Since the middle of last week, there has been extreme stress on founders, startup leaders, and the extended startup community. This stress accelerated on Friday when the FDIC shut down and took over Silicon Valley Bank. By late Friday, anyone who banked with SVB was concerned about … well … everything.
Once it became clear that payroll accounts needed to be funded on Monday to make Wednesday’s payroll, we focused on the immediate short-term to ensure our portfolio companies’ thousands of employees got paid on time. We bank at SVB, so our maneuverability was also unknown, so we searched for what I’d consider heroic options from various sources.
While this de-escalated on Sunday night after the US Government took decisive action, the level of stress and anxiety, especially for first-time founders, was extreme. I had many 1:1 conversations, emails, and messages with our portfolio company CEOs, along with several open Zoom lines where people could ask questions and just commiserate and feel part of a shared community. Much of this focused on addressing the immediate problem. But, many founders told me that just feeling part of a larger community was helpful.
Much will be written about this. Maybe I’ll get around to my version someday.
But, once again, I saw and experienced the extreme stress and anxiety that founders, CEOs, and leaders of startup companies face almost daily. It reinforced the importance to me of continuing to help destigmatize mental health (and mental fitness) issues across the startup community.
Yesterday, Aaron Gershenberg, a long-time friend and LP of ours from SVB Capital, emailed an introduction to Naveed Lalani, Founder & CEO of Pioneer Mind. Naveed has launched a Founder Mental Health Pledge for Investors and Startup Leaders.
He’s announcing the first supporters tonight. Foundry is supporting it as a firm, and I’m supporting it personally along with my partner Jaclyn Hester.
The pledge follows:
We make a commitment to take an active role in encouraging mental healthcare for founders and the greater startup community.
We pledge to encourage the founders we partner with to invest in their personal mental health and build a workplace culture that promotes mental health.
Ensuring the mental health of founders and their teams is crucial and leads to the highest probability of startup success. We pledge to be supportive of founders treating the direct cost of caring for their mental health as a legitimate, worthwhile, and encouraged business expense – including therapy, coaching, group support, and app-based solutions. Founders should look at their mental health as a business priority.
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.
Over the weekend, we spent time with a friend who works for Ten Percent Happier.
I’ve explored most of the popular meditation apps in the past few years after getting started meditating on a regular basis by using Headspace. I eventually switched to Insight Timer since I usually now just do silent meditation for 20 minutes first thing each morning.
I had never tried Ten Percent Happier, but I felt connected to it because of Ben Rubin, one of the co-founders. We looked seriously at investing in Ben’s prior company Zeo early in the life of Foundry (around the time we invested in Fitbit) and I had several Zeo’s scattered around my world that I used regularly. When I had the headband on, Amy referred to me as “King Brad” which was about the only redeeming thing that happened when I had the headband on (other than getting some data about my sleep.)
On Sunday, I downloaded Ten Percent Happier and gave it a try. I’ve been doing it alongside my 20 minutes of silence with Insight Timer and have been really enjoying. The onboarding is extremely clean and the first teacher – Joseph Goldstein – is spectacular.
I’ve applied beginners’ mind to my Ten Percent Happier use. While I meditate regularly, I’m listening carefully to what Goldstein says. He’s one of the founders of the Insight Meditation movement in the west and his tiny, bite-sized starting points are incredibly poignant. I remember having similar aha moments when I started up with Headspace, so I don’t have a strong opinion as to which is better, but my beginner’s mind has been well-nourished the past few days.
If you are interested in meditation and mindfulness and just want to see what it’s above, give the Ten Percent Happier app a try. It’s got a 7-day free trial to give you a taste to see if it’s for you.
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.
After a 30 day hard reset (also known as sabbatical) I felt like this was an important re-entry topic as I fling myself back into the fray.
Several years ago I got tired of the phrase “Work Life Balance” (and its various permutations – Work/Life Balance and Work-Life Balance.) When Amy and I wrote Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur we wrestled a lot with this notion, and the phrase. At the time we didn’t have a better way to phrase it, so “Work Life Balance” persisted throughout the book as we tried to describe and discuss the endless challenges of a partnership as a couple in the context of an entrepreneurial life.
