Why Does It Take Near-Death For Someone To Start-Up?

Since I started working with entrepreneurs a decade ago, one thing has always struck me: how many of them have waited for near-death experiences to trigger them to take action.

Why do entrepreneurs need near-death experiences to get started?

I don’t mean necessarily that they were waiting for this event to happen, but that when it happened it prompted them to do that thing they always wanted to do, but never got around to.

What is a near-death experience?

When I talk about near-death experiences, I’m referring to one of the following:

  • Death of a career
  • Death of a relationship
  • Death of a lifestyle
  • Death of a close friend/family member

I learnt recently that there’s another name for these near-death experiences: lifeshocks. But they’re a little different.

The thing I find really interesting about near-death experiences is that the trigger is the “life’s too short” moment that gets someone to do something they’ve always wanted to do, but that wasn’t realistic or it was never the right time.

When the near-death experience happens, everything goes into a new perspective and challenges that misconception.

When we hold a new Startup Club, and we go around the room for intros, most of the group have had a near-death experience that led to this moment.

I feel like maybe I need to explain some of the near-death experiences in a bit more detail:

Death of a career might seem straightforward, losing your job, or being made redundant are the “done to you” scenarios, but also realising that your career has no future, or certainly no future for you. This is incredibly challenging to the ego, as we all hold so much of our personal identity in our occupation, salary band, seniority, and career capital. This is especially likely to increase as the climate emergency starts to put the squeeze on the necessity of certain jobs, and as automation eats away at algorithmic jobs.

Death of a relationship is typically divorce or separation. This has another factor at play, whether the individual is the instigator of the break-up or it is being done to them, and how they react to that situation. This could involve the need to revert to supporting themselves alone, or having to provide for dependents independently.

Death of a lifestyle is less obvious – this normally is something like having kids, or additional care responsibilities that seismically change your lifestyle. Having kids creates an oxytocin spike that changes you forever, and one outcome of this appears to be the need to fend for yourself, or simply the need to work on a more flexible basis – on your terms – to balance work and care.

Death of a close friend/family member is obviously a deeply traumatic and challenging time. What happens here is the deep sense of life being too short, and being honest to ourselves, but this is sometimes enabled by other factors such as inheritance, or relieved from additional care requirements.

In the wonderful Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor talks about Falling Up – the response to a crisis that could be perceived as being a negative falling down but taken as a new opportunity.

The research of Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun into post-traumatic growth was groundbreaking not because of its novelty, “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”, but a perspective when faced with stressful situations.

The third way, as Shawn Achor describes it is not things staying the same, or things getting worse, but that things could get better from the crisis or adversity, something that we often don’t believe when in the eye of the storm.

Of course, since the start of 2020 we have all lived in a near-death experience, and I think this is why we have seen record breaking numbers of newly started businesses. Yes, there has likely been the factor of necessity entrepreneurship driven by people needing to find new roles, but many others will have had things shift into focus.

My take on why it requires a near-death experience to make that change in life is because often it feels like you need to ditch everything to start something new.

This is fundamentally not true, but is the way that entrepreneurship and the world of start-ups is portrayed. You need to go all in, you need to risk everything if you’re serious.

I’ll write a lot more about small experiments, but unless we challenge this perception I worry that more and more people will lose time in occupations that don’t occupy their heart, just because they think it’s the only option.

I’d love to know whether any of these experiences have triggered your entrepreneurship or shifts in your life, and if you think there are any other triggers – New Year’s Resolutions are an interesting one to explore but seem to have bad long-term success rates.

As always, drop me a tweet – I’ve loved receiving feedback from readers since this went live.

📬 №2/50 #50Things


I hope there’s some value in putting these down. I’d love to hear your perspectives on the topics, Twitter is the best place to find me: @GarethTSq

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Gareth I. Jones

Founder of TownSq, focused on building communities of entrepreneurs, supporting startups and B Corps - businesses that are better for the planet.