A few weeks ago I did an interview about mental health, depression, and entrepreneurship with Samara Linton and Michelle Pamisa. They wrote it up and posted it on the Dream Nation site in an article titled Be Well – It’s Work. I thought they did an excellent job capturing what I said and they game me permission to repost the interview here.
Could you tell us a bit about when you first started noticing that you weren’t feeling right?
I was in my mid-twenties. I had a company that was doing well but at the same time I was in a PhD program that I ended up getting kicked out of, because I wasn’t a particularly effective PhD student. I was also married and ended up getting divorced. I had a series of stressors combined with my own self-identity issues. I was feeling a lot of external stress from different places [with] the normal stress of building my business on top of that. It took me a while to realise I was actually depressed. I started doing therapy and got a much better understanding of what was going on. Two years in that stage of working through it, I had moments where I was like ‘I don’t want the rest of my life to feel this way, this feels awful’. As I came out of being depressed and felt normal again, I realised this wasn’t necessarily how I was going to feel my whole life.
I was a very functional person. Even though I was depressed, I got up each morning, I worked hard and did my thing. My business continued to do well but there was no joy in anything. I’d get home and not be interested in doing all the things I enjoyed because I had no mental or emotional energy for it. A big lesson in that first depression was the actual feeling of being depressed, this notion of a complete and total absence of joy, versus stress and anxiety.
Did being a “functional depressive” affect your ability to seek help?
It was extremely hard for me to get help. I had a very hard time even going to therapy because of the stigma associated with it. I was lucky to get into a relationship with a woman, now my wife, who is comfortable with the notion of therapy. She would encourage me to go and take it seriously; that helped a lot.
It wasn’t easy to get out of bed in the morning. There were many mornings where, even as a functional person, it took a huge amount of energy to get out of bed, in the shower, out of the house, to my office to actually work.
When I finished doing the shift, I went home and got in my bed again or lay on the couch and did nothing. It wasn’t that the functional method was easier, it was just that where I had very specific work to do, I could do the work. But all the time around it, I felt a range on a spectrum from excess of joy to helpless to completely uninterested in anything else. In the best cases, I’d describe myself as feeling flat and every now and then I’d go for a run or something like that. I could force myself to do stuff but then I would still not feel very good about anything around it.
You mentioned how therapy and the support of your wife helped you. Would you say those are the two main things you found most helpful during the time of your depression, or even now?
Yeah I think those kinds of things that are helpful. I had several other people that first time. My PhD advisor was incredibly helpful. He was a very paternalistic factor for me at that moment in time, identifying the struggle with depression, being supportive and encouraging me to explore things via therapy. I had a business partner who was very accommodating of me. Even though there were burdens on him having to deal with a business partner sometimes, he was very patient with it. I had a mental depression episode for six months a couple years ago, and this was the one that I was public about. Dave is still a friend of mine thirty years later and he was incredible this time around because he knew me so well. He was able to engage with me about being a burden and he was able to be helpful without putting additional stress. He knew what would be helpful to me based on the experience he had thirty years ago.
Knowing the warning signs is tricky because a lot of people are just exhausted and there’s this incredible stigma about depression and mental health in general. If you’re a CEO and have diabetes, you manage your diabetes and nobody cares. If you have anxiety and depression and you’re trying to manage that, there’s no signal associated with that. For a lot of people, when they find themselves in that situation, it’s difficult to even acknowledge to yourself so you encourage this shield because of this external pressure, a lot of which is just uninformed stigma.
I think that one of the things that’s hopefully not so bad is a more open conversation that’s going on to destigmatise it. You can be a strong and powerful leader or a successful entrepreneur and struggle with mental health issues and not let it become the thing that inhibits you as an individual, but continue to explore and learn yourself. Understand what’s going on and figure out how to take care of yourself in those situations. What kinds of things renew you? What kinds of things allow the depression to pass? I understand when I’m feeling depressed that it will pass, and there are very specific things I can do. I sleep more, I stop drinking alcohol, I cut back on my eating deliberately, I spend more time alone, I travel a lot. These are specific things that I’ve learned over the years create a renewal for me which then allows the depression to eventually pass.
