Holidays Can Be Hard

I’m feeling fine today. But I know many entrepreneurs who aren’t. They are under intense pressure, worrying about an endless stream of things coming at them, suffering under the weight of imposter syndrome and other sources of anxiety. And, in some cases they are depressed, but trapped by our own culture which stigmatizes depression.

Earlier this week Biz Carson wrote an excellent article titled There’s a dark side to startups, and it haunts 30% of the world’s most brilliant people. It started with Austen Heinz’s suicide (Austen was the founder of Cambrian Genomics) and then built into a wide ranging discussion about depression among entrepreneurs.

It highlighted a recent study by Dr. Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at UCSF and an entrepreneur, which is the first to link higher rates of mental health issues to entrepreneurship.

Of the 242 entrepreneurs surveyed, 49% reported having a mental-health condition. Depression was the No. 1 reported condition among them and was present in 30% of all entrepreneurs, followed by ADHD (29%) and anxiety problems (27%). That’s a much higher percentage than the US population at large, where only about 7% identify as depressed.

I’ve been very open about my struggles over the past 25 years with depression and anxiety and am quoted in the article. But after dinner last night, Amy discovered on Facebook that the son of a childhood friend of her’s had committed suicide. It reminded me that depression and other mental health issues are widespread and are often extremely challenging around the holidays.

I used to struggle mightily with three day weekend and holiday weeks. While the rest of the world slowed down, I felt like the pressures on me were speeding up. I wanted everyone to get off their butts, stop relaxing, and respond to my emails. I was impatient and didn’t want to wait until Monday to try to address whatever issues were in front of me. I felt disoriented, which just made me more anxious. And when I was in the midst of a depressive episode, time just strung out endlessly in front of me, in a very bad way.

I used to be especially cranky around Christmas time. I’m jewish and didn’t grow up with Christmas, I always thought Hanukkah was a stupid holiday, made up to assuage sullen jewish kids when all of their friends had gift orgies. I felt isolated and different, which just made my general anxiety and impatience around holidays even worse.

In the last decade this has eased. I now give myself up to the slower pace, I give myself space to feel however I want to feel, I rest a lot, and I hang out with Amy. I’m social, but not overly so, and avoid big gatherings which crush my soul. I read, spend time outside, and nap. I let my batteries recharge and I don’t try to get caught up on everything, but instead just do what I feel like doing.

The July 4th weekend is always one that is joyful on the surface. It’s summer. The weather is warm. People do outdoorsy things. Email slows to a trickle.

For an anxious, stressed, or depressed entrepreneur, this can be extremely uncomfortable and exacerbate whatever issues are going on.

If you are one of these entrepreneurs, try my approach this weekend. Just shut down all the stimuli. Get off your computer. Take a digital sabbath. Go outside. Lay on a couch with a book and fall asleep reading. Blow off the 4th of July party that you don’t really want to go to and just stay home and watch TV in the middle of day. Let your energy go wherever it takes you. And recognize that all the emails, all the stress, all the anxiety, and all the people will be there on Monday ready to go again.

If you are the significant other of one of these entrepreneurs, take a lesson from Amy. Be patient. Be loving. Don’t let it be all about your partner, but don’t make it all about you. Just chill. And be together. Have a vacation – from everyone and everything else.

And for everyone else, recognize that holidays can be hard. And that’s ok.

  • Thanks Brad. This piece hit home to me. I’m sitting here, literally right now, the day before the Fourth, most of the world and our team are starting their weekend, and I can’t stop working. Too much to do, too many things behind, too many of July’s initiatives already ticking away, etc.

    But I can’t work hard enough today (or tomorrow) to make it go away. I can’t work hard enough to make the anxiety go away.

    I’m going to get a couple small but meaningful things off my plate, then shut things down until Sunday afternoon. Thanks for the nudge.

  • Hit the tennis courts! Get a workout and get some sun!

    I know you’ll never do this but just in case you find yourself ever near Wash Park in Denver, bring a racket. Its pickup tennis (with a pretty good crowd) and as I’ve mentioned, there are some pretty good players that show up there!

    • Given that I have a tennis court 30 yards away from my back door, I doubt I’ll be wandering down to Wash Park for a set, but I will be out there early tomorrow morning with Amy banging some tennis balls around.

  • Matt Kruza

    Good post and perspective Brad. Happy 4th

  • Eric Peerless

    Inspiring article and appreciate the light you are bringing to the pressure and anxiety that comes with supporting payroll, clients, quality of work and overall balancing act.

  • Thanks for this Brad. I was feeling super strung out even though I’m on vacation right now. Hit home for me.

  • Well, I can report that Canada went through its July 1st without a hitch (except for the fireworks), so best wishes for a great U.S. July 4th.
    You got to disconnect, so you can re-connect!

