Startup Snapshot, a data-sharing platform for the entrepreneurial ecosystem, recently released its latest report, The Untold Toll: The Impact of stress on the well-being of startup founders and CEOs.
Clearly, the emotional state of founders and entrepreneurs in any period, especially now in this economic environment, is a critical driver of success. Yet the emotional, cognitive, and physical toll that founding and leading a startup takes is dangerously overlooked and rarely spoken about.
Startup Snapshot is illuminating the current state of the startup mindset through global data collected from hundreds of founders in startups of all sizes, in all verticals. It’s the largest study of its kind. And it is honest and gritty, with no punches pulled.
Covid-19. Presidential Primaries. Gyrations in the Stock Market. Global Pandemic. Trisolarians arriving in their droplet to exterminate us.
It’s pretty intense out there right now. Somewhere. But not in my backyard where my dogs roam around.
I was in the hospital recently, attached to those devices they attach you to that monitor everything. I was trying to relax by closing my eyes, breathing deeply and slowly, and meditating. Every 30 seconds or so something beeped. After a few minutes of that, I asked the nurse if he could turn off the beeping. He looked at it and said my HR was going below 60 so that’s why it was beeping. I told him my resting HR is low 50s and could he turn the beeping off. He said he couldn’t turn it off because he needed to be alerted whenever my HR went below 60. I suddenly identified with Kafka.
People conflate worry, stress, and anxiety all the time, but they are different. Worry and stress create anxiety. There are different ways of dealing with each of them, and addressing them individually is better than thinking about them as a big clump of things bundled together. Or, not addressing them at all. But all three get in the way of concentrating on, well, anything.
When I’m worried, I realize that my obsessive worrying has negative value. Instead, I write down what I’m worried about and decide whether I can do something about it. If I can, I do. If I can’t, I don’t and let it go.
When I’m stressed, I focus on understanding what I can and can’t control. I put my energy against what I can control. I let go of what I can’t control. I exercise more and sleep more.
When I’m anxious, I slow things down. I take deep breaths. I sit quietly until the anxiety passes.
I sense an enormous amount of worry, stress, and anxiety around me with many of the people I interact with. I’ve always been a huge absorber of other people’s worry, stress, and anxiety, which is a strength of mine, but at a real cost to me. Figuring out how to continue to be an absorber, without it having as much of a cost to me has been an important part of my last few years. I notice this more as things amp up, and they are pretty amped up right now.
If you are feeling any of this, consider how you are dealing with it and what it is doing to you. Take action on what you can impact and let the rest go.
I’ve always been a vivid dreamer, but I’ve been getting a lot more REM sleep due to the combination of a CPAP machine and the prostate reduction surgery I had last year (solving a “getting older” problem.)
Following is the doozy that I had on Tuesday night, written down shortly after I woke up on Wednesday.
I’m being tossed around in the passenger seat of a car with a blindfold on. As I shout out to the driver, “Where are we going?” I’m met with silence, then a very loud version of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell playing on the radio.
The car abruptly stops. The blindfold is off. I’m at my house. I run inside and pack my bags, grabbing all my computer stuff and tossing it in with my clothes. We drive away to a plane that I get on alone which flies while I read a book. We land in the mountains.
A car, without a driver, drives me to a big mountain house with a giant construction ditch in front of it. My parents are there and say hello. I run inside, dump my bag, and race around in my underwear for no apparent reason.
People start showing up.
I can’t find my phone or my computer, but I know I have a conference call starting to finalize the shutdown of a company. I race outside and start screaming, “Where is my phone?” My cousin Jon is there and we run around the construction ditch. There are lots of dead, old mobile phones around the edge, but none are mine. I find one that looks like mine, feel relieved, and then realize it’s not mine. I’m screaming at my parents about my phone, my computer, and they are just staring at me. I run in the house to try to find a computer to log in to Google and figure out the dial-in number. All of the computers in the house are too old to use a web browser. I run around some more but can’t find my phone or computer and start smashing keyboards randomly.
Agitated, I walk into a big room full of people. They are just sitting down to get ready to listen to me about something, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to talk about. I go to the refrigerator and try to open it, but the door sticks. Eventually, I get it open and get a yogurt. Everyone is staring at me, waiting for me. I’m still in my underwear.
I go to the front of the room, sit down, and start describing how in 1992, a small group of us got together in Burlington, Vermont and came up with the idea of the Montana future, where no one would want to live in big cities anymore so everyone would migrate to the west, set themselves up on big pieces of land, and work from their houses. We called this event a Chautauqua and my business partner at the time (Dave) came up with the idea for “The Wall” which was a video wall of TVs that you interacted with.
