This episode of LMScast with Chris Badgett of LifterLMS is about how to survive, thrive, and connect to wellness as an education entrepreneur with Sherry Walling of ZenFounder. Chris and Sherry talk about mental health and wellness for entrepreneurs and what habits are important to build in the life of an entrepreneur to reduce stress and optimize efficiency.
Sherry is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with people who have really intense jobs, which most often ends up being people who own their own businesses. The purpose of ZenFounder is to make entrepreneurs and people with busy lives mindful of their mental health, teach them how to deal with things such as anxiety, and take care of themselves.
Sherry was working on a psychology degree in college and she studied abroad in Ghana at the university in Legon. She also did a lot of social work and urban and international development courses which really opened her mind more to the bigger picture of psychology rather than just individual psychology. The whole experience of being in Ghana and interacting with people with a completely different life story was a very sobering experience for Sherry.
Entrepreneurship is often a lonely road and many stresses arise from being an entrepreneur, so Sherry started ZenTribes, which is an eight week program in which about eight people get together and talk about failure, stress, anger, and other mental health topics relevant to entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs have a unique mental health risk because of the nature of what it means to start your own business and not follow a path someone else has laid out in front of you. The uncertainty and frustration that entrepreneurs can face is very tough to deal with without mental mindfulness.
The mental tolls of business owners are similar to those of veterans who experience PTSD. There is obviously less gunfire experienced, but the effects on the psyche are very similar. Both have the experience of going all in, or betting the farm. They need their full attention of their body and mind in order to respond to the intensity of the situation. It is also difficult for others who have not gone through the same experience to understand what the veterans or entrepreneurs have been through.
Getting outside of your work is important for your mental health as an entrepreneur. Chris and Sherry talk about the habits and routines they have for stimulating their senses outside of the workplace and slowing down their minds in order to boost creativity and alleviate stress and anxiety.
Chris and Sherry talk about the risk of rejection and how to deal with the different mental strains that can arise when starting and running a business. Building up a resilience to failure will really help you bounce back from failure. Accepting that you take a lot of risk and at some point some of your projects will fail at some point down the road will create this resiliency.
To learn more about Sherry Walling check out the ZenFounder Podcast and her book called The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Sh*t Together.
You can post comments and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us.
Chris Badgett: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and I’m joined by a special guest, Sherry Walling from ZenFounder. Sherry, thanks for coming on the show.
Sherry Walling: My pleasure, Chris. Thanks for having me.
Chris Badgett: This is going be a really great episode, and it’s also something that … We’re going to talk about a lot of things that aren’t talked about enough in the entrepreneurship space, especially in the digital space, in terms of mental health and wellness. I’m really excited for this show. Sherry has a lot of experience across wellness from a bunch of different angles. If you haven’t heard her podcast, called ZenFounder, go check it out. Even if you don’t consider yourself a start up founder with a SaaS app. Education entrepreneurs and teachers who are creating products and businesses around that are just another type of founder.
But before we get into all of that, Sherry, I learned from her podcast, had some experiences in her young adulthood in West Africa. I’ve had a lot of world traveling in my background, living in remote parts of Nepal and Central America, and it had a huge impact on my life. And I want to start by opening up a question to you, Sherry, about your experiences in West Africa. What were you doing there? How did that shape you? And how did that help influence to where you are today with ZenFounder and helping founders with wellness?
Sherry Walling: Yeah. So I was a student at the University of California, Davis, and it was an El Nino year, which means that it rained every day for two or three months. I didn’t have a car, I just had a bike, so I basically rode my bike every day in the rain for three months. And I decided there’s got to be a different way to live.
So I went down to the Education Abroad office and I asked them, “Where can I go where I don’t have to have proficiency in another language and I can stay on my academic track? And is really different. I don’t want to go to, like, the UK.” And they’re like, “Hey, have you considered Ghana?” And I said, “I will go there. I will do that.”
This was a really big move, because I had come from a family that had never traveled internationally. I think I had maybe been to four other states besides California by that point in my life. So I emptied my savings account, it cost $2,000 to buy a ticket to Ghana at that time. And I bought a ticket and I went.