I’ve been writing on my blog for around a decade and I’m very public about a lot of personal things. When I started to feel depressed, I went through a thought process of not being open about it. I very quickly realised that was bullshitting myself, because I’ve been so open about so many other things. The reason I blog is because I like to write about things.
I didn’t know whether it would be helpful to me or not while I was depressed but I knew there would be internal inconsistency if I didn’t and as somebody with an engineer’s brain that likes a very logical way of putting things together, that inconsistency is very jarring to me. I decided it was probably better for the universe if I talk about this issue, and try to destigmatise it. Along the way, several amazing people, not friends of mine directly, but people whose work I have immense respect for, have committed suicide, clearly as a result of being depressed. I thought ‘let’s put this out there and see if it can be helpful to the conversation’, to try to make more people comfortable with the idea that this is a natural part of one’s existence.
What has the response been like?
Generally very supportive and positive. I have had many extremely well known and successful people reach out, people who have struggled with depression and are afraid, unable or unwilling to talk to others about it. I think it’s been a great relief to be able to talk to me about it, because they view me as somebody they can relate to. I’ve had many people who are struggling with depression ask questions, where I can be helpful to them. Several people have attacked me because of it. I’ve had people who told me I was stupid for putting myself out there. Some people say they disagree that somebody who’s depressed should be a leader. On a whole, I feel like it’s a very powerful thing and that’s what I want it to be, because that’s what I try to do in terms of my world and the universe.
Brad Feld on what it means to be well
To be well means to wake up each day and be interested in what you’re going to spend your time on. At the end of the day when you reflect back and even though not everything that you’ve done was fun, interesting or stimulating, you feel like it was a good day on this planet, recognising that we have a finite number of them.
I’ve been very open about my struggles with depression over the years. A few weeks ago, I participated in a Q&A with Greg Avery at the Denver Business Journal titled Brad Feld Q&A: Bringing depression out of the shadows in startups. It was part of a more extensive series on Depression, entrepreneurs and startups.
Since I’m still getting emails about it, I thought I’d republish the Q&A here.
Q: How common is the issue of depression in the startup world?
A: Very common, although it is rarely discussed. While the line between stress, deep anxiety, and depression often blurs, most entrepreneurs struggle with broad mental health issues at various points in their lives.
Q: How hard was it to acknowledge your struggle to yourself? And how hard was it to explain it to your partners and your peers?
A: Initially it was extremely hard. When I was in my mid-20s, running a successful company and clinically depressed, I was afraid to talk to anyone other than my psychiatrist about it. I was ashamed that I was even seeing a psychiatrist.
I was afraid people wouldn’t take me seriously, or would stop respecting me, if I talked about how bad I was feeling. The only people I talked openly about it with was my business partner, Dave Jilk, and my girlfriend — now wife — Amy Batchelor. They were amazingly supportive, but even then I was deeply ashamed about my weaknesses.
Q: When did you start to be so open about it?
A: After I became depressed for the second time, in my mid-30s — in 2001 just after Sept. 11 through the end of the year. The last three months of 2001 were awful for me after an 18-month stretch from the peak of the Internet bubble — spring 2000 through Sept. 11, 2001. That was a relentless slide downhill on all fronts.
Sept. 11 was the trigger point for this depression. I was in New York City after a red-eye from San Francisco, landing at 6 a.m. on 9/11. I was asleep in my hotel room in midtown [Manhattan] when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. While I was never in harm’s way, I was terrified, exhausted, and emotionally distressed.
Once I got back to Boulder, I didn’t travel for the rest of the year. In 2002, when most of my VC and entrepreneurial colleagues were having a terrible year, I acknowledged how much I had struggled in 2001, although I was still relatively discreet about it.
When I got depressed again at the end of 2012, I was open about it this time as it was happening and throughout the process. I knew at this point how to handle it and that it would pass.
I also knew many, many entrepreneurs also struggled with depression but, like I had been earlier in life, were afraid to discuss it.
Q: How much does the issue of mental health differ in startups from the world at large?
A: In general, I don’t know. But leaders and entrepreneurs are programmed to “never show weakness”, so I expect there’s much more pressure to keep it hidden and suppressed, which if you’ve ever been depressed, can make things much worse.
Q: Looking back, how much has your work, or work style, been a factor in your depression?
A: There are many things about my depressions that I still don’t understand. I have been able to identify trigger points for the various depressions, which include physiological exhaustion, boredom, and major life changes [divorce, dropping out of a Ph.D. program].
