entrepreneurship and depression

What do you feel when you hear that the 26 year old Aaron Schwartz, a partner at Reddit, hung himself in 2013. Or 47 year old Jody Sherman, founder of EcoMom shot himself in 2013? Or what about the young 22 year old Ilya Zhitomirskiy, CEO of Diaspora, took his life in 2011? Do you feel surprised? Saddened? Frustrated that they wasted their opportunity? 

As an entrepreneur, I am saddened, but not entirely surprised.

If you might find my lack of surprise shocking then you should definitely keep reading. 

I grew up in a household of entrepreneur where my life was very erratic from a financial standpoint. Some years were great, but other years all the cars would mysteriously disappear from our driveway to pay the bills. At times, money would get so tight I could tell you the cheapest brand of beans in a nearby grocery store which I still remember to this day- $0.69 per can, brand: Bush. During the good times, the fear of money running out would vanish, it didn’t matter what we bought, simply having the fear gone was enough.

During my time growing up in that environment and also running my own businesses, I got to see first hand the incredible highs and soul breaking lows. Looking online and listening to other entrepreneurs about their experiences, I don’t feel there lacks an honest conversation about depression. From a factual standpoint Dr. Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco finds that 30% of entrepreneurs struggle with depression. Hence, the path of entrepreneurship is often intertwined with depression, but why do so few people talk about it? Too taboo? Maybe, but it’s the elephant in the room, and should be addressed.

If you are an entrepreneur, then this article might help explain why you might have been feeling the way you do. Or if you are flirting with the idea of starting your own thing because the Instagram celebrities who rent cars tell you that you can live your dream’- then this can serve as a reality check.

Facing the Existential Abyss

So you want to travel around the world and live a 4-hour work week? Mimic would Tim Ferris supposedly did and live life on your terms with a margarita on the beach?

Let’s say you accomplish this by building an extremely scalable business with amazing employees where you have to manage them only four hours a week. At the very last minute, you decide to quit your job and live off of your business income and travel the world. About a week after quitting you feel a gnawing pain of anxiety. Congratulations, you have now just walked into the existential abyss.

If existential abyss sounds a bit too crazy, don’t worry, it’s completely normal. Turns out there is a weird metaphysical pulse that working in corporate has that you don’t realize you are in, until you walk off of it. People go to work at a certain time, hang out with friends, party on weekends, and start the week all over on Monday. When you quit the corporate world, you watch from the sidelines faced with having to create your own reality and routine. When this shift happens, you might start asking yourself: 

How many hours do should I work? Why not more, less? Or better yet, why even work at all? Should I even work? Do I even enjoy this? What is the purpose of all of this?

When I first quit corporate America and went into my own business, I faced a great feeling of emptiness for several months. Randomly, I would find myself mentally breaking down in the middle of work not knowing the cause. It wasn’t until I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning, where I unpacked why people need to have a routine, but also a strong purpose to, in his words “shoulder the inevitable suffering of reality.” By becoming more clear on what I was doing and why it was important to me, the emptiness quickly dissipated.

If you decide to make the leap to do your own thing, watch out for the existential trap, some get hit harder than others. Even Tim Ferris addresses this to a degree in his 4-Hour Work Week book, but of course, it’s not what the book is known for.  

If You Fail, It’s Not Just On You

What do you think about when someone says that they are an entrepreneur? Maybe they raised millions in venture capital money? Or that they built a ‘rockstar’ company filled with employees of genius intellect? What is not often discussed is when you bring other people into your business, the stakes become exponentially higher. Even if you are a one person shop, you stop providing service for your client, they end of suffering. If your business doesn’t do well, then your team doesn’t eat or the venture capitalists who gave you millions are knocking on your door.

A common error for beginner entrepreneurs is seeing an employee as a unit rather than a person. That person has a life just like yours. In a weird way, you depend on your team like a family. They put food on your table and you do the same for them. I have had employee spouses hospitalized, their parents die, and children born. You get to know them, and they know you. When a baby cries in the background during the video call, know that mom and dad have to find a way to make sure her child is feed if things don’t work out with your company. That really makes it real and adds to a whole other level of stress to the word entrepreneurship. If you fail in that environment, would you feel stressed? Depressed? 

A tangible example is maintaining consistent payroll. What do you do if you don’t have enough money to pay for everyone? There are many pay periods where I didn’t pay myself, but made sure the team is paid. If I miss payroll, they will leave, making it difficult for the business to grow. It’s these bizarre situations that can cause depression, sometimes you don’t know where the next sale is going to come from so it keeps you tossing and turning at night.

Obsession Will Put Your Relationships At Risk

In an interview with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, both were asked what made them so successful. One of the traits they mentioned was their ‘maniac focus’. A simple trait available to anyone. However, on the surface it seems great but the more you become focused on something, the more it can tax the relationships around you. I am not alluding to your business taking more time, sure it will, that is a given, but its the general decisions you make throughout life will progressively lean towards building the company so people around find you near obsessive. 

Simple activities like going to the movies, no longer holds the same value, or going out to drink with friends. Depending on the obsessive scale you take, eventually your life will begin to focus solely on the business. Friends and family will notice and begin to fade away. Sometimes that is from jealousy, or just a lack of understanding of what you are after. For instance, Serial Startups, an online source focusing on entrepreneurship put losing friends in the top 20 stressors for entrepreneurs.

‘Mr. Wonderful’, Kevin O’Leary, a Shark on SharkTank, during a college visit had a student inquire about if he should continue his profitable startup, or give it up to be with their fiancee, Mr. Wonderful responded “which one is more replaceable?” He later expanded upon the question pointing out that a significant other was more replaceable. He as many other entrepreneurs prioritize business over relationships. Sometimes the obsession comes off as radical, but that is part of the game.

You Are The Last Line of Defense

Work life balance is one of the biggest trending topics in the social media world today. People who decide to get into entrepreneurship can come from a place to ‘take control of their schedule’ or ‘be their own boss’. The sad truth to this is that when you run a company, you are the last line of defense. If an employee runs into a big enough problem, the problem can bubble up to you: the founder, where your utopic work-life balance gets invaded.

Note, I understand that some business are more stressful than others, especially a mature company versus a one person shop. When the company expands beyond you, there is more work for you to handle. That by itself, can drown anyone who is used to handling everything by themselves. When running your own shop, work won’t get done, if you are not doing it, no one else will. Simply saying you won’t work to enforce work life balance, is not an option if it means you can’t put food on your table. 

Which Do You Choose?

In the few points above, I hope it becomes increasingly clear that there are a lot of stressful components to running your own company. Each one of these points is no laughing matter, and just one of these can throw a fairly emotionally stable people into depression. On a more positive note, if you decide to take this path, understand that you will learn an enormous amount yourself and what you want to do with your life at a neck breaking pace.Just know that Instagram and SharkTank reality is extremely different than being in the trenches.

If you or know someone who is struggling with depression and could be at risk, here are a few resources to help:

Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

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