Lots of bugs started racing around the floor. They were exotic with lots of colors, different body shapes, and multiple segments. Everyone ignored them as I became increasingly agitated by them. I finally said, “It’s time for dinner” and everyone got up and went to another room.
I run out of the room and started squashing the bugs. I got to a bathroom where the water in the sink is running and try to turn it off, but can’t quite get the tolerances right. My parents were in the next room, so I went in there to look for my computer some more. There was a giant scorpion-like color bug on my bag and I asked my dad to get rid of it. He grabbed a tennis racquet and started swinging at it, bouncing it off the wall and then smashing it into pieces on the ground.
My computer and phone were on the top of my back. I had ten notifications in the Messages app with requests to join the phone call that I had missed.
I wake up.
I wonder why we ended up in Colorado even though the Montana future seems deeply imprinted on my brain …
“Like so many others I just sucked it up, grinded away and punted, hoping for relief down the road. That strategy of denial and repression worked until it didn’t. My founder stress and burnout couldn’t be contained despite my best efforts. In fact, my mental unhealthiness impacted my physical health, by causing debilitating sleep apnea, as diagnosed by UCSF and missed by Stanford (but that is another post). I sold my 2nd company, Crackle, and vowed to leave the high anxiety of being a founder for the relatively easy life of venture, not that it’s actually easy. I was lucky to have exited Crackle before my situation worsened and ultimately found the relief I desperately needed to feel whole again.“
More importantly, he talked about his fear of discussing it with his investors.
“Unsurprisingly, my investors, back then, never once inquired about my mental state and certainly didn’t offer any resources I could tap. In fact if I’d shared my actual state of mind, I would probably have been fired or at the very least encouraged ostensibly to take time off. Those were the times.“
Thankfully, this is changing, in part to leadership by firms like Freestyle. The partners, Josh, David Samuel, and Jenny Lefcourt have announced an initiative initially focused on their portfolio founders in an effort to break down the barriers to better mental health for all in our industry.
I’m fortunate that I have a strong, long-term relationship with a psychologist who works with entrepreneurs. However, he, like many others in the field, is extremely busy so even though he is open to referrals from me, he is limited in who he can take on as a client. Part of the challenge here is the time delay that a referral takes, and Meru Health is an impressive approach to providing rapid response care in a specialized way with an economic model that can work in entrepreneurial contexts.
The Hoffman Institute was new to me, but after spending some time on the website, I went and signed up to attend one of the week-long retreats. While I feel like I’ve explored – in therapy – some of the things they talk about, I know that I’m still struggling with a bunch of this, especially as I shift into the next phase of my life.
As an LP in Freestyle, I’m extremely excited to see their leadership in this area. While they are not the first firm to announce an initiative like this – last year Felicis Ventures gifted Founders 1% Of Every Invested Dollar To Spend On Coaching And Mental Health – I’m hopeful that this is addition momentum in an area that needs a lot more attention, support, and help.
Josh, David, Jenny – thank you!
The brain in sleep state is a fascinating thing.
I have been awake for 30 minutes and the dream is lingering. While it’s not as vivid as when I woke up, the details are still there. Maybe it is a result of the Super Blood Wolf Moon. Or maybe its because I’m traveling today.
I’m in an airport casually talking to someone who has stopped me to ask me a question. I realize it is
That won’t work because my meeting starts at 10:30am. I’m meeting Person L and Person F there at Company B to pitch Company B on something. I’m wearing my normal work uniform (jeans and a Robert Graham shirt) but I’m nervous that I should be wearing a suit given Company B’s culture.
I try to figure out a solution with the gate agent. She’s nice, but she doesn’t have a solution for me other than the 10:30am flight. I start to get my bags and try to go to another airline, but both my Filson bag and my laptop bag are missing. My phone was on top of one of the bags so it’s missing also. I start to panic and ask the gate agent to help me find the bags. She points at a bunch of different bags that are just lining the gate area, but none of them are mine. I try to walk out the doors to the plane to find my bags but some burly guy stops me.
I go back to the gate agent to make sure she has my information in case she finds my bags. She says she does but I’ve never given her anything so I try to give her a business card. When I put it on the desk, I see it is for Person E. I try to write my phone number on the card but my writing is illegible. The gate agent isn’t paying attention to me anyway.
I remember that the document that I was working on is stored in Google Docs so it’s automatically backed up. But my suit is in my bag so I can’t wear it to the meeting. And I can’t call Person L to tell him that I can’t make it to the meeting. I decide to punt and go buy another phone.
I wake up feeling very unresolved.
I sometimes wonder what my computer is dreaming about when it’s in sleep state.
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.