Tag: mental fitness
One of my all time favorite blog posts is Ben Horowitz’s The Struggle. If you are a founder and you haven’t read it, open it up in another tab for after your finish this post.
On Friday, a CEO I know sent me the following message.
“Brad – I crafted the entry pasted below this morning for my eyes only (and for my own therapeutic purposes), but in thinking about it today, I realized that you’re probably one of the only people I know who might be able to relate or who has interacted with others with similar sentiments. I’m in a good place mentally and it simply feels good to share this with someone else.”
I read it and immediately asked if I could post it anonymously. It’s in the same category for me as The Struggle, but with a different tone. Fortunately, the CEO said yes so I can share it with you. It follows.
Sometimes I wake up and look in the mirror and don’t recognize myself.
Sometimes I haven’t slept properly in days or weeks and I look in the mirror and most certainly don’t recognize myself.
Sometimes I get frustrated that going to bed is like suiting up for battle. I know that many sleepless and restless hours lay ahead before it’s okay to go back to work.
Sometimes I see how physically drained and weak I’ve become. Long gone are the days of being a muscular collegiate baseball player with MLB scouts at my heels or a lean and mean Ironman triathlete and marathon runner. My mental desire to achieve athletic greatness is at an all-time high, but my physical prowess leaves a lot to be desired.
Sometimes I wonder about underlying health issues that aren’t noticeable in the mirror and might not rear their ugly head until years into the future.
And sometimes, I see the disappointing medical test results and wonder if I’m on a path towards failure. Sometimes I don’t even know where to get started to get back on track.
Sometimes I look around and realize that many childhood friends have steady corporate jobs, children and other pursuits. They work to live rather than live to work and they are able to parse work stresses from the rest of their lives.
Sometimes I’m jealous, but mostly I’m lonely and longing for friendship with those who understand how emotionally and physically draining running a business can be. Can’t someone else understand why I can’t commit to an 8pm dinner on a Tuesday night when I’m absolutely drained?
Sometimes I ask myself if the juice is really worth the squeeze.
And sometimes, I admonish myself for such thoughts. My life is not that hard relative to those who have more physically demanding jobs.
Most of the time, however, I love my life and my job has been a source of great energy and inspiration. I know we’re onto something big and the journey has allowed me to surround myself with amazing colleagues and supporters. I only wish that I could find the perfect harmony between health, happiness and my career.
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.
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?
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 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.
If you’ve never been really depressed, it’s hard to understand what depression feels like. This is especially true if the person who is struggling with depression is someone who looks like they are on top of the world, that everything is going well, and that nothing could possibly be wrong. Many people who go through depressive periods are highly functional – I’m a good example of this. If you didn’t know me well, you wouldn’t notice. And, if you know me well, you probably think of me as tired, lower energy than normal, or that something seems slightly off. Finally, if you know me really well, you know I’m struggling to get through each day when I’m depressed.
I’m definitely in an “I’m doing better but why am I hauling my butt all over the place, and why again am I doing all of this stuff” mode. I was pondering this (after canceling some travel that I don’t need to do) when I got a powerful note from a blog reader. In it, he talks about how after reading a recent post of mine, he started to understand how to relate better to his brother who is struggling with a deep depression. The email made me smile, and reminded – if only briefly – why I am doing all of this stuff. The email follows.
For the last six months or so, my youngest brother—a very handsome, tall, intelligent, fit, seemingly-perfect person—has been battling depression. As the oldest brother, and as someone who has battled all his life to help my foreign, single mother get by, it’s but incredibly hard to understand and relate to him. In fact, regretfully, I used to criticize him for the way he felt. It wasn’t until last week, when I saw him beg to be admitted into a hospital because he felt unsafe, that I realized how serious this was. I just couldn’t understand, how can someone who appears to be so perfect in many ways, so blessed (especially compared to what we went through as children), be so unhappy and miserable inside?
Sadly, it still took reading 6 words on a blog post from someone whom I look up to most (“came out of depression on Feb. 14”) to finally understand that what’s on the outside is very different than what’s on the inside. He/You can both seem so perfect, but loving someone means knowing their deepest thoughts and feelings, understanding why they feel that way, then being there for them no matter what. I regret letting him get to the point where he didn’t feel safe. I’ve strived all my life to set an example, to be there for my family, but I was stuck in my own arrogance. I let the “knife” cut through everything and get the best of me. But it won’t happen again.
I’m so proud of my brother in every way: we never had a role model to guide us through life, to tell us how important reading and learning is, yet he’s managed a 3.9 GPA at a good school. He loves reading more than anyone I know (maybe even you, Brad..) and wants to be a doctor and writer one day. He just turned 21, but has the mind and soul of someone who’s 40…it’s crazy. Maybe that’s why he has a hard time coping..? Who knows – all I know is I’m going to be by his side always and support him in every way possible. My arrogance, confidence and toughness can go towards working my butt off and making this company successful.
If you read this far (which knowing you, you probably did…I thank you). I thank you for being you, for sharing your life’s journey with people like me. I promise to continue to pass on wisdom and give to others as you have.
Amy and I talk a lot about big issues, such as depression and divorce, in Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur. I’ve been speaking from experience on each of these topics, as I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression my entire adult life (the official DSM-IV code I have for my diagnosis from 1991 is 300.3 – Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and, in 1990, I was divorced from my first wife.
I’ve always been open about these two issues (and experiences) since they’ve had a profound impact on me. I’ve learned how to manage my OCD and, even when I’m depressed, I’m very functional (if you didn’t know I was having a depressive episode, you’d think I was just flat or having an off day.) And many of the things that Amy and I do right in our relationship are lessons that we learned when reflecting on why my first marriage, and marriages of friends of ours – many of which are entrepreneurial couples – have failed.
As I’ve been doing interviews and talking about Startup Life, I’ve been asked several times whether or not entrepreneurs are more prone to depression and divorce. While I have zero empirical data, I believe from my qualitative experience that they are no less prone to this than the rest of the population. But I don’t really have empirical data to support this assertion either.
So – I’m looking for real data. Do any of you out there know of real quantitative studies – preferably academic / social science oriented, that investigate the question of whether or not entrepreneurs are more prone to depression? Or, a separate study that investigates the question of whether or not entrepreneurs are more prone to divorce?
If you know of one, email me or leave it in the comments.