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.
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’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.
Even though I haven’t been in school for a long time, I still have some tenuous link to the idea of summer vacation. Well, not some much vacation, but a mode shift from going to class every day to doing other stuff, such as playing tennis at least eight hours a day (age 10 – 14) or writing software products (age 17 – 21).
A few summers ago I did a hard shift to maker mode. I did some of my most creative work in a while that summer, including writing Startup Communities and getting started with Amy on the book Startup Life. It was also a powerful summer for some of the companies in my portfolio and I was able to spend deep time with several of them on their product rather than just reacting to all the inbound stuff that was flying at me. I also got in the best physical shape of my life. I worked out – mostly running and biking – almost every day. I slept plenty. I ate well. I spend a lot of time reading and hanging out with my beloved.
At the end of the summer, I blew it as I shifted out of this mode. The fall started with a bike accident in Slovenia and ended with surgery to remove an 8mm kidney stone. But that was only the beginning of a slide into a very deep, six month depression which finally ended in the summer. I didn’t plan for an annual cycle, but that’s what happened on that one.
While I feel mentally healthy right now, I realize that I’m extremely tired. Amy and I slept an enormous amount of the time we were in Paris. While we usually have an epic Parisian meal two or three times during the week, we only had one at the beginning of the week and then cancelled the others because we just didn’t feel like it. We had an amazing visit to the Picasso Museum, but then spent a lot of time laying in bed reading or just wandering around aimlessly, and then heading back to the hotel to take a nap. The heavy fog of fatigue, which settled in on the trip, hasn’t lifted. I’m sure the endless rain in Boulder isn’t helping, but I’m aware that it’s time to shift gears again.
On top of that, I’m pretty tired by the noise in the system. I was tired of it all spring and wrote a few things about it, but the gap between real signal in the entrepreneurial world and the endless noise is at a volume that is very high. I filter much of it out so when it eventually breaks through I know I need to add a new filter, or recalibrate my filter.
At the same time, I’m extremely interested in many of the companies we are investors in. So, I know I’m not reacting to the work, or the types of companies I get to work with, but the systemic noise that isn’t about creating, doing, building, and thinking.
I’m using Memorial Day to Labor Day as my marker for recalibrating for this summer. I’m not going to use the 2012 Maker Mode summer approach but I’m going to design something else. I’m going to let this week roll over me without fighting it as I think about what the recalibration for the summer is, but the new mode will start in a week.
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?
Jerry Colonna spent a few hours with me and Amy on Saturday at our house. Jerry is one of our closest friends on this planet so any time we get time with him is a treasure for us. It was a cold-ish, snowy, gloomy Colorado early winter day. Amy and I were pretty off-balance due to my blood clot so it was especially nice to be with him as he always helps rebalance us.
We talked some about his new company Reboot. I’m a huge supporter of Jerry’s work – recommending many of the CEOs we work with to him, or his associates, for coaching. I attended a recent CEO Bootcamp as a special guest and it was amazing – I recommend it to every CEO.
Jerry mentioned that the recent Reboot podcasts were doing great and really fun. I noticed this morning that the podcast he did with Rand Fishkin, another close friend, titled #7 Depression and Entrepreneurship – With Jerry Colonna and Rand Fishkin, came out today. So I read the transcript (I can read a lot faster than I can list) and thought it was dynamite.
As usual, Jerry goes deep and intimate – very quickly. So does Rand – total, extreme, full transparency. Enjoy!
The comment thread on my post Founder Suicides is vibrant and full of lots of different things, including plenty of challenging stuff to read and figure out how to respond to.
My inbox was also full of private notes over the past few days. Many of them were thank yous for writing about this, some were suggestions, and a few were angry reactions to what I wrote. Regardless, I read them all and thought about them, what they meant, and what I could continue to do to be helpful on the topic of mental health, especially around entrepreneurship.
The suggestions were generally interesting. Some resonated with me and would be helpful when I’m depressed (which I’m not right now). Others wouldn’t have helped me, but might help someone else.
This morning, as I was reading through my email, I came across this one, which I decided to post as an example. It’s thoughtful, has several specific things I’ve done when I’m depressed (spend 1:1 time with friends, drink green drinks, stop caffeine, do little things that create joy for me), and represented the constructive tone of so many people that I interact with.
I hope it’s helpful to you. And – to the person who wrote it – thanks for sharing and taking the time.
“I can’t tell you how much it has meant to me that you have openly discussed depression and suicide. I would like to share with you the following if you wanted to post it on your blog anonymously –perhaps it could be helpful for someone:
What does help someone contemplating giving up on life? Looking on my facebook notifications this morning, there were two posts –one from my daughter who survived an alcohol overdose as a suicide attempt five years ago, and who I believe is grateful to still be here, and another post from a family notifying their son’s facebook friends that he had ended his life on September 30th. There but for the grace of God go I as a parent. Furthermore, I have been at the door of suicide contemplation this past year myself. I feel like I know exactly what Robin Williams was thinking before he took his own life. My depression is not the gray, non-feeling that another writer described, it has been active pain. Pain so hard and awful that you just want it to stop. The universe is punishing you and it seems like it will never be any different. So what would be helpful to me at these rock bottom times? Not well-meaning platitudes, not “change your thinking, change your life”, not more words assigning responsibility to me for creating my reality.