So I lived at the university in Legon, which is outside of Accra, and I took classes with other Ghanaian students and I worked on a research project/kind of volunteer experience with street children. Street children who had come, mostly from other parts of Africa or remote parts of Ghana and were living and working in the market in Accra. I hung out with them in afternoons, basically. So, that was a-
Chris Badgett: Oh, I was just saying, that’s super cool. What was your area of study there? What was the big focus?
Sherry Walling: I mean, I was working on a psychology degree. I’m a clinical psychologist now. I did an undergraduate degree in psychology. But I did a lot more kind of social work and I would say urban and international development courses that had more of a sociological, bigger picture focus than individual psychology. I did spend some time volunteering in a mental health hospital, which those are very tremendously interesting, scary, sobering places in any country but especially in West Africa where there are fairly limited resources. That was a sobering place to spend time.
When I think about my development as an entrepreneur or my development as a professional I think going to Ghana at that point in my life did a couple of things. One, I feel like it taught me that all the doors can be open. You know I grew up in rural Northern California with lots of people who looked exactly like me and had the same kind of experiences as I did. And going to a place that was so different and interacting with people who had completely different life stories than I did, was such an important lesson in me believing there’s nobody I can’t talk to, there’s nobody I can’t share a meal with and figure out who they are and how they tick. And that’s essentially what a psychologist does right? I have this deep, deep curiosity about people and how they work and I think that really started there. That was probably the first one, the sense that all doors are open.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Let me ask you on that note, I think it was Margret Mead, the anthropologist who said that, it’s hard to perceive your own culture except from the contacts from another, what did you start realizing about the world where you came from? What were some of the insights you had related to that?
Sherry Walling: I think like many people who traveled abroad, it was very mixed bag. There were parts of my upbringing that I was very grateful for. I learned to value my education in such a different way because of being alongside Ghanaian students who had worked so hard to get there. And they were so hardworking. They would take copious notes and memorize the notes from each lecture. So I was really humbled by how much I had taken my education for granted before that. I think as a woman I also felt very, very grateful for the kinds of opportunities that I had, had prior to that.
When I was in Ghana, it wasn’t terribly unusual to see a man beating his wife on the street. There was pretty open aggression towards women, so I was very grateful to be in a place where that wasn’t part of my life when I was growing up. But I also became aware of things, kind of the way that the US works internationally. Our focus on consumerism and materialism. And there were some things that I came away with feeling very critical of the kind of upbringing that I had, had and the kind of value … There were things I was grateful for, there were things I was critical of.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. We’re going to talk a lot about wellness. What is something that you noticed in underdeveloped parts of the world just in terms of, they may not have as many resources or money or access to different things, but what’s something we can learn from the underdeveloped parts of the world in terms of the wellness?
Sherry Walling: Like a man, friends used to make fun of me for how fast I walked. That I was always sort if in a hurry wherever I was going and they would just say like, “[inaudible 00:07:28],” which is like a white person, they used to be like, “Slow down.” My experience of being in Ghana, which has been repeated in other parts of the world, in Vietnam, in Guatemala, in China, and other places that I’ve been able to spend time, has been that people who live in places without so much stuff and busyness really have mastered the art of taking time to really greet and be with people and value relationships over things, value relationships over personal gain I guess.
There’s a sense in which there’s time to greet people, to ask about how people are, to spend with people, to spend on a meal. A meal is whole like a [inaudible 00:08:22] endeavor when you’re having meal with a family. It’s very different than I’m [inaudible 00:08:27] in my face when I’m running from one thing from another. I felt grateful for the lessons about both, deep connection with other people and valuing that time and sharing meals together, sharing life together. I think that those are very core parts of wellness. I mean I talked so often with people about, “How do you spend time with other people in meaningful ways? How do you take care of your body? How do you make sure that you sleep? How do you make sure that you eat well?” These are the building blocks of wellness that I think other parts of the world remember better than we do.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well, let’s fast forward to the current version of Sherry. And you’ve got a book coming out, by the time people are listening to this it may already be out, check it out, it’s called, The Entrepreneur’s Guide To Keeping Your Shit Together. And I can’t wait to read it myself.
