I met Michelle, designer of tiny companies that are built to last, at a Comfort Circle hosted virtually by Jacquette Timmins in the fall of 2020, just as we headed into our first full-on COVID winter.
I have come to learn Michelle’s business–and even where she lives–is designed to support her wellbeing, because she hit the wall once and doesn’t want to again.
Listen in or read below to learn more about Michelle’s mental health story and her tips for women entrepreneurs.
I am Michelle Warner, and I am a business designer. I combine the art and the science of building businesses to help entrepreneurs build tiny businesses that are ready to scale and grow sustainably. I believe very strongly in that sustainable part. [I also believe] that just being true to the foundations of a business so that your business is actually growing at a pace that will work for you and is in alignment with everything that you need. I have been doing this for about six years.
Prior to that, I was in the tech startup world. [I was] the CEO of a social justice tech startup, which taught me a lot about how to grow very, very quickly and out of control, which is why I now do what I do so that people can have sustainable businesses that really meet their goals, which means that mental health is so important to me.
I am now living in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which is a town of about 50,000 people about two hours north of Chicago an hour north of Milwaukee. Most importantly to me, [it is] directly on the shores of Lake Michigan. I think more of myself more as a Great Lakes resident than a Wisconsin resident.
I spent the vast majority of my life in Chicago, then headed to the mountains of Denver for several years. I missed that lake so badly that now I am back in Sheboygan living next door quite literally, to my very favourite body of water in the entire world.
My mental health story
I grew up in Chicago, as they say, Midwestern work ethic, right? I just went and went and went, I was the classic overachiever. I just took step after step after step, and never really thought, “Is this working? Is this sustainable to me?” [It got] to the point where I worked full time while I also got my MBA full time in a very intensive MBA program. And as soon as I finished that up, I took on the role of a tech startup founder, which is also incredibly intense.
I had about 10, very, very, and I’m going to keep using that word very, intense years, which led to an absolute flaming burnout. I just completely crashed at one point and could not really function any longer. So that is why mental health is important to me. I burned out so spectacularly because I didn’t even know mental health was a thing. I just kept ongoing. I had to learn the hard way that mental health really is a thing. So that informs absolutely everything that I do going forward in both how I grow my business now and how I help other folks grow their businesses because there is just nothing as important as taking care of yourself first.
What mental health means to me
[To me, mental health] means that I can show up on any given day and have and give what I have that day, right? I no longer believe that in 110% hustle every day. I don’t believe in hustle culture. But I do believe I still have a lot of things I want to achieve in this world. So I believe very much in wanting to show up as best I can every single day, both physically and mentally.
I understand that that fluctuates from day to day. I also understand that if I’m taking care of my physical and mental health, I can achieve what I really want to achieve without burning myself out. But with also without, you know, not doing so little [that] I’m not achieving what I want to achieve.
That is why that’s what mental health means to me. [It means] that I’m able to show up to the maximum that I’m able to each day.
How I care for my mental health
For me, it really comes down to having a stable routine. It was funny, when I was burned out, I was looking at all these different, alternative healing systems. I was just learning everything that you could about mental health and health. I came across one that had some different, you know, different personality types, if you will, different body types. And the one that I fit very clearly into just resonated so hard with me that I still use it to this day.
It said you are going to thrive under a routine, while at the same time you’re going to resent having a routine, and really are going to rebel against that. I thought, “That’s so so so true.”
You know, some of us have a really easy time getting into a stricter routine, and some of us are a disaster or when we try to have a routine and both of those are correct. I am a person who thrives in a routine and yet I don’t want to think I need one. So some of us thrive under routine and we want one and we crave that. I am somebody who thrives under routine, but I’m going to rebel against it. So I have really learned how to find a routine that can work for me, and also allows for a little bit, a lot a bit of flexibility, so I don’t feel like I’m in a routine, right?
It’s hard to describe. I have this very strict routine and when I get out of it, things do not go so well. But at the same time, that routine has a ton of flexibility locked into it. So if you look at me, I do not have colour-coded calendars. I do not have strict morning routines, I do not have a lot of strictness within my day. But certain things need to fit into every day. That’s really how I care for my mental health: constantly living on this spectrum between strict routine and complete freedom and understanding that there is a middle ground that can work for me.
My main mental wellness tip…
This goes with what I was sharing earlier. Everybody’s going to be different in terms of what is going to work for you.
Number one, everybody has mental health challenges in some way, shape or form. Your mental health is important to pay attention to.
Number two, how you pay attention to that, what’s going to work for you is going to be completely different than what works for somebody else. What works for you is probably going to change with the seasons or where you are in your business and where you are in your entrepreneurial journey.
I get really frustrated when I’m working with clients building their businesses when they come in with these high-level strategies that are all the rage and they want to implement because I know that there is no nuanced thought in that. You can’t just slap a strategy on top of something without actually understanding the depth and the layers that go into it.
The 5 Whys
I call this the five whys. This is a very MBA-type thing. But I’ll give you a free little business-building lesson.
There’s this a sequence called the Five why’s which you use in manufacturing and in quality control to understand when something is going wrong. If the assembly line is breaking down, you don’t just ask “Why?” one time. Because if you ask one time, you’re gonna get a very surface-level bandaid response.
Let’s use a very classic assembly line example. Why did the assembly line break down? Well, one of the ropes broke… I don’t even know what goes into an assembly line. But one of the materials on the line broke. So you can say, “Okay, cool. [I] can fix that.” [But that] is a bandaid fix.
You actually have to ask, “Why did the rope break?” And once you answer that, [then ask] why did that happen? That’s how you actually find a root cause of a problem that can be solved permanently.
If you just ask “Why did the assembly line break?” Oh, it’s because that rope broke and then you replace the rope. Well, if something was causing tension on that rope [sufficient enough] to cause the tight rope to break, guess what? The new rope is just going to break again.
I think the same thing in terms of mental health. That’s why I get frustrated when I see someone say, “Here’s a morning routine. Here’s what you have to do. Here is how this has to be.” That is the equivalent of asking that first, “Why did the rope break?” and just slapping a routine on there, assuming it’s going to take care of your problem. It will not.
You need to be curious and you need to think down to the level of the fifth “Why?”. Because that’s where you find what works for you right now, and what’s going to work for you permanently.
So thank you so much for being here and for showing up for your mental health. And good luck. I wish all the best to every entrepreneur.
Connect with Michelle
ig | @Michelle Warner