How ecosystem builders stay motivated and avoid burning out.
Ecosystem building work is often thankless, tiring, and even demoralizing at times. How do ecosystem builders stay motivated to keep doing the work? What specific practices do ecosystem builders use for self-care, to keep going, and avoid burning out? This was the question I put to a group of participating ecosystem builders as part of the Insights from the Field campaign.
Staying Motivated by Focusing on Others
For many ecosystem builders, connecting with the entrepreneurs is the primary way they maintain motivation and keep doing the work. Most of the ecosystem builders who responded shared how talking with the entrepreneurs that they serve centers and motivates them.
In Erie, Pennsylvania, Beth Zimmer commented, “The best remedy I’ve used to reenergize is to pick up the phone and talk with an entrepreneur. It is always a good conversation where typically I can help them. These conversations remind me why it is that I do what I do. Despite all of the jockeying, misplaced competition, resources, politics and the like, we are here to help our communities to thrive by supporting the success of entrepreneurs… It’s important to remember and focus our mindsets there.”
Focusing on how the work she does will benefit future generations keeps Magalie Yacinthe in Winston-Salem, North Carolina motivated. “Opportunity is everywhere, but it does not make its way to everyone. Building a more equitable ecosystem helps change that narrative. The hope that the work I do can somehow create a better future for the generation that comes after me is the only motivation I need to keep going. When I feel that I may burn out, I make it a point to spend some time with those that came before me and worked hard in hopes of providing my generation a better ecosystem. I also spend time with the future generation of entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders to remind myself of their passion and ideas. Doing both centers me. It tells me to look back to where you came from to understand where you’re going. This rejuvenates me because if ancestors and elders left it a little better for me, then I have no problem holding the torch to make it better for the next person — trusting that they, too, will keep the fire burning.”
In Maryland, Mark Lawrence also focuses on those he’s serving. “I stay motivated by focusing on the people and the local community that I want to impact. To me, it’s about centering on mindset and acknowledging the challenges.”
Mark employs a unique mindset trick that he has found helpful. “I frame the work as a large research and development exercise, run a number of experiments, continue the ones that are working and seem to have traction, discontinue and replan the ones that are not. I recently described the work as being in a commercial kitchen with five or six dishes being prepared simultaneously on a stove. You are adding different ingredients to create a menu that is appetizing and well received. Some of those dishes are not going to turn out right; you adjust the recipe and try again. That all supposes you have enough ingredients to keep on cooking.”
Getting Support from a Community of Peers
The work of ecosystem building is challenging enough on its own. But throw in a global pandemic and the disrupting realities of life and that challenge gets amplified exponentially. Denisse Rodríguez in Puerto Rico related her experience and how she relies on her team and community to help her cope.
“This year has been particularly tough on absolutely everyone. On top of that, I became a first-time mom on January 25, 2020. Navigating so many life-disrupting changes in such a short amount of time really took a toll. That’s where our support community comes in and saves us. I relied heavily and trusted more than ever on each member of my team. They are wonderful, committed, incredibly hardworking and I am so grateful to them. It has been very difficult to find balance as defined before motherhood and the pandemic i.e. I haven’t been able to continue a workout routine. Instead, I practice self-care by walking to the park with my baby a couple of times a week after work and by disconnecting from work and phone during weekends and being present with my family.”
Tulsa-based ecosystem builder Cecilia Wessinger also emphasized community as a self-care strategy. “I am blessed with a community…with many communities actually. This work is hard and the people we work around need a lot. I am fortunate to count many fabulous ecosystem builders among my friends, as well as people I know from other circles. We check in with each other, have a regular cadence of calls and share tips, tricks, support and a laugh. I know many of us are all Zoom, all day, but these can be structured for a virtual lunch or coffee break as well.”
“If you don’t have others who can not only empathize and support, but understand what it’s like, find some,” says Cecilia. “A few you might connect with are our lovely friend, Anika Horn’s group of Solopreneurs. Karen Christilles hosts a call for Midwest Ecosystem Builders the first Wednesday of the month (you don’t have to be in or from the Midwest to join). I host a call for womyn [sic] ecosystem builders the last Wednesday of the month and Startup Champions Network is a great organization with others just like you.”
Dustin Shay in New York has developed a regimen to stay motivated and focused on the impact of his work. He talks with others outside his network as well as with his peers to vent. “Talk with folks outside your network, says Dustin. “I use Lunchclub to set up meetings every week with people I don’t know and I use the time to brag about my work. I know it seems selfish, but it’s a great way to stay bought in and focused on the end impact instead of getting lost in the day-to-day.”
Like others, Dustin also relies on his peers to do a bit of venting. “I’ve called up leaders at peer entrepreneurial support organizations to just vent before. And they do the same back to me. I think it’s a great way to share networks, perspectives, etc. but it’s also just a good way to stay sane.”
“Step out of the rabbit hole from time to time and schedule regular check-ins with allies” says Jess Edwards in Virginia. “Beyond being disciplined with the practical time management habits, it is also really important to regularly connect with respected peers that share similar obstacles and frustrations. Oftentimes, you get so far down the rabbit hole with your own work that it can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders to single handedly push through problems and gridlock. This pressure we put on ourselves can often snowball and become a huge energy suck or distraction, which leads to burnout or feeling defeated at times. Simply knowing there are allies in arms, fighting the good fight and in similar battles, allows that weight of the world to be lifted and distributed among many. Which in turn, makes it much easier to handle or better manage challenges you’re facing. Sometimes, it is simply the act of sharing and comparing that can help you recharge and stay motivated because you’re reminded that you are not alone. There is a community to which you belong, that share in the many trials and tribulations of this oftentimes thankless work. So, find those who love ecosystem building as much as you do, and help each other get through the rough patches!”