Most recently, things started with a 50-mile race I did in April 2012 that I never physiologically recovered from, followed by a near-death bike accident in September 2012, a very intense stretch of work which included writing two books in the midst of everything — “Startup Communities” and “Startup Life” — the death of my dog, and ultimately a kidney stone that required surgery.
At one level, I was exhausted. I was also bored — my work was fine, but I wasn’t learning very much. I’m hugely intrinsically motivated and have always believed that I’m fueled and motivated by learning. In this case, I was teaching a lot, mostly around “Startup Communities”. But I wasn’t spending any time learning. After coming out of the depression, I realized this was a huge part of things and have subsequently redefined my intrinsic motivation as a combination of learning and teaching. Now that I’m 49, I realize this makes a lot more sense.
Q: How well does the startup and VC world handle issues of mental health? What would you change about it?
A: Until a few years ago, we generally sucked at it. The philosophy around leaders and entrepreneurs never showing weakness dominated and we were told never to let ourselves be vulnerable. Fortunately, leaders like [venture capitalist and professional coach] Jerry Colonna have helped many leaders and entrepreneurs understand the power of being vulnerable and we now at least have an open and productive conversation around it.
Q: Can an executive afford to show any vulnerability and still hope to succeed in leading employees and attracting funding?
A: Yes absolutely. It’s all about culture, style, and self-awareness. And, it’s much easier to be yourself, allow yourself some vulnerability, intellectual and emotional honesty on your path to being a great leader.
Q: What would you say to a founder who’s grappling with depression but feeling their success might hinge on not letting it be known?
A: I mostly try to listen, be empathetic, and introduce the person to other peers who have struggled with the same thing. I talk openly about my experiences, but claim them as mine, rather than suggest that there are generic solutions.
When ask directly what to do, I offer opinions, but I don’t lead with them, nor do I expect that I will — or that I can — solve the person’s problem. I can simply be a resource for them.
Q: Have you actually had these conversations?
A: I’ve had these conversations many, many times.
Q: What do you suggest to people who need help?
A: Talk to your mentors, your peers, and your partners. Take the risk of being vulnerable.
Q: Are there resources you’ve discovered that are particularly geared or well-suited to entrepreneurs?
I’ve talked openly about the five month long depressive episode I went through earlier this year. If you missed it, I encourage you to read my article last month in Inc. Magazine titled Entrepreneurial Life Shouldn’t Be This Way–Should It? Depression is a fact of life for some entrepreneurs.
My depression lifted near the end of May and I’ve been feeling normal for the past few months. On July 1st I wrote a post titled Regroup Successful. I changed a lot of tactical things in my life in Q2 – some of them likely helped me get to a place where my depression lifted. And, once I was confident that the depression had lifted (about 45 days ago), I started trying to figure out some of the root causes of my depression.
I’ve told the story of how I ended up depressed a number of times. In the telling of it, I searched for triggers – and found many. My 50 mile run in April 2012 that left me emotional unbalanced for six weeks. A bike accident in early September that really beat me up, and was inches from being much more serious. Six weeks of intense work and travel on the heals of the bike accident that left me physically and emotionally depleted, when what I should have done was cancelled everything and retreated to Boulder to recover. A marathon in mid-October that I had no business running, followed by two more weeks of intense work and travel. The sudden death of our dog Kenai at age 12. A kidney stone that resulted in surgery, followed by a two week vacation mostly in a total post-surgical haze. Complete exhaustion at the end of the year – a physical level of fatigue that I hadn’t yet felt in my life. There are more, but by January I was depressed, even though I didn’t really acknowledge it fully until the end of February.
The triggers, and the tactical changes I made, all impacted me at one level. But once the depression had lifted, I felt like I could dig another level and try to understand the root cause. With the help of Amy and a few friends, I’ve made progress on this and figured out two of the root causes of a depressive episode that snuck up on me after a decade of not struggling with depression.
