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I’ve talked openly about the five month long depressive episode I went through earlier this year. If you missed it, I encourage you to read my article last month in Inc. Magazine titled Entrepreneurial Life Shouldn’t Be This Way–Should It? Depression is a fact of life for some entrepreneurs.
My depression lifted near the end of May and I’ve been feeling normal for the past few months. On July 1st I wrote a post titled Regroup Successful. I changed a lot of tactical things in my life in Q2 – some of them likely helped me get to a place where my depression lifted. And, once I was confident that the depression had lifted (about 45 days ago), I started trying to figure out some of the root causes of my depression.
I’ve told the story of how I ended up depressed a number of times. In the telling of it, I searched for triggers – and found many. My 50 mile run in April 2012 that left me emotional unbalanced for six weeks. A bike accident in early September that really beat me up, and was inches from being much more serious. Six weeks of intense work and travel on the heals of the bike accident that left me physically and emotionally depleted, when what I should have done was cancelled everything and retreated to Boulder to recover. A marathon in mid-October that I had no business running, followed by two more weeks of intense work and travel. The sudden death of our dog Kenai at age 12. A kidney stone that resulted in surgery, followed by a two week vacation mostly in a total post-surgical haze. Complete exhaustion at the end of the year – a physical level of fatigue that I hadn’t yet felt in my life. There are more, but by January I was depressed, even though I didn’t really acknowledge it fully until the end of February.
The triggers, and the tactical changes I made, all impacted me at one level. But once the depression had lifted, I felt like I could dig another level and try to understand the root cause. With the help of Amy and a few friends, I’ve made progress on this and figured out two of the root causes of a depressive episode that snuck up on me after a decade of not struggling with depression.
The first is the 80/20 rule. When running Feld Technologies in my 20s, I remember reading a book about consulting that said a great consultant spent 20% of their time on “overhead” and 80% of their time on substantive work for their clients. I always tried to keep the 80/20 rule in mind – as long as I was only spending 20% of my time on bullshit, nonsense, things I wasn’t interested in, and repetitive stuff that I didn’t really have to do, I was fine. However, this time around, I’d somehow gotten the ratios flipped – I was spending only 20% of my time on the stimulating stuff and 80% of my time on stuff I viewed as unimportant. Much of it fell into the repetitive category, rather than the bullshit category, but nonetheless I was only stimulated by about 20% of the stuff I was doing. This led to a deep boredom that I didn’t realize, because I was so incredibly busy, and tired, from the scope and amount of stuff I was doing. While the 20/80 problem was the start, the real root cause was the boredom, which I simply didn’t realize and wasn’t acknowledging.
The other was a fundamental disconnect between how I was thinking about learning and teaching. I’ve discussed my deep intrinsic motivation which comes from learning. At age 47, I continue to learn a lot, but I also spend a lot of my time teaching. The ratio between the two shifted aggressively at the end of 2012 with the release of my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City. I spent a lot of time teaching my theory of startup communities to many people I didn’t previously know in lots of different places. I expected that I’d continue learning a lot about Startup Communities during this period, but I found that I had no time to reflect on anything, as all of my available time was consumed doing my regular work. So – between teaching and working, I had almost no time for learning.
I had an intense insight a few weeks ago when a friend told me that as one gets older, the line between learning and teaching blurs. This is consistent with how I think about mentoring, where the greatest mentor – mentee relationship is a peer relationship, where both the mentor and mentee learn from and teach each other. With this insight, I realized I needed to stop separating learning from teaching in my motivational construct – that they were inextricably linked.
Each of these – the flip in the 80/20 rule that led to a deep boredom combined with the separation of learning and teaching – were both root causes of my recent depression. As I reflect on where I’m at in mid-August, I’m neither bored nor struggling with the learning/teaching dichotomy. Once again, I’m incredibly stimulated by what I’m spending my time on. And I’m both learning and teaching, and not spending any energy separating the two.
While I expect I’ll discover more root causes as I keep chewing on what I just went through in the first half of the year, I’m hopeful that explanation of how I’ve unpacked all of this helps anyone out there struggling with depression, or that is close to someone who is struggling with depression. It’s incredibly hard to get to the root causes when you are depressed, but moments of clarity arise at unexpected times.
My theme for Q2 was “regroup.” I wrote about this in my post When The Sun Comes Out in early May as I was starting to feel my depression lifting. It’s officially gone at this point – I feel normal, and have for at least a month (probably six weeks.) That’s long enough to declare this depressive episode over.
