There aren’t many similarities between the workplace of an NFL football player and that of a tech entrepreneur. My body doesn’t get pounded each week. Decisive critical thinking and typing speed are valued more than the last time I ran 40 yards in under five seconds. In both places, though, competitiveness and operating at peak performance are prized.
But what if someone falters? Or a friend or family member needs help? Over half of all humans will experience a major mental health challenge in their lifetime. This includes the VC listening to a pitch or the linebacker staring down a receiver.
Few of us show this in the workplace. Even though many of us struggle at one time or another, needing help is not part of our cultural norms as founders, entrepreneurs, and investors.
This is why I took notice when the NFL Players Association recently spoke up for mental health.
Last month, each player in the league received a “The World Needs You Here” bracelet as part of the NFLPA’s partnership with Active Minds around their Your Mind, Your Body, Your Health initiative. Some of the fittest men on the planet are now wearing it to acknowledge that everyone – their friends, family, even themselves – struggle with depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue.
I was recently introduced to Active Minds by my friend Jeremy Shure and then introduced to the Executive Director, Alison Malmon by another friend, Chris Schroeder. Alison recently moved to Boulder from the east coast, so we got together. Endorsements by Jeremy and Chris mean a lot so I wasn’t surprised when I had a spectacular first meeting with Alison. I’m delighted that she’s now living in Boulder.
Active Minds is a premier nonprofit working with young people to change the way mental health is talked about. The NFL players are sharing the message that mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness. And just like an NFL player who has an ACL injury that needs expert treatment and time to heal, the same is true for a mental health issue.
When people with a platform – celebrities, football players, me, you – are open about mental health, the stigma lessens. In the more than 500 high schools and colleges where Active Minds works, this has been happening for the last 15 years. Students with influence are changing the conversation about mental health among their peers and networks.
It takes only a few people, and then a few more people, to be open, authentic, and transparent. If you are interested in joining the #NeedYouHere movement, drop me an email and I’ll introduce you to Alison.
Amy and I are financially supporting a new movie about mental health, depression, and suicide called The Weight of Gold. Jeremy Bloom (Olympic skier, pro-football player, CEO of Integrate, and awesome human) introduced me to the creator of the film Brett Rapkin.
While the focus of the storytelling is around Olympic athletes, it highlights a challenge that one in five Americans struggles with. Our goal for supporting films like this is to help eliminate the stigma around mental health and depression. It’s an enormous challenge in our society and one that I think is worth working hard at.
This showed up in my inbox the other day from a friend of 20 years. He’s been involved in a number of companies that we’ve invested in over the years in different senior and/or co-founder roles, including CEO. It was short and sweet but captured the essence of something I often talk about with founders.
Heard you and Jerry on CPR this morning, nice job!
What struck me was your point about the gap between expectations in the role of CEO or startup founder, or investor – and the reality of depressive events/emotions that are often present – but no one gets to expose or relinquish.
I felt this first hand in my experience, both as co-founder and later as CEO. I used to *hate* seeing people around town or whatever because they’d ask “how’s the startup going?” and usually extra commentary like “oh startup rockstar, and you must be killing it, etc…” and my answer was always “no, it’s fucking unbelievable hard, and anxious, and trying, and most of the time shit is more fucked up than you could ever imagine”. You live with that veil and it always made it worse when people wanted to interact with you but position it as only successful sounding answers would work.
I learned to approach others the way I wanted to be approached:
1) I recognize everyone has a “bag of despair” they carry – you can’t see it, and anything can be in there, work, home, friends, family – serious shit is wrong somewhere for everyone at most points in time. So know it’s there, don’t assume and ask questions from ridiculously positive framing, but rather in a way that lets folks share honestly and is then actually helpful dialog to them (if they do want to take the opportunity to disclose challenges and discuss)
2) when someone asks “how’s it going” be honest – share the good and the bad, but don’t feel like you have to fulfill the stereotype and give them the sugar coated answer
I’m super lucky. I get to work with many incredibly brave and insightful people. One of them is Chris Heivly who is now working at Techstars with me and a few others on a new set of products around the concept of startup communities.
May is mental health month. Jenny Lawton, Techstars COO, led off Techstars commitment to engaging with the post Let’s End the Stigma Around Mental Health. Her call to action, before she goes on to talk about her experience with mental health issues, follows:
“May is Mental Health Awareness month and Techstars is driving to end the stigma that surrounds mental health. Let’s open up the conversation around it and what it means to our community and industry.”
Today, Chris went public with his story in the post That Time I Could Not Break My Depression. If you’ve never met Chris, he’s a gregarious, energetic, fully engaged entrepreneur who has had multiple successes. But, he has struggled with depression, as he says in the lead off of his story.
