How I Got Out of My Existential Crisis

Stack World Founder Sharmdean Reid talks maintaining optimism in the most pessimistic of times

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By Sharmadean Reid

12 April 2022

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ear Members,

Around this time of year, I usually write an essay called “Everything I Got Wrong in 2021…” But I have refrained from writing it because actually, we got a lot of things right. We pivoted, we launched, we grew, and we made a lot of women very happy. But for some reason, I wasn’t. If I managed a whole year in business making mostly good decisions, why was I so sad?

We kicked off 2022 with a bang with the Big Woman Energy Workshops. Plans were made, visions were set and January ended on a high. I worked every weekend that January to create and deliver workshops that unlocked a level of self-knowledge for our attendees. Our Premium Members created their Guide to Working with Me, Personal Vision Mission and Principles and, finally, their Vision Plan.

In my routine of being a mom, running the businesses and designing these workshops, I didn’t update my Vision Plan. And then something started to shift. During February and March, I felt awful. Despite increasing revenue, amazing partnerships with Selfridges, Veuve Clicquot, Lululemon and Squarespace, and our best Membership months ever, I felt… despondent. I couldn’t figure it out.

Some days I would cry for no reason. Silently and quietly, just cry. I was incredibly demotivated, going through the motions of work, but not really in it… The part that was most difficult to deal with was that I had no explanation. When I tried to say how I felt, friends would ask what was causing it, and I wouldn’t really know.

One thing I know about myself is that I will always do the work. I have such high productivity and work ethic that I will always do whatever it takes to get the job done. But this work ethic acted as a mask for how I was really feeling. I showed up, I looked good, I played my part, but behind my eyes, the spark was gone. I kept working through this dark phase, just putting one foot in front of the other. The unhappiness was suffocating.

"When was the last time you took two weeks off", my friend Tara asked in our Golf Baes WhatsApp group. Hmmm, two weeks? I can’t because I have a son, we co-parent, I can’t just go away for two weeks to rest!"It sounds like you’re burned out", my other founder friend, Alex De Pledge, said. "You’re tired, you need to rest."

Rest, the word alone comes like a whisper from a siren. The way it rolls off the tongue ending in that gentle hiss is seductive. It felt naughty and illicit. Rest, what a luxury!

Startup life allows no rest. Week to week, month to month, you are trying to find the thing that works – that elusive product market fit. You try everything, jamming square pegs and square pegs into round holes until you find the one that smashes through.

“Was I trying to sabotage myself to avoid continuing down a path that hadn’t actually bought me much joy?”

It's relentless and mentally and physically exhausting. Even then, once you’ve found the thing that’s working, you then have to scale it. Proving you can do it over and over again. There is no time to rest. Is there

During February and March, we were approaching our one year anniversary for The Stack. While it was a time for celebration, I couldn’t help feeling angry and annoyed. I’ve been on this journey for what’s coming up to four years – of building, testing, learning and growing. Four years of that relentlessness.

The pandemic forced a pivot, slowly turning the ship in my mind from beauty to community, and annoyingly it was working. I was annoyed at how well the business was doing. I was annoyed that people loved it. I realised I had an Upper Limit Problem. The Upper Limit Problem, a concept first explained to me by my coach, Jess Ratcliffe, comes from Gay Hendricks’ book, The Big Leap.

As we approached a successful end to a first year of a new product, could my mind be attacking itself to keep me at my safe level? What was I afraid of? Furthermore, as I reflected on the book, I realised I was just hanging in my “Zone of Excellence” With The Stack, I was doing all the things I was good at.

Most people build their careers in their zone of excellence, the area of life in which your skills are proficient. The problem with the zone of excellence — and the reason why so many people in it are most unhappy — is that it is the mastery of that which already exists. It is building out other people's preexisting needs and ideas. It is a fine line away from the zone of genius, the mental state in which you will actually thrive.”

This Upper Limit Problem and the knock-on effect of not being in my Zone of Genius seemed to be hurting me. Year one of The Stack has been incredible – over 1,000 events, over 5,000 Members, a conference, a newspaper and organic growth. I should be proud, not annoyed.

The tension between, wanting to stay in my safe zone, while also not feeling like I was pushing myself to the next level, while also feeling a little bit angry and annoyed was resulting in a very noisy head, that I couldn’t seem to escape from. A swirling storm of feelings. I tried to tackle them one by one.

