14 Things You Can Do if You Feel Overwhelmed and Dumb at Business


“It is important to have a container for all that we sense and hear from the wild nature. For some women it is their journals, where they keep track of every feather that flies by, for others it is the creative art, they dance it, paint it, make it into a script… Yes, containment is the solution to the problem of all loss of energy.”
- Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves

In 10th grade, I realized or decided that I was bad at math. During math class, I was simultaneously confused, bored, and overwhelmed. And doing my math homework in the evenings was so tedious and overwhelming that I buoyed myself with a huge bag of ginger snaps and Charles in Charge sitcom breaks.

My brother Larry, who is 5 years older, was always fantastic at math. And when I was in 10th grade, he was majoring in engineering at college. One winter break, Larry was walking through the living room and saw me sprawled on the carpeted floor, with the TV on, my crumpled papers spread around me, and my math textbook opened to yet another incomprehensible page. He asked me what I was working on.

“Horrible terrible math homework.”
“Oh! What are you guys doing right now?”
“I really couldn’t tell you. I’m not good at math, I’m just not smart in that way, the teacher is horrible, and it’s just not happening.”

I felt really sorry for myself, and I figured Larry would feel sorry for me. But he didn’t; he was utterly, completely unimpressed.

“Em, you think you’re not smart enough for the math, but you just need to get organized.”

The next 20 minutes were filled with some angsty shouting on my part (“I am organized! You don’t even care how I feel!”) and some reasonable arguing and insisting on his part. Once the shouting died down, Larry got me to gather up my papers and follow him to the kitchen table. He made me find a black, ballpoint pen that worked, and brought me a thick stack of college ruled loose-leaf from one of his binders.

“Ok,” he said, “Write your name on the upper left-hand corner of the page. On the upper right-hand corner, write the problem set and page number.” I gave him a withering look and certainly didn’t see how any of this was going to help, but I half-heartedly wrote out what he said. “Then, as you work the problem, write evenly and neatly, doing every single step in the problem area, rather than on scratch paper. Most importantly, write out the ‘in between’ steps rather than doing that part in your head. And line up the equals signs so everything is straight and you can see your own thought process very clearly. Then, as soon as you start to feel mixed up, you can look back through your own work, and find where you went wrong.”

I was deeply reluctant to follow anything he was saying, but I had done enough shouting for one evening, so I just quietly did exactly as he told me.

Soon, the problems were getting done. It wasn’t completely effortless, but I was able to complete the homework, more or less correctly. Because everything was neat and organized, and I was writing out every step in the problem, the math got simpler -- it was just 100 tiny things I could do -- not one huge thing I could never do. Plus, whenever I reached the end of the problem and had the wrong answer, it was simple to start from the top of the page and spot where the miscalculation happened.

My feeling that night, working in the warm glow from the can lights above the wooden kitchen table, was one of immense power. An hour earlier, there was this thing I thought I couldn’t do. And now, suddenly, I could. The advice Larry gave me, both in words, and by gently walking me through it, remains powerful, especially when I’m feeling dumb, overwhelmed, and weepy (in business or in life):

If you think you’re too dumb (or inadequate, or unskilled) to do something, you just have to get organized.

I think of this when I’m trying to fix QuickBooks and I can’t even log in, or reset my password, much less get all the transactions to import. I think of this when I’m working on making a blog and email calendar for Wholesale In a Box but am juggling two apps that don’t talk to each other, advice from 6 sources, 35 half-done blog posts, and (unrelatedly) am on hold with the electric company. It all gets so circuitous and overwhelming that I want to quit.

“Get organized” means different things for everyone, based on your personality, challenges, and business stage. But for some people, it might mean one or more of the below:

  • Find a neat place to work and getting your papers in a row.
  • Turn off the radio/TV/phone

  • Write out every step of the problem and not doing any of it in your head.

  • Drop 5 of your 10 projects.

  • Pay for software or consulting or an assistant.

  • Make a spreadsheet.

  • Delete the spreadsheet and going back to pen-and-paper.

  • Write down a process that you follow every single time, so you don’t have to rethink it.

  • Break the project into the tiniest possible tasks, and completing them one by one.

  • Put it all on a cork board.

  • Make a plan for the month, instead of treating each week like it came out of nowhere.

  • Break your day into time blocks so you always know what you’re supposed to be doing when.

  • Clean up first.

  • Resolve to not clean up at all, so you can focus on the work.

I see the power of getting organized with our makers, too. Wholesale In a Box can’t fix all of our makers’ business problems, but it does help them get organized. We help makers identify what they’ll need to start wholesale outreach, and what tasks they need to do to create those pieces. We help them figure out what’s “good enough to start” and what really needs to be more professional to be effective. We give them a calendar with every task they need to do, for every store they’re reaching out to, so they don’t have to reinvent that. And we offer support, hand-holding, and coaching along the way so that they’re not adrift alone. And somewhere along the way, the most satisfying shift starts to occur: makers feel in control of their own business growth -- they feel, well, smarter and more capable. But it’s not magic -- it’s just a method for getting organized -- and that’s something that is available to all of us, at all times, for free.

Today, I wish for you that you’re able to take yourself kindly by the hand, guide yourself to the kitchen table, and equip yourself with a new black pen and stack of loose-leaf paper. I wish for you that you are patient with the process and trust that you’re not too dumb or inadequate to pursue what you envision -- you just need to get organized.

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