Manage your inner chimp and get your startup mindset back to work

I’m longing for those summer pastimes – lazy days spent idling in the sun, watching the local cricket, lying on the grass and enjoying easy conversation over a beer. It’s August: I may even break out my linen shorts and jazzy flip-flops. These summer pursuits hardly sound like the stuff of nightmares or the harbinger of discomfort and gloom, but this year we’ve all got a bit of summer malady, a sense of vulnerability.

Reality is the clamouring for festival crowds and cricket, the normal summer idylls, but this year they represent the glossy vignettes of a wider reality as we step back to work with a backdrop of uncertainty and enforced social distancing.

Imposed mental and physical boundaries have shaped 2020 summer as we focus on getting back to work. To do so, we need to harness our inner strengths, our own Boudicca or William Wallace, the spirit of Amelia Earhart or Ernest Shackleton, with courage, conviction and self-belief to get things done, digging deep to meet a challenge.

I mean the determination to unleash our energy – not the spike of rage when you see family member’s underwear on the floor, not quite make it to the washing basket – but to harness a sense of our inner vitality to reignite our startup venture, when we feel under pressure, not knowing what to do, and our head is like a box of frogs – thoughts jumping around all over the place.

Consultancy ‘Be the Business’ recently undertook a survey to assess the attitude and ambition of founder responses to COVID, to assess where they were on the restart. Will the pandemic be an act of creative destruction that whittles down the wheat from the chaff, or more like a game of musical chairs: suddenly the music stopped and the fate of many firms is largely determined?

The survey highlighted a typology of firms where their fate has been determined by the strategic choices made on how to respond. There were four camps – where are you?

Hibernators (28%) – labour intensive b2c firms where their core product or service requires proximity between customer and staff. They closed their business and furloughed staff as either government left them no option or because they were unable to remain open whilst protecting staff and customer welfare. Examples include hospitality and personal services such barbers.

Survivors (32%) – b2b service providers whose clients cut discretionary spend and saw dramatic falls in turnover or temporary suspension of their business. Survival is where leaders were nimble and make changes to product or operations to deliver a narrower range to a smaller customer base. Examples include marketing agencies.

Pivoters (21%) – firms able to respond rapidly, and redeployed staff, adjusted services or transformed production to meet the needs of a new customer base. They had the financial firepower and flexibility to pivot. The changes allowed them to remain open and whilst maybe not permanent, established new opportunities for the future. Examples include food service companies switching from restaurants to home delivery.

Thrivers (6%) – firms that by luck or good judgment have been able to ramp up production of existing products or services deemed essential and are working hard to meet uplift in demand. Whilst some of these were in the right place at the right time, all have embraced flexibility, and most are working to fulfil orders at an unprecedented rate. Examples are the firms with an established online capability, or firms able to switch to a new online delivery model.

A further 12% of survey respondents were firms experiencing business as usual, reporting no significant change to their business environment.

So, where do you sit in this distorted, Edvard Munchian landscape? Set against this, what is your mindset for building a bridge to your future, confronted by this new dystopian reality? The world has rapidly shifted under our feet. Almost overnight, the economic dialogue changed from focused confidence to murky chaos.

There are many themes within the range of choices – innovation, technology investment, the productivity paradox of cost efficiencies – making your business model more resilient for a second COVID wave or pending Brexit turmoil. Crises are horrible, but we know crises always end. They are a cyclical part of our economy and there are black swans that inevitably occur.

There are commercial, financial and structural things you can effect in your startup. But that’s the easy part. The tough bit is having the right mindset and managing your psychology which is the greatest challenge, and I think there is a great technique developed by Dr Steve Peters to help here.

Peters is an acclaimed sports psychiatrist with an enviable track record of helping high-performing athletes maintain a positive mindset when competing under pressure at the highest level. His most notable successes have been with British Cycling. Regarded as a ‘mind-mechanic’, Peters is an unlikely success story in British sports coaching. His background is in serious mental health – for twelve years he was based at Rampton high-security hospital, working with individuals suffering from severe personal disorders. He can’t help you do a Cruyff turn or a 40m cycle-sprint better, but he can help you understand what goes on inside your head.

Peters warns athletes against setting goals that are beyond their control. His philosophy is you cannot say I want to be the best cyclist in the world, because you have no influence over your opponents. You can, however, say I want to be the best I can possibly be, and devise a plan to achieve that aim – and that’s what you need today in your startup.

