Sometimes You Just Want To Scream

I’m on the receiving end of phone calls and video conferences with CEOs all day long. And, at least once a day, I can feel the intense stress on the person I’m talking to oozing through the phone or the screen. The conversation is often calm and rational, but below the surface is a bubbling cauldron of pressure.

Welcome to life as a CEO of a fast growing startup. Every day something new and unexpected comes at you. Often multiple things. Some are awesome. Some are ok. Some are bad. And some are awful.

Ben Horowitz wrote what I think is the best post ever on this called The Struggle. After I read it, I asked him if I could include it in my book Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur. He graciously said yes, so I did.

I felt The Struggle regularly when I was running Feld Technologies in the 1980s. I put myself at a disadvantage – when something went wrong people often called for “Mr. Feld.” My partner Dave carried a lot of the burden as well so I wasn’t alone, but I was on the receiving end of a lot of unhappiness over the years.

While I got better at compartmentalizing it, I never mastered it. I still struggle with it today. I can absorb an enormous amount of stress from the CEOs I work with. But sometimes I get overloaded and end up far out on a deep tree limb trembling with anxiety. I like to refer to this as “inappropriate anxiety” because I know exactly what is at the root cause, but my obsessive mind has a difficult time letting it go.

So I do what I can. I talk to Amy. I walk Brooks the Wonder Dog. I take a bath. I try to sleep a little more. I run more. I let the obsessive thoughts roll around in my head, chasing each other like characters from SpongeBob SquarePants.

And sometimes I just go in a closet and scream for a little while. I let all the bad energy out. I put my all into it – expelling the stress. Trying to reset my mind. Knowing that the inappropriate anxiety will go away and I’ll feel ok again.

When I hear this in the voice of a CEO I’m working with, I offer up myself as a release valve. While I don’t invite it, I want them to know they can vent to me. That they can bare their soul safely to me. That I won’t judge them on the pressure they are under. That I won’t try to solve the problem for them.

But that I’ll be there.

And I let them scream if they want to.

  • Building companies is just hard.

    We get better at it, get better at managing ourselves and findinng a healthier place. It will always be hard and always carry an edge with it.

    Having an aware process of acknowledging it is a close to balance as I come.

  • DaveJ

    With all the woo-woo that happens in companies these days, I’m pretty surprised that the “primal screams” we used to do at the frat haven’t caught on. So exhilarating and cathartic. Some days, scream instead of scrum.

    • Scream instead of Scrum. That is awesome. I will use it.

  • I always enjoy how you end your blog …”I offer up myself as a release valve”….Very nice…Thank you for sharing it 🙂

    • And there are days when the release valve needs a release valve!

  • Yup…I’ve had down moments where I wondered why I chose to do what I was doing, and would ask myself “why is it so hard” “does it have to be so hard” “will there be a break” “am I doing the right thing”…Typically, the downs are followed by ups, breakthroughs, streaks of luck, positive changes, etc…. It’s all good at the end.

  • Sheila Lamont

    I recently watched a TED talk about stress… about 9 minutes in, there’s great info about how our bodies nudge us to seek others out when we’re stressed and how it really helps!

  • and this is all, hugely helpful

    on the flip side, if i can ever be a release valve for you, hit me up!

  • It’s nothin’ but a thing!
    A CEO can either handle it or they can’t. I think it’s great because all those problems are just opportunities! Opportunities to improve company processes. Opportunities to make products and services better. Opportunities to make money. Opportunities to become a better person…

  • Khalid Halim

    As a coach I know the feeling. I can’t remember who taught me this, I think it was Jerry Colonna, but when they leave the session or when I hang up the phone I say out loud: “Thank you for the honor, I give back to you what is yours”. It honors what they are going through but also reminds me that all the emotion I am feeling in that moment is not entirely mine. I just had the privilege of being in that space with them for a little while.

    • Powerful. And sounds like something Jerry would say.

