I spent the weekend in Las Vegas with my dad. He’s almost 77 and I’m 49. We had an awesome weekend which I expect he’ll write about in detail on his blog Repairing the Healthcare System in the next few days since he generally does a really nice retrospective of our annual trip together.
As I was reflecting on our weekend during my flight home yesterday, I remembered a discussion I had with Todd Vernon, the CEO of VictorOps, and a long time friend (we’ve been investors in the last three company’s of Todd’s – Raindance, Lijit, and now VictorOps – going back almost 20 years.)
I was at dinner with Todd, his wife Lura the rocket scientist, Amy, and Krista Marks / Brent Milne a few weeks ago. It was just after we’d closed an investment in Krista and Brent’s company WootMath and the six of us were enjoying a meal at the awesome but very loud Blackbelly. Todd and I were at one end of the table and couldn’t really hear the conversation very well without leaning over so we ended up just talking to each other for a little while. That little while turned into a really intense conversation.
Todd made the assertion that something happens to guys between the age of 47 and 50. We started talking about all of our male friends who had gone through various things between 47 and 50, including all the classic mid-life crisis stuff. We reflected back on what each of us had been through in the past few years and where we had ended up. Some was gossipy, some was introspective, and some was piecing together a puzzle to support the assertion.
After a few examples, it came into clear focus for each of us. Todd said a line that has really stuck with me.
“The age of 47 to 50 is optimizing for what you are. Up to that point, we are optimizing for what you are going to be.”
We both acknowledged that we don’t really know much about the psychology of women (well – generally – but especially in this age range), so I’m focused on what happens to men. When I reflect on my own experience over the past few years, I’ve struggled with depression, had a few health scares and had to come to terms with my older body, practiced the concept of detachment, deepened my relationship with each of my parents, built a sustainable relationship rhythm with my brother Daniel, and developed a new level of deepness in my relationship with Amy.
As we went back and forth, we realized that our time in this age bracket is a confluence of a bunch of decisions we’ve made about life. There’s a classical notion of a midlife crisis, but that cheapens the dynamic. A few of our friends have had relationships, especially with their spouse or significant other, blow up while many others have their relationships deepen. We all bought sports cars in our 30s so that cliche doesn’t really hold, and a group of us were divorced in our early 20s. Bizarrely, many of the guys in the gang of divorcees I’m part of all had their first wife cheat on them in their early to mid 20s, so none of us would ever consider cheating on our current wife as the emotional devastation of a busted marriage from your wife’s affair at that stage in life seems to never go away, at least for us. So, as we rolled it around, it wasn’t really a midlife crisis.
But there is acceptance that we are more than halfway through our lives. Our parents are getting older. Some have passed away, others like my dad acknowledge they are likely in the last decade of their life. If you are courageous like my dad is, you can openly talk about mortality and the implications of it. And, as a son, his mortality immediately reminds me of my mortality.
In Bora Bora when Amy and I were together for a month, we discussed mortality a lot. We talked about having “30 good years left in our normative case.” It could be longer, it could be shorter, and it can’t really be planned for.
As Todd and I cycled on this, we came to the notion of “what you are.” In this 47 to 50 segment, we each have spent a lot of time figuring out what we are and optimizing our lives for it. This notion of what we are isn’t static – we’ll keep learning and evolving – but we are no longer striving for “what we are going to be.” Instead of spending time and emotional energy on this, we are spending our time and emotional energy on what matters to us now. What we care about. Who we care about.
My weekend with my dad was profoundly wonderful. He knows what he is, what he likes, and what he cares about. He’s still learning all the time, but he’s not trying to be something he isn’t. He isn’t striving to be something new. He’s just being him.
Todd and I realized at dinner that we are having a lot of fun and getting a lot of satisfaction out of just being ourselves at this stage of life. We’ve each had lots of ups and downs, but we are each married to amazing women, living in a place that we love, surrounded by people who we love, working on things that give us each meaning, and having time to ourselves and with friends that are satisfying. Sure, we each have crappy moments and lousy days, and we each know that at some point the lights will go out, but for now we are focused on being what we are.
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.