Our understanding of mental health and various mental disorders has long been shackled by taboos, myths, and fears. It has been stigmatized and still today, many of us must reckon with challenges on our own, quietly enduring our deceptive mental states for fear of reprisal, be it in the workplace, or even amongst friends and family.
For entrepreneurs, the chances of enduring a mental disorder or breakdown are statistically higher than the average person. These are often men and women – by virtue of their job and by the nature of their disposition – who are generally alone as they push themselves to realize their ambitions, and do not always have the right support system, or have enough understanding to overcome it on their own.
As a serial entrepreneur who has suffered from severe depression and overcome it, I want to share my experience with it and the lessons I learned from it that helped me become a better entrepreneur and a better leader.
“Never say you know the last word of any human heart.” – Henry James
It is impossible to know what another person is going through at any given moment. While I was being touted in Børsen, a reputable Danish newspaper specializing in business, as a “young entrepreneur guru,” I was also descending into severe stress-induced depression. I lived in a state inseparable from my work, and pushed myself physically and mentally too hard, for too long.
Entrepreneurs have a hard time separating themselves from their work, and they are also more prone to suffering from depression. As a way to recover from my own experience, I set off on a path of exploration, to heal myself, but also to understand the intricacies of the entrepreneurial mind, and what makes entrepreneurs tick.
“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.” – Aristotle
What began as a journey to better understand the entrepreneurial psyche, eventually culminated in a book I wrote, titled The Guru Book. For this, I interviewed over 100 executives and entrepreneurs around the world, as well as a renowned American psychologist, Michael A. Freeman.
Freeman has conducted an extensive study into the correlations between entrepreneurs and their predisposition to, at one point or another, suffer from a mental illness. And, has found that entrepreneurs are 17% more likely than the average person to suffer from a mental illness. A key correlation for Freeman’s study was that it is this genetic predisposition to certain mental health tendencies that actually makes entrepreneurs successful at what they do.
“People who are on the energetic, motivated, and creative side are both more likely to be entrepreneurial and more likely to have strong emotional states. Those states may include depression, despair, hopelessness, worthlessness, loss of motivation, and suicidal thinking.” – Michael A. Freeman
The creative mentality – the one that helps entrepreneurs make quick decisions, network with the right people, or come up with innovative ideas – is also, according to Freeman, why entrepreneurs are more prone to suffering from a mental illness.
Essentially, the creativity relies on the outlying and stronger emotional states of a given person, but when you combine that predisposition to the rigors and stresses of entrepreneurship, the chances of someone breaking down because of it are magnified.
“There is a crack, a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen, Anthem
What I gathered, after all of the interviews with all of the executives and entrepreneurs – and the insights from Freeman’s research – was that entrepreneurs were generally those with a manic nature and that there was a dark side to their creativity.
As I mentioned before, it is the predisposition to certain mental tendencies that make an entrepreneur creative and successful with their work, but also susceptible to mental breakdowns. And often, it is the stress of the work that magnifies the underlying problems.
So, what can entrepreneurs do to help themselves if they recognize this?
Dealing with, and recognizing that you are suffering from, a mental disorder is an entirely personal process, one that you will experience on your own. But, that does not mean you are alone. In my case, it was the act of sharing my problem with others and learning about other entrepreneurs that helped heal myself. I embraced my depression, I let the light in, and I found a way to reconnect with, and reevaluate my priorities.
Freeman has many examples of entrepreneurs who suffer from disorders but have found ways to live with them and make them manageable. One entrepreneur, for example, suffers from ADHD, which made him a successful networker and great at exploiting opportunities but terrible at organizing his time. He recognized where he was deficient and hired a professional to manage and organize for him, freeing up his time to do what he was good at, and leaning in and making his ADHD work for him.
What did I learn? I learned to manage my stress.
It was stress-induced depression that did me in, and I had to learn to manage and control that stress. First, I reevaluated my priorities and found interests outside of work, which provided balance. Then, as I started my new company, JumpStory, I had to learn how to trust my employees. I used to stress and micromanage, which lead to the breakdown. I now focus on making sure my employees are invested in our project and choose to trust that their work will be done.
It has made me a better leader because I have learned that I must genuinely trust them to accomplish their work. That trust provides them with the freedom to express themselves in their work, and it allows my stress to go from the maximum down to zero.
The statistics show entrepreneurs are likely to suffer from a mental illness, but it does not mean that they have to suffer. If you are an entrepreneur, make an honest appraisal of yourself, your way of working, and personality. Find out your strengths and weaknesses, and then build honestly from there, taking into account how to mitigate your weaknesses before they become too severe.