There are a couple of things that I have actually found to help change my spiral. Engage me in small tasks, easy tasks; chopping carrots, washing dishes, some light bookkeeping on quickbooks, something that physically engages me, or lightly mentally engages me. Even if I don’t feel like doing it, get me actively doing some rote work with my hands.
Mention to me a time when I was happy- an actual memory of a good moment. Bring that picture back to my consciousness. Remind me that there have been good times even after I have been down, they do come back. Help me see the pictures in my mind of things that have made me smile before – my cat splayed out on a lounge chair like a drunken squirrel basking in the sun for example.
Ask me to fill my body with a deep breath and let it out, emptying my belly of breath several times in a row. And then to focus on a good image. The beauty of gorgeous fall leaves that I saw on my bike ride, for example. (From the book, Forgive For Good)
For the longer term, spend time with me. We don’t have to have deep talks, just companionship. Alone-time is obsessing time, spiraling down time, too much wine drinking time.
I heard the Dalai Lama’s longtime translator speak recently and he pointed out that depressed people revolve in their cocoon of self-obsession. Compassion is a way out. I used to volunteer my time a lot, and grew away from that somehow in my life. I used to get so much from hanging with the 3-5 year olds at my church’s childcare room. What natural joie de vivre radiates from a five year old! “Would you like to do the hokey pokey? Sure!!!!” I have signed up to look into volunteering in the play room at the Ronald McDonald house. Yes, even for busy people with important jobs and positions, make time to give of oneself where you can be in the moment.
And most importantly for the long term, look at your diet and exercise. Get a coach. Someone you have to report to. I found that I had been draining my adrenal glands from too much exercise, even though I didn’t think it was too much or too hard. The first thing my health coach did was to get me to drink a green drink every day (juiced kale, celery, apple, etc) and to get in as many greens in as I could in a day. Greens chase away depression. Her philosophy is to add things first, not take them away. Over time, I have on my own started to reduce the caffeine, which could be draining my adrenals as well. I had an incredibly happy day yesterday. I want more happy days like that, so it becomes easier to give up the things that could be causing me physically to slip into the bad space. Unfortunately a lot of us rely heavily on the substances as coping strategies, so it is baby steps at first. Add in the good stuff, maybe be a little lighter on myself on the exercise piece, and let me evolve to better choices.
Thanks, Brad. I realize that everyone has different experiences of depression and pain. My little suggestions could completely not work, but if they helped someone at all change the direction of a spiral, they were worth sharing. Perhaps, you have suggestions of your own, perhaps your blog readers do – and not the naturally happy readers trying to help, those of us who have been right there, at the door of ending it. I thought your sharing of your pact with your wife to share when you were thinking suicidal thoughts was powerful. Thank you.”
I know this post is going to be a downer but I think there is a lot more to be talked about regarding depression, mental health, and entrepreneurship.
I recently heard a terrifying stat about founder suicides recently. A friend told me that he’d heard of over a dozen suicides from entrepreneurs in the past few years. I didn’t press him for the specific data because I didn’t want to struggle through it, but I personally knew of three so I expected that it would add up to a dozen pretty easily.
Yesterday, I read a post titled The Downtown Project Suicides: Can the Pursuit of Happiness Kill You? It’s part of a series done by Re/code on the Downtown Las Vegas project. The series started out very positive with an article titled Downtown Las Vegas Is the Great American Techtopia but in the middle of the series Tony Hsieh Stepped Down From Lead Role at Las Vegas Downtown Project, 30% of the staff got laid off, and the articles turned negative with Factorli, an Early Casualty of the Las Vegas Downtown Project.
And yesterday, the suicide article – The Downtown Project Suicides: Can the Pursuit of Happiness Kill You? – appeared. It’s a rough one that talks about three suicides – Jody Sherman (4/13), Ovik Banerjee (1/14), and Matt Berman (4/14) – all people involved in the Vegas Tech phenomenon.
I’m saddened by the struggles around The Downtown Vegas Project. I’ve long thought, and continue to think, it’s a really interesting experiment.
But I’m really upset by the suicides. Re/code’s article is harsh and questions the Happiness philosophy of Tony Hsieh and whether it is partly responsible for the suicides. Kim Knoll who was apparently interviewed for the article has a solid response to this. But regardless of the root cause, which we can’t possibly know from the article, the fact stands that three entrepreneurs involved recently committed suicide.
