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“Only Spend Time and Energy on What You Can Control”, with Michael Dermer and Fotis Georgiadis

Only Spend Time and Energy on What You Can Control: being resilient in the face of challenges requires an incredible amount of energy. Entrepreneurs have to dedicate day and night to solving the challenges of the day. That energy and the time of the entrepreneur is scarce. In order to be resilient, and take on the […]

Only Spend Time and Energy on What You Can Control: being resilient in the face of challenges requires an incredible amount of energy. Entrepreneurs have to dedicate day and night to solving the challenges of the day. That energy and the time of the entrepreneur is scarce. In order to be resilient, and take on the task at hand, an entrepreneur needs every ounce of energy dedicated to what he or she can control. You must resist the temptation to expend energy on things that don’t make a difference.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Dermer. Michael is an entrepreneur authority, lawyer, speaker, founder and author of The Lonely Entrepreneur. Michael left a promising law career to start the first company in the US to reward for healthy behavior. Despite much resistance from the healthcare industry, Michael built his company over the course of 10 years into a thriving enterprise. But in the fall of 2008, watched the company he built for 10 years nearly get destroyed in 10 days by the financial crisis. He spent the next 3 years working 20 hours a day to save what it took 10 years to build. Not only was Michael able to save his company, but he successfully sold it to an industry innovator and today is considered the founder of the industry to reward healthy behavior. No one knows more about the “struggle” than Michael. After selling his company, Michael wanted to give back and founded The Lonely Entrepreneur to help entrepreneurs turn their passion into success. Michael and The Lonely Entrepreneur has been featured in domestic (MSNBC, CBS, Huffington Post, ABC, Forbes) and international (Telemundo, UAE TV, Mexico TV, India TV, Singapore, Croatia) media outlets and in over 100 keynotes and events throughout the world.


Thank you so much for joining us, Michael! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?

Our “backstory” is actually what led us to create The Lonely Entrepreneur. I left a promising law career to start the first company in the US to reward people for healthy behavior. Despite much resistance from the healthcare industry, I built this company over the course of 10 years into a thriving enterprise. But in the fall of 2008, we watched the company we built for 10 years nearly get destroyed in 10 days by the financial crisis. We spent the next 3 years working 20 hours a day to save what it took 10 years to build. Not only were we able to save our company, but we successfully sold it to an industry innovator and today I am considered the founder of the industry to reward healthy behavior. We believe that no one knows more about the “struggle” than us.

After selling my company, I wanted to give back and founded The Lonely Entrepreneur to help entrepreneurs turn their passion into success.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Without question the most interesting “story” was how my experience with my healthcare company led to The Lonely Entrepreneur. As described above, we watched the company we built with our blood, sweat and tears over 10 years nearly get destroyed in 10 days by the financial crisis of 2008. Here is a video which tells the story:

There was one key lesson we learned from that experience. When the financial crisis hit, it was clear that the normal ways of operating would no longer work. Companies would say to each other, “I know we owe you $100,000 but we just don’t have the cash.” It was a time like no other. In normal times, you would walk up to a street and decide whether to walk left or right. At this time, you would walk up to a street and you didn’t know if the street was going to be there.

When the world’s largest financial institutions and companies were crumbling, the likelihood that a company like ours with a few hundred employees could survive and thrive were unlikely. That left us with a single thought — the normal ways of doing business were not going to work. We were going to have to apply a completely new ways of thinking — new perspectives.

We started to think of every aspect of our business from a new perspective.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

First and foremost, our name — The Lonely Entrepreneur. After I sold my healthcare company, I was relaxing in New York City where I live, I was incredibly proud of the team that built a company for 10 years, watched it almost collapse, and then not only survived the financial crisis but bounced back and sold the company to an industry innovator. And today we are considered the founder of the industry.

So I was just relaxing and reflecting. The one thing that stuck with me was how personal the experience was. After all, it nearly destroyed my relationship with my only brother. I was not really acting on anything — I was just helping entrepreneurs in New York for fun. Friends. Friends of friends. Anyone who wanted help.

One day I was having coffee with one of them, and she said to me, being an entrepreneur is really lonely. I thought to myself “Wow that’s interesting.” Once I told a friend of mine he said, “that’s gold.” The one thing we all share is the struggle. But I was not sure what I would do with it. He and I were walking down the street and he said, “watch this.” We walked into a crowded Starbucks in Union Square in New York and yelled, “who here is a lonely entrepreneur?” and everyone raised their hand. And that was the beginning of The Lonely Entrepreneur.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Two people. My father and my business partner, Victoria Sherman. When the financial crisis hit, my father guided me with simple, sage advice. Come up with your plan and execute it. He reminded me that at that time — despite the fact that the world around us was crumbling — my job was to lead. There were investors, employees and customers that were worried but it was my job to lead us through all that. He reminded me of the famous Martin Luther King quote, “The true measure of a man is not how he behaves in moments of comfort and convenience but how he stands at times of controversy and challenges.”

