Becoming Formidable

Editor's Note: On the list of articles that I have found to be timely and on-aim, this one (originally published on Medium) from our friend Jeff LaBarge is at or near the top of the list. In an environment that embraces and even celebrates hardship, Jeff does a great job of unpacking faith as the source code that can make a founder 'Formidable.' For so many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and around the world, our identity becomes inextricably entangled with our work. As the business ebbs and flows, so goes our heart --> towards discouragement or towards pride. I found Jeff's perspective on his own journey as an entrepreneur, as well as his counsel on the role that prayer has in his daily journey, to be bold and insightful -- Luke Roush

How To Become Formidable — An Unpopular But Effective Way

by Jeff Labarge

Silicon Valley celebrates founders with super-human ability to focus, work hard, and survive the extreme pressure startups. We retell their heroic stories and celebrate their successes. However, there is a glaring absence of information regarding how to develop the character traits required to overcome the intense stress and hardships of starting a company.

For example, Ashlee Vance described Elon Musk this way:

He saw a man who arrived in the United States with nothing, who had lost a child, who was being pilloried in the press by reporters and his ex-wife and who verged on having his life’s work destroyed. “He has the ability to work harder and endure more stress than anyone I’ve ever met,” Gracias said. “What he went through in 2008 would have broken anyone else. He didn’t just survive. He kept working and stayed focused.” That ability to stay focused in the midst of a crisis stands as one of Musk’s main advantages over other executives and competitors. “Most people who are under that sort of pressure fray,” Gracias said. “Their decisions go bad. Elon gets hyper rational. He’s still able to make very clear, long-term decisions. The harder it gets, the better he gets. Anyone who saw what he went through firsthand came away with more respect for the guy. I’ve just never seen anything like his ability to take pain.”

The above narrative is inspiring, but fails to answer the critical follow-up question. How do entrepreneurs obtain/develop this characteristic? What do you do if you weren’t born with Musk’s super-human ability to deal with stress? Musk himself, worries about this for his kids:

It bothers Musk a bit that his kids won’t suffer like he did. He feels that the suffering helped to make him who he is and gave him extra reserves of strength and will. “They might have a little adversity at school, but these days schools are so protective,” he said. “If you call someone a name, you get sent home. When I was going to school, if they punched you and there was no blood, it was like, ‘Whatever. Shake it off.’ Even if there was a little blood, but not a lot, it was fine. What do I do? Create artificial adversity? How do you do that?

PG begins to answer this question in his essay, “How To Convince Investors.” He asserts that the most important characteristic for founders is “being formidable” which he defines as “justifiably confident.” The rest of his essay gives some very helpful advice about how to “seem formidable”. PG’s advice is a step function better than the previous conventional wisdom. However, “seeming formidable” and being formidable are different. “Seeming formidable” is probably enough to get you some initial investment capital, but you need to be formidable to build an enduring company. Being formidable requires resilience over a long period of time. Being formidable requires that you can endure the challenges of a startup as you execute against your “justifiable confidence.”

Without a reliable way to become formidable, the current status quo will continue: lots of entrepreneurs will dedicate years of their lives to a startup, VCs will fund founders who are formidable for whatever reason, and the unfunded startups will crater in a very painful way for everyone involved. Depression, anxiety, and suicide will continue to be rampant in our community. If we want more successful startup founders, we need to find way for founders to become formidable. We need new tools to endure the challenges of being a founder.

I believe the solution is readily apparent, but so controversial it is ignored. Historically, the spiritual disciplines of Christianity have enabled extreme resilience to suffering. Christianity enabled previous generations to endure torture, religious persecution, plagues, and trench warfare. Christians have endured suffering that makes the stress of founding a company pale in comparison. However, Silicon Valley culture has rejected Christianity in favor of contemporary Western culture which focuses instead on individual freedom and happiness. Unfortunately, contemporary Western culture does not provide the tools needed to endure suffering. Tim Keller[1] describes this well:

Sociologists and anthropologists have analyzed and compared the various ways that cultures train its members for grief, pain, and loss. And when this comparison is done, it is often noted that our own contemporary secular, Western culture is one of the weakest and worst in history at doing so. — Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering

I believe that faith is the secret to becoming formidable, and it is hidden in plain sight. The following describes my experience using the traditional Christian disciplines to become substantially more formidable than I would have been naturally.

Getting Practical

YC is a wonderful experience, but also extremely stressful. You have to design, build, and deliver a product in just a few months or your company will die. During that time of extreme stress, I relied on God to get me through the anxiety and depression, and trusted that if God wanted my company to succeed, He could make it happen. And if my company wasn’t going to succeed, my life still had purpose. I often wondered how my batch-mates, who were going through the same experience presumably without any faith, were able to endure. Maybe they were born formidable, but for me, my faith was the key thing that got me through. Below are some practical disciplines that really helped me:

Your Company Is Not Your Identity

Understand that your company is not your identity. Many entrepreneurs let their startup become their identity. Their self-worth is tied to the success of the startup. This is extremely dangerous because a lot of startups fail through no fault of the founder, and suddenly the person’s identity has been taken from them. The shame and disorientation of this experience is immense. For me, it is helpful to continually keep the perspective that my identity is in God. I do everything I can to make my company succeed, but it is not my God, and it does not determine my eternity. Counterintuitively, this freedom from worrying about outcome made me able to work harder and make better decisions because I wan’t frozen in fear of failure.

