The Responsibility Glitch

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.

Also published on Medium.

  • Sebastien Latapie

    What a post! Clearly distilling decades of experience and doing so very elegantly. Thank you for sharing. Is the fireside chat uploaded anywhere? Would love to listen in.

  • Shira Moffatt

    I attended the event at DU and walked away wanting to continue the discussion personally and professionally. Thank you for being so open and willing to share your insights and experience.

  • Love this, Brad.

    Was in a similar headspace this morning in writing about how we tend to deal with unpleasant situations – instead of the typical erase it from memory or dwell on it forever, we are better replacing it with a question – what did I learn from this? That helps us both take the learning from it.. and slowly begin to let go.

  • Elizabeth G

    Great post Brad! The enlightening part I’ve started experiencing is when you discuss with the individual or group you feel responsible for, 95% of the time they had no expectation that you are fully responsible or directly tied to the success or failure of the subject in question — and often as you mentioned, it could also unintentionally undermine their efforts. Discussing it and understanding it from both side’s perspective definitely helps clear up mind space.

  • Glenn Neal

    I resemble this post.

  • Thanks for sharing Brad. I can relate to so many of these OCD tendencies so I really appreciated this post. Thank you.

  • AngelSpan

    Remarkable candor. Never bet Brad, but am now a fan, for this reason alone.

  • Walé Emmanuel

    Excuse me, you seem like a really good person. I know how you felt because I am feeling the same way, right now I will share my experiences with you later.

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  • BenBarreth

    Best post all year. Thank you Brad.

  • Kevin Warr

    Thanks for the generosity of this post. Helpful.

  • Grace

    Thank you for sharing. Allowing others to witness your vulnerabilities is brave and admirable.

  • Now that I think about it, it’s remarkable that I’ve never read about this before. I’m certain many of us share this glitch. I know I’ve done much of what you’ve described here, except for the OCD part. This isn’t just a post worth sharing, which I did, but it’s also a keeper.

  • Thanks, Mr. Feld. It’s really nice to see thought leaders share their difficulties and how they manage them. Very admirable of you to share so openly – I hope more people follow suite.

  • Brad, thank you for this. Really appreciate it.

  • Thanks again Brad for sharing your thoughts at the event. It’s good to see it written and reflect again on the balance of responsibility and mental fitness.

  • The event at DU was definitely a great panel to learn from, you and Jerry are personal heroes and your ability to talk so openly and candidly is admirable. The discussion around responsibility and being over responsible is one that doesn’t happen enough, and this will be a post i’ll be sure to forward to many people I know who suffer from this “glitch”

  • DaveJ

    Preach, brother.

  • @KarinBellantoni

    Brad, Thanks for sharing your story with such candor, many people will be effected. I can relate for many reasons…I wonder if you feel this could be a responsibility virus? Do you feel it can be picked up by others who have similar affinity for it?
    If our first responsibility is to put the mask on before attempting to help others is this rebellion, co dependance or a control type issue?

  • Russell

    The polar opposite of this glitch is Shaggy’s “It wasn’t me!” Always makes me laugh!

  • Hey Brad—really enjoyed this one. Selfishly, I’d enjoy future posts expanding on the two action items you suggest!

  • Joseph Prencipe

    Thanks Brad

  • Bob Hampe

    Great post and discussion at DU. I suffer from similar ‘control’ tendencies and recognizing them was the most difficult obstacles to seeing the landscape more clearly. It definitely took serious self reflection and inquiry to get here. Some ‘time in the desert’ is now regular and welcomed.

  • It is brave to admit to any mental health issues in the business world. The optimist in me thinks that someday we will think of those who are afflicted with the same empathy and concern that we have for those with cancer or any other disease. Mental health diseases can be extremely frustrating, much like cancer that comes back after years in remission, drug therapies can become ineffective, environmental triggers can be difficult to control or avoid. And the patient must maintain strength of character, and unlike with other diseases, they must too often go it alone.