Sources of Depression

As I’m coming out of my depression, I’ve been reflecting on the hundreds of emails I’ve gotten from entrepreneurs, investors, friends, and people I don’t know talking about their own struggles with depression. It’s remarkable how much stigma is associated with depression in our society, which makes the struggle with depression even harder. 

To all of you who have written to me with your stories, thoughts, struggles, and suggestions – thank you. Many have helped me; all have been appreciated.

The other morning, I got an email from Doug Liles titled Depression – 3 sources? I thought it was excellent, insightful, and hit on a few things that I’ve identified as the sources of my most recent struggle. I asked if I could republish it and Doug said yes. If you are depressed or know someone who is depressed, it’s worth a read. Doug’s email follows.

I’ve followed you for a bit. You were extremely brave in discussing your battle with depression. I am not writing about myself, but I thought I’d offer up 3 things that might contribute. I’ve experienced the same thing. I started my practice after I got laid off from my job in October of last year. I’ve had highs and lows through that process.

I think depression is a much more common affliction with entrepreneurs and leaders than society is willing to admit. I would suggest that the affliction hits the creative class the hardest. Is it caused the constant traipsing of through between the left and right brains? I am no psychiatrist, but I know the pressure of mixing thought processes can create mental conflict.

I reflect on the movie “Koyannisqatsi” – Which roughly translates to “Life out of Balance”. What can throw you out of balance? Sometimes seeking that source deep down in our id is very difficult. Allow me to throw out a few things.

1. Inventory – As we get older, our priorities and abilities change. We see the world through a new lens. We look around and question what is “enough”. We also take stock on what we really care about. Sometimes honesty and truth battle everything we have constructed. The discipline of our prior living behaviors become incompatible with the essence of our being. As we take inventory with our achievements, we look at our new found or undiscovered missions in life. It’s half-time. What’s the next play? Probably not what it has been.

2. Blood sucking vampires – I don’t envy you being a VC. I imagine the drain of working with dreamers, charlatans, sycophants and auteurs isn’t easy. I am sure there are constant calls. In a down economy where so many need cash to jumpstart dreams and policy deferring to big business, it’s not an easy to manage a portfolio. The challenge of celebrity and notoriety is that “everyone wants something”. That constant pressure of wanting to perform, wanting to help and needing to extract value for investors isn’t simple nor does the pace slacken. While you as a VC may have rules, we know that constantly teaching others the “rules” may get repetitive. Constantly dealing with bad behavior isn’t easy…

3. End of an innovation cycle – I’ve spoken with my mentor on this topic. We may just be coming to the end of one cycle and preparing for the next. I can’t see whether it’s evolutionary or revolutionary. There’s a silly little movie, “24 Hour Party People”. The great scene in it describes the malaise when one music/art movement falls and the bumps that occur until another one rises. Maybe software and SaaS solutions have become too easy. I used to joke that ASPs (remember that term) were the mom and pop businesses of the late 90’s early 2000’s. Maybe the proliferation of tools has expanded faster than demand (One of the great cases in Ash Maurya’s book, Running Lean is defining the problem to solve and whether the problem is worth solving). I wonder if the next innovation cycle is coming from another sector. Energy, transportation, material science, food production, housing, bioscience, construction, lawncare, domestic manufacturing, etc. As a guy that’s been around software for so long, I couldn’t tell you what the next real wave is. All I do know is that innovation cycles are becoming more rapid and much shorter. The wavelength frequencies are in a different pattern and they are much harder to measure. All of our assumptions from that past don’t work in this future. Sometimes we need to exchange lenses to find that future opportunity.

  • Well said.

  • wow, well done, gentlemen. thank you for sharing.

  • Very insightful, well said Doug and thanks for sharing brad

  • This is insightful. Recall that #2 has come up in our conversations dating back for some time now. That ‘everyone wants something’ can often lead to ‘nothing left for you’.

    Pay attention to that one – the decrease in travel will help.

  • johnfein

    Nice post. The dipper and bucket theory seems superficial but I find it useful in preventing or coming out of depression. Nothing worse than the feeling of an empty bucket, but incredibly valuable to know what empties it (like the 3 above) and what fills it.