Sherry Walling: My 10 year old named it by the way. I just …
Chris Badgett: You’re an entrepreneur, you’ve got kids, a lot is going on in life. What does the modern Sherry do? Like if somebody asks you or just meets you for the first time at the cocktail party, how do you explain what you do?
Sherry Walling: The true version is I’m a clinical psychologist, that specializes in working with people who have really intense jobs. Most often, that’s people who own their own businesses.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. And how do you frame in the ZenFounder Podcast? Why did you start that? It’s a huge, great free resource. What’s that all about?
Sherry Walling: So my husband Rob is the serial founder, so started a company called Drip, founds a conference called MicroConf. He’s a busy man in his own rights. We’ve been hanging out with entrepreneurs, with business owners for most of our married life together, about 17 years. And a few years ago there were a string of people that we were kind of, a few degree of separation from who lost their battle to mental illness, and ended up taking up their lives.
And we looked at each other and thought like, “Hey you’re a founder, you’ve got this life. You’re a psychologist, you got mental health stuff.” We want to talking about these topics so that we can just help people want to pay attention to their own mental health, to their own inner lives and hopefully try to prevent people from getting to a point where they feel so desperate or so alone that they feel like they have no other choice. So that started, we started about … it might be three years now. Something like that. We try to talk about topics that relevant to mental health, to the family, to relationships, to sanity, to anxiety management, things that are practical and directly apply to people who have busy-full lives.
Chris Badgett: You also started ZenTribes, which is an event. Can you tell us about that? Where did that come from?
Sherry Walling: That came because over, and over, and over, we heard that entrepreneurs are pretty lonely. That even though they may be surrounded by people, maybe you’re running a business and you have people on your team. Maybe you even have a co-founder, it still I think feels like you are the one who is holding up the world when you are a founder, when you have a business that’s an extension of you. It’s an extension of your ideas or your creativity, your ingenuity. And even though there’re great things about that, it can be a lonely path and we kept hearing over and over that people felt isolated and they felt like nobody got them or they felt like nobody cared about them.
So ZenTribe is sort of our answer to that. It’s a pretty intense eight weeks … We meet weekly for eight weeks, it’s about eight people and we talk about failure and stress and anger and kind of the mental health topics that are most common or most relevant to entrepreneurs. So we do it as sort of a bootcamp and then many of the groups decide to stay together for a six months follow up after that. So people who participate in the groups, absolutely leave with some pretty significant relationships and some friendships. And that’s the goal of the group. It’s to help people be connected about meaningful things.
Chris Badgett: That’s incredible. What is it about entrepreneurs either socially, culturally or what is it that causes them to have their unique flavor of stress, fear and getting stuck, freezing? Like what is it that makes them … I guess if you took a sample of entrepreneurs versus more folks doing their thing, like what causes entrepreneurs to have these issues?
Sherry Walling: I love working with entrepreneurs. I think one of things that I hear over and over is this sort of theme in a story, which is, “I was really a smart kid but people didn’t really get me and I’ve had to find my own way to make my life interesting.” Entrepreneur are generally people who have … had to develop off the beat and path kind of strategies. And that’s great and exciting but, sort of like I learned in Africa, like it’s amazing but it’s also really lonely. And it’s tiring, it’s easy to burn out. So I think that entrepreneurs have a unique mental health risk because of the nature of what it means to start your own thing and not follow a path that someone else has set for you. Following someone’s else path is easier, period. Not better but easier.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, the uncertainty can pour gas on the fire I guess.
Sherry Walling: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: I know in some of your research with mental health you did stuff with vets experiencing PTSD. What similarities do you see between combat veterans and entrepreneurs, business owners?
Sherry Walling: They’re people that have gone all in on something. I mean, combat veterans whether they set out to or not end up being in positions where you have to go all the way in, you need your whole brain, your whole body, your whole training to respond to the intensity of the situations that you’re put into. And in various some other ways there’s hopefully less gunfire but like entrepreneurs have that same kind of experience, where they’ve gone all in. They’ve bet the firm on this idea, and so they’ve organized their lives, their family, their finances, their emotional life all around something that they’re working on.
Though I think that intensity is shared, they’re also … I think a lot of people who are returning from combat find that it’s hard for other people to understand what their experiences were like, on a less scale but I still think that’s an experience that many people talk about, like people don’t really know what my job is. People don’t really understand what I do. People think I don’t have a job, I spend my day in my pajamas. I think, again that the nature of being in a highly intensive experience that maybe your friends and family don’t join you in is pretty similar.