During a talk a year or so ago, I used the word “harmony” instead of “balance.” Within moments I realized that I’d solved a phrasing that had been vexing me for years. We don’t strive for work life balance, as the two never are in balance. Instead, we strive for work life harmony. I’m not very musical, but I know when something sounds in harmony, or harmonious, and suddenly I had a new phrase – “work life harmony” – which now is the way I think of the delicate dance of an entrepreneurial couple (and many other couples), along with many individuals.
Recently, I was having the same problem with the phrase “mental health.” I was being interviewed about depression and talking about how I thought about therapy. I’m a huge fan of therapy, having spent five years in my 20’s with a Harvard-trained, old school psychiatrist and more recently with a Harvard-trained psychologist since my depressive episode in 2013. While they have been very different experiences, they have each been profound for me.
I characterize my therapy sessions a “spending an hour a week on Planet Brad.” I pay the person to listen to me talk about whatever I want to discuss. He (both my therapists have been male) guides me through a deeper exploration of whatever I bring up in various ways. He connects things together over time, bringing up deeper insights. He is patient, doesn’t judge me, is a completely safe place to discuss and explore anything, and customizes what he talks about to what is going on with me in the moment. I ended this section of the interview by saying that my therapist played an analogous role in my life as my long time running coach, but for my mental fitness rather than my physical fitness.
And there it was. I loved the phrase “mental fitness.” Every time I say the phrase “mental health”, I feel like I’m fighting a stigma, explaining something that is probably uncomfortable to many on the receiving end, generating biases, and struggling to explain that working on your mental health is a good thing, not a bad thing.
In contrast, mental fitness is positive, uplifting, and has no stigma associated with it. While I’m sure the phrase “mental health”, like “work life balance”, will regularly sneak into my writing and talking, I’m going to try hard to use “mental fitness” as my default, just like “work life harmony” has become my default. If you look carefully, you’ll even notice that the category on this blog, previously called “Mental Health”, is now called “Mental Fitness.”
In case you are curious, based on the feedback I got to Is Republishing To Medium Worth It?, the answer, at least for now, appears to be Yes. So, if you are reading this on Medium, enjoy!
I’m a huge Tracy Kidder fan. I read The Soul of A New Machine as a senior in high school and, even though I don’t include it in the reason I went to MIT, I’m sure it played a part. To this day, it’s still one of my favorite books, although I haven’t read it in many years. I just kindled it (and several other Tracy Kidder books I’ve decided to re-read) and expect it’ll be in my near term reading list.
About a month ago Paul English sent me an email asking me if I wanted to read an ARC of Tracy Kidder’s new book A Truck Full of Money. Paul and I haven’t worked together, but I knew him from a distance because of Kayak, the Boston startup community, and a few interactions we’d had over the years, including a long conversation via videoconference where we talked about depression and his new company Blade.
My answer was a rapid yes after his mention of Tracy Kidder. But what really got my attention was the line in his email that follows:
“The book deals with my bipolar stuff, and your writings on depression have been meaningful to me.”
That’s about as vulnerable a sentence you will see from an entrepreneur. The idea of exposing oneself around this topic to a writer like Tracy Kidder was incredibly brave to me. So now I was doubly interested.
I read the book the day after it arrived at my office. It was five stars – off the charts awesome on many levels. I asked Paul if I could blog about it and he asked me to hold off until his publisher said it was ok to do it. It’s now ok to do so.
Tracy Kidder wrote an amazing book. Paul like many entrepreneurs, is a complex person. Kidder doesn’t dwell on the good or the bad. He shifts effortlessly between the past, present, and future. Paul is the main character, but it’s not Paul’s biography. Kayak plays a role, but so does Blade, as does Paul’s childhood and early jobs. Interleaf makes an appearance (if you remember Interleaf, you just dated yourself. If you don’t remember Interleaf, you need to go learn about it because it was a really important pre-Web and then Web-transition company.)