The first is the 80/20 rule. When running Feld Technologies in my 20s, I remember reading a book about consulting that said a great consultant spent 20% of their time on “overhead” and 80% of their time on substantive work for their clients. I always tried to keep the 80/20 rule in mind – as long as I was only spending 20% of my time on bullshit, nonsense, things I wasn’t interested in, and repetitive stuff that I didn’t really have to do, I was fine. However, this time around, I’d somehow gotten the ratios flipped – I was spending only 20% of my time on the stimulating stuff and 80% of my time on stuff I viewed as unimportant. Much of it fell into the repetitive category, rather than the bullshit category, but nonetheless I was only stimulated by about 20% of the stuff I was doing. This led to a deep boredom that I didn’t realize, because I was so incredibly busy, and tired, from the scope and amount of stuff I was doing. While the 20/80 problem was the start, the real root cause was the boredom, which I simply didn’t realize and wasn’t acknowledging.
The other was a fundamental disconnect between how I was thinking about learning and teaching. I’ve discussed my deep intrinsic motivation which comes from learning. At age 47, I continue to learn a lot, but I also spend a lot of my time teaching. The ratio between the two shifted aggressively at the end of 2012 with the release of my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City. I spent a lot of time teaching my theory of startup communities to many people I didn’t previously know in lots of different places. I expected that I’d continue learning a lot about Startup Communities during this period, but I found that I had no time to reflect on anything, as all of my available time was consumed doing my regular work. So – between teaching and working, I had almost no time for learning.
I had an intense insight a few weeks ago when a friend told me that as one gets older, the line between learning and teaching blurs. This is consistent with how I think about mentoring, where the greatest mentor – mentee relationship is a peer relationship, where both the mentor and mentee learn from and teach each other. With this insight, I realized I needed to stop separating learning from teaching in my motivational construct – that they were inextricably linked.
Each of these – the flip in the 80/20 rule that led to a deep boredom combined with the separation of learning and teaching – were both root causes of my recent depression. As I reflect on where I’m at in mid-August, I’m neither bored nor struggling with the learning/teaching dichotomy. Once again, I’m incredibly stimulated by what I’m spending my time on. And I’m both learning and teaching, and not spending any energy separating the two.
While I expect I’ll discover more root causes as I keep chewing on what I just went through in the first half of the year, I’m hopeful that explanation of how I’ve unpacked all of this helps anyone out there struggling with depression, or that is close to someone who is struggling with depression. It’s incredibly hard to get to the root causes when you are depressed, but moments of clarity arise at unexpected times.
My various posts on depression and my struggles with it generate a wide range of emails, some with suggestions, some with questions, and some with empathy. The following question is an example of what I get regularly.
“I read your blog every day and have read your book on living with an entrepreneur. Thanks for sharing your experiences with depression. I was wondering if you had any advice or resources for spouses of those going through depression. How does this impact Amy and how does she approach you and things when you go through this? I am struggling with this now in my marriage. It’s hard for me and I think it’s hard for our kids as well. My wife’s depression tests me like no other thing has and really pushes me to my limits of patience and understanding. How does one stay positive and productive when their loved one is suffering in a dark place? How do you maintain good communication through this without the anger and resentment coming out?”
I sat down with Amy this morning and came up with a list of things – from her perspective – that have helped her, and us, get through the depressive episodes. The italics are her suggestions; the text that follows is my thoughts and reactions to it.
Don’t try to fix things. I think it’s important to start here. When I’m depressed I don’t want to be “fixed.” If I knew how to fix myself, I would. But often things just get worse when I use this frame of reference. And, when someone else tries to fix me, I rarely can hear them, or even understand them. This often just makes the person trying to fix me frustrated, which just makes things worse. So start by accepting that the depressed person isn’t looking for a fix – quick or otherwise – when they are in the depths of a depression.
Make sure you take care of your own needs and do things for yourself that make you happy. I think this applies to anyone who has a partner with a major illness – a stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s, or depression. You are already pouring an enormous amount of your energy into your partner and not much, if anything, is coming back. Don’t neglect yourself. Spend time with friends. Do things that you love to do alone. Carve out time to just be.
Don’t take it personally – it’s not about you. This is a tough one. You are in a relationship with the depressed person. It’s natural to think – consciously or sub-consciously – that you are part of the problem. While you might be, don’t obsess about this. When your partner lashes out at you, absorb it rather than escalate. When your partner is non-responsive to you, be patient. Operate in the context of giving your partner the benefit of the doubt. Don’t try to fix things (see the note above), especially when you know that your partner is struggling with something that isn’t ultimately about you.
Be emotionally even keeled. Get a t-shirt that says “Keep Calm and Carry On.” The depression your partner is having will wear you down. Breathe deeply. Don’t suppress your emotions, but try to stay mellow, even when you feel yourself heating up or getting run down. And, if you are struggling with this …
Get therapy. Encourage your spouse to get therapy. Both Amy and I have had multi-year stretches of therapy. I like to refer to it as “spending an hour a week on Planet Brad.” I get one full hour, with my therapist, that is all about me. How fun is that? Well – sometimes it’s a lot of fun and sometimes it completely sucks, but I’ve always found it helpful.
Exercise. Let your endorphins free to race around your brain. Plus, this is a good way to take care of your own needs and do things for yourself.
Talk to friends and share the burden. Don’t follow Marge Simpson’s advice: “It doesn’t matter how you feel inside, you know. It’s what shows up on the outside that counts. Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down past your knees, until you’re almost walking on them. And then you’ll fit in, and you’ll be invited to parties, and boys will like you. And happiness will follow.” It’s wrong. Let your feelings out with your close friends. Ask them to just listen and be with you, not try to fix you.
Try to be optimistic that this will pass. Even the first time Amy had to deal with a depressive episode of mine, which lasted two years, she was optimistic it would pass. She hung in there. The third time we had to deal with this (last year), she knew it would pass and that made it easier.
Watch comedies. Try for laughter. I’d be laying in bed, not really interested in doing anything and suddenly Amy would come bounding into the room and say “One chance only to watch Uncle Buck with me.” I have zero resistance to a John Candy movie and even though I know Amy would rather watch The English Patient, we both realize that laughter is helpful.
If you’ve read this far, go take a look at Depression Part 2 by Hyperboleandahalf to better understand how your depressed partner is feeling.
This first appeared in the Boulder Community Health Foundation Summer 2019 Magazine in an article titled Taking On The Mental Health Stigma.
I started the second week of 2013 in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show. Within two hours of arriving, I was in my hotel room, the shade closed, the door locked, and in bed with a pillow over my head. I couldn’t deal with anything at all. Having been here before, I knew I was in a deep depression.
From all external perspectives, my life was going great. I was healthy, my business (Foundry Group) was successful, I had an excellent marriage to Amy Batchelor, was surrounded by numerous friends, and I got to live in Boulder, Colorado. But I was physiologically exhausted from 2012. I’d run an ultra-marathon in the spring that I never recovered from, had a near-death bike accident, and squeezed a marathon in October when I had no business running one. I was on the road 75% of the time, working constantly, dealing with the explosive growth of several of our investments while struggling through the challenges at others while writing two books. Ending up with a kidney stone in November that required surgery and a month of rest should have been the warning I needed to slow it all down and take care of myself.
I’m fortunate that my wife, business partners, family, and friends are helpful to me when I’m depressed. I’m in a privileged position of having the financial resources to do whatever I need to do. I have a job that provides me a lot of flexibility. And I’m no longer afraid of being depressed or ashamed of being public about my struggles with depression and anxiety.
I had my first major depressive episode in my mid-20s. While I probably had been depressed prior to that, I never really processed it as depression. I was one of those kids who was successful at almost everything I tried, loved by my parents, and comfortable growing up. One day I found myself in the middle of a divorce, being kicked out of a Ph.D. program, and bored of my work at my first company, even though it was successful. I was lucky to have a Ph.D. advisor who was able to recommend a psychiatrist to me. I was quickly diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and again lucky to have a psychiatrist who was able to combine CBT and medication to help me overcome OCD while providing a safe space for me to explore my underlying anxiety disorder and the root causes of it.
At the time, I was incredibly ashamed of everything around my depression. I was ashamed that I was depressed. I hated that I took medicine. I was terrified that someone would find out that I was going to a psychiatrist. I was afraid to tell anyone I worked with, other than my business partner, that I was depressed. I thought CEOs and leaders had to be strong and show no weakness.
Again, I was lucky. My business partner Dave was supportive, even when he didn’t really know what to do. My new girlfriend (now my wife) Amy didn’t view me like a broken toy she needed to fix but rather acknowledged that I was going through a difficult time as we began our relationship. I had several friends and family members who showed up for me.
During my 2013 depressive episode, I blogged openly about my struggles and what I did. Since I was no longer ashamed of being depressed, I thought it might be helpful to talk about things. I had a large audience of readers and quickly ended up interviewed by a number of national business publications, including Inc. and Fortune. Several high-profile entrepreneurs had recently committed suicide and mental health was starting to be talked about in entrepreneurial circles, so I became a visible example of a successful entrepreneur who struggled with depression but was willing to discuss it.
The combination of these experiences and my liberation from my shame surrounding depression helped me realize how pernicious the stigma around depression is in our society. I ended up talking with hundreds of entrepreneurs about their own experience with mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and mania. In many cases, I was the first person, including family members, that they had ever discussed their struggles with.
I decided that part of my mission on this planet would be to help destigmatize the issues surrounding mental health. I won’t be done with this until we have achieved parity between prioritizing mental and physical health. Instead of being a stigmatized health issue, we need to talk about and treat mental health as we would any other physical health challenge. Cancer used to be a death sentence; now many cancers are treatable. Smallpox and polio were deeply misunderstood and mistreated; now they are largely eradicated. Diabetes, once a mysterious and crippling disease, is well understood and easily treated in most cases. Destigmatizing mental health issues and removing the barriers to care are critical to addressing and treating mental health diseases.
I’m incredibly moved by the community’s support of the Bolder Community Health initiative to expand critical mental health services. When Amy and I first heard about the effort to raise money for what is now the Della Cava Family Medical Pavilion, we immediately committed to getting involved. We are honored to be able to provide funding in support of the medical pavilion and for the establishment of the Anchor Point Mental Health Endowment and I’m thankful that my partners at Foundry Group have also provided a significant gift through our Pledge1% Fund.
Most importantly, I’m proud of everyone in our community who has supported this initiative, both functionally and financially. We are a special community at the forefront of many things in our society. Providing excellent care for people suffering and taking action to destigmatize mental health issues are important steps that we are pursuing in Boulder. Thank you to everyone who is helping us find our voice around this issue, elevate the conversation, and help destigmatize mental health.
Amy and I wrote a meaningful amount about entrepreneurs and depression in Startup Life. Since we finished the final draft a few weeks ago, I’ve given several talks where depression came up as I’ve woven my own experience with depression into the short (less than 15 minute) version of my story. I’ve received a surprising (to me) number of emails from people thanking me talking about it publicly, along with my discussion of the anxiety disorder (obsessive compulsive disorder) that I’ve struggled with my entire adult life and that was severe during the serious depressive episode I had in my early to mid 20s.
So the idea of depression has been on my mind. It doesn’t surprise me that I feel down and flat as I sit here in the Charlotte, North Carolina airport on my way to Lexington, Kentucky on day 16 of a 19 day trip. I’m tired, strung out, missing home, missing Amy, and running out of extrovert energy. I’ve had a great time with all the people I’ve been with and the events I’ve had around Startup Communities. I’ve had several extraordinary experiences like dinner last night in Toronto with a dozen fantastic entrepreneurs who I hope to have continuous involvement – as a friend and potential investor – in the future. But as I sit here, I’m surrounded by a lot of grey, and it’s not just the clouds outside that are the remnants of the storm.
I’ve reached out to most of my friends in New York to check in on them. They are all doing fine even though a few were hit hard and are now effectively homeless as lower Manhattan gets cleaned up. I picked a spot in the airport far away from the TV – I couldn’t stand the endless news cycle that mixed Sandy with Romney with Obama. I had some extra carbs hoping that would help – it just made me feel sleepy. Yup – I know what this feeling is.
I know many entrepreneurs who deal with different levels of depression. My close friend Jerry Colonna is extraordinarly eloquent about this and how it impacts entrepreneurs. Ben Huh, the CEO of Cheezburger, wrote a powerful post about his struggle with depression titled When Death Feels Like A Good Option. And I’ve had many conversations with other entrepreneurs about my, and their, struggle with depression.
For some reason we’ve embraced failure as an entrepreneurial trait that is ok, but we still struggle with acknowledging and talking about depression. Entrepreneurs function with a wide range of stresses and emotions that often have overwhelming intensity. In many cases, we are afraid of admitting depression, and are often highly functional when we are depressed. But that doesn’t deny the fact that entrepreneurs get depressed. To deny this, is to deny reality, and that’s against my value system.
I just went back and read what we wrote in Startup Life about depression and it made me smile. I’m really proud of the work that Amy and I did on that book – I think it is the best book I’ve been involved in writing (Venture Deals, which I wrote with Jason Mendelson, is a close second) and I’m hopeful that it has a lot of impact and value for entrepreneurs and their partners.
Just writing all of this makes me feel better. Thanks for listening. Time to get on the plane and go to Lexington.
As Amy and I get ready to return to Boulder today and physically re-enter the human race, I woke up this morning thinking about how I’m feeling emotionally. We’ve had an excellent three weeks up at our house in Homer, Alaska, far away from the people we know. Our only friends up here are our neighbors (whom we adore) so other than one visitor (Matt Shobe – who we also adore) it’s been a very solitary and physically introverted time.
I’ve been working a lot – typically on video conferences and phone calls for four to eight hours a day. Toss in email, some projects, and my daily writing and you’ve got a full schedule. But it’s been alone, with just Amy, in our house, far away from other people. The days have been long, with lots of light, late dinners, and even later nights since the sun doesn’t go down until after midnight. And that’s been good for my soul.
Several months ago I received the following question in email. It’s similar to a number of emails I’ve received and I thought of it this morning as I was pondering my mental health so I figured I’d riff on it a little.
“I have been struggling with depression for a while. I want to write about it, but I’m afraid that it will really negatively impact me professionally. Some investor might not write me a check, because he/she will think that I’m not a good bet, or maybe someone will think twice about hiring me down the line. Have you found people treat you differently after you’ve written about your depression? Have you had opportunities close up? Would you recommend writing about it for someone who is not as established as you are?”
Following is a rambling rant on each question.
Would you recommend writing about it for someone who is not as established as you are?”: I have no idea. In my case, I started writing about it without considering the implications. The transparency movement was one of the motivations that resulted in me starting to blog in 2004 as I played some follow the leader with my friends Fred Wilson and Jerry Colonna, who each discovered the joy of blogging shortly before I did. A decade later, I continued to believe deeply in the value of transparency as well as authenticity, which has been reinforced through my work with Rand Fishkin, Sarah Bird, Moz, and Moz’s TAGFEE code. I try to be myself, be direct, be open, and own my thoughts and ideas all the time. So it would have been opaque and inauthentic not to talk openly about depression and, given that transparency and authenticity are a key part of my value system, I never gave it a second thought beyond realizing that if I didn’t talk openly about depression, I was bullshitting myself and violating some of my core values. That said, I have no idea if it’s a good idea for someone else to write about their depression – it’s going to depend on their value system, circumstance, and mental/emotional state. However, I do know that talking about it, even privately, has helped me address my depression, so I encourage anyone who is struggling with depression to make sure they at least have a few people in their lives who they can talk to openly about what is going on with them.
Have you found people treat you differently after you’ve written about your depression? Have you had opportunities close up? I’ve had three experiences: a few mildly negative, a few irrelevant, and many overwhelmingly positive. I’ll start with the negative. Several people who I previously was close to withdrew from interacting with me. I have no idea why – I can only speculate that they were uncomfortable, afraid, or ashamed of something, or for me. I’ve proactively reached out to several of them now that I’m not depressed and re-established close relationships, so the dynamics here are a mystery to me. A few people, instead of being passive, were openly hostile to me. I ignored them as I realized their hostility was likely more about them than about me. Many, many people reached out, provided support, opened up about their own depression, thanked me for providing leadership on this issue, or words for them, or just an example of a successful person who struggled with depression. This was the overwhelming feedback and resulted in a number of new, interesting, and powerful relationships for me. Many of the conversations I had with this set of people helped me work through my depression and better understand myself, and many of them told me that I had a similar impact on them.
Reflecting on this rant, I think people do interact with me differently in a way that is very positive and powerful. There is a lot more connection and empathy in my relationships. I’ve always had a lot of this since it’s the way I’m wired, but now it extends to many of the relationships I have from a distance, online, or are business interactions with relatively little physical or social interaction. It’s easier to get real about what is going on when things are difficult or when I see someone else struggling. And, when I need a break from humans, I just take it without worrying about it or wondering what people are thinking. At some level, I’ve let go of another layer of external judgment and validation, which already was largely absent from my psychological construct since I’m so deeply intrinsically motivated. But by helping people understand me better, they can related to me better and I can relate to them better.