  • Really glad to hear you are “coming out of” depression. Keep going!

    Have you found that something specific made a difference for you? Or time plus small tweaks?

    • Time + larger changes. The tactical ones don’t help so I have to look for broader ones. I’m sure I’ll write more about what I did this time around.

      • You have a self-awareness about it that is quite revealing & insightful.

      • I think this will not only be helpful to those with depression but for those of us seeking mental and emotional health in general. Look forward to this.

  • Alfredo Osorio

    Brad: do you know positive psychology and its great interventions? I use everyday as a fantastic source of positivity!

  • Randy Domolky

    We all have many biorythyms. Sometimes they overlap on the upside and sometimes on the downside. Some are daily and some are longer term than that. Maybe not Haley’s comet long but could be 3 years or 10 years. Some are seasonal. I am much more sensitive to SED than when I was younger. The important thing to remember is that “this too will pass”. Glad to have you back Brad!

    • Robert Dewey

      I’ve been noticing that my depression (and associated anxiety / mild OCD) seems to come on around mid fall… then it actually eases up once we get a decent snow pack (increased solar reflectivity?). Then around mid spring, it’s like my brain gets a shot of serotonin. I went on an SSRI for about 6 months, and it gave me the same “serotonin boost” feeling, although with a few minor side effects.

      Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure I suffer from SAD / seasonal affective disorder. I think a lot of people overlook that possibility.

  • Mark M.

    Brad, Thanks for sharing this.

    I had a bout with depression, went on medication for a short stint, came off it and have been ok. For me getting a chemical mechanic in to jump start a longer process was crucial. Looking at what I could do to change me, not the condition was my key to freedom.

    I am a recovering alcoholic, sober 23 years, and I consider myself lucky to have a framework to fall back on that I know works, even when I choose not to pay attention to it. I stopped doing what I know works. I got too important in my own mind, had some financial successes, ego was out of control (that’s a big issue for me daily), and I thought I knew it all and could do it all. Me, the great I AM, the egomaniac with an inferiority complex. I din’t get wasted or high over it, that DOESN’T work for me anymore.

    I am grateful to have some dear friends in my life who I let get to know me and who pointed out in unvarnished terms what I needed to look at and ultimately change. I bailed out of a company I co founded, spent several months miserable because I had to deconstruct my view of myself and get right sized again. All while dealing with lawyers, no income, and depressed. It sucked. Like a Dyson.

    What it led me to was that ‘what’s the next play’ point in my life. I started doing the things that work again, got over my resentments, ate better, and changed my attitude to one of gratitude – even for the stuff that doesn’t feel good – everyday. I got out of myself, put the focus back on me in the context of how could I be useful to others and away from how could others help me. If I am not ok, everything else isn’t either.

    I am happy to report that a year later I am back to ok, started another company on the cusp of a significant raise as a member of a TEAM, saying ‘I don’t know’ a lot more, answering questions with the view that people don’t know as much about what I do and want to learn and help make sure I have covered all bases vs. questioning my knowledge, and trying to trip me up.

    I have had rough and fear filled moments and even days, but those are there to keep me in check and help me avoid feeling like that in the future. I have found that as long as I stick to what works I’m ok.

    And as someone who has gone through depression, I truly hope you found what works for YOU, and keep doing it. The rest will sort itself out. Software, markets, and sectors change and evolve, why not us? For me, depression was the call to evolve. Happy to talk about it any time by the way, whether it’s still in the passenger seat or in the rear view mirror…

  • Mac

    “Sometimes we need to exchange lenses…” That’s well said, Doug.

    • Doug Liles

      Mac, I think we often run to one “well-marketed prescription” to quickly. If one has a headache, one might think a pain reliever or other medication is the solution. A drink of water might do the trick if you are dehydrated or having your eyeglass prescription checked out might be in order. Fresh perspective can help us break through our inner conflict. That inner work is a struggle, but it we know that a good workout can give us results!

