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.
I’ve talked openly about the five month long depressive episode I went through earlier this year. If you missed it, I encourage you to read my article last month in Inc. Magazine titled Entrepreneurial Life Shouldn’t Be This Way–Should It? Depression is a fact of life for some entrepreneurs.
My depression lifted near the end of May and I’ve been feeling normal for the past few months. On July 1st I wrote a post titled Regroup Successful. I changed a lot of tactical things in my life in Q2 – some of them likely helped me get to a place where my depression lifted. And, once I was confident that the depression had lifted (about 45 days ago), I started trying to figure out some of the root causes of my depression.
I’ve told the story of how I ended up depressed a number of times. In the telling of it, I searched for triggers – and found many. My 50 mile run in April 2012 that left me emotional unbalanced for six weeks. A bike accident in early September that really beat me up, and was inches from being much more serious. Six weeks of intense work and travel on the heals of the bike accident that left me physically and emotionally depleted, when what I should have done was cancelled everything and retreated to Boulder to recover. A marathon in mid-October that I had no business running, followed by two more weeks of intense work and travel. The sudden death of our dog Kenai at age 12. A kidney stone that resulted in surgery, followed by a two week vacation mostly in a total post-surgical haze. Complete exhaustion at the end of the year – a physical level of fatigue that I hadn’t yet felt in my life. There are more, but by January I was depressed, even though I didn’t really acknowledge it fully until the end of February.
The triggers, and the tactical changes I made, all impacted me at one level. But once the depression had lifted, I felt like I could dig another level and try to understand the root cause. With the help of Amy and a few friends, I’ve made progress on this and figured out two of the root causes of a depressive episode that snuck up on me after a decade of not struggling with depression.
The first is the 80/20 rule. When running Feld Technologies in my 20s, I remember reading a book about consulting that said a great consultant spent 20% of their time on “overhead” and 80% of their time on substantive work for their clients. I always tried to keep the 80/20 rule in mind – as long as I was only spending 20% of my time on bullshit, nonsense, things I wasn’t interested in, and repetitive stuff that I didn’t really have to do, I was fine. However, this time around, I’d somehow gotten the ratios flipped – I was spending only 20% of my time on the stimulating stuff and 80% of my time on stuff I viewed as unimportant. Much of it fell into the repetitive category, rather than the bullshit category, but nonetheless I was only stimulated by about 20% of the stuff I was doing. This led to a deep boredom that I didn’t realize, because I was so incredibly busy, and tired, from the scope and amount of stuff I was doing. While the 20/80 problem was the start, the real root cause was the boredom, which I simply didn’t realize and wasn’t acknowledging.
The other was a fundamental disconnect between how I was thinking about learning and teaching. I’ve discussed my deep intrinsic motivation which comes from learning. At age 47, I continue to learn a lot, but I also spend a lot of my time teaching. The ratio between the two shifted aggressively at the end of 2012 with the release of my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City. I spent a lot of time teaching my theory of startup communities to many people I didn’t previously know in lots of different places. I expected that I’d continue learning a lot about Startup Communities during this period, but I found that I had no time to reflect on anything, as all of my available time was consumed doing my regular work. So – between teaching and working, I had almost no time for learning.
I had an intense insight a few weeks ago when a friend told me that as one gets older, the line between learning and teaching blurs. This is consistent with how I think about mentoring, where the greatest mentor – mentee relationship is a peer relationship, where both the mentor and mentee learn from and teach each other. With this insight, I realized I needed to stop separating learning from teaching in my motivational construct – that they were inextricably linked.
Each of these – the flip in the 80/20 rule that led to a deep boredom combined with the separation of learning and teaching – were both root causes of my recent depression. As I reflect on where I’m at in mid-August, I’m neither bored nor struggling with the learning/teaching dichotomy. Once again, I’m incredibly stimulated by what I’m spending my time on. And I’m both learning and teaching, and not spending any energy separating the two.
While I expect I’ll discover more root causes as I keep chewing on what I just went through in the first half of the year, I’m hopeful that explanation of how I’ve unpacked all of this helps anyone out there struggling with depression, or that is close to someone who is struggling with depression. It’s incredibly hard to get to the root causes when you are depressed, but moments of clarity arise at unexpected times.
Rajat Bhargava and I have been working together since 1994. We’ve been involved in creating seven companies together (the most recent ones are MobileDay and Yesware) and, while most have been successful, we’ve had a huge number of positive and negative experiences along the way. We’ve mostly had a lot of fun and, when we haven’t, we always made sure we figured out what went wrong.
Minda Zetlin just put up an interview with us on the Inc. Magazine site titled 4 Signs You Should Say ‘No’ to a VC which I thought was excellent. She explores the entrepreneur – VC relationship and suggests four warning signs for an entrepreneur when interacting with a VC.
The paragraph on “you can’t be completely honest” is a seminal moment in my relationship with Raj. It also was a key point in my work career where, upon reflection, I completely and totally grokked the importance of being honest in the moment, clear about my reasoning, and willing to change my perspective based on new information, rather than feeling stuck in simply delivering a message. The section from the article follows:
“The important thing is to be completely transparent,” Bhargava says. “It’s very, very difficult to be transparent about your business, but it goes a long way toward building that relationship. ‘Here’s what I’m going through; here’s what I’m struggling with; here’s what I need help with.’ You have to know if that will spook the investor or if they’ll want to dig in and help you.”
That ability to be honest was a great asset in Feld and Bhargava’s relationship when they worked together on Interliant, the only one of their ventures that did not survive. After some politicking by a different executive, Feld removed a part of the company’s operations from Bhargava’s oversight. Bhargava took a few days to calm down, but then he explained forthrightly how disappointed he was and why he believed Feld had made the wrong decision. “Being open and directly confronting the issues, you get through it,” Bhargava says now. “I felt hurt, but I think our relationship is that much stronger.”
As for Feld, he recalls returning to his hotel after discussing the matter over dinner and feeling physically ill. “I knew I had completely screwed up,” he says.
I count Raj as one of my closest friends and trust him with my life. He’s had an enormous influence on how I behave as an investor and how I interact with entrepreneurs. Raj – thanks man – I look forward to many more years working together.