Chris Badgett: Let’s talk about turning off a little bit. One of the ways to deal with uncertainty is just hustle and never ending vigilance, which comes out naturally to an entrepreneur or somebody in a combat zone, by necessity. What advice do you have for turning it off? And just to speak from experience, for me I like doing … just totally getting offline, being in nature, building things, doing stuff with the land or with my kids, those help me but this whole turning it off issue, what do you have to say about that?
Sherry Walling: I think your strategies are really perfect because when we … So first of all I think we have to turn off, like there’s really very undebatable research that suggest when we live a chronic state of arousal or a chronic state of fight or flight stress response, we do our bodies very serious damage. And that’s just not a debate at this point in time scientifically. So we need places or ways to let our minds and bodies fully relax and release. And I think the best strategies are strategies that engage the fullness of ourselves, so something about being out in nature hiking, it’s a full sensory experience, you’re seeing things, you’re hearing things, you’re smelling things, you’re moving your body, you have tactile experiences.
Those are the best ways I think to distract a busy mind, is to flood the senses so we can kind of distract that hyperactive prefrontal cortex that wants to be planning and organizing and making decisions and doing things. When we engage our bodies in a way that our bodies are fully busy and our brains have to think about what our bodies are doing, those are great ways to relax. So for me, I do a lot of ariel yoga, which is yoga suspended on a silk in the sky and I have to pay attention or I will fall on my head. So I can’t be thinking about the next Tribe launch or what’s happening with my email list. Like I have to focus, and that’s a great way to let my mind relax.
Chris Badgett: I love that. I have a neighbor who has the silk hanging from a tree lump and it’s … I can see how that’s a 100% commitment situation. In my past I did a lot of rock-climbing and I can remember one of my peak flow state experiences of my life that I ever experienced, it’s was just a very hard technical climb and I was completely 100% engaged and that was, that was like in that state of flow. That’s awesome. And I do want to bring it a little bit back to this anthropological, kind of sociological roots and say that, there is scientific research, social studies that have been done, when electricity comes into a village, it all starts with a light bulb.
As soon as a light bulb comes in and the solar panels or whatever, that’s when the circadian rhythm starts getting upset and that’s like the beginning of a very slippery slope to what is now the modern entrepreneur with dings, and bells, and lights, and screens, and emails, all these stuff but having a healthier relationship with technology and being mindful of the needs of the body and what it means to be human is such a big issue. Let’s talk a little bit about fear, stress and freezing. You talk about wellness, how do you frame in your mission and wellness? How do you package that?
Sherry Walling: So what I talk with entrepreneurs particularly about anxiety, we’ll use that as sort of an umbrella term. Like the very first step is noticed when it’s happening. I think a lot of us are so used to functioning out of fear or out of stress that we don’t really notice when we’re living in anxiety. So having the awareness to be able to pay attention like, “Oh my goodness, my chest is tight, my heart is beating faster, my breathing is slow and shallow or my breathing is not so shallow. I’m getting anxious, I’m getting upset here.” Like that’s the first step, is noticing what’s happening.
And then I think we often talk with people about getting the things that are driving anxiety out of the swell of your brain and ideally on paper in front of you. So writing down the fears that you have, writing down the things that you’re worried about, writing down the things that seem to derail you. And letting yourself look at them kind of objectively and let them get out of your mind and kind of be apart from you so that you can begin to problem solve in a little bit. And of course we have like different ways of adjusting things that create anxiety.
So after you notice you’re having it, write down what’s causing it, then you have some choices about, is there something I can do to change this? Can I take this stress out of my life? And if I can’t, if it’s your kid or something that’s [inaudible 00:21:51] then how do you begin to think about approaching that hard part of life with more graciousness or more compassion towards yourself or just cling on being brave and not letting yourself forget about it. Like how do you begin to emotionally work through it in a better way? So I think wellness is really about noticing and paying careful attention to the inner life, to inner parts of us.
Chris Badgett: How do you work on your awareness? Like is there any like, daily practices or things you like to do from time, to time to help with that?