As I read his story, I was incredibly proud of him for being able to talk about it and provide leadership for others. Then I read Lance Powers (founder at Sigmend – Techstars Class 68) post The Vital Role of Community in Mental Health Support where he talks about his bipolar disorder.
“If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be writing a post discussing my Bipolar disorder for my friends, coworkers, and entire community to see, I wouldn’t have believed you. Thanks to the hard work of my local community in Boulder and Denver, I am not only comfortable writing this post, I am proud.”
Lance has two statements that encapsulate what I believe.
On Saturday, Amy and I participated in the annual BCH Foundation Gala which this year was in support of the BCH Foundation Mental Health Endowment. As part of it, we announced a lead gift for the new BCH Della Cava Family Medical Pavilion which will be used primarily for behavioral and mental health issues.
While more is coming on the work Amy and I are doing with BCH, for now, I’m going to end with the simple statement. I am incredibly appreciative and proud for all the insights, support, and bravery of all my colleagues and friends, around the issues of depression and mental health in general. Thank you.
Over 300 million people around the world suffer from depression. I’m one of them and have written extensively about my experience with it. The following 90-second video gives you a little more context on this.
April 7th is the World Health Organizations “World Health Day” and the theme of this year’s World Health Day is Depression: Let’s Talk. UCLA is engaging in a number of activities in commemoration of World Health Day. One of these activities is a social media campaign to publicly recognize a number of individuals who their campus has identified as a #DepressionHero. The UCLA Grand Challenge Facebook and Twitter accounts have been generating lots of content around this and I’m doing a public interview next week (I’ll post the details when I have the final information.)
I’m particularly tuned into this right now as I recently avoided a major depressive episode. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you may have picked up the tone of my increasing distress from posts in the first two weeks of February, including This Page Intentionally Left Blank, Generosity Burnout, and The Power Of A Digital Sabbath.
By Valentine’s Day, which corresponds to a low point in my depression of 2013, I realized I was heading for a bad place and I took a bunch of aggressive corrective actions, including shutting down all travel. Several of my close friends showed up quickly for me, including my partners who know me extremely well. Amy was clear thinking and awesome. We took a vacation for the first two weeks of March and by the mid-March, I knew I was fine and had dodged the depressive episode.
I’m fortunate that I’ve done the work, have professional help, incredibly supportive friends, and the universe’s best spouse to help me when the black dog shows up at my doorstep. Many are less fortunate, like the entrepreneur I didn’t know who unexpectedly to everyone around him committed suicide last week. I’m close with a colleague of his and the shock to the collective system is immense.
When I was in LA in February, I was at a group dinner with Dave Morin, a longtime friend of mine. A segment of the dinner was a discussion around depression among entrepreneurs which had some very difficult and challenging moments (on multiple dimensions). After the dinner, Dave and I had a brief conversation where he told me more about his involvement in the UCLA Grand Challenge on Depression. I told him that I’d be honored to help out in any way I could. I hope this is simply the first step of a long relationship with UCLA on this front.
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.
During Boulder Startup Week 2016, Dave Mayer of Technical Integrity moderated a panel on Mental Health and Wellbeing that I was on with Sarah Jane Coffey and Tom Higley. It ended up going 90 minutes and I remember it being powerful for me and the audience. Dave recently put it up on Youtube and wrote a blog post about it. His leadoff in his post sets things up nicely.
“During my relatively short six-year journey through the startup landscape- I’ve been through ugly founder breakups, I’ve lost plenty of money, lost way too much time, and I ended up in the hospital from exhaustion from too many 100 hour weeks. That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the reality of building new companies. I know of suicides, families being torn apart and of course several cases of debilitating depression.”
If this is a topic that is interesting, relevant, or important to you, I hope you enjoy our rambling session on it at Naropa during BSW 2016. Thanks Dave for organizing and hosting. And thanks to Sarah Jane and Tom for being vulnerable and brave enough to talk publicly about this stuff.
December is a tough time of year for a lot of people. While the holidays are awesome for some, they are really hard for others.
I know a lot of people around me who are anxious, upset, stressed, or some other version of “not in a good place.” Some of it is the holidays, some is the end of the year, some is the outcome of the US election, and some is other things.
This morning I woke up to two good articles on mental health. I’m quoted widely, along with some of my personal story, in the Fortune Magazine article by Laura Entis titled Entrepreneurs Take on Depression. As a bookend, I was told in the article Mental health and relationships ‘key to happiness’ that a new London School of Economics study has determined that “good mental health and having a partner make people happier than doubling their income.”
Yesterday my partners and I had our quarterly offsite. A big part of it is what we now call a “partner check in” where we answer the question “How am I?” This answer can cover any dimension – personal, interpersonal, professional. It can be 1:1 with someone else, it can be with 1:2, or 1:3. It can cover one’s relationship with a spouse, kids, or family. It can be something in our head, heart, body, or soul. It can be very specific – an interaction dynamic with a CEO or founder – or something general, abstract, or even mysterious.