Incorporating Self-care Tips and Tricks
In addition to finding emotional inspiration and motivation through peers and those they serve, ecosystem builders have developed habits that they can rely on to take care of themselves. From meditation, to walks, to setting non-work hours, ecosystem builders have developed mechanisms to deal with the challenges of social impact work during a pandemic.
Mark Lawrence finds that taking time for meditation, exercise, music, and family are key. “I try to focus on myself a bit and plan time in my week for mediation, exercise, and just fun with family and friends. It also helps to have a good music playlist to serve as a soundtrack while you are in deep ecosystem building mode and a watchlist for when you want to stream and chill on your favorite video content platform.”
Giving our brains a break from work by focusing on other activities can be enormously helpful. “I have a daily writing practice and do something creative/ artsy during the week, take walks and no screen days help,” says Cecilia.
Scheduling breaks and non-work times is also key. “I book many meetings in 45 min increments so I have a stretch or bio break,” said Cecilia.
“Set your hours and stick to them,” says Dustin. “You need to take time off. Period. Don’t let yourself get sucked into being “always on.” Even if it’s only a few nights a week that you’re truly off, take them seriously and protect that time.”
Dustin takes the time he used to spend commuting and uses that time to walk. “The COVID times are real and I miss going into an office,” says Dustin. “Instead, now, I take a 30 minute walk before I start work and after I end. It helps to replace the commute in my mind and give a clear delineation for my day.”
Dustin also recommends dressing up for work to help separate work from non-work time. “Dress up for work, dress down to relax, says David. “I slipped on this at the end of last year and I was tired/depressed/always-on and couldn’t understand why. Give your brain a clear delineation of work time and home time.”
We also need to learn to turn off our digital addictions. Cecilia takes “no screen days” and Dustin suggests some “away time” for the constant temptation of the phone. “If you can’t control your email addiction, put your phone in a different room while you sleep, says Dustin. “This one was hard, and still is hard, and I strongly suggest it. A phone by your bed is a recipe for anxiety.”
Working from home brings challenges. Cecilia addressed the temptation to sit all day with some furniture upgrades. “I purchased a stand for my computer and a wobble board so I am not sitting all day,” says Cecilia.
Jess Edwards recognizes the burnout isn’t only possible — it’s a given. “There isn’t just a high likelihood you may experience burnout as an ecosystem builder, it is almost a guarantee! I have found that most ecosystem builders tend to have a natural tendency to want to help all of the great work being done in the community. So, if it isn’t a self-directed desire to want to take on more and more work, then, it is inevitable the requests for new commitments are regularly rolling in because of the collaborative nature of the position.”
So, how can you avoid burnout? Jess has some ideas. “First and foremost, I do think there has to be some personal accountability to manage your time and energy because “In the long run, the way you treat your time is the way others treat it too.” Being an individual who struggles with this, I know it can be easier said than done. However, when you know that you have a bad habit of letting burnout enter your life… you do need to use practical methods and learn disciplines that can help fight against your well-intended but self sabotaging behavior.
Jess has developed weekly and monthly methods and habits to optimize her effectiveness and avoid burning out. “If you tend to notice a productivity pattern in your week, then it is good to try and leverage it. For me, Mondays and Tuesdays are my days to catch up on my emails and finish work from the previous week that didn’t get completed. This means that taking meetings early in the week is not only a huge time suck, but will also make me less productive overall. So, I group my days together based on the work that needs to get done. My meeting days are strictly Thursdays and Fridays (with some exceptions of course). While meeting with people is not only important but essential, it has done wonders for me to group them all in the same day(s). Sticking to a weekly routine with the bulk of your work being accomplished earlier in the week helps it not build up or spill over into the weekend or following week(s), which is definitely a big factor in causing burnout. Helpful tip: People are also less stressed or distracted when you meet later in the week, so not only does this help with avoiding burnout but also helps with negotiations.”
Jess also blocks off half days and even full days get work done without the interruption of meetings. “At the beginning of each month, look at your calendar and try to find 1-2 days in the week that you do not have mandatory meetings or priority deadlines to get done. Then, add a calendar event for a half day or full day that says “DO NOT BOOK.” It is simple yet effective. Seeing that subtle reminder each week when I get bombarded with calendar invites, events, or 1-on-1 meeting requests, and I already have the day blocked off really — it does help ensure that I maintain days for critical “big picture” thinking or focus on research, writing, etc that will advance my core mission and main workload. Basically, this is a way to ensure long term goals and results get tended to regularly, and that you’re not in this endless cycle of taking on “new” work.”
While he didn’t participate in this set of responses, Brad Feld had a comment that is particularly salient. At a panel discussion at the 2017 ESHIP Summit, Brad reminded the audience of the marathon-like aspect of ecosystem building and offered a great piece of advise:”Feed yourself. Spend your time on things that give you energy. That doesn’t mean that you spend 100% of your time on things that give you energy. There’s always going to be things that drag you down. But, make sure you get enough time against things that give you energy, and take a very long term view.”