Sherry Walling: Yeah, I do a really simple high-low check in, every day. I do it generally with my family at dinner, “What was your high in the day?” What was your low? But I then usually do it separately, usually at night. I do it before I go to bed. I want to pay attention to the little things that are really life giving and there are things in my life that are really like sucking life from me. And then a friend that we talk every week about high-low for the week and we’ve doing that for a year so we pretty practiced at listening to like parts of life that are not going well and maybe need to be changed versus parts of life that are thriving and do you feed the things that are thriving?
That’s one thing that I do. I also practice a lot of yoga and practice a lot of stillness. And then sometimes I work out really intensively because I’ve got like big feelings that I need to like get out of my body. So there’s a place for all of it. We all have [inaudible 00:23:41] all the time but there’s lots of ways to work through or to practice cultivating awareness of our inner lives.
Chris Badgett: About a year ago, I read your Founder Retreat E-book and I did that, and I followed it. Like I did the … I took about two to three days away from my family, which is a big commitment as a family person. And pretty much for those of you who are listening or watching this video, what that is, is just really a time to just go inward and detach and look at things that aren’t working, look at things that are working, set some goals, make some hard decisions.
For me I updated my routine, I set some big goals. It had a huge positive impact, so I want to thank you for that but also, there’s this concept within education entrepreneurs, course creators out there, they’re often very empathetic people who are helping other people. Sometimes it’s an issue of just giving, and giving, and giving, and giving and not taking that pause for self-care. So I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about Founder Retreats and some ideas, concepts or tips for helping the helper?
Sherry Walling: Yeah, and I think you have to start by pitching how important it is, I think those who help … I’m a helper, I take care of people all day every day. That’s what my job is. We are only as good as our own internal resources. My ability to focus, to think creatively, to be fully present completely depends on how well I’m taking care of myself. So I think people think about self-care as like going to the spa to get your toenails done, and that’s fine if that’s your … like it’s cool. But it’s really much more about making sure that you as the tool, you as the thing that’s providing the service, the help, the insight and ideas for other people that you are like well taken care of so you can do a good job with that.
And if you don’t carefully manage your inner resources like you absolutely run the risk of burnout. You absolutely run the risk of like becoming cynical or not doing a good job. Not being compassionate, not providing the kind of help hat people need from you. And if you really believe you don’t need to take care of yourself, you might need to like check your own Narcism little bit. Like none of us are above the kinds of things that we preach. So if aren’t practicing what you’re preaching, you’re in danger basically.
Chris Badgett: I was going to ask burnout, just at a bigger picture, do you think as an issue in society it’s always been a problem, it accelerating? Like what is the current state of burnout out there? Is it like becoming a pandemic?
Sherry Walling: I think you could make a case for that. And has to do very much a 24 hour access cycle that many of us feel we respond we must respond to things all the time. Like the onslaught of heavy work, the weight of the work that we have to do, and then feeling like we aren’t able to use our best resources. I mean I can launch into that, and I’ve talked about burnout on ZenFounder too in more detail. But I think it’s a huge problem, especially for helpers. I mean the whole conversation about burnout began with helpers.
Chris Badgett: You know there’s a lot of focus on the morning routines, the habits, the journaling and stuff like that, but this concept of like a retreat, and I know this something you do in your own life as well where you take some detachment and some reflection time and put yourself in a new environment for some fresh ideas and some relaxations. Where did the idea and just the concept of that evolve for you?
Sherry Walling: It’s a very old idea, it’s as old as any major world religion. All Monks have gone on retreat or has periods of sort of being [inaudible 00:28:30] in isolation. And that’s probably where it came from for me. I have a degree in theology so I have studied religious practices for years and I think that, that … People talk about private retreats or different fasting retreats, different kinds of retreats. But this idea of taking yourself out of your normal day to day life to do deeper work, it’s certainly not a new idea of me.
I didn’t come up with that, but has become really, really important as I’m practicing in my own life. Just coming to point of being like, “I’m totally overwhelmed, I’m overwhelmed with kids, I’m overwhelmed with work, like I need three days.” And once I started doing that, once I tried doing that, like just going to a hotel by myself, it was like, “This is magic. If I could do this twice a year. It totally recharges and lets me think deeper thoughts, lets me evaluate, how life is going. What I want life to be like.”