The feedback I’ve gotten from talking openly about my depression has been incredible. I’m deeply appreciative of everyone who engaged me, offered me support, help, suggestions, empathy, or just said “thanks for sharing.” While I didn’t have any urgency about feeling better, I was optimistic that I would based on the arc of my previous two major depressive episodes (the first for two years in my mid-20s, the second for three months in my mid-30s). This one – at age 47 – lasted about six months which is so much less than two years…
My goal in Q3 was simply to “regroup.” I’ve talked about some of the specific tactics that I tried. Many people have asked me what they were. Here’s a quick list.
- Stopped drinking alcohol
- Stopped drinking coffee
- Stopped travelling
- Stopped waking up at 5am – just slept until I woke up
- Went to bed consistently at 10pm
- Running when I felt like it
- Scheduled a lot less things
- Took a digital sabbath – no email or phone from Friday night until Sunday morning
- Started floating in an isolation tank once a week
- Didn’t fight how I felt
- Shared openly with friends / spend more time with friends, especially with men
- Checked in with Amy every day – worked hard to communicate my emotions
From a work perspective, I focused on the things that mattered and tried to eliminate all the other stuff. I prioritized my Foundry Group partners, the companies we are investors in, and Techstars. Rather than looking at a lot of new stuff, I shut it all down and made sure I had time for all the existing stuff. I put more effort into videoconferencing and face to face interactions locally since I wasn’t travelling. And I tried not to schedule anything before 11am.
As Q2 comes to an end, I feel that I have successfully regrouped. I’ve added back in a few things that I want to do, including drinking coffee and getting up at 5am. I’m still not drinking, but I’m being more disciplined about my running. And I believe that digital sabbath will be a part of my rhythm for the rest of my life, although I’m letting myself answer the phone when it rings and occasionally sending an email or a text throughout the day when I need to communicate something to someone.
I was originally thinking about a theme for Q3 like “ship.” I’ve got a several work related things that I believe I’ll get closure on in Q3. I have several writing things in process that I’d like to finish. I’m still not travelling – nothing until Amy’s birthday in September. So, I originally thought I’d focus on something like “ship” as the broad theme for the next three months.
Yesterday I spent two and a half hours with my dear friend Jerry Colonna. We just hung out and talked. And eventually started talking about the idea of a Q3 theme around “ship.” After a while this sounded wrong – first to him – then to me. He challenged me with what I was actually trying to do. Ultimately it was to give myself more focus, and more structure, to spend time on the things I wanted to spend time on, and stop spending time, or filter out, the things I didn’t want to spend time on.
“Ship” seems like the wrong way to think about that. Instead, we came up with “be happier.” I’m going to try to use the phrase “be happier” as I decide what to spend time on, as in “will spending time on this cause me to be happier?” The simple theme – to be happier – which has all kinds of implications and second order effects on how I spend my time.
Instead of focusing on applying this theme only Q3, I’m going to apply this theme for however long I feel like it. And just thinking of it that way makes me happier.
It’s the beginning of summer. That is a good thing. Spend three minutes watching the amazing video below and get inspired to open your eyes and breath in this weekend.
As I come out of my depression, I’ve been systematically changing many of my tactics and habits. Simple things like deciding not to wake up with an alarm clock. Having a digital sabbath (no email / phone from Friday night to Sunday morning). Talking to Brooks the wonder dog when I take him for a walk, rather than have my thoughts wander around in my head.
This video reminded me to break that patterns that my brain has completely assimilated, in a search for awe, inspiration, and innovation. Thanks Anthony for pointing it out to me.
As I’m coming out of my depression, I’ve been reflecting on the hundreds of emails I’ve gotten from entrepreneurs, investors, friends, and people I don’t know talking about their own struggles with depression. It’s remarkable how much stigma is associated with depression in our society, which makes the struggle with depression even harder.
To all of you who have written to me with your stories, thoughts, struggles, and suggestions – thank you. Many have helped me; all have been appreciated.
The other morning, I got an email from Doug Liles titled Depression – 3 sources? I thought it was excellent, insightful, and hit on a few things that I’ve identified as the sources of my most recent struggle. I asked if I could republish it and Doug said yes. If you are depressed or know someone who is depressed, it’s worth a read. Doug’s email follows.
I’ve followed you for a bit. You were extremely brave in discussing your battle with depression. I am not writing about myself, but I thought I’d offer up 3 things that might contribute. I’ve experienced the same thing. I started my practice after I got laid off from my job in October of last year. I’ve had highs and lows through that process.
I think depression is a much more common affliction with entrepreneurs and leaders than society is willing to admit. I would suggest that the affliction hits the creative class the hardest. Is it caused the constant traipsing of through between the left and right brains? I am no psychiatrist, but I know the pressure of mixing thought processes can create mental conflict.