I wore a shirt with my favorite Helen Frankenthaler quote to remind me of our rules around our partner check in (and my approach to life in general.)
I’m in a good place so I was able to listen more than talk yesterday, which is probably a relief to my partners.
Even though some aspects of 2016 have been awesome, we all have agreed that we are ready to put 2016 in the books and move on to 2017. As we each talked about “How am I?” we recalled a number of traumatic, stressful, and anxiety producing events in the past year. We are all getting older so more health issues are appearing in our extended network of friends, so learning how to deal with them is becoming more important. Modulating the macro, especially post election, has become a more central theme for each of us.
There were a lot of specific things discussed that aren’t appropriate for me to write about, but the discussion reinforced with me how powerful the EQ of each of my partners is and my thankfulness that we have a level of emotional intimacy that we comfortably refer to as both business love and personal love.
For me, it cycles back to relationships. My relationship with my wife Amy grounds and centers me. My relationship with my partners allows me to be myself and spend time in an organization that provides me with continuous love, even against a backdrop of the endless stress, conflict, challenges, and struggle of entrepreneurship. While my extended family, which goes beyond just my parents and my brother (and now includes the spouses and kids of my partners), has its moments (like all families), it’s a source of profound joy for me much of the time.
December used to be very difficult for me. For many years, I fought the transition to the new year, was generally exhausted at the end of the year, and just wanted to hide. I described myself as a “cranky jewish kid who felt left out by Christmas.” At the end of 2012 I slipped into a deep depression that lasted six months. I learned a lot from that experience, and view it as my fundamental transition into middle age.
While I still don’t engage in Christmas, I now treasure the last few weeks of the year, as I reflect on the past year and get ready for the year to come. But, if you are feeling some December blues, or even depression, don’t fight it. Instead, do something for yourself. Be reflective. Let the emotions exist. And be encouraged that, like me, you can get to a better place, but it can take time.
Today’s #GivingThanks post is for my dear friend Jerry Colonna. When I make a list of non-family members and non-partners who I would want to be stranded on a desert island with, Jerry is at the top of the list.
Before I tell a story, if you want to participate in #GivingThanks to Jerry, please make a donation to Naropa University where Jerry is the chair of the board. I was going to try to create some kind of complicated matching donation scheme since I hadn’t made a gift to Naropa yet this year but I decided to just gift them $10,000 (which I just did now through the website) so I encourage you to support at any level if you want to participate in my not-so-complicated match.
I met Jerry in 1995. I was chair of NetGenesis, which was the first angel investment I’d made after selling Feld Technologies (my first company). NetGenesis had raised some money and had created three different products – net.Forms (a web form manager), net.Thread (a web threaded discussion board), and net.Analysis (a weblog analysis tool). While our customer for each product was the same (a webmaster or a company trying to build a website), we were having trouble leading with all three products. Allaire was eating our lunch on .Form, a company called eShare was picking us apart on .Thread, and this new company called WebTrends was torturing us on .Analysis. A year earlier, none of this had existed – now we realized we needed to focus on one product. We chose net.Analysis and went about selling the other two products to different companies.
Jerry had just invested in eShare. Somehow Raj Bhargava (the NetGenesis CEO) had connected with Jim Tito (the eShare CEO) and worked a deal to sell him net.Thread. NetGenesis got some of eShares equity, eShare got the net.Thread product, and I joined the eShare board.
That started a 20+ year relationship between me and Jerry that I comfortably use the word “love” to describe.
Jerry became partners with Fred Wilson and they started Flatiron Partners. We all started working with SoftBank as affiliates (along with Rich Levandov). I eventually co-founded SoftBank Technology Partners (which became Mobius Venture Capital) and SoftBank (the corporation) became a 50% LP in Flatiron with Chase. We made more investments together. As Jerry and Fred’s relationship evolved, so did mine (with each of them) as we had different kinds of professional and personal connections.
I remember a moment in what must have been 1999, sitting at Jerry’s desk in NY in a dark office (I never really like office lighting so I work without it on and it had turned into evening in NY.) I was trying to get a deal done and it was a stressful mess. The tension of the Internet bubble bursting hadn’t started yet, but I was already exhausted and negotiating basically all the time with everyone about everything. I hung up the phone and put my head down on Jerry’s desk. I wasn’t crying, but I was probably in a parallel emotional zone. Jerry walked in the room, saw me, and wrapped his whole body around me and just covered me up. It was one of those moments I’ll never forget – total, compete emotional intimacy in the context of support. I’m sure he was feeling the same kind of stress and in the moment we just hugged. And then I cried.