The book isn’t about mental health and biopolar disorder. But Paul’s struggle with it is woven throughout and by the end of the book you have a good understanding of how it has been both a positive and a negative force in Paul’s life and career. Kidder does a magnificent job of teasing out moments that create the example of bipolar disorder without pounding the reader over the head with it. All of this makes Paul a complete human rather than just an entrepreneurial machine.
In the absence of a spectacular writer, Paul’s story is a fun one to read. But Kidder brings out another layer to the story, the person, the personality, how bipolar disorder impacts Paul and everyone around him, and how they respond, adjust, and calibrate to it.
Ultimately, it’s an incredibly intimate book. While I’m very open about my life, it takes an absurd amount of courage to hand yourself over to someone like Kidder. Paul did it in the context of his own struggles with bipolar disorder, against the backdrop of a complex entrepreneurial journey, at the beginning of his next act.
The only thing I disliked about the book was the title. It’s catchy, but it doesn’t capture the complexity of the book, or the protagonist. But that’s ok – titles are hard to get right and are really just a pointer to the content of the book.
Paul – thanks for being brave enough to let yourself be the subject of a Tracy Kidder book. Tracy – while I don’t know you, know that you have a mega-fan out in the world who has read all of your books. And, if you are an entrepreneur, investor, or curious about the intersection of mental health and entrepreneurship, or just love a great non-fiction book that reads like a novel, A Truck Full of Money should be the next book you read.
On Tuesday, Jerry Colonna and I had a fireside chat hosted by the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network titled Making Mental Health a Priority. We did it at DU in partnership with Project X-ITE and had a powerful afternoon.
Last night I had dinner with a CEO I like a lot where we talked about some of the things he was struggling with. I used a concept with him that I’d been mulling about and tried out publicly at the event with Jerry.
I call it the responsibility glitch.
It’s a glitch I’ve had, and have struggled with, since I was a teenager. It’s also a glitch I see in many founders and CEOs.
I started my first company when I was 19 years old. By that point I felt immense responsibility for what I did. I was at MIT working hard on school. I had spent the previous two years – part time during the school year and full time in the summer – writing software for a company called PetCom. One of the products I wrote for them (PCEconomics) was very popular in the oil and gas industry and sold a lot of copies. I got a 5% royalty on every copy sold so I was getting monthly royalty checks ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 (I think the largest one I got was just over $12,000.) I had a long distance relationship with my high school girlfriend who became my first wife. I was the treasurer of my fraternity. While I had an adequate amount of fun in college, I was very serious. And responsible.
As I drifted into my 20s, as my first business grew, I felt responsible for many things around it. I got married and felt responsible for the relationship, my wife, and her actions. I was in a Ph.D. program and felt responsible for the work I was doing there.
At some point, the glitch appeared. It was likely stimulated by a variety of things, including too much overall feeling of responsibility and no perspective on how to manage or modulate it. I had clinical OCD (although I didn’t know it at the time) and had a need to try to control everything in my environment, although my attempts to do this were often hugely irrational and often entertaining to others. For example, I came up with the notion that if every cigarette butt that I passed on the sidewalks in Massachusetts wasn’t parallel to the street then my mother would die. While I clearly had plenty of spare cycles in my brain to ponder stuff like this, the image of me wandering down the sidewalk straightening cigarettes with my sneakers still causes me to cringe even 30 years later.
Then my circuits overloaded. I got kicked out of the Ph.D. program. My wife had an affair and we ended up getting divorced. My business was fine, but the stress from it, and everything else around me was overwhelming. I suddenly started feeling responsible for things I had no business feeling responsible for. I worried about my ex-Ph.D. colleagues, how they were doing, and wondered what I could do to help them avoid my fate. I was empathetic to my ex-wife when she called to ask for help when she was having problems with her boyfriend. I felt responsible for every client we had and whatever flaws were in our software and every moment.
I felt too responsible.
This eventually overwhelmed me and was part of what trigged my first depressive episode which lasted two years. Fortunately I was in therapy so I had a good solid two years to explore the feeling of being deeply depressed and all the elements around it. While there was no joy in that, it was profoundly important to my character and who I am today.