  • Chris J Snook

    So true Brad. I have had an odd relationship to holidays over the 1.5 decades because they slow sales cycles and always seemed to fall on weekends or days when payrolls were due and cash flows were in the 11th and bank holidays slowed the intake mechanisms etc. I have joked with other entrepreneurs that I need to have side businesses in liquor and beer or renting rafts etc or other consumables to take advantage of the only markets that thrive when a holiday hits. I have grown to embrace the cycles more and resist them less but it still feels like a restless time regardless and foreign to the DNA to take a mandated day off that doesn’t fit my agenda, momentum, or schedule. The freedom of taking days when I want to has allowed me to also understand that the mass holidays are great times to work with focus on the thinking tasks and brain recharging stuff that goes less attended to in the flurry of meetings and emails and marketing pushes.

  • Fantastic piece, Brad. Thanks for leading by example, and showing us what vulnerability is all about.

    • You are helping lead the way with the new work you are doing. Thanks back in your direction.

  • awaldstein

    Hey Brad

    Thanks for this.

    We don’t know each other but pieces from the heart that connect creates some bonds.

    Have a great one.

  • “I wanted everyone to get off their butts, stop relaxing, and respond to my emails.”

    Every time a long weekend sneaks up on me, I get angry. Most people turn long weekends into 4 or 5 day mini-holidays which further exasperates my frustration. Of course, this is a completely selfish and absurd mental construct. I’m baffled when I step back from my reaction and think for a moment.

    I just wanted to say thank you. I always feel grateful when I realize I’m not alone in my entrepreneurial insanity – which isn’t often enough.

    • That’s a profound statement – I’m often baffled when I step back from a particular reaction of mind and ponder it. Being self-aware is one of the truly perplexing – and powerful – things about being human.

      • Consciousness is the one faculty bestowed only on the human race. We have a responsibility to use it.

        Like James alluded to above, anger and anxiety are nothing but fear. Fear is nothing but ignorance. We get past fear by thinking critically.

        • I agree with everything except I think that we get past fear by noticing it. Or as Buddha would say, just noticing it and not judging it- holding it with compassion. In brain studies, neuroscientists have triggered a state of fear in people to observe what happens in the brain. They’ve found that when they show people pictures or videos of scary scenes, the amygdala sends out cortisol to the rest of the brain, which is the drug that puts the nervous system on high alert and gets us reacting without thinking. When the experimenters asked them to name what it was that they were experiencing, and the person said, “I’m scared”, or “this bothers me”, the amygdala stopped sending out cortisol and the person became more relaxed as a result. As neuroscientist Dr. Dan Siegel says, “name it to tame it”.

          • I appreciate the study you sited but I’m not sure noticing or giving something a name is enough.

            I think it’s more of a three-step process which includes both yours and my reference:

            1. You notice it. Sure, recognition is the first step in solving a problem.

            2. Think critically. If I get frustrated about a situation, it’s generally because I’m failing to understand how things work. In terms of people taking time off to holiday, I’m failing to consider that other people have different priorities from mine. By thinking critically, I can look at the same situation from different perspectives, gain greater understanding and get past my anger, frustrations, fear or whatever you want to label it.

            3. Experience. Neither you or I have discussed this but, the more experience we have doing something the better we understand it and the less fear we have. If I’ve never gone swimming with sharks and my frame of reference and attitude is that sharks are beasts that eat people, I’m going to be quite anxious my first time. But, by my tenth dive with sharks, I’ll have come to understand they are simply another form of life that, much like us, protect themselves when they sense a threat and that much like us, do what they have to do to feed themselves. Experience is the final step in loosing fear. The next step is mastery, but I’m now turning this into an essay…

          • Sorry for taking so long to reply. I was just going off of Buddhism, which is all about noticing physical sensations… noticing, noticing, noticing without judging,. Thinking is what leads us into egoic sideroads that get us further away from reality. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with thinking and looking at things critically, but humans get caught over-thinking, and can get addicted to it, and the relief is coming home to the body. So I believe, and I could be wrong, that he’d say your 1st and 2nd steps are deepening levels of the noticing practice. Ie. 1) Noticing that you’re frustrated, and then 2) noticing why you’re frustrated. It takes a while of cultivation to get to #2 consistently. And then sure, #3 is a byproduct of a longterm practice. Am I right?

          • I appreciate your thoughts. My spiritual perspective, if we’re going there, is that the mind is ego. Therefore, to say “thinking is what leads to egoic sideroads”, doesn’t resonate with me.

            One cannot function at this level without mind by natural design. This is why deep spiritual practice and meditation is about attempting to quiet it down. If you know someone who claims they can stop thinking even for a second, I would be extremely skeptical. It’s not impossible but it takes the right conditions and those conditions are extremely rare.

            The goal with mind then is to have it be a good servant, rather than you being a good servant to the mind. The mind becomes a good servant when you can use it as the extremely incredible tool that it is to think critically and to process events logically, especially in times of crisis. You become a good servant of the mind when you give into its senses and allow it to react to every single emotion that comes up.

            I don’t think we’re in disagreement. I simply think we have slightly different perspectives on how we get to the same outcome.

          • Yes, we’re in agreement.

  • jamesoliverjr

    I did see that article and appreciated it. I also appreciate how often you talk about this subject, Brad; it doesn’t get talked about enough.