Sad/Despondent - Upper Limit Problem

Frustration - Not achieving my Zone of Genius

Anger - What was I angry about?

Annoyed - What exactly was I annoyed at?

One answer could be the suffering it took to get here. The Stack was doing well, but at what cost? Collective trauma, my grandmother passing, burning through the runway, 14-hour workdays and many working weekends and so on. Would I have gotten here without the suffering? Why must I always suffer to create things that do well?

But it wasn’t just my internal musings that were causing my dissatisfaction with life. What else was happening in February and March? Russia declared war, the cost of living in Britain skyrocketed and International Women’s Day reminded me that women are still being murdered on a regular basis.

“What I realise now, looking back at my existential crisis, is there is no silver bullet. No spa day or vacation is going to solve my problems.”

During this time, I also entered the rabbit hole of crypto and Web3, first excited at the anarchic possibilities and then depressed again and the inequality perpetuated by the system.

More and more of the same. I was having a serious existential crisis. I started to enter a state of being that I’ve moved in and out of since I was around 23 and working for a big sportswear brand: why am I encouraging consumerism and capitalist behaviour? The system is fucked. We are all just puppets, We are the product, etc, etc. By now I wasn’t just annoyed at myself and my pursuit of start up growth, I was angry at a system that rewarded it.

Was I trying to sabotage myself to avoid continuing down a path that hadn’t actually bought me much joy?

Ok, so I had some more answers

Sad/Despondent - Upper Limit Problem

Frustration - Not achieving my Zone of Genius

Anger - A system of inequality and labour.

Annoyed - The suffering to get to the wins.

Meanwhile, on social media, my friends were posting stories of “ENJOYMENT” and “SOFT LIFE” – a return to wanton abandonment of responsibilities, extreme self-care and frankly looking good and “LIVING LIFE”. Could this be the solution to my crisis?

I went to the spa, got dressed up for dinner and went to Morocco for Amy Thomson’s birthday. None of these things seemed to make a difference. In Morocco, I was shocked by my own indifference to an incredible trip. Beautifully curated dinners and experiences by Amy, sort of washed over me as I wallowed in melancholia.

The feeling of apathy was a huge jolt for me. Apathy is defined as a lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern. Anyone who knows me knows this is the opposite of me! I suddenly got terrified that I was no longer myself and I feared a downward spiral into chronic depression – If my life had no purpose, why am I even living it?

As someone who prides herself on her ‘self’ and her autonomy, I felt like something external was attacking my mind and I needed to purge it. So after Morocco, I thought OK, I gotta do something

Actually, it wasn’t just Morocco. Shortly before my trip, I had a long discussion with one of my team on how my sadness was affecting my mood at work. It was making everyone else unhappy and wasn’t conducive to a productive work environment. Even if I could work through my sadness, they couldn’t.

I respected this person’s ability to be truthful with me, and I want to honour and accept that truth. Because I love the team I work with, I decided it was imperative I move out of this existential crisis, and also communicate how I needed their support. One of my personal principles is Fun:

My life is filled with fun and warmth. Nothing is more important than my happiness and well-being, or of those around me. I have an energy that is magnetic to others because they know they will have a good time.

This final Principle was missing. I had to get it back.

“I understand now that the work is never finished and I need to practise what I preach.”

What I realise now, looking back at my existential crisis, is there is no silver bullet. No spa day or vacation is going to solve my problems. Instead, I took a mission economy approach. The mission: Get Sharma’s Mojo Back! Here’s a list of things I did to attempt to move out of this crisis mode. Many of these things I’ve discussed before, and some are new activities.

Physiological: I took care of myself. I stopped drinking completely. I got enough sleep, I attempted 20 mins cardio a day or 10k Steps. This meant that my body could support my mind. Spiritual: I went to yoga at Love Supreme. Manizeh’s storytelling and singing warms my soul. Social: I joined several community events on The Stack including Meditation, Work-Life Focus and hosted a dinner party. Social bonds are essential for humans to feel human. Gratitude: I would look back at my life (especially at pictures of Baby Roman) and feel utterly grateful for the things I’ve seen, experienced and done. Stopped watching the news: I listen to the morning news on my Alexa, and that's it. No papers, no tv, no social media news. Made playlists: I did this of all the music I loved aged 15 to 25, aka the responsibility-free years. UK Garage, Grime, Dubstep and S Club

These things are table stakes. The basics to get you prepared. Let’s now go to the next level of Optimism making. This requires active participation and work.