  • howirecovered

    Doug’s 3 sources are thoughtful and probably relevant but the critical issue for entrepreneurs and leaders is to understand the biochemistry of stress and how to treat it. The issue is the methylation cycle and if you haven’t explored it, here’s a good place to start:

    I’m one of those fallen entrepreneurs whose ambition and drive was not matched with the physical blessings to keep up the pace – the classic canary in the coal mine.

    Warm regards,

  • Guest

    I can certainly understand your points. As one of the true Cloud visionaries who moved cloud from vaporware to reality back in 1999-2002, I’ve been real innovation squandered by large firms who failed to grasp what they have, and the depression it causes when visionaries are discarded because they push too hard, are too aggressive, or threaten the status quo of the entrenched and powerful.

    I understand all too well clinical depression and work stress induced social anxiety…

  • heyehd

    It’s sad when conformity pressures induce depression in our explorers.

  • Michael_Berrier

    Brad, thanks for your courage and for the insight. I hope it helps dispel the undeserved stigma.

  • Perspective matters. I’ve never thought of myself as being chronically depressed, but my husband thinks I am from time to time. For me, working through tough times starts with the personal. And I know that if I work on it, I’ll get through it. Massage therapy helps too.

  • StartupBook

    Maybe someone could enlighten me more on depression…it’s a clinical, chemical condition? Is it ’caused’ by external factors in life, or does it just come and go at different variables? I have heard the latter, but could understand how certain life events could exacerbate the condition…

  • AnEntrepreneur

    The flip side of number 3 is the beginning of an innovation cycle.. as Mark Andreessen said:
    “Timing is everything. But it’s also the hardest thing to control. It’s hard; entrepreneurs are congenitally wired to be too early. And being too early is a bigger problem for entrepreneurs than not being correct. It’s very hard to sit and just wait for things to arrive. It almost never works. You burn through your capital. You end up with outdated architecture when the timing is right. You destroy your company culture.”

    Sometimes however the market may be ready, but it is investors that don’t get it, and entrepreneurs get burnt out/depressed from beating their head against the wall with them. One easy example is those that explained after the dot com crash that internet ads weren’t dead as a revenue model even though lemming VCs all acted that way.

    re: “As a guy that’s been around software for so long, I couldn’t tell you what the next real wave is.”. One place to look is to those who have a history of being ahead of the wave, who often may not have a high profile to be covered in all the industry magazines because they were too early to get attention and market success. One problem holding back the advance of potential candidates for a “next real wave” is that sometimes to lead a new wave, rather than merely get an incremental advance on existing companies, there is a need for development effort beyond the quick prototype and then funding to market approach. There is a serious funding gap for companies that need a decent amount of funding to create a new product that will make a real leap beyond what is out there and can’t do it on friends&family/bootstrapped money. VCs obviously prefer to limit their risk by going with companies that can more concretely demonstrate market acceptance quickly, but they also then limit the potential to help people create a “next real wave” if they aren’t willing to take bigger risks in search of bigger rewards. The next little “me too” TechStars variation on a theme combining existing ideas may be able to make progress, but won’t be the “next real wave”.

  • These are important insights into what’s happening right now, especially with the rise in suicide for people over the age of 50 years old.

    For people around my age, this is not our first or second or third economic downturn. We learned to drive in the middle of one, graduated college in another, survived through various “bubbles”, only to reach “maturity” in a repeat of the Great Depression our parents warned us about. Science that brought us cherished Tang and Space Sticks is now besmirched by people who believe in Joel Olsteen, but not in DNA. The government we believed in has fallen into petty bickering and buyer-wins mentality.

    Who has the energy to start another “innovation cycle” only to watch everything you believe in fall at the feet of petty, lesser men and women?

    We need to new models of how to live and work in modern life. The three issues mentioned here by Doug Liles need to be at the bedrock.

  • Well said Doug, thanks for sharing. Brad, this is a wonderful niche that you’ve chosen to identify with (we obviously don’t choose to have depression). I appreciate the insights you are sharing on here, and think it is a common thing for the creative class as Doug mentioned. There’s a great post by Ben Huh of ICanHazCheezburger on depression as an entrepreneur: