I woke up late this morning with a vivid dream in my head. I had shown up at my new house on the first morning of our occupancy. There were all kinds of people running around including a dozen schoolkids playing red devil on the patio. I didn’t have any clothes unpacked yet except some running shorts that I didn’t like and an old t-shirt. I went upstairs to go to the bathroom and take a shower. The bathroom floor was linoleum and the wallpaper was grandma’s English garden floral from the 1950s. I tried to figure out how to poop in the toilet but the toilet paper holder got tangled up in the seat cover and I couldn’t get the toilet open correctly, dunked the toilet paper in the water, and just gave up. I turned on the shower, which was a pink tub with yellow walls, miniature size, with a plastic shower curtain that only covered half the length of the tub. The shower nozzle was a wide-spray non-adjustable one so I ended up with water all over the bathroom, including the one towel that was hung on a metal rack in the direct line of the spray. The only soap that was available was a tiny petrified stub molded into the ridged indent in the wall. I gave up and went to brush my teeth but realized I had no toothbrush or toothpaste. I put my uncomfortable running shorts on and got in a friends car to drive up a windy hill to a potato restaurant shack like the one where I had my first job at Potatoes Etc., except it was in a wooden crab shack instead of a shiny new shopping mall. I struggled for a while to construct my order based on their extremely complex paper-based ordering system before giving up. A few more things like this happened on the way back to the house, including a short run through the woods, and then I woke up.
It’s a few hours later and the dream still lingers. The obvious analysis of it is that I’m feeling a lot of anxiety, but I’m not. We just had an awesome two-day partner offsite and we all showed up fully to the conversation. While I’m emotionally and physically tired, I realized my dream was a version of something I described – and then we talked about – for a while, which is the notion of absorbing and metabolizing stress and anxiety, especially when it is generated by other people.
Last year I wrote a post titled Do You Reduce Stress Or Increase Stress? after hearing a great quote by Mark Cuban at an event where I interviewed him. He said:
“I like to invest in people who reduce stress and avoid people who increase stress.”
This stuck with me because I view part of my role to absorb the stress in the system while working hard not to add stress to people who I work with. I’m not perfect, but I’ve come to understand the link between this activity and my depressive tendencies.
Specifically, I absorb a lot of stress and anxiety. I’ve become very good at metabolizing it (a word that I came up with in therapy to describe the activity that happens.) As a result, I can stay very calm in the face of enormous stress and anxiety of others. However, I do have to metabolize what I absorb (and expel the waste product in some way) or else it builds up. I also have to deal with my own stress and anxiety. If I reach my limit, I start reacting to the cumulative stress and anxiety in my system. If I don’t do something about that quickly (of which self-care: rest, running, meditating, eating right, spending time alone, not traveling, being with Amy, reading) and in a significant enough magnitude, a depressive episode of some duration starts to loom. In the extreme cases, I tip into depression.
I used to fight the idea of this. I foolishly thought “if I can just stop being stressed or anxious, I’ll be fine.” Rather than trying to prevent or avoid stress and anxiety, I’ve learned to embrace it, and all the signals around it.
The dream that I led this post off with is a signal that I’m metabolizing a large amount of stress and anxiety. While I can psychoanalyze the dream, I’ve had some version of this type of dream enough times in my 52 years on this planet to know what the inputs are. More importantly to me is the warning of a dream this vivid that I need to pay attention to me and to make sure I’ve got enough of a metabolism buffer. I’m good there as I’ve got four days at home in Boulder with Amy, working out of my house the next two days and then having a very quiet weekend.
For me, the metaphor of metabolizing stress and anxiety, which only emerged through my work in therapy last year, is a profound one that has been incredibly helpful to me. If it’s helpful to you, that’s great. If it’s not, I’d suggest a meta-insight, which is to search for a physical or biological metaphor for how you deal with stress and anxiety, in an effort to have a more constructive relationship with it.
Mark Cuban had a great line a few weeks ago at the interview I did with him and Charlie Ergen at Denver Startup Week. He said:
“I like to invest in people who reduce stress and avoid people who increase stress.”
As I was dealing with something yesterday, this reappeared in my brain but slightly modified.
“I like to be the person who reduces stress and avoid people who increase stress.”
My world is filled with people who increase stress. It’s particularly true around negotiations, but it is also prevalent in board level interactions, relationships with founders, dynamics with leaders, and everything else that has to do with companies. And this is just in my business world. When you wander into other areas, like politics, news, and even social situations, the level of stress (which often masquerades as drama) is remarkable.
One of my meditation routines from Headspace that I like is on Anxiety. Another favorite is on Stress. In both cases, the goal is not to eliminate anxiety or stress but to acknowledge it and be more effective in interacting with it.
The word I’ve anchored on in the past few years around this is equanimity. It’s at the essence of my own personal approach to things. Given the work and larger world context I live in, I’ve accepted that I can’t eliminate stress. I also can’t avoid it. And, while I can avoid people who increase stress, they will still appear and I will need to interact with them.
So, by turning an element of this around 180 degrees, I’ve been able to change my relationship with stress. I accept that stress is everywhere. I don’t try to eliminate it. However, through my behavior, I try to be the person who reduces it. I do this through my approach to all things, carrying the notion of equanimity as a core principle.
This doesn’t mean I’m perfect. I know I generate stress for others in some situations. I know I can always get better at this. Whenever I realize I’ve created stress for someone else, I try to learn from it and improve.
I’m doing a little better than I was on Friday morning when I wrote the post Generosity Burnout. Just writing the post put me in an appropriate frame of mind to reflect on things on Saturday. I took a digital sabbath, something I’ve been doing on 90% of the Saturdays since I first tried it in March, 2013 in the middle of a deep depressive episode.
I’m not religious but I know many successful people who take a full day off once a week. I’m most familiar with the Jewish traditions, so I decided to emulate sabbath in spirit. No phone. No computer. No email. After almost four years, it’s a weekly touchpoint that has become a central part of my life.
On Friday, when I wrote Generosity Burnout, I was exhausted from three weeks of travel. On Tuesday in San Francisco, in the midst of an endless downpour, I acknowledged to myself that I had started to feel “down”, which is a euphemism for “feeling depressed” for many of us. I hadn’t tipped to a dark place, but I realized that I had given myself a total lack of self-care since the beginning of the year. While I had a normal amount of work stress, with something new fucked up every day, I was feeling the emotional impact more and carrying around extra anxiety that was bordering on obsessive thoughts.
Yesterday, I had a typical digital sabbath. I slept 12 hours, meditated, and then went running. Amy and I had lunch and talked. I then retreated to the couch and a read a book with her and the dogs. We took an afternoon nap, showered, and then went into Boulder for dinner with friends. We went to bed when we got home.
I took action on the self-care front. I haven’t been drinking any booze since my birthday (@bfeld v51). I decided to stop drinking coffee, cancel all of my Q2 travel, spent two nights a week at home with Amy for dinner in Q2, and start saying no to everything new until I feel like saying yes again. I’ve got plenty to work on – there’s no need to add more to it. And I know I get a lot of satisfaction and energy from working on what is on my plate.
I feel a little better today. I’m still tired and anxious. Meditation this morning was calming, as is writing this. After I hit post, I’m heading out for a run with the dogs.
Three weeks ago, Mardy Fish wrote an amazing article on The Players’ Tribute site titled The Weight. I stopped halfway through the article and took a deep breath.
“This is a story about how a mental health problem took my job away from me. And about how, three years later, I am doing that job again — and doing it well. I am playing in the U.S. Open again.
This is a story about how, with the right education, and conversation, and treatment, and mindset, the things that mental illness takes away from us — we can take them back.
Tens of millions of Americans every year deal with issues related to mental health. And the journey of dealing with them, and learning to live with them, is a long one. It can be a forever one. Or, worse, it can be a life-threatening one.
And I want to help with it.”
If you’ve ever struggled with anxiety, had an anxiety attack, or know someone close who has struggled with anxiety, go read The Weight. I wait (see what I did there …)
If you aren’t a tennis fan, Mardy Fish is one of the great contemporary American tennis players. He fought his way into the top 10 during the epic era of Federer/Nadal/Djokovic/Murray. A massive anxiety attack in the 2012 US Open against Gilles Simon shattered him. He beat Simon, but then couldn’t go on the court two days later against Roger Federer and withdrew from the tournament. The article and quotes are interesting – they say nothing about anxiety and are vague about the issues, referring back to a previous heart-related issue that had been discussed.
“We are not 100 percent sure what the issue is and if it is related to his previous issues,” Fish’s agent, John Tobias, wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “Mardy is fine and will return home to L.A. tomorrow. This was strictly precautionary and I anticipate that Mardy will play in Asia this fall.”
Three years later Marty Fish has done an incredibly brave thing. He owned his anxiety, rather than let it own him.
“And just like that, it hit me — I remember it so vividly, and so powerfully. Oh god, I thought. I’m … not going to do it. I’m not going to go out there, anxious, in front of 22,000 people. I’m not going to play Roger. I’m not going to play. I didn’t play. First, I didn’t play Roger. And then, I didn’t play at all.”
He turned a weakness into a strength.
“But I am here to show weakness. And I am not ashamed.
In fact I’m writing this, in a lot of ways, for the express purpose of showing weakness. I’m writing this to tell people that weakness is okay. I’m here to tell people that it’s normal.
And that strength, ultimately, comes in all sorts of forms.
Addressing your mental health is strength. Talking about your mental health is strength. Seeking information, and help, and treatment, is strength.
And before the biggest match of your career, prioritizing your mental health enough to say, You don’t have to play. You don’t have to play. Don’t play …
That, too, is strength.”
His fearlessness about being open about his struggle is so powerful. We are all humans. We are all big bags of chemicals. The chemicals mix in lots of different ways.
“I still deal with my anxiety on a daily basis. I still take medication daily. It’s still in my mind daily. There are days that go by where I’ll think to myself, at night, when I’m going to bed: Hey, I didn’t think about it once today. And that means I had a really good day.”
How we deal with the mixture is what ultimately matters. I loved watching Mardy Fish play tennis. It was fun to root for him. It was pretty awesome to see him drop 30 pounds and totally transform his game. And now it’s even more awesome to know that he’s playing the game of life every day, doing his best, and helping the rest of us understand that having and dealing with mental health issues isn’t a weakness, but instead it’s just part of life.
I like Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend a lot. They are my bookends for summer and kick off the official “back to school” fall cycle. I realize that kids are back at school already, but even when I was in school I viewed Labor Day weekend as the official market.
I’m noticing an enormous amount of anxiety in the air. When I reflect on what’s causing it, I suspect some of it is the public market gyrations along with the endless discussion around it. Some of it is the Republican Primary circus and the crazy and apparently unwanted popularity (at least by the Republican establishment) of Donald Trump. Some of it might be that it’s just been really hot outside for a while and it’s time for the cooler, softer tones of fall. And some of it might be all of the construction everywhere, which is at a fevered pitch right now.
I’m in a consistent conversation with a lot of entrepreneurs. “Is my burn rate too high?” “Will I be able to raise the next round?” “Are valuations going to go down?” “What should I do about the coming _fill_in_the_blank?”
Fall is coming. I don’t know what the public markets will do, nor do I know what the private markets will do. But the weather, at least in much of the United States, will cool off and the leaves will turn different colors. And, if 49 years of life on this planet is any guide, there will be an emotional shift from summer to fall.
Let your body, soul, and mind reset this weekend. Turn off the electronics. Don’t try to “catch up” before things get crazy. Watch a movie with your sweetie. Eat some ice cream. Sleep late. Go for a long walk in the mountains somewhere. Read a book. Take another nap. Have a long, slow dinner. Play with your dogs. Or do whatever you like to do to relax.
The fall is always intensely busy. Charge up your batteries and get ready for it.
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.
I recently received a long email from a CEO, who I don’t know, about an anxiety attack he had. At the end, was a pertinent question that I don’t think I’ve ever addressed before.
“What is my responsibility to openly communicate this important matter to the Board? And how do I balance what I feel is a need for material disclosure with a desire for privacy around my personal health information?”
I wrote the following in response.
First of all, thanks for being brave enough to write.
Next, and most importantly, make sure you are getting professional help. If you don’t have a psychiatrist or a psychologist, I strongly encourage it. In moments of crisis, I’ve found this kind of a relationship to be critical. I’ve figured out so many things about myself in this kind of a setting, especially when I’m having a personal crisis.
Re: what to do in terms of disclosure, start with (a) what you want the outcome to be and (b) what you know about the people involved. If you have a trusted personal relationship with one of your investors, consider talking openly about it. But recognize that once you start talking about it, you will likely be viewed differently by that investor, especially if they aren’t comfortable with anxiety themselves.
If you don’t yet know what you want the outcome to be, find a non-investor who is a trusted advisor to talk to. One of the biggest challenges is exactly what you identify – balancing your work on your own mental health with your responsibilty to the company, your partners, and your investors. If you feel like this is manageable, even when you struggle under real anxiety, that’s one path. If you are afraid it’s not manageable, that’s another.
Facing your biggest fears about this (e.g. “they kick me out of the company”, “they don’t have any respect for me”, “they aren’t supportive”, “they don’t believe I can do it”) is important as by simply asking yourself the question you’ll often get guided toward what you should do.
My wife also has been an incredible supporter and help for me. I don’t know if you’ve read our book Startup Life but we have a section on this and how we’ve dealt with it. But don’t put all the burden on her – it’s a huge burden for a spouse, especially when combined with the pressure of family and work.
As a short term tactic, if you haven’t tried meditation, I suggest it. I discovered it last year and found Headspace.com to be super helpful. It has two 30 day segments (up to 20 minutes / day) on anxiety and stress.
Finally, breathe. Sleep, Rest, Take care of yourself. It’ll give you a base to work on everything else.