a chance to give up.

- A counter-intuitive option from the world of space is to engage in negative thinking. More accurately, this method uses worst case scenarios to prepare you. The benefit of this approach is that you’ll anesthetize yourself from being paralyzed when bad things happen, so you can take action.

- On the other hand, sometimes things fall apart in unexpected ways that you just can't predict. Use the situation as a chance to step back and assess. Perhaps there’s a larger issue at play. Maybe you need to make radical changes. Being resilient doesn’t just mean pushing forward no matter the resistance. Resilience is about being tough, able to recover from difficulties. 

- Really, being resilient is all your self-belief. Having confidence in yourself or favorable thoughts about your abilities is highly associated with building resilience. It's essential to build the belief that you have what it takes to make good decisions, get creative or whatever else it takes to run your business.

Trust yourself to figure it out. 

The freelance, solopreneur, self-employed, business owner, whatever-you-call-it, life isn’t for everyone. If you’re thinking about working for yourself, begin building mental toughness now.


P.S. In addition to psychology research, I read a whole bunch about resilience engineering while writing this post. I might write about how it relates later but in the meantime, here’s an interesting article about resilience engineering