One of the things I learned about myself during this journey was that by being too responsible, I caused a number of unintended negative side effects. Some of these were easy to identify. For example, I learned that I undermined the people working for me since I allowed them to be less responsible, since I’d overcompensate for them. I realized that I was spending a lot of energy trying to control exogenous forces that I had no influence on. As I understood and resolved my OCD, I figured out that I was exhausting part of myself by continually processing a bunch of irrelevant linkages between things that either didn’t need to be controlled, or that I had no ability to impact.
Over the last 25 years, I’ve seen many other founders and CEOs be in the trap of feeling too much responsibility. Their instantiation of this occurs in different ways. There are often elements that are powerful for short moments of time, especially in a crisis. But when the behavior persists, crazy shit starts to happen. Often, feeling too much responsibility is a destructive force to the people around the founder / CEO, the company, the founder / CEO’s family, or the founder / CEO herself.
When I’m sitting with a CEO who feels anxious or self-identifies as depressed, even when she can’t really articulate why or what it means, I often look for the feeling of being overly responsible. It’s common and comes out quickly. When I dig in, I often find the person feels responsible for everyone and everything around her except for herself. She comes last in the list and rarely even gets to herself.
This is the responsibility glitch. If you identify with this, I encourage you to be aware of two things. First, be responsible, but try to stay on the right side of the “too much” line. This is different for everyone, but there definitely is a line where your feeling of responsibility starts to become destructive.
More importantly, be responsible for yourself first. As Jerry likes to say, go on a continuous journey of radical self-inquiry. Understand yourself. Learn about yourself. Take care of yourself. Be responsible for yourself. Only then can you be constructively responsible for others and things around you.
And now it is time to go for a run.
I read Bill Walton‘s autobiography Back from the Dead on Saturday after my long run. It was a good one and does a great job of capturing a complicated life filled with super high peaks and extremely low valleys.
I was into basketball as a pre-teen. I played forward for a little while but really settled into my role as a guard. I played until junior high school when I stopped playing soccer and basketball and focused entirely on tennis, which lasted until high school when I smashed my last wood racquet on the court. After that, I ran track and cross country and really began my love of long distance running.
I dug Bill Walton when he played for the Trail Blazers. My team as a little kid was the Dallas Chaparrals until the ABA blew up. I didn’t really have a team again until I moved to Boston to go to college, so I just liked individual players. When I eventually stopped paying attention to basketball in high school, even though the Dallas Mavericks were now my home town team (and I won a Dallas Mavericks college scholarship for $1,000 for some reason I can’t remember), I lost touch with pretty much all the players. So it was fun to see Walton re-appear in my junior year at MIT on the Boston Celtics, which re-energized my interest in basketball a tiny bit (it didn’t hurt that the Celtics were completely dominant in 1986.)
In Back from the Dead Walton covers his years playing at UCLA, Phoenix, and Boston in great detail. He also talks about his time on the San Diego – and then LA Clippers – which includes some scathing commentary on the craziness and misery that was the team under Donald Sterling in its early years.
The basketball stories, especially some of the detailed history, is fun to read. I’ve always enjoyed sports history from a first person point of view of a player, and Walton doesn’t disappoint. But that’s simply the foundation for the book.
Walton’s basketball brilliance is interspersed with endless injuries. He talks about them in detail – initially the physical struggles, but then the mental struggles as the pain as well as the time recovering and rebuilding grows. He doesn’t complain, but shows a vulnerable side in his description of his struggles. For a period of time, he’s at the top and bottom of the game at almost the same time, fighting through the injuries until they overwhelm his ability to recover and he finally retires.
He then goes through his career as a sportscaster. Mixed throughout is his love for and journeys with the Grateful Dead. And then his spine breaks, ESPN fires him gratuitously (they eventually rehire him under new management, but he skims over this), and a very long recovery begins.
At this point, you can feel Walton’s pain. Sure – the physical pain is there, but the emotional pain is profound. And his writing about it is powerful. And clean. And clear.
He gets through it and ends the book filled with love and joy and the energy that bubbles throughout his early playing days. Overall, the book is a powerful reminder of this complicated thing we call life and how hard it can be, even when you are at the top.