First, if you are ever considering committing suicide, immediate reach out to someone and ask for help. Amy and I recommend the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you don’t know where to turn. The 800 number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
When I had my first clinical depression in my mid-20s, Amy and I set up a few rules around things. We specifically talked about suicide and I agreed that if I ever had a suicidal thought, I wouldn’t act on it. Instead, I would immediately stop what I was doing, tell Amy what I was thinking, and we’d discuss it. During this long depression, I only had one suicidal ideation, but it was while we were driving on a highway in Sedona (I was driving). I immediately pulled over to the side of the road, stopped the car, and told Amy what I was thinking. We switched seats – she drove the rest of the way, and then we had a long conversation that night. After the conversation, even though I was still very depressed, I felt immense relief and support. When we got back to our home in Boston after that vacation, I started therapy, which was incredibly helpful.
Our society still has an incredible stigma associated with depression. Anyone who has been depressed knows that it is extremely hard to describe how it feels to someone who hasn’t ever been depressed. My favorite description of depression continues to be from Hyperbole and a Half. I’ve recently started describing it as an emotional pain that is significantly worse than almost all physical pains you could imagine, especially because it seems to go on forever. And sometimes this pain is so severe that it feels like ending it all by committing suicide is the only answer.
While this isn’t unique to entrepreneurs, the intensity of being an entrepreneur, especially when your company is failing, or you are failing at your role, can be overwhelming. I see it all the time and try to be a very empathetic listener whenever I encounter it. I’ve learned a huge amount from my friend Jerry Colonna about how to be helpful and know that I’ll continue to be on a journey around mental health and entrepreneurship.
It’s ok to fail. It’s ok to lose. It’s ok to be depressed.
If you are contemplating suicide, get help. If you have an entrepreneurial friend contemplating suicide, do your best to get them help.
I got to spend a lot of time with my close friend Rand Fishkin the past few days. The first was at Denver Startup Week, where we did a panel discussion with Ben Huh and Bart Lorang where we discussed the pact between CEO and Board, the pact between Founder and Investor, and how to be transparent and direct.
The next day, Rand led a full day offsite for a number of CEOs in our portfolio.
In between, he wrote an epic blog post titled A Long, Ugly Year of Depression That’s Finally Fading. Go read it now – I’ll wait.
I love Rand – not in that surface “I love you man” kind of way. Ever since I met him and his wife Geraldine, I’ve adored them as a couple and each as individuals. I often develop deep personal relationships with the people I work with which can be challenging when businesses struggle and difficult decisions have to be made. I’ve had a few friendships fail as a result of the pressure, stress, and intensity of working through certain situations, but far more have strengthened as a result. It’s a risk I decided to take a long time ago and I’ll continue to do it, even when I have to cope with my own anxiety, emotional struggles, and even depression, as a result.
We invested in Moz in April 2012. Rand wrote so extensively about it in his post Moz’s $18 Million Venture Financing: Our Story, Metrics and Future that almost all of the major tech blogs declined to write about it “because all the news was covered in the post.” Whatever.
The first nine months were great – the business grew as planned as I started to get to know everyone and how things worked at Moz. The company was working on a major rebrand (from SEOMoz to Moz) as well as a huge software expansion which was started before I invested. But by mid-year 2013 things were not going as planned. Rand has written extensively about it, but when he and Geraldine visited us in Boulder for a few days around that time both Amy and I thought Rand was depressed.
By the winter time, Rand had decided to hand the CEO roles to his longtime partner and COO Sarah Bird. Shortly after, he acknowledged his depression in his post at the end of 2013 when he wrote Can’t Sleep; Caught in The Loop. Regardless of his struggle, he continued to work incredibly hard, but we started having a different conversation, this time as friends rather than investor / board member and CEO / founder. I was more concerned about Rand’s mental health than his activity at Moz, and our conversations were generally around this. At the same time, Sarah grabbed the CEO reins firmly and has done an outstanding job, which I knew would ultimately be helpful to Rand.
Rand looked better in the past few days than I’ve felt he looked in several years. I was thrilled to see his post come out between our rambling Denver Startup Week discussion and the full day of the CEO offsite.
Most of all, I’m delighted that my friend Rand’s depression is finally starting to fade. Rand – you are amazing – and loved by me and many. Carry that with you all the time.
I recently talked to Larissa Herda, the CEO of TW Telecom (in the process of being acquired by Level 3). Larissa reached out to me through an employee who knows me because of my own struggles with depression. Larissa is another example of a leader / CEO who has been open about depression, especially in the workplace, and we had a great conversation.
Larissa is hosting the Sixth U.S./Canada Forum on Mental Health and Productivity at her offices in Denver on 9/26. The topic this year is Making Suicide Prevention a Health and Safety Priority. The participants will largely be business leaders and CEOs.
While I won’t be able to attend because I’ll be in LA, I told Larissa that I’d invite the CEOs from the Foundry Group portfolio as well as my extended network. I know from conversations and our friend “social media” that many of you were impacted by Robin Williams’ recent suicide. And I’ve had excellent conversations about my own depression with a number of you, and a few of you were extraordinary helpful during this time for me.
If you are a CEO and this is something you are interested in participating in, send me an email and I’ll hook you up.