Some entrepreneurs feel as if the universe is working against them. It's a phenomenon called the headwinds/tailwinds effect.
Have you accused your parents of loving your siblings more than you? Or been convinced that a teacher was tougher on you than your classmates? Are you certain that you have to work out twice as hard as your friends to stay half as fit?
As you venture into entrepreneurship, do you find yourself feeling like you can’t catch a break, while everyone else seems to be cruising down Easy Street?
You’re not being paranoid -- nor are you alone in feeling this way. In fact, earlier this year, Freakonomics Radio devoted an entire episode to people who feel that they’re living under life’s rain cloud. Psychology professors Tom Gilovich and Shai Davidai delved into this toic in recently published research, which helped explain what makes some people across all walks of life feel as if the universe is working against them. It’s a phenomenon called the headwinds/tailwinds effect.
Gilovich and Davidai revealed that it’s not always outside forces holding you back. You might be placing stumbling blocks in your own path without realizing it.
Luckily, these findings don’t tie your startup to a future of doom and gloom -- quite the opposite. By learning to identify and overcome these obstacles in entrepreneurship, you can find the gratitude, confidence and focus to become a successful leader.
The science of headwinds and tailwinds
You know that feeling when you’re running against the wind? It makes everything harder; after a while, it becomes all you can focus on. But when you change direction and put the wind at your back, things get easier. Before long, you don’t even feel a breeze. That, in a nutshell, is the headwind/tailwind effect.
According to Gilovich and Davidai, when bad things in life pile on, it’s like running into the wind -- they require all your energy and focus just to get through. Yet when good things happen, rarely do you linger in gratitude. You may feel appreciative for a bit; then you move on.
The headwinds/tailwinds effect has been shown to infiltrate every area of life, from sports to academia to the business world. As an entrepreneur, it’s important that you confront and overcome your personal barriers -- after all, it’s not only your future on the line, but your startup’s as well.
1. Conquer the availability bias.
"Availability bias" describes the tendency to rely on information that’s readily available -- typically because it’s recent, convenient to obtain, unusual or emotionally charged. But perhaps you should consider alternative possibilities.
In a 1973 Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman experiment, for example, most participants believed there were more words in the English language starting with the letter "K" than with "K" as the third letter. Actually, there are twice as many words with "K" as the third letter, but words starting with "K" are easier to recall.
In a business context, headwinds (or setbacks) spur negative reactions and tend to get the major portion of your attention. Tailwinds (or advantages), on the other hand, require little of your attention.
If availability bias is your weakness, you’ll find yourself making decisions and taking action largely based on skewed information or negative encounters, which will lead you down the wrong path more often than not. If a certain market is rapidly growing, for instance, but your last experience within it was unsuccessful, you'll be less likely to try re-entering it.
To course-correct, try to recognize and erase any biases from your decision-making process. Make it a habit to do broad research -- including alternative approaches, opinions and perspectives -- on all important business matters. Try to remove your views and past experiences as much as possible.
2. Stop engaging in self-sabotage.
"Self-handicapping" occurs when you undermine your own abilities, in an attempt to deflect (potential) your failures onto external factors rather than shoulder the blame yourself. Research from Harry Prapavessis and his associates found that humans engage in self-handicapping tendencies when they’re experiencing feelings of denial, wishful thinking and even anxiety.
Think about it: Have you ever failed to give yourself enough time to work on a project, neglected to prep for a client presentation or given up on an idea before it had a chance to thrive? If so, you’ve probably engaged in the cognitive strategy of self-handicapping.
To overcome self-handicapping, replace negative language with optimistic words. Stop making excuses and cutting yourself down. Break the cycle of self-sabotage by using “what if?” statements to produce goals, not excuses. According to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, you can flip your line of thinking to motivate yourself fairly easily.
When you mindfully consider how to overcome the hurdles in your path, you generate valuable knowledge. Of those barriers, identify the ones within your control, and determine how you can surmount them. When you find yourself worrying about criticism you might receive, work harder to master the task at hand. And forgive yourself for failures, remembering that you’re an imperfect human.
3. Keep your eyes on your own work.
The "second-place effect" is based on research from Victoria Husted Medvec and her partners which found that silver medalists studied were less satisfied than their bronze-winning counterparts because they focused more on how they almost performed than on their actual achievement.
In business, this might mean you can’t accept anything other than first place or that you constantly compare your achievements to your competitors’. However it manifests, dwelling on “what could have been” -- or counterfactual thoughts -- only diminishes your achievements and slows your progress, further benefiting your competitors.
Crush this stumbling block by paying more attention to your value proposition than your position in the pack. Start a journal, regularly listing your company’s achievements and advantages. These might include things like the flexibility you offer your team or the positive customer feedback you receive. Use this list to stay motivated during tough times and to identify what keeps your customers happy.
Pay attention to the dynamics of your own team, too. Juliana Schroeder's research on “overclaiming” showed that, because of our inclination to think of our own contributions first, we tend to overestimate the work we put into a group effort compared to others’.
We all share this trait, to the tune of a self-reported collective contribution greater than 100 percent. Everyone feels as if she is doing more than her fair share (or he, his), and the larger the group, the stronger this effect. If this happens at your organization, it's wise to encourage individuals to consciously recognize the work others on the team are contributing to the collective effort before reflecting on their own.
In sum, though you may feel that the universe has stacked the cards against your startup, more often than not, your struggles are of your own creation. A bit of gratitude, though, and a focus on mindful leadership, can get you out of your head and back in the game.
Originally published June 29, 2017 on Entrepreneur.com