So – overall – being open about and writing about my struggles with depression has been a huge plus for me.
If you’ve never been really depressed, it’s hard to understand what depression feels like. This is especially true if the person who is struggling with depression is someone who looks like they are on top of the world, that everything is going well, and that nothing could possibly be wrong. Many people who go through depressive periods are highly functional – I’m a good example of this. If you didn’t know me well, you wouldn’t notice. And, if you know me well, you probably think of me as tired, lower energy than normal, or that something seems slightly off. Finally, if you know me really well, you know I’m struggling to get through each day when I’m depressed.
I’m definitely in an “I’m doing better but why am I hauling my butt all over the place, and why again am I doing all of this stuff” mode. I was pondering this (after canceling some travel that I don’t need to do) when I got a powerful note from a blog reader. In it, he talks about how after reading a recent post of mine, he started to understand how to relate better to his brother who is struggling with a deep depression. The email made me smile, and reminded – if only briefly – why I am doing all of this stuff. The email follows.
For the last six months or so, my youngest brother—a very handsome, tall, intelligent, fit, seemingly-perfect person—has been battling depression. As the oldest brother, and as someone who has battled all his life to help my foreign, single mother get by, it’s but incredibly hard to understand and relate to him. In fact, regretfully, I used to criticize him for the way he felt. It wasn’t until last week, when I saw him beg to be admitted into a hospital because he felt unsafe, that I realized how serious this was. I just couldn’t understand, how can someone who appears to be so perfect in many ways, so blessed (especially compared to what we went through as children), be so unhappy and miserable inside?
Sadly, it still took reading 6 words on a blog post from someone whom I look up to most (“came out of depression on Feb. 14”) to finally understand that what’s on the outside is very different than what’s on the inside. He/You can both seem so perfect, but loving someone means knowing their deepest thoughts and feelings, understanding why they feel that way, then being there for them no matter what. I regret letting him get to the point where he didn’t feel safe. I’ve strived all my life to set an example, to be there for my family, but I was stuck in my own arrogance. I let the “knife” cut through everything and get the best of me. But it won’t happen again.
I’m so proud of my brother in every way: we never had a role model to guide us through life, to tell us how important reading and learning is, yet he’s managed a 3.9 GPA at a good school. He loves reading more than anyone I know (maybe even you, Brad..) and wants to be a doctor and writer one day. He just turned 21, but has the mind and soul of someone who’s 40…it’s crazy. Maybe that’s why he has a hard time coping..? Who knows – all I know is I’m going to be by his side always and support him in every way possible. My arrogance, confidence and toughness can go towards working my butt off and making this company successful.
If you read this far (which knowing you, you probably did…I thank you). I thank you for being you, for sharing your life’s journey with people like me. I promise to continue to pass on wisdom and give to others as you have.
Amy and I talk a lot about big issues, such as depression and divorce, in Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur. I’ve been speaking from experience on each of these topics, as I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression my entire adult life (the official DSM-IV code I have for my diagnosis from 1991 is 300.3 – Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and, in 1990, I was divorced from my first wife.
I’ve always been open about these two issues (and experiences) since they’ve had a profound impact on me. I’ve learned how to manage my OCD and, even when I’m depressed, I’m very functional (if you didn’t know I was having a depressive episode, you’d think I was just flat or having an off day.) And many of the things that Amy and I do right in our relationship are lessons that we learned when reflecting on why my first marriage, and marriages of friends of ours – many of which are entrepreneurial couples – have failed.
As I’ve been doing interviews and talking about Startup Life, I’ve been asked several times whether or not entrepreneurs are more prone to depression and divorce. While I have zero empirical data, I believe from my qualitative experience that they are no less prone to this than the rest of the population. But I don’t really have empirical data to support this assertion either.
So – I’m looking for real data. Do any of you out there know of real quantitative studies – preferably academic / social science oriented, that investigate the question of whether or not entrepreneurs are more prone to depression? Or, a separate study that investigates the question of whether or not entrepreneurs are more prone to divorce?
If you know of one, email me or leave it in the comments.
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.