Why success theatre may be the culprit.
Warning: if you are prone to panic attacks, reading this may trigger you. Much love and stay safe.
Angry motorists whizzed past me at 100 kilometers an hour…
There I was, inching down the highway, travelling just half the speed limit with my four-way flashers on.
I was scared.
I had one sweaty hand on the wheel and one hand on my forehead.
My head was throbbing.
It felt like my brain was an overfilled balloon that would pop at any moment.
My thoughts were racing…
“What’s happening to me? Am I dying? Is this what dying feels like?”
My hands began to tingle.
Scratch that. “Tingle” is too cute a descriptor.
In actuality, it felt like every nerve ending in my fingers and palms had been set on fire.
I couldn’t breathe.
My chest was tight.
I felt like I was going to pass out.
I had to stop.
I found a safe place to pull over and sat on the side of the road.
I sat there for 20 minutes — agonizing as each second passed.
Hot tears streamed down my face as I reminded myself to breathe.
Finally, I worked up the courage to get back on the road.
I had to get there. He was counting on me.
It was only a few minutes further.
I had to get there.
Each kilometer I drove felt like a lifetime.
Each car that honked as it passed heightened my self-loathing.
“What the fuck was wrong with me?”
“Why was this happening NOW? Now of all times.”
I finally arrived.
When I pulled up to the airport, 45 minutes late, my husband Jason stood waiting for me.
But, he looked tired.
He was tired.
He’d been away on business and had spent the last 24 hours travelling.
He wanted nothing more than to get home and crawl into our big, warm bed.
But, no such luck for my sweet husband.
Because… here I was.
And, I was having a panic attack. Again.
For anyone who doesn’t know Jason, he is an incredible person.
My friend Menna once described Jason’s personality as, “the human embodiment of a hug.”
So, of course, it goes without saying that Jason wasn’t angry at me.
He wasn’t annoyed or even frustrated.
He was just… confused.
And so was I.
I had absolutely no reason to be having a panic attack.
After making the painful choice to kill my venture-backed tech startup several months earlier, my life was finallllllly getting back on track.
Everything was coming together beautifully.
I should have been fine.
I should be more than “fine”…
I had just landed two new clients, got back from an amazing vacation in Dominican Republic, and was figuring out my debt situation — hallelujah!
I should be great.
I should be fucking fantastic.
Yet, while intellectually I knew that everything was ok — that l was ok — my anxiety had other plans.
In a word, my anxiety is an asshole.
It doesn’t play by the rules.
It isn’t always rational.
You’d think it would show up at stressful times… like when I’m about to step on stage and speak in front of 300 people.
Or while I’m sitting under the hot lights of a TV set, about to go live to the entire country on the national news.
That I would understand.
That would be predictable.
But, for the last three years, it hasn’t been predictable.
It would appear in the quiet moments. The moments when I least expected it… like when I was brushing my teeth in the morning.
Or walking home from the office on a sunny day.
Or driving to the airport to pick up my adorable husband.
There was often no warning sign or common thread.
My anxiety would just sneak up, out of nowhere, and sucker-punch me in the mouth.
[Tweet “My anxiety would just sneak up, out of nowhere, and sucker-punch me in the mouth.”]
Like I said, my anxiety is an asshole.
As I’m sure you can understand, I was frustrated.
What was triggering this fear response?
Why was I still battling anxiety months after the most stressful period of my life had officially ended?
I was dumbfounded.
But, my confusion soon gave way to another feeling — curiosity.
I decided to treat my anxiety as a puzzle worth solving.
I figured that if I could understand what was causing my anxiety, I could learn how to better control it.
[Tweet “I figured that if I could understand what was causing my anxiety, I could learn how to better control it.”]
So, I started digging.
What I found surprised me…
In recent years, countless studies have surfaced about the psychological price of entrepreneurship.
Did you know that 72% of entrepreneurs surveyed admitted to having mental health problems? That’s insane when you compare it to the general public, where only 7% have mental illness. [source]
It’s an epidemic.