Chris Badgett: Yeah, that’s great. And the simple metaphor for that I always liked is the, when you’re flying on a plane and they say when the oxygen masks comes out, “Take are of yourself before you hook other people up.” It’s important. You can’t help anybody if you’re burning out.
Sherry Walling: Yeah, And we have to think about, “Where does our creative spark come from?” Because, whether you’re an artist or someone who’s teaching people about a new idea, you’re pouring out something that comes from inside of you. Your insights, your way of seeing the world. And at least for me that’s not an ending stream, that has to be recharged. That’s has to be sort of a muscle that’s tended and I think retreats are a big part of that. Like refilling your creative, your output kind of resources.
Chris Badgett: That’s great. Well, let me ask you one final tactical question before we wrap up today because it’s issue I see a lot with online course creators and I’ve been around there for a long time. And they’re a season like million dollar program launcher or they’re launching their first course or they have a lifestyle business, almost without fail, right before the launch, there’s this … I now see the pattern of self sabotage, or I’m going to obsess about something that in the grand scheme of things isn’t that important. I used to not really believe in fear of success but now I think it’s a real thing. What do you think it is in your experience being around founders launching things, making major decisions, what is the underlying psychology that’s happening there like right before the finish line? Like what’s going on? I just see a lot of sabotage and focus, moving all over the place, what is that?
Sherry Walling: There’s sort of the giant tantrum before they end. That’s absolutely something that I’ve observed. It’s like a regression of falling apart when we put ourselves out there. I got to tell you, like I’m feeling this in all kinds of ways with writing this book. Like I’m putting all these word out there and some people are going to look at it and they’re not going to like it. They’re not going to think it’s smart, they’re not going to think it’s interesting, they’re going to find every error in it.
Chris Badgett: So is that negative self talk? I mean, what is that?
Sherry Walling: Well in some cases it’s reality. Not everybody is going to love it.
Chris Badgett: It’s true, yeah.
Sherry Walling: But I have to be okay with that in order to ship. Like it’s the risk of rejection, it’s the risk of everything that you have believed about yourself to pull your ideas together and release them out into the world, is the risk that all that is wrong and that you’re actually dumb and uninteresting and your ideas are stupid. Like that’s what we’re afraid of at this very basic core level. So yes, negative self talk but it’s also just good old fashion fear in the way that you work through that is to say like, “Okay, how do I find my footing here? So what if like the worst case scenario happens? So what if I release this book and people say like, “This is shit?” Like nobody wants to read this and nobody does and nobody cares, “Will I still be a valuable person? Will my children still love me? Will I still find joy in my life? Yeah I will.” That’s a cultivated perspective, something we have to work at. We have to decide that, “Even if I’ve failed, I’m still going to go on.”
Chris Badgett: Any other final tips in just having a more healthy relationship with failure or potential failure?
Sherry Walling: I think sometimes it’s helpful to assume it. You could go to, [inaudible 00:33:38] by the way. I think it’s helpful to realize that when you are an entrepreneur, when you’re making things, when you’re putting things out in the world, not everything is going to land. Not everything will be a success. And if you could be comfortable with that idea and know, “At some point I’m going to do something. I’m going to put something out there and people are going to say, well that talk was really poorly delivered or that book was not very good.” Like have the resiliency within yourself to say, “I’m going to try somethings, and not every thing is going to work but I’m still going to get up the next day and keep doing my work.” And kind of building some tolerance to that from the beginning.
Chris Badgett: It’s a muscle. So Sherry Walling, ladies and gentlemen. The Entrepreneur’s Guide To Keeping Your Shit Together, go check it out. Go check out the ZenFounder Podcast. Is there anywhere else where people can find you on the internet or where you would like them to connect with you?
Sherry Walling: Yeah, I kind of live at zenfounder.com. It’s the best place to find me.
Chris Badgett: Awesome, well Sherry, thank you so much for coming on the show and having this conversation. I really appreciate it and I know you’ve sent a ripple of wellness out into the world and you’re going to continue to do so, so thank you for doing what you do.
Sherry Walling: Thanks Chris, thanks for having me.