And once I decided to launch The Lonely Entrepreneur, meeting my business partner, Victoria Sherman, has been a true blessing. We met at a social function, and she was so drawn to the idea of helping entrepreneurs that even before I hired her, as a single mom, she would work for hours after her day job and putting her two daughters to bed. She was instrumental in getting The Lonely Entrepreneur book published and today is involved in all of our strategic initiatives and leads our women entrepreneur efforts. To find someone that shares a vision and brings the same spirit that I do to The Lonely Entrepreneur is a true blessing.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

As you can probably tell, we have spent endless hours on the topic. After all, resilience was the defining characteristic that led to The Lonely Entrepreneur. Resilience is the ability to stay on your path — with a positive attitude — even when the circumstances around you challenge that path and that attitude. It is the ability to move forward in the face of risk or danger that defines those entrepreneurs that are resilient.

And for entrepreneurs, resilience represents something different. It is the ability to stay on that path when that path is not clear and many question your path. Resilient people focus on the plan. Resilient people build a plan, understand the plan and then focus on the steps. They ask themselves, “what steps do I need to take to solve a problem or to achieve a goal?” They do not spend much time on the “what if” — thinking about all the things that can go wrong.

Resilience is the ability to persevere in the face of daunting circumstances. When the path ahead if fraught with challenges and risks, resilient people call upon their character and sense of purposes to plow ahead. To do so resilient people generally exhibit a couple of key traits. First, they have a higher purpose or commitment. They have a commitment to something — a cause, a group of people, a goal, a family. It is this sense of commitment or purpose that sets the tone for the work to be done. Second, they plan. The ability to take a set of challenging circumstances and focus on the tasks that need to get done is a core skill of resilient people. They don’t focus on the emotional part or on the “what if” — they focus on how to direct their energy toward the activities that are going to make a difference. And finally, they have faith and a “can do” attitude. In many circumstances, the prospects look bleak. And even with great planning and focus, sometimes it is just a positive attitude that gets them through the day.

There is no one size fits all when it comes to resilient people, but the ones that can positively move the ball down the field in the face of peril are the ones that see their resiliency pay off.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

During World War II, the Germans were bombing London. When Winston Churchill was asked how he leads his country during this time he said, ‘when you are going through hell you just keep going.”

And while Winston Churchill would be a great selection, there is a person — rather a group of people — that may represent resilience even more. They are the single Moms in our nation’s poorest places. These are women who often work 2 or 3 jobs just to put food on the table. And every waking minute not working is spent caring for their family. Each and every day they wake up and do it over and over again. To me, this is the ultimate in resilience.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

As you can imagine, the survival of my healthcare company seemed impossible. Even though we had growth to a successful company, the financial crisis of 2008 nearly wiped out all of the revenue we had built over 10 years. Our clients were the largest companies in America and as they fell on desperate times, so did we. Every day the Wall Street Journal would come out and report about another company struggling to pay the bills. Too often those clients — General Motors, Washington Mutual and more — were our largest clients.

A company with a few hundred employees is not meant to get cut in half overnight. When you did the math, it was hard to see how we were going to survive. But for three years, with no end in sight, we worked 20 hours a day to save what we had built. And after a few years, we started to grow again, and the rest is history. We probably had a one in ten chance of survival. Today, we not only saved our company but sold it to an industry innovator in 2013 and are considered the pioneer of the health rewards industry.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

As I described above, The Lonely Entrepreneur was borne from the experience of my healthcare company, Today, to have the ability to share some of those insights with other entrepreneurs is truly a blessing. Our goal is that each of them can apply some of the lessons to be stronger than ever through the entrepreneurial journey. And the fact that our journey could be the oxygen for theirs is a blessing.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

My family moved from New York City to Freehold, New Jersey right when I was born. My father was the head of investor relations for a public company in Midtown Manhattan. When he moved to New Jersey, he commuted 1 hour and 45 minutes each way. He originally thought this would be a short-term solution. But he ended up doing it for 20 years. Every day. Each way 1 hour and 45 minutes. All to support his family. After my first year of law school, I did that same commute for 3 months and I was crying like a baby every day. Watching my father do it day in and day out every day showed me what it meant to be resilient when you had the motivation to do something and it always stayed with me.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

There is no question that resilience can be taught. Especially for entrepreneurs, who face challenges every day. In fact, for many entrepreneurs, their first customer may be years away from their initial vision. And if they are pursuing something new and different (which most entrepreneurs believe they are), there will be challenges left and right. For entrepreneurs, it is not only essential to develop resilience as a leader, but also to demonstrate to your team how to be resilient in the face of great challenges.