12 Step Programmes – I returned to my programmes to find communion in those also experiencing suffering. I realised that my problems were actually small. I read books on meaning and purpose, including Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Because of course, that’s what I was searching for. I also read The Hero’s Journey, understanding that this was all just part of my cycle. I listened to the usual podcasts – Oprah, Brené Brown, Simon Sinek – but also discovered motivational speaker Les Brown for my own personal hype man. I went back to my hometown for a trip, to my sisters, to nature. As soon as I was back in Wolverhampton, wow, what a shift! I love this place and it reminded me of how far I’ve come. I read Nancy Sherman’s Stoic Wisdom – a fresh approach, whereby she reflects on the softer side of Stoicism for military men, instead of the pure ambition.

So after taking some action to consume content that helped me understand the importance of meaning, I now had to apply it. This is the hardest but most rewarding part of finding my optimism again. All of this work was done through conversations with friends and journaling.

I seriously started to question what I really wanted. Do I want to be on this growth trajectory and keep working at a startup? The answer is yes, but on my own terms. My life's work – equality for women – remains the same, but what exactly was my role in that? I know what I want to be doing at 70, is my work today going to get me there? My current missionThe Stack World – how are we executing on the vision? Do I feel like we are really making an impact and difference? How can we make this difference at scale? Does my role suit what I’m good at and suit my lifestyle? Where am I best supported and where are the gaps I need to fill? Am I giving to myself what I’m giving to others? Being of service is my default state and it’s now my job. Am I supporting myself the way I support our Members? How do I get to my Zone of Genius? What am I uniquely good at that means that without my contribution, it wouldn’t exist, or wouldn’t exist at the level I could do it? What actions can I take today to make progress rather than setting unachievable goals as a form of procrastination?

I rounded off these questions by actually completing my own 2022 Vision Plan. It’s now April and I am finally feeling myself again. I am fired up, I’m excited about the future and I am full of my usual energy and optimism. My work and my purpose are aligned again and here’s what I discovered:

I realised that we aren’t a product for “women in business” or female founders, we are literally just a product for women’s communities. That’s why people join and that’s what our most successful features are to date. Anything that connects women.

Through communities, growth happens naturally, whatever growth means for our Members. You can browse Member created communities and find like-minded women here.

I developed a product called The Stack at Work, where we can help companies build internal, authentic women’s communities and signed up our first few customers. Soon any organisation will be able to provide Community as an Employee Benefit to support their junior and mid-level women employees on their path to leadership. Drop me a note if you think this might be right for your organisation.

I saw the huge demand for Web3 content from our Members wasn’t going anywhere and we are launching a Stack DAO in June to onboard women and define a philosophy for equality in Web3.

The idea of a DAO really abated my existential capitalism/consumerism crisis and putting powers in our Members’ hands is super-exciting! I love being in learning mode and this challenge to power women’s communities whatever the platform keeps me mega engaged. Join this Club to learn more.

“Do I want to be on this growth trajectory and keep working at a startup? The answer is yes, but on my own terms.”

I understand now that The Work is never finished and I need to practise what I preach. New Methods for Women was written two years ago as a culmination of 10 years of healing and self-development practices. In June, I’m going to start the entire process again in a 25-week course on how to support my optimum self. Join the next cohort of New Methods here.

Finally – my A-Team. I looked around at everyone in my life, personal and professional, and reflected on whether they were aligned in getting The Stack to the next level, the one I was afraid of. I thought about who I had onboard simply because I was comfortable with them and familiar with them vs. because I thought they could propel us forward to the next milestone.

I hired some people (including getting my baby cousin to support me with school runs!) and let go of some people (also mentally letting go of the ones who walked away anyway). Only through this consistent and concerted effort did I find my zest for life again.

By understanding my role in this speck of humanity on the timeline of this universe, by designing products that give me something to look forward to and by finding a group of people to help me move towards that goal, I am myself once more.

How are you feeling? Are you in a crisis, or just gotten out of one? Let’s share knowledge during a discussion. Become a Premium Member to access the New Methods Club every Monday at 7pm GMT. For £14.99 you can access 10 events per month and meet like-minded women. See you there!

The Short Stack

How Stack World Founder Sharmdean Reid navigates maintaining optimism in the most difficult times.

By Sharmadean Reid

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