I reflect on the movie “Koyannisqatsi” – Which roughly translates to “Life out of Balance”. What can throw you out of balance? Sometimes seeking that source deep down in our id is very difficult. Allow me to throw out a few things.
1. Inventory – As we get older, our priorities and abilities change. We see the world through a new lens. We look around and question what is “enough”. We also take stock on what we really care about. Sometimes honesty and truth battle everything we have constructed. The discipline of our prior living behaviors become incompatible with the essence of our being. As we take inventory with our achievements, we look at our new found or undiscovered missions in life. It’s half-time. What’s the next play? Probably not what it has been.
2. Blood sucking vampires – I don’t envy you being a VC. I imagine the drain of working with dreamers, charlatans, sycophants and auteurs isn’t easy. I am sure there are constant calls. In a down economy where so many need cash to jumpstart dreams and policy deferring to big business, it’s not an easy to manage a portfolio. The challenge of celebrity and notoriety is that “everyone wants something”. That constant pressure of wanting to perform, wanting to help and needing to extract value for investors isn’t simple nor does the pace slacken. While you as a VC may have rules, we know that constantly teaching others the “rules” may get repetitive. Constantly dealing with bad behavior isn’t easy…
3. End of an innovation cycle – I’ve spoken with my mentor on this topic. We may just be coming to the end of one cycle and preparing for the next. I can’t see whether it’s evolutionary or revolutionary. There’s a silly little movie, “24 Hour Party People”. The great scene in it describes the malaise when one music/art movement falls and the bumps that occur until another one rises. Maybe software and SaaS solutions have become too easy. I used to joke that ASPs (remember that term) were the mom and pop businesses of the late 90’s early 2000’s. Maybe the proliferation of tools has expanded faster than demand (One of the great cases in Ash Maurya’s book, Running Lean is defining the problem to solve and whether the problem is worth solving). I wonder if the next innovation cycle is coming from another sector. Energy, transportation, material science, food production, housing, bioscience, construction, lawncare, domestic manufacturing, etc. As a guy that’s been around software for so long, I couldn’t tell you what the next real wave is. All I do know is that innovation cycles are becoming more rapid and much shorter. The wavelength frequencies are in a different pattern and they are much harder to measure. All of our assumptions from that past don’t work in this future. Sometimes we need to exchange lenses to find that future opportunity.
It’s such an immense relief when the oppressive weight of depression begins to lift. While I’ve had a big struggle the past six months, the last few weeks have been better and recently I’ve felt a broad positive shift in how I’m feeling.
My metaphor for my depressive episodes has always been that “dark clouds build on the horizon” as depression approaches. I no longer am afraid of the dark clouds, nor do I go through crazy rituals like I did in my 20s to try to keep them away. I don’t embrace or encourage them – I just accept that they are there. Often they disappear after a few days. Sometimes, like this time, then move on in and block out the sun. And then – like a long Pacific Northwest rainy season, they just hang there. Every now and then the sun peeks through and things feel a little better, but then the dark clouds swallow up the light again.
After a month of this, it gets really tough. After two months, there are periods that I can only describe as excruciating. After three months, the pain – at least for me – dulls – and everything is just joyless. I get up each morning, I do my work, I engage as deeply as I can in whatever I need to, but I mostly just want to be alone. Being with Amy is better than being alone, because she’s safe, but I know it’s eventually hard on her to watch me exist under this dark, cloudy sky.
In March, when I accepted that the depression wasn’t lifting, I decided to change my approach. I used the metaphor of “regroup” to define how I was approaching things. I eliminated a bunch of things. I cancelled all my travel from June 1 to the end of 2013. I let go of my need to answer every email the same day. I stopped scheduling a lot of stuff and just let it happen. I stopped a bunch of online routines like checking in on FourSquare and reading my daily news. I stopped waking up at 5am (something I’ve done every day during the week for the past 20 years) and started waking up whenever I wake up. I stopped drinking alcohol and coffee.
I then added a few things back in. I started running more. I started reading again. I started doing digital sabbath – no email or phone from Friday sundown until Sunday morning.
I can feel a material change. The sun is shining more. The agony of depression is gone. I’m enjoying some things again.
But I’m still in regroup mode and don’t feel a need to come out of it anytime soon. I’m still eliminating things I realize I don’t want to be doing. But I’m starting to play around with new things that interest me.
My greatest creative moments have come on the heals of periods in my life like this. It’s the one positive aspect of these depressive episodes for me. I can’t plan it, or force it, but I look forward to it revealing itself.
Update – if you want to get a deeper understanding of what depression feels like, several commenters pointed me to this amazing post by Hyperbole and a Half titled Depression Part Two.