Jerry has a super power – he makes grown men (and women) cry in a business context. But that’s the super power – it’s not a business context, it’s life, and he helps us understand that in powerful, unique, and profound ways.
In 2002 Jerry retired from venture capital and went on his own personal journey for meaning. He was an extremely successful VC but woke up one day hating the work, feeling unfulfilled, and struggling with what became a deep depression. I was fighting my way through my own dark shit then so we didn’t see each other often, but when we did it was extremely helpful to me. There was an immediate sense of comfort, of love, of empathy, and of understanding. It didn’t matter what we talked about – we were just there, together, in the moment.
Today, Jerry runs a CEO coaching company called Reboot. Their mission – front and center on their website – says it all.
“We believe that in work is the possibility of the full realization of human potential. Work does not have to destroy us. Work can be the way we achieve our fullest self. Reboot is a coaching company. We help entrepreneurs and their teams deal with the internal ups and downs of entrepreneurship and support the growth they need to improve their performance and their life.”
I believe that Jerry is the best CEO coach on this particular planet. I’ve seen, and experienced, his magic many times. He’s found his purpose in life, and it’s wonderful to see him practice it every day.
Jerry also moved to Boulder last year. That means I see him a lot more in person that I used to. I still have to make a mental adjustment when Amy and I run into him and Ali on the Pearl Street Mall heading off to different restaurants for dinner, but an enormous smile always crosses my face when it happens.
Jerry – thank you for being you. And for everything you do in this world.
At the end of the day yesterday I gave a talk at the opening of Galvanize Boulder. After, during the Q&A, someone brought up depression and I went on a long ramble about my own struggles over the years, how I’ve grown and developed, how it has impacted me, and what I do today to work on my mental fitness. During another ramble on introvert / extrovert, I told the crowd I was exhausted from the past few weeks and rather than stick around and mingle, I was going to head home to spend a quiet evening with Amy immediately after my session because I needed to recharge.
I got home by 6:30 to a nice bowl of rice and beans that Amy had made. We ate and caught up on the day. While we were talking, she said “Francie Anhut died.” I sat for a moment. I knew Francie had cancer. I didn’t have any words. Francie was one of the first people I met when I moved to Boulder and our paths had crossed many times. We weren’t super close, but we were supportive of many things Francie did and I was always happy whenever we saw each other.
Amy then mentioned two other Boulder people we both knew who had died in the past month of cancer. More silence. We talked about a close friend of Amy’s who is in remission from a major cancer and is doing amazingly well. We talked about how fragile life is and how happy we are to be alive and with each other.
We then filled out our ballots and voted. We mail in our votes in Boulder so we sat for about thirty minutes, went through each issue and person, and voted deliberately. By 8:00, we were both totally exhausted.
“Do you want to read, watch TV, or catch up on email?” I asked.
“I want to go to sleep.”
“Ok – let’s just do a quick scan of email and call it a night.”
As we were sitting in our library in front of our computers, we each half heartedly scanned through our email. This email was marked 7:22pm so it arrived around the time we were working on our ballots and was titled “Another recent suicide & sabbatical.”
“Was thinking about your sabbatical
Today as I am just now coming out of a fog post Denver Startup Week and GAN Rally. I’m realizing the impact and exhaustion I feel this time of the year, after those events. The sabbatical is something I see in this moment as a great idea to integrate in the future post Denver startup week.
Hate to keep sending you this news, but I know you’re someone taking action on mental health and entrepreneurship.
I just heard of a husband and wife team who took their lives next week. He was an integral part of the entrepreneurial community here in Colorado.
From Greg Barry: local in Boulder. I am in total shock. A friend and business partner, Kevin Johansen, along with his wife, Karen, took his life last week. I still can’t believe it’s true, even though his son and sister have posted about it online. I’ve known Kevin for 20 years, and we spoke every 3-6 months, if not every day, when we were working together.”
It was longer so I finished reading it. I started silently crying. I turned to Amy and said “I don’t think you know him, but Kevin Johansen and his wife Karen committed suicide recently. He was an entrepreneur in town.”
Amy’s whole being slumped in her chair. I could see her deflate. I realized that I had no capacity to process this given how tired I was, the conversation we had throughout the evening, the act of voting in what is easily the most angry, hostile, and disturbing election cycle I’ve experienced, and the notion that I was still absorbing that Francie and two other people I knew had died.
I don’t really remember getting in bed. I mechanically brushed my teeth but I think that was it. When I woke up this morning, the first thing I thought of was Kevin Johansen.
His family is doing a Johansen Memoriam Fund via GoFundMe to support funeral expenses. I just went and made a gift as a contribution from the Boulder startup community. If you’ve benefit from the local startup community, which Kevin and Karen gave so much of themselves to, please make any size contribution.
Most importantly, spend at least a minute today taking a deep breath and realizing life is fragile and precious.