A staggering 1 in 3 entrepreneurs live with depression.
According to Business Insider, “There’s a dark side to startups, and it haunts 30% of the world’s most brilliant people.”
Mental illness is described as “tech’s dark secret.”
And, it’s serious.
So what’s really going on here?
Are entrepreneurs just a little “crazier” than the average civilian?
And, tech founders might just be the craziest of all…
Did you know that the 92% of tech startups fail in the first 3 years?
Some people would say that starting a business that is statistically almost guaranteed to fail is the very definition of “crazy.”
We all know that entrepreneurship is hella stressful. It’s a rollercoaster of ups, downs and roundie rounds.
All that stress can definitely lead to anxiety and depression. There’s no question.
But, I think there’s more to the story…
Truthfully? I think there’s another reason why so many entrepreneurs suffer from anxiety and depression.
A problem that’s more insidious and ingrained in the entrepreneurial culture.
The real problem is “success theatre.”
Success theatre: what it is and why it’s dangerous
Business is often presented as a zero-sum game. For one person to win, that means others must lose. And, nobody wants to back the loser.
This is why entrepreneurs are often encouraged to “fake it until they make it.”
And, today? It’s easy to fake it…
You can buy “influence” for $5 on Fiverr in the form of social media followers, testimonials and product ratings.
You can pay for media attention.
You can use “alternative facts” to tell a better story — a story where your numbers look better (or your crowds look bigger).
You can flat out lie.
But, why do so many entrepreneurs feel like they NEED to fake it?
I think it’s because the rules of business have changed.
Today’s entrepreneurs aren’t interested in slow, sustainable growth.
They’re chasing explosive growth.
Everyone wants to build the next Facebook and AirBNB or be the next Marie Forleo.
High growth startups are sexy and everyone wants a taste.
And, to succeed in today’s business landscape, you don’t just need a great product. You don’t just need a good brand. To really stand out, founders need to BE the brand.
Entrepreneurs are like the new celebrities.
They’re larger than life and they’re everywhere we look.
Entrepreneurs are often presented in the media as almost superhuman.
Everyone is hustling.
Everyone is flaunting their success.
Whether you’re just getting started in business or you’re a serial founder, it’s hard not to get swept up in the hype.
After all, who wouldn’t want to launch the next billion dollar business? I certainly did.
But, here’s where it gets tricky…
Every entrepreneur is fighting for a limited amount of attention, capital and market share.
That’s just the stark reality.
Many entrepreneurs are faced with a unique dilemma: craft an attention-grabbing story fast… or die slowly.
So, what do you do if your current story isn’t really that impressive?
How do you woo investors, customers or the media when things aren’t exactly going as planned?
Enter success theatre.
Success theatre is when you act like everything’s GREAT (even when you’re struggling) because that’s what you’re *supposed* to do.
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Success theatre teaches us to smile bright and deliver our carefully curated script on cue.
It doesn’t matter what’s happening behind the curtains (aka real life). It doesn’t matter if everything is quietly falling apart.
Success theatre demands that the show must go on — no matter what.
What does success theatre look like in the real world?
Success theatre is when you drive around town in a new Lexus… while you’re in the process of going bankrupt.
It’s when you post a selfie on Instagram from a swank hotel… without mentioning that your mom paid the bill because your business isn’t profitable yet.
It’s when you proudly tell your company’s origin story on stage… while omitting the first three years of failures and pivots that led to today’s “explosive growth.”
It’s when you brag about how you made over six figures from your online course in less than a year… without mentioning that 75% of your revenue went back into Facebook ads.
That stuff? That’s success theatre.
Is it unethical? Maybe.
Is it slimey? Sometimes.
But, in the business world, success theatre is not only accepted — it’s encouraged.
Look, I get it…
Honesty comes at a cost in business
No one wants to invest in a company that isn’t “crushing it.”
Plus, if American politics has taught us anything, it’s that being self-aggrandizing and braggadocious can lead to pretty great things.