Memorize Philippians 4:4–7

Philippians 4:4–7 is one of the clearest declarations that we are supposed to rejoice in the Lord and not be anxious. Amazingly, these words were written from inside a Roman prison, but God still was able to give Paul great joy and confidence in his faith.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. — Phillippians 4:4–7

Memorize this verse, and say it to yourself multiple times a day. Reaffirming God’s promises to take away anxiety and his invitation to present our requests to him, are immensely comforting and empowering.

Also, use these words as a reality check. Being an entrepreneur is not supposed to be miserable. We are supposed to rejoice in the Lord always, even in difficult times. If you are struggling with this, spend time dwelling on the next few versus:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. — Philippians 4:8–9

The simple discipline of dwelling on the good things can make you more formidable.

Put Others Above Yourself

Working for selfish motives like fame, reputation, and short-term profit is not sustainable. Worrying about these selfish things compounds the anxiety of a startup and undermines founder trust. Instead, we should do what Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves”. Working to serve others, and put others above yourself, gives you a purpose and frees you from so much anxiety.

This also happens to be an incredibly effective way to avoid founder disputes. YC partners teach that founder breakups are the primary reason that companies fail during the YC batch. If all founders are working for the good of the other rather than for selfish motives, unresolvable founder disputes are much less likely.

Seek God first, receive happiness

Counterintuitively, if you seek God, and put others above yourself, you will get happiness as a byproduct. Tim Keller puts this well:

Happiness is a by-product of wanting something more than happiness — to be rightly related to God and our neighbor. If you seek God as the nonnegotiable good of your life, you will get happiness thrown in. If, however, you aim mainly at personal happiness, you will get neither — Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering

The problem with modern culture is that it is optimized for “happiness for self”, which is fleeting if pursued directly. If you seek God first, the confidence and satisfaction of faith will produce joy as a byproduct.

Worry less about optimizing personal finances

Another source of crippling anxiety is worrying about optimizing personal finances during the early days of a startup. This includes worrying about below-market salaries and over-optimizing equity ownership. Jesus makes it clear that Christians should not be stressed about these things:

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well — Matthew 6:31–33

Finances are very important, and Christian businessmen need to make money by definition. However, this scripture gives us comfort that we shouldn’t have crippling anxiety around personal finances because God is in control.

Pray Each Morning

YC famously advises startups that the only things founders should do is build product, talk to users, exercise, and sleep. For people of faith, I think prayer should be added to that list. Prayer is exercise and rejuvenation for the soul. It is just as important to the soul as physical exercise is to the body. It is a place to draw strength and refocus on what is important. The value of this time investment can’t be overstated.


My faith is what has allowed me to thrive under the stressful process of founding a startup. Before I found faith, trivial things like final exams would cause me an immense amount of stress. Without an eternal perspective, it is easy to become paralyzed by fear of failure. Without eternal purpose, it is easy to be worn down by the endless grind. The spiritual practices above help me maintain the eternal perspective. In the context of an almighty God, who promises to be with us for eternity, it is much easier to deal with the stress and anxiety of being a founder. It is a daily renewing source of formidability.

I hope sharing these habits enables more founders to thrive under the intensity of startups without the destructive effects of stress. The community is riddled with depression, suicide, and stress that puts on 10 years. This is not necessary. It’s ruining lives and families and company cultures. And it’s lowering the quality of our work. Formidability through faith makes being an entrepreneur more joyful.

I also hope that formidability through faith enables more people to at least try to start great companies. There are many potentially great founders who hear Elon Musk’s quote that starting a company is like “eating glass and staring into the abyss of death” and rationally choose an alternative path. If we can make the entrepreneurial experience less painful, more great companies will be built, and fewer entrepreneurs will suffer[2].

Thanks to Jeff Huber, Chris Tsai, Ben Chelf, Stacey LaBarge, and Greg Squires for reading drafts of this.

[1] Tim Keller is a NY based pastor. His book Every Good Endeavor would probably be interesting to anyone who enjoyed this post

[2] For the avoidance of doubt, there is no promise in the Bible of wealth or business success. In fact the opposite is true; the Bible promises hardship. However, God also promises a “light yolk”(Matt 11:30) and “rejoicing” in hardship (Philippians 4:4) for those who seek him above all. Christianity can help founders with the challenges of a startup, but it is not a “prosperity gospel”