    Like a lot of entrepreneurs, I struggle with anxiety, though I do MUCH better with it when I meditate regularly.

    Anxiety is caused by fear.

    My biggest fears came to pass when my startup ran out of cash and I had to go home and be the primary caregiver of my young twins, AND turn the business around, which I somehow did and raised another small round of capital to keep after it.

    Here’s an article I wrote about chasing 18-month old twins around and grinding to save my biz:

    One of the things I learned is we should lean into our fears and get to know them well because we CAN overcome them. And when we do, we become more incredible human beings because of the experience.

    Oh. and persistence > patience. Though patience matters.

    Have a great fourth, everyone.

    • Great post.

      Did you see mine a while back –

      You’ll love the parable of the demon in it.

    • “persistence > patience”. Good reminder and here’s my metaphor for that: In canoeing when you’re in rough waters, you’re supposed to keep your paddle in the water and keep paddling, even though it’s totally counterintuitive. When the waves are high and tossing you around, what you’re tempted to do is stop paddling, which only gets you dumped into the water faster.

  • Just wanted to mention this “can’t go fast enough” anxiety caused by the difference in holidays in the USA and the world, having lived predominantly in Europe it always feels extra frustrating when it’s 4th July or ThanksGiving… Not sure i’ve ever found the right balance, but for those who want to work, this is a great time to focus on some other countries / markets etc.

    • For many years I struggled with “Europe is on vacation in August.” I always thought to myself, “why can’t we be on vacation also?” Now I just accept a different pace in August and roll with it.

      • Indeed probably insensitive for a Brit like me to encourage those to work on the 4th July…

  • This is a timely topic. I think it also helps an entrepreneur to hear from one of their investors. Sort of like a hall pass! I always encourage people I invest in to take some time away. You can get so wrapped up and intense about stuff. Better to walk away.

    i am guilty of not walking away and it has cost me dearly. Mentally and financially. Problems won’t go away while you are away-but when you return you might have experienced something that causes you to look at them in a different way.

  • Sue

    Today is leading me to really start to question the stories behind my historical desire to be always around people. It’s 3pm on a holiday, and I’ve spent the day alone…cycling way more than was wise, going to the gym to lift weights and hop in the pool for fun (nothing is happier than kids in a pool), errands and some prep for a bbq tonight (with people).I see that so often setting up social activities has been on auto-pilot for me, and I see that I may have some judgments of myself when I don’t do this (wow, not enough going on during a “holiday?”…you are some kind of loser). Any minute now I’ll be crashed on a couch with a book in my hand. Cheers Brad.

    • Amy and I hid from the world today. Just the two of us and the dogs. It was great.

  • This is a serious post, so I don’t want to be too tongue and cheek other than to say that if you want imposter syndrome, be non-technical and try to do a tech startup, and that’ll do the trick nicely!

    I had not heard about Austen. I feel terrible about it. I was so inspired by his advances. Holy shit, man.

    Thank you for letting us get into your head about holidays and the anxiety that they can engender for some people.

    The more empathy that gets generated, the better, IMO.

    I was telling you that I’d like to visit Boulder in December or so. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to at this point. It’s a f%^ing bummer, but oh well…

    Happy July 4th Brad.

    • I’d love to see you in Boulder whenever you can travel. Just holler.

    • Michele SPiezia

      Also a non-techical tech startup founder… so I feel ya! #imposter

  • Uma

    This is an amazing post. My fiance always struggles with holidays and it is always nice to get a reminder of how he feels during this time. It can be very difficult to go to family gatherings where you are constantly pressured to answer questions about how business is going, especially when it isn’t going well. I think he really appreciated you sharing this, I know that I certainly did.

  • I would be interested to know what the comparative stats on mental health, and depression, for artists vs entrepreneurs might look like. I bet they’re similar (as I post this at the end of a long day looking at Guadi architecture in Barcelona).

  • I’m glad you wrote a post on this Brad, thank you. It really resonated with me because I was feeling the exact same thing over the weekend: people weren’t replying to my messages quick enough, not much progress was made, etc.

    It struck me later that my team needs time to reconnect with their loved ones (I do too) since we’ve all been going at 100 mph. Still, that didn’t fully help the frustration I felt about things not moving fast enough. Practing patience and balance is tough.

  • Chris Baron

    I’ve enjoyed your previous posts on this topic and am tracking it as I travel for my book project Last minute but I’m in Denver/Boulder through mid-week if you’re interested in meeting for an interview or casual discussion. My interest in the challenge goes beyond the startup community to include vets and other populations. And I’m particularly interested in discovering as I travel what orgs/medical programs/researchers are making significant progress in improving numbers and outcomes that are still way too high.

  • StevenHB

    I’m sure that you’ll not be surprised to hear me say that my views on Hanukkah are not much different than yours. Thanks for articulating the point to a larger audience than I ever could.

  • John Currie

    I’m commenting late to this post (another great one, btw Brad) I get anxious all summer long … as 30% of the business community becomes “unavailable”. Not fun. -John Currie, ITERATE Vetures