(Toot your own horn enough and you might just end up in the Whitehouse.)
It’s easy to understand why success theatre has become so common in today’s business landscape.
But, I believe that success theatre also has a dark side…
Success theatre is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it distorts an entrepreneur’s perception of reality.
[Tweet “Success theatre is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it distorts an entrepreneur’s perception of reality.”]
The “fake it til you make it” phenomenon is so pervasive that it’s often impossible for entrepreneurs to distinguish truth from fiction.
This leads to a confidence-crushing domino effect…
First, you watch in awe as other founders share their extraordinary growth stories.
And, because entrepreneurs are encouraged to fake it til they make it, many growth stories are wildly exaggerated (or missing key information).
But, looking in from the outside, you have no way of knowing that.
Self-doubt kicks in and you start to panic.
“Why is it so easy for them when it’s so hard for me?”
Suddenly you’re comparing yourself to other entrepreneurs and constantly coming up short.
Anxiety experts call this the “compare and despair” complex. And, social media amplifies it.
Comparison leads to feelings of self-consciousness, which can manifest itself into social anxiety or destructive perfectionism tendencies.
If you’re anything like me, that constant comparison — constant self-analyzing — can lead to more anxiety.
So, what can you do???
How to cope with success theatre
But, I’m not cynical.
And, that’s also not true.
I know countless entrepreneurs who started with nothing and are now wildly successful.
I’m surrounded by brilliant people who are building remarkable companies that will change the world.
I even know entrepreneurs who downplay their success because they’re so darn humble.
So, no, assuming “everyone is pretty much full of shit” is not really the solution.
Let’s move on to option #2…
That would be the best advice, right?
Yeah. Not so much.
Unless you live under a rock, it’s hard to ignore the startup hype. It’s everywhere you look.
And, if you ignore what other people are doing entirely, you’ll also miss an important opportunity to learn from them.
Plus, many of us entrepreneurial types are innately competitive. Seeing others succeed doesn’t always lead to a downwards spiral. It can also be uplifting, inspiring and hugely motivating.
It’s important to keep an eye on what other founders are doing so you can adjust your “hustle” accordingly.
In short? Straight up ignoring it is lousy advice.
Which brings us to option #3….
? This is the golden ticket.
In closed quarters — free from journalists, investors, or company stakeholders — that’s when the real truth comes out.
When you start spending time with other “successful” entrepreneurs, you discover a startling truth…
Nobody has it all figured out.
Business is effin’ hard. It’s hard whether you’re doing it for the first time or the tenth time.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re Elon Musk or Oprah Winfrey — you’ll still make mistakes and feel inadequate at times.
You’ll still lie awake at night worrying that it could all come crashing down.
You’ll still struggle to keep it together.
And, if you’re like me, you’ll still have anxiety sometimes — afraid that you’re not measuring up to some invisible standard of what success is supposed to look like.
But, I can tell you one thing from experience…
The more time you spend hanging out with other entrepreneurs and talking openly about your own experience, the better you’ll feel.
Will your anxiety vanish entirely? Mine hasn’t.
But, I’ve discovered that when you call it by name, “success theatre” loses some of it’s power.
You see if for what it really is…
And, when the curtains close and the performance ends, each “actor” (aka entrepreneur) returns to their own reality — a reality where they’re also scared and excited and nervous and uncertain.
A reality where they’re
I’m not sure why, but for me just remembering that is oddly comforting.
This blog post took me several weeks to write. I started and stopped many times because I just couldn’t find the right words.
Anxiety is complex. Success theatre is nuanced. I didn’t want to oversimplify either subject or unfairly project my own experience on ALL entrepreneurs.
I hope it doesn’t come off that way.
Truthfully? I’m still not 100% happy with this post. I’m still not sure I was able to articulate what I really wanted to say. But, I decided to stop trying to perfect it and to just publish it instead.
If this stuck a chord with you, I’d love to hear from you. And, if you disagree or have an entirely different perspective, I’d love to hear that too.
Post your comments below 🙂