What do you get when you cross an entrepreneur, an angel investor, and a psychologist?

You get our latest guest in our Straight Talk With Starters series—Dr. Shelley Prevost of The Big Self School. Though Shelley has worn lots of hats over the years, from tech startup founder to Director of Happiness at a venture capital firm, she’s landed (for the moment) as an entrepreneur psychologist. 

You may have heard of adolescent psychologists, family psychologists, forensic psychologists, and even psychologists for 20–30 year olds, but an entrepreneur psychologist, really? Yes, really. Almost half of all entrepreneurs are affected by mental illness, this study shows. Shelley has her work cut out for her, so we were thankful to get a sliver of her time and insight.

The calm before the storm (of success).

In this Straight Talk, we asked Shelley to explore the connection between calmness and creativity, a somewhat surprising combination. We typically associate creativity with the mad scientist scrambling for his notes in his laboratory, or Mozart rushing to write the Don Giovannie overture the day before opening night. We think creativity is a product of hyperactivity, pressure, and stress. “My best college papers were written the night before they were due!” we tell ourselves.

Shelley disagrees—and so does science.

“I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the relationship between gratitude and resilience,” Shelley shared. “When you’re in a negative mental space, your brain essentially tries to restrict your options so you can survive. The less time you spend entertaining options, the more mental energy you can spend on tasks at hand and getting to safety.”

This is a good thing, Shelley reminded us. Without this option-limiting setting of your brain, you wouldn’t be able to act so quickly when your child gets injured or drive defensively in dangerous weather conditions.

“However,” she continued, “when you are in this survival mode, you cannot be creative. There are no opportunities to find meaning or purpose, passion or creativity. You are restricted to survival. This is your brain on stress.”

“When you’re in a negative mental space, your brain essentially tries to restrict your options so you can survive.”

The problem is that our brains are stupid—they have a hard time recognizing the difference between real fears and danger (slipping on black ice, losing a child in public, etc.) and perceived fears and dangers. We are really good at convincing ourselves to fear and become anxious about situations that are not actually life threatening at all.

Shelley encouraged us that we could all use some work on recognizing the difference between problems that endanger us and problems that require creative thinking and problem solving.

“We want to move from the primitive survival place back to a place where innovation can start happening. You’ve got to calm your body, calm your mind.”

To calm down, you need to S.T.O.P.

“Almost all entrepreneurs suffer from a misbelief—that hustle is how I will succeed.” 

Shelley’s observation rings painfully true. Anyone who watches Shark Tank, The Social Network, or any other media portrayal of the startup process could be forgiven for thinking that the best entrepreneurs are the ones who engage in a repetitive cycle of self-abuse: lack of sleep, lack of rest, overdose of stimulants, and no room for mistakes or failure. 

The truth is that this lifestyle is not the road to success—it’s actually a one-way ticket to burnout, the ultimate killer of dreams and work ethic.

True success is achieved (and enjoyed) when you learn to recognize when hustle is appropriate and when calmness is appropriate. “Calmness is not laziness and it’s not a permanent destination—it’s a place you stop on the way,” Shelley reasoned.

“We want to move from the primitive survival place back to a place where innovation can start happening. You’ve got to calm your body, calm your mind.”

To reach that place of calm, go through a process that Shelley refers to as S.T.O.P. 

“It’s been out there for a while among a variety of methods, but I particularly like it and it’s stuck with me through time.

Slow down. This is really hard for people like us who are ‘doers.’ I mean that you actually need to stop your body. Put yourself in a chair, and then stop your mind. Slow down and breathe. We have our best ideas in the shower or while walking outside. There is something about this meditative, mindful brainspace where our brains actually calm down and our subconscious comes into the present a lot more. 

Triggers. List every fear that you’re aware of. This step alone can be really powerful. Think about where you are right now, in your own life, your own business—what are you aware of that you’re fearing? Fears that are real? Fears that are irrational?

Opportunities. This is usually the hardest step to wrap our minds around. The human brain has a negative bias; it wants to make things simple, to look for shortcuts,  to make things easy. It usually simplifies complexity into the negative.

Seeing opportunities where it feels like there are none is super hard. People will often perceive the lack of possibility when things aren’t working. But opportunities exist—you just need to let your brain work it out for some period of time. 

Plan. So you’ve slowed down, identified your triggers and fears, seen some opportunities, and now you’re ready to immediately start going. I would caution against that. There’s a lot of compelling research that shows that the less you do, the more effective you are. 

I would recommend an exercise called a daily 3-2-1. I do it in the evening, and it’s a really helpful ritual for bookending my day. I think of three things I’m grateful for from that day and why. Then I list two professional tasks I must complete tomorrow. And finally, one personal goal I want to meet tomorrow. The planning step is not a strategic planning meeting—not when we’re in this critical pivotal place. 

“Calmness is not laziness and it’s not a permanent destination—it’s a place you stop on the way,”

There will be times for more strategic planning when you’re well-rested. But when you’re trying to calm down, you have to stay with what’s right in front of you. Give yourself permission to slow down.”

For more advice on maintaining mental stability as an entrepreneur (especially in this global environment), it’s definitely worth checking out The Big Self School in addition to the Medium blog Shelley runs with her husband, Chad. They host online courses and coaching workshops to pass on Shelley’s knowledge to a new community of healthy, innovative entrepreneurs.


Shelley Prevost is a licensed therapist, educational psychologist, and experienced workshop facilitator. After working as a business psychologist and startup executive for the past 10 years, Shelley has come back to her roots in positive psychology, promoting self-awareness and emotional intelligence in all their forms. She leads the Big Self School with her husband, writer and media specialist Chad Prevost. The Big Self School is a personal growth learning community to help changemakers thrive in their lives and work. You can learn more here.

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