When it matters most, in the heat of the moment in a critical commercial discussion, or the day of sporting final, a lot of people lose it, and anxiety gets the better of them. The voice in the head starts saying things like The client won’t budge here, we’re going to lose this deal, or My opponent looks in good nick, they to be going faster. In both circumstances, the voice tells us I really don’t want these feelings, I really don’t want these thoughts, and they’re stopping me from being at my best.

Anxiety can threaten to take over, the irrational, emotional side of your personality becomes dominant. Peter called his approach to overcoming this mental burden The Chimp Paradox and shows we can learn skills to manage our mindset. Peters details three elements in a tool for understanding and managing the functioning of your mind at times of high pressure, based on the neuroscience of the brain.

His model sees the brain divided into three areas:

Human. You are a conscious thinking analysing being that works with facts and truth who makes deductions using logical thinking.

Chimp. The area of the mind that is driven by feelings, emotional thinking and gut instincts. The Chimp quickly jumps thinking in black and white, it can be paranoid, and its behaviour can be troublesome, irrational and emotive.

Computer. This is really a brain that is at the disposal of the Human and Chimp to put information into for reference. It acts as a memory and can also act as an automatic thinking and acting machine that is programmed to take over if the Chimp or Human is asleep.

Essentially, there’s a battle between the different parts of your brain, and the more primitive Chimp is an extremely powerful emotional machine working five times faster than the Human part, so unless we have techniques for managing the inner Chimp, it often ends up in control and you’re left wondering Why on earth did I do that?

It is how we manage our Chimp that dictates how well we perform: learn to control your Chimp to train the brain to manage surges of emotion, irrational thinking, impulsive behaviour or nagging self-doubt that impact negatively on us in moments of high anxiety. Peters asserts that managing your Chimp will be one of the biggest factors determining success, and it’s down to yourself to do it.

Ask yourself what it is you want to do and why you can’t get there. Chances are it’s your inner Chimp that’s running amuck at present.

So, what exactly does Peters do? It’s a simple technique that can be applied to every high-pressure situation. It’s a mental warm-up, Peter’s approach effectively puts you in a zone where you want to be, and you’re ready to focus on your moment and nothing else. It goes something like this.

Don’t fight the chimp, nurture it None of us can banish our chimp, we’re with him or her for the long haul. Instead of rejecting it, we need to nurture our inner chimp. This means talking to it and building a relationship with it. The chimp is part of us, it just needs parenting.

Let the chimp speak its mind Part of the nurturing process is to ‘let the chimp have its say’. By allowing the chimp to process its emotion it starts to settle as it gets exhausted and thinks I can’t even be bothered listening to myself! The chimp may be speaking but it’s the human that’s listening, and reason soon takes over.

Be careful who the chimp talks to It’s important that you choose your audience. Don’t express yourself to the person who’s engaged in this battle with you, express yourself to a friend who’s willing to listen.

Go over things a few times Emotion takes time to process, sometimes we have to run over challenging things in our minds a few times before the chimp in us is able to accept them. If you keep revisiting the same thing eventually the chimp will say, Do you know what, I’ve said my bit now and I’m beginning to see it differently.

Get your self-esteem from who you are, not what you do We need to prevent our inner chimp from governing our self-worth, otherwise no amount of success will ever be enough. The chimp will chase success, so measure success against your values so building self-esteem is in your own hands.

Spend ten minutes every day reflecting Once you are clear on your goals, actively reflect on whether you are living them successfully, for ten minutes a day. This is putting the human system firmly in the foreground and forcing your chimp to take a back seat.

Smile to show the chimp who’s boss Smiling is a simple habit which actively helps us to control our emotions and keep the chimp in check. Smiling evokes the mood you want to appear in your head. Be proactive, put the right face on, and you’ll soon find that your mood starts to lift and the chimp fades.

Peters identifies the way in which self-doubt and irrational, impulsive behaviour can have a negative impact on our performance. His technique helps us to recognise when our minds are behaving in this way and overcome the self-sabotage to achieve more positive results.

Of course, we are only arriving at the middle of the beginning of post-Covid, and what looks to be a tapered exit from lockdown, so the music will wind back up slowly, and expect a battle with your chimp.

So, whether you’re a hibernator, survivor, pivoter or thriver, it’s the best of times and the worst of times to rethink your startup venture. It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be and whatever your survival or growth aspirations, you can make a leap forwards by adopting Peter’s process of The Chimp Paradox and remove those inner demons. Once done you feel better and can begin to have a more rational conversation with yourself. Try it, it works!

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