The Broken Bucket

Article by:

Andrea Culligan
EO Sydney
Andrea Culligan - EO Sydney

I don’t know if I’d call it shame, grief or what. Either way, I’m not ready to move on. It’s been one year since everything changed in my business, and I still haven’t recovered. That month was the hardest time I’ve ever faced in business, and the three years leading up to it weren’t any better. I recently read an Inc. article that detailed the often overlooked and unfortunate alignments with entrepreneurship— suicide and mental illness. Frankly, I’m not surprised. Entrepreneurship is hard. It’s like someone takes your life and all your encompassing parts, throws them into a bucket filled with slime, gold and bad karma, and then just sloshes it around. Depending on how the bucket swings, you get what you get.

People say not to take it personally, that it’s just business. I think that’s bullshit. It is personal. It is your business. And your decisions heavily affect that business’s future. I haven’t always made the best decisions, and yeah, it would hurt. But other times my role as an entrepreneur created beautiful things, like witnessing an employee grow into someone you always knew they could be, or seeing a client give you a fantastic referral. Those days are pure gold— they’re the best part of the bucket. Sometimes, though, the bucket just sloshes slime at you. Even when you think you’re doing the right thing, your fear slops bad karma from the bucket, and the cycle continues.

I’ve been an entrepreneur for 16 years, building and selling businesses. All in all, being an entrepreneur is awesome, but it can bring you down if you don’t remember to come up for air, which I hadn’t done in a long time. In 2014, in the wake of my business collapse, I took a long, hard look at myself and realised I needed a break. Entrepreneurship had taken its toll. I was physically and mentally ravaged by years of the bucket sloshing me around and spitting me out. I no longer laughed easily; my confidence was shattered, my body ragged and my mind no longer at ease.

Losing our biggest client in 2014 was the final straw. I had done everything in my power to get us to that point, and before I knew it, I was forced to let much of my staff go. That day of exodus was dispiriting and painful, and as I sat at my best friend’s kitchen table sobbing and drinking whiskey at 11 a.m., I realized my tears were not a result of sadness, but of significant relief. Moving forward was a decision I should have made a long time ago; the client was never the right fit for our business and our staff was treated poorly. I was exhausted and making poor decisions, and well, hindsight is a bitch.

Needless to say, the decision was out of our hands, and we had to make the most of our reduction. Whilst relief was definitely present, I had a reputation to uphold in my industry. Our response to this loss would define the future of the company. I tried hard to keep my head and heart above the growing tide of fear, but it just kept washing over me. I didn’t know what we were going to do next. I felt worthless. My emotions were hard and heavy-hitting— I wasn’t ready for them. How could I think clearly or make decisions with that kind of rush overriding my system?

My solution came in the form of an impromptu camping trip last October, where it finally occurred to me that I needed a break from it all. The feelings I had about my business and life were muddled, and I couldn’t fix them. I couldn’t be the big entrepreneur I thought—and wished—myself to be. I needed to just be, not do. So, here I am, now on a completely different journey, using that camping trip as a trigger to travel around the world in a caravan. How does it feel one year later? Well, I still feel broken, physically and mentally. The people whom I trusted fell away, the situations that meant so much became irrelevant, the hierarchy I had is now insignificant … and I still feel broken.

But here lies the big question: How do you build the person you want to be if you haven’t broken yourself before? It’s like a mandatory evil that has to happen for the next great thing to emerge. I use the analogy of brush fires allowing trees to regenerate— adversity creates success. In all stories of history and life, a level of personal destruction is required before rebuilding the real story. It’s almost like it has to happen for true success to emerge. When I read that Inc. article about the entrepreneur’s journey being difficult, I could relate. I, too, had been suicidal.

I, too, have a mental illness and manage my anxiety disorder daily. I, too, have connected my self-worth and personal value to my business. And when it didn’t go as planned last year, all of that came crashing down with it. I get it.

I’m broken. It hurts. But that is what is meant to happen before the really good stuff shows up. I believe the process of regeneration, although painful, is such an important step in one’s recovery. I’m still doing great work, I just have larger questions: How can I contribute to the world in a bigger way? How do I find peace of mind and heart? How do I fulfill that dream of combining my skills and passions into one venture? Traveling and seeing so many things has turned off a lot of buttons— the snooze button, for one. It has also turned on the curiosity button, the question button and the learning button. I’ve read more books in three months than in the past five years, and I’ve listened to more people tell their stories in the past two weeks than ever before. It’s been humbling and beautiful.

What I have now is a second chance. A chance to create something powerful, positive, purposeful and game-changing for people; something that empowers people and lets them feel they can achieve their greatest, because even in the depths of despair, I still know I can achieve whatever I set my mind to. But first, I’ve got to pick up the pieces, one by one, and put them back together. Perhaps in a different order to create the person I’m becoming, or maybe, have always been.

When I’m ready.

Andrea Culligan is an EO Sydney member, as well as the CEO of Harteffect, an employer branding agency, and Unigrad, a university student jobs board. Learn more about Andrea’s journey—or share your own!—by visiting www.sabbaticalish.com. You can also follow her on Twitter (@sabbaticalish) or email her at sabbaticalish@gmail.com.

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