Here are a few steps that can build that capability:

1.Focus on The Activity — Not the Emotion: throughout an entrepreneurial venture, there will be highs and lows. First and foremost, an entrepreneur must learn not to react to the ups and downs of the day. This is easier said than done when you are talking about something that is your passion. Nonetheless, it is a must. When we are emotional, we can’t put in place the actions and activities that move you forward.

The focus must be on the activities that make a difference. Once you have decided on your tasks that move the needle, stop worrying about other tasks and finish the ones in front of you. In the movie Apollo 13, the spacecraft suffers damage and the astronauts move through a series of procedures to prepare the spacecraft for reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Given the damage, success is hardly assured. While they are working, Bill Paxton (who plays astronaut Fred Haise Sr.) questions whether Mission Control in Houston is giving the astronauts accurate information. Tom Hanks (who plays captain Jim Lovell) says:

“All right, there’s a thousand things that have to happen in order. We are on number eight. You’re talking about number six hundred and ninety-two… We’re not going to go bouncing off the walls for ten minutes, because we’re just going to end up back here with the same problems!”

Work the problem. Focus on the items you have determined require your attention that day. The entrepreneur’s path to success is rarely built with “giant leaps for mankind” but steadily won with, determined, daily progress. When we chip away at today’s to-do list, we build powerful momentum for our business.

2. Build a Plan and Execute It: during the entrepreneurial journey, there will be things go right and things that go wrong. Some days, it will feel like everything is going wrong. Other days, it will feel like chaos. In the midst of the chaos, you need a plan. Planning is a skill that enables you to be resilient by focusing your effort on a plan and what it takes to succeed. Take the time to build a plan that includes all of the key steps you need to get to your goal. With a plan, you can wake up every day and spend time executing the plan. With the plan as your guiding light, it becomes easier to be resilient.

3. Pick Your Tasks for The Day: every entrepreneur faces an overwhelming set of tasks to be accomplished. The list is endless. Strategy. Technology. Team. Business models. Plans. Tactics. Functional areas. Branding. Staff. Money management. Offices. Fundraising. For every ten hours of time, there are one hundred hours of work.

It’s like standing in front of a dam holding back a river of water. Your first issue of the day arises and pokes a hole in the dam, and you plug it with one finger. Then the next hole and you use another finger. After a few hours, you’ve encountered ten issues and you’ve used your ten fingers. Problem solved. Then another leak springs and then another. No problem, you are an entrepreneur and you are creative. You use your toes. Soon it’s only lunchtime and you have used all ten fingers and all ten toes. Then one more hole comes, and you figure out a way to use your tongue.

One hundred hours of work and ten hours of time. Complex business issues to resolve. Competition waiting to pounce from across the street or around the globe. No guarantees that hard work and smart ideas will equal success. As entrepreneurs we are subject to a constant pressure and intensity that is hard to imagine. That is on Day One. What happens on day one hundred or two hundred or five hundred?

So how do you be resilient in the face of 100 hours of work and 10 hours of time? It is not surprising then that entrepreneurs come to work, and instead of focusing on the tasks of the day, they worry about what is not getting done. This is counterproductive. Focusing on the ninety-nine things that you can’t do that day or mentally jumping ahead to tasks that require multiple days is wasted time and effort.

Once you have decided on your tasks for the day, stop worrying about other tasks and finish the ones in front of you.

4. Only Spend Time and Energy on What You Can Control: being resilient in the face of challenges requires an incredible amount of energy. Entrepreneurs have to dedicate day and night to solving the challenges of the day. That energy and the time of the entrepreneur is scarce. In order to be resilient, and take on the task at hand, an entrepreneur needs every ounce of energy dedicated to what he or she can control. You must resist the temptation to expend energy on things that don’t make a difference.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Entrepreneurism has become the lifeblood of every society throughout the world. No longer can citizens rely on their governments, or large corporations for their future. More importantly, being an entrepreneur is not about a business. It is about living a more fulfilling life.

In light of this, the movement we at The Lonely Entrepreneur seek to inspire is a way to help individuals turn their passion into success. Imagine the day that an individual can wake up and their neighbors and employers and governments seek to bring their passion to life. The word “entrepreneur” is a French word that means “to undertake.” We hope to inspire a movement that every entrepreneur has a better chance of success in bringing their passion to life.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

It would be an honor to dine with Bruce Springsteen. I grew up in the same town as he did (Freehold, NJ) and perhaps more importantly, if you listen to his music, he seeks the same type of inspiration for the fulfillment of the common man. Here are some lyrics from Born to Run:

In the day we sweat it out on the streets
Of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through the mansions of glory
In suicide machines
Sprung from cages on Highway 9
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line
Oh, baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
’Cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to run

Sounds like an entrepreneur.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram: @the_lonely_entrepreneur

Facebook: TheLonelyEntrepreneur1

Twitter: @thelonelye

YouTube: The Lonely Entrepreneur

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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