How To Do Hard Things

A founder explores his journey with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

David Gavi / Unsplash

When I started a company in my early 20s, I didn't have a great way of dealing with uncertainty and stress. Even though we bootstrapped the company to an exit, I was miserable a lot of the time, and when I finally moved on, I wasn't sure I'd ever want to start another business. 

Entrepreneurship felt like a calling, yet my lived experience of it had often been quite painful. I spent years in traditional talk therapy and reading self-help books to try and make sense of my experience, but I still felt stuck. I couldn't see myself doing anything else, yet I couldn't see myself being happy starting another company.

I'd always been a bit of a psychology nerd (I originally got into meditation after reading a meta-analysis of its positive effects), and one day I stumbled upon a book, Values in Therapy, that explored a little-known framework from behavioral psychology that was a lightbulb moment for me. It finally helped me understand why I was so unhappy running my last company, and I finally began to see how I might be able to approach the stress and uncertainty of entrepreneurship in a new way: one that was life-giving instead of soul-sucking.

The framework is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and even though it's backed by 800+ randomized controlled studies, it is relatively unknown outside of therapy circles. This post explains the basics of ACT, how it impacted my life, and how you can begin to apply it too.

At a high-level, ACT (pronounced "act" not "A-C-T") looks at how our thoughts influence our behavior, and offers tools for debugging when our minds get us stuck. In my case, it helped me recognize where my mind was adding to the stress inherent in running a company, and how that additional stress had gotten in the way of finding meaning and enjoyment in my work.

In talking with friends—both founders and non-founders—I realized that a lot of people go through what I went through, and that what helped me could also help others. I started devouring books and research on ACT, and eventually trained in how to use it with others in a coaching context (when it's not therapy, we call it Acceptance and Commitment Training and still abbreviate it as "ACT").

In this piece, I'll teach you the basics of ACT and how this tactical framework can help you operate more effectively and stay connected to meaning when doing work that matters to you. By the end, you'll have an understanding of how you can use ACT to debug your behavior, and hopefully, to live a more meaningful and productive life.

Let's begin.

The ultimate goal of ACT is to help us move closer to what we care about in life. From an ACT perspective, the main thing that gets in the way of this is when our behavior becomes primarily about avoidance. When we’re focused on avoiding difficult thoughts and feelings, we’re not focused on moving toward what we care about.

Where other psychological approaches might try to resolve challenging thoughts and feelings by rationally reframing them or exploring childhood memories, ACT doesn’t see difficult internal experiences as problems in and of themselves–they are only seen as problematic to the degree that they interfere with living a meaningful and engaged life in the present.

Thus, much of ACT is about helping us change how our thoughts and feelings influence our behavior. Essentially, ACT teaches us how to stay oriented toward what we care about even in the face of negative thoughts and feelings—because those are a normal part of life.  

ACT calls this ability "psychological flexibility," and outlines six core skills that we can practice to help ramp up the thoughts that bring meaning to our work and disengage from the thoughts that take us off-course. 

The framework is called psychological flexibility, because when we're caught in avoidance, our behavior tends to narrow and become inflexible.

To learn how to apply this framework in doing work that matters, we'll explore each of ACT's six core flexibility processes and how you can apply them.

Here is a list of the 6 core processes that we'll explore in-depth below:

  • Experiential Avoidance → Willingness
  • Fusion → Defusion
  • Past/Future → Present-Moment Awareness
  • Rigid Stories → Flexible Perspective-Taking
  • Lack of Direction → Clear Values
  • Inaction → Committed Action

These processes are all interconnected, but we'll talk about each in step-by-step order, and show how mastering each can lead you to the next one.

Experiential Avoidance →Willingness

When challenging thoughts and feelings come up, our tendency is to avoid them—or even better, to avoid situations that might cause them. In ACT we call this experiential avoidance.

The problem is that difficult thoughts and feelings come up all the time, and often in situations that we don't really want to get away from. What we want to learn to do is contact discomfort when it's in service of doing things that we care about. In ACT, we call this willingness.

A mentor of mine likes to talk about experiential avoidance as a sort of "reverse compass." When we notice the desire to avoid something, it may actually be telling us what we need to move toward. Of course, you shouldn’t move toward things that might actually harm you, but many of the things we avoid in life are simply unpleasant and are not actually dangerous.

For example, in my first startup, marketing was the area of the business where I felt least comfortable. I often procrastinated on growth tasks, and would spend my time instead working on product, where I felt more confident. As a result, we probably didn't grow as fast or as large as we could have.

To try and grow as a founder, after exiting the company, I took a full-time growth role at a tech fund. For the first several weeks, my mind was freaking out around the fear of failure and letting people down. However, marketing was my whole job now–I could no longer avoid it. Even as alarm bells were going off in my head, I started trying different growth experiments. While the first few things we tried didn’t work, eventually one of our experiments got moderate traction, and something funny happened: marketing suddenly became a lot less scary.

It turned out that the product skillset actually translated quite well to growth, and that I had simply never focused on marketing long enough to push through my initial discomfort and start to see results. For over a year, I worked full-time doing growth for our portfolio companies, and today, marketing no longer feels as scary or challenging.

Even though there is a lot of career advice around "playing to your strengths," sometimes the path to the life we want lies on the other side of what we find difficult.

Willingness can be developed through formal mindfulness practice: sitting in silence while allowing difficult thoughts and feelings to be present. It can also be developed informally whenever we stop trying to get rid of painful thoughts and feelings and instead open up to them as part of the path toward what we care about.

To help hone in on experiential avoidance in our lives, meditation teacher and author of Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach offers a simple question: "What are you unwilling to feel?"

Whatever the answer, this becomes the focus of our work. The more we practice opening up to it in our lives or through formal mindfulness practice, the more we'll be able to stay connected to what we care about rather than getting lost in avoidance.

Now, getting clear on where avoidance shows up in our work is just the first step. Once we understand this, our next move is to look at how to work with the thoughts that come up that perpetuate avoidance. This is the process of moving from fusion to defusion.

Fusion → Defusion

When we’re caught in avoidance, we tend to see our thoughts as "true." ACT calls this process “fusion.” When we are fused, we react to a thought as if it were an external reality, as opposed to a cognitive and physiological experience happening inside of our mind and body.

Examples of a few types of thoughts people can fuse with are:

  • Reasons - "I can't do X because..."
  • Judgments - "People always are only looking out for themselves."
  • Rules - "I shouldn't feel Y" or "I have to work harder than others to be successful."

Defusion, on the other hand, is about noticing our thoughts as simply thoughts. When we can experience our thoughts as events happening inside our awareness, rather than taking whatever our mind says as reality itself, we can choose to pay attention to the thoughts that are more "workable" in moving us toward where we want to go in life.

As an example, in school, I picked up the rule that "mistakes are bad."

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