  • Christina Roberts

    Well, having recently learned how to tell my husband “I am having anxiety about”…or “I am feeling anxious right now but I don’t want to overreact”… I can appreciate being able to rationally let off that pressure, which really helps. Before, I would just be anxious and make everyone else anxious too. The new way works better and I am a better person to be around instead of a raving lunatic. I don’t think you are saying be a lunatic, but man, that must be some kinda pressure if you have to go scream in the closet. You guys are all so strong. Good to know the closet is there if I need it someday. 🙂

    • My wife Amy is one of my best ways to help – basically like you described it. When I’m feeling extra anxiety, I tell her that I’m feeling it, and why I think I’m feeling it. She just listens, says soothing things, and cuddles. She doesn’t try to solve my problem, which is the most important thing since often there’s no problem to actually solve.

        • One of my favorite videos about relationships of all time.

  • Ajay Pal Singh

    try meditation
    or just helping the infirm. calms your mind.

    • I’m never been a meditator, but I’m starting a practice. My wife Amy does it regularly, including the 10 day silent meditation retreat thing. I’ve seen how powerful it is for her and have decided it’s time to work it into my life.

      • Ajay Pal Singh

        sounds good – u might have seen
        when I feel stressed, I tell myself its all gonna be alright and all is for good 🙂

  • JLM

    What passes for stress in the business world is almost nothing. Really. I don’t mean to poo poo what you write or the sensitivities of those CEOs with whom you work. It is all real in your and their reality but there are no dead bodies and there is no blood and it is not really going to change the world.

    As a young Army officer in my early 20s, I had to on multiple occasions notify a Mother and Dad face to face that their son was dead. That is hard duty.

    On more occasions than I care to remember, I had to write a letter to parents telling them how their son had died. That is hard duty.

    In every instance, I was inadequate to the task. I certainly could say the words or write them but I just couldn’t rise to the challenge and do it correctly. I knew it then and I still know it. Perhaps no man is really capable of doing something like that with dignity, respect and competence. I was totally inadequate.

    I did my very best but no man has a “best” that is good enough.

    In our business lives, we should celebrate that while we deal with serious things and discharge important fiduciary duties, we are not routinely asked to determine life and death matters. That is a good thing.

    In 33+ years of CEOing, I have been extremely happy that it does not normally entail life and death matters though I have had people killed in fires and other serious problems.

    Why is this important?

    Because knowing these limits and how serious life can become we can then show emotion and support and kindness because a wrong decision will not cost someone else’s life. The most courageous people in the world are those who can be kind in every situation not just loitering around the pay window.

    Take a deep breath and enjoy life. Take its measure and know that there are other things infinitely more important. Like our families.


    • Powerful reminder!

  • topGetter

    UCLA Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Hill did a podcast that covered meditation, sleep, neurofeedback, and diet/supplementation with Jesse Lawler earlier in the spring for our launch at truBrain. We are taking a quant self/data driven approach to “hacking stress & attention” and how it can be optimized.

    Our monthly blend is not as good as meditating and the right diet, but we are proving its better than simply relying on caffeine/energy drinks and Adderall for some people. We are backed by tech accelerator, Start Engine in LA.

  • On “not solving the problem” – One summer my wonderful wife (a keen house fixer-upper) was up on the roof for a few weeks re-tiling it with cornish slate.

    Towards the end she painfully hit her thumb with a hammer – as I was nearby I started to explain the best way to swing a hammer

    Perhaps not a great move – but it gave her something to vent at ! 🙂

    • Ha Ha! That is too funny! Yeah sometimes we guys have problem of explaining things to our wives, which often is not the best move! LOL! I think we all share the same experience there.

  • A counselor friend of mine and I were recently talking and he told me, “It’s a myth that we have an unlimited amount of empathy. It’s false. We all have a finite amount of empathy.” I think many times people are just ready to scream, because they’re out of empathy.

    • Very very true. Part of my depression last year was unquestionably me using up all my empathy.

  • It’s my company and I”ll scream if I want to!