How I found hope in the most depressing times – and so can you

On the 24th of March 2020, ConceptOwl, my last startup, died.

I don’t remember having worked harder for anything in my life – for 5 long years, I slogged day and night to make ConceptOwl successful. And all I had to show for it was crores of losses. Yet, I was still hopeful that we would make it – and we were trying really hard.

But on March 24th, India announced the first Covid-lockdown. Our business model became unviable and our revenue went to zero the next day.

Without money to even pay the office rental, we vacated the office and shut down everything.

This was not the first time I found life tough, but I don’t recall too many times as depressing or difficult. With nothing to do, I was sitting at home, feeling lost and sad.

Dark thoughts kept popping up: How much money I had lost over the years… I gave up a well-paying job to slog for years and for all of that, I had nothing to show – no success, no financial security, nothing.

You can probably already see what I was doing – I was wallowing in self-pity and negative emotions. At that time, I one day got a call from one of my investors – Dr. Aniruddha Malpani. I told him how bad things were.

He said, “Why are you feeling bad? Take this as an opportunity – read books, introspect, and see where you want to go from here.”

That gave me some hope – after all, as an investor, Dr. Malpani had the greatest reason to be upset, but he was supportive.

So here is what I did: Every day, I would start a timer for 25 minutes. Once the timer started ticking, I would let go of my anxieties and read books with full focus – I could worry about my problems later – this was not the time. After every focus sprint, I would take a short break and start again – rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.

As I read these books on building habits, focus, and discipline, things began to change.

For starters, every time I got absorbed in a book, my mind calmed down. My problems were still very much there, but my anxiety quietened.

It turns out, when your attention is fully absorbed, the default mode network in your brain quietens down and the mind wandering stops, occasionally creating a flow-like mental state.

Further, as I read books, I got fresh ideas for helping people build focus and discipline. I started testing these ideas with a real-world audience, by running bootcamp pilots.

When we tested a program for building a ‘5 am morning routine’, everyone who finished 30 days said that they found it life-changing. That ultimately became HabitStrong’s ‘Become a morning person’ bootcamp.

Similarly, we tested bootcamp for digital de-addiction and focused reading – and most people found them life-changing.

Soon we went from test-pilots to commercially offering these bootcamps. And here is the funny part: Even though we launched the bootcamps, we hadn’t even thought about building a new brand – HabitStrong came later.

Remember – all this time, I was sitting on a dead startup, with every reason to feel depressed.

Had I kept wallowing in self-pity, expecting a disaster to hit me, it would have. But once I started making progress, we found our way out.

Soon, in a few months, we launched the HabitStrong website – no fanfare, no PR blitz, no news reports, nothing. But our customers supported us and the business grew.

But this post is not about HabitStrong, it is about you.

As you go through life, you may go through difficult times. When that happens, you will get hijacked by self-pity, anxiety, and self-blame. Your mind will tell you that it will all end in a disaster.

Whenever you feel that way – you have a choice, just as I did.

A. You can choose to believe that nothing will work out, and it will all be a disaster.

B. Or, you can believe that you can do something about it – you can walk out of that nightmare.

Your mind will always feel like picking the first option because the second one feels like a lot of work. Don’t.

Tell yourself, “I will pick the second option. I will walk, no matter how hard that feels.”

The second option feels hard because when the chips are down, you barely have the motivation to get out of bed. How will you walk? How will you read books, come up with new ideas, or fight the demons?

Don’t overthink it – just get started.

That is what worked for me. When I started reading books, I did not think that it will solve my problems and lead to a new startup. I just started somewhere – I started small.

Once you start, you make progress. Once you make progress, you become optimistic and energized, and then you progress faster. It becomes a virtuous cycle.

Life can be a vicious cycle or a virtuous one – it is up to us.

My suggestion – start small, but start.

Today, I am happy to share with you that HabitStrong has done well. We have helped thousands of people change their lives.

So remember – even in the toughest of times, all you have to get started and make some progress. All good things will soon follow.

I send you my best wishes and can assure you that if you walk, you can walk out of any nightmare, no matter how dark or long it feels. No darkness will outlast your resolve.

Keep walking.

Rajan

HabitStrong Newsletter by Rajan Singh

In this fortnightly newsletter, Rajan shares inspiring lessons and stories from his career as an IPS officer, McKinsey consultant, investor, and now, as a startup founder. Join 25,000+ subscribers.

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