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I know this post is going to be a downer but I think there is a lot more to be talked about regarding depression, mental health, and entrepreneurship.
I recently heard a terrifying stat about founder suicides recently. A friend told me that he’d heard of over a dozen suicides from entrepreneurs in the past few years. I didn’t press him for the specific data because I didn’t want to struggle through it, but I personally knew of three so I expected that it would add up to a dozen pretty easily.
Yesterday, I read a post titled The Downtown Project Suicides: Can the Pursuit of Happiness Kill You? It’s part of a series done by Re/code on the Downtown Las Vegas project. The series started out very positive with an article titled Downtown Las Vegas Is the Great American Techtopia but in the middle of the series Tony Hsieh Stepped Down From Lead Role at Las Vegas Downtown Project, 30% of the staff got laid off, and the articles turned negative with Factorli, an Early Casualty of the Las Vegas Downtown Project.
And yesterday, the suicide article - The Downtown Project Suicides: Can the Pursuit of Happiness Kill You? - appeared. It’s a rough one that talks about three suicides – Jody Sherman (4/13), Ovik Banerjee (1/14), and Matt Berman (4/14) – all people involved in the Vegas Tech phenomenon.
I’m saddened by the struggles around The Downtown Vegas Project. I’ve long thought, and continue to think, it’s a really interesting experiment.
But I’m really upset by the suicides. Re/code’s article is harsh and questions the Happiness philosophy of Tony Hsieh and whether it is partly responsible for the suicides. Kim Knoll who was apparently interviewed for the article has a solid response to this. But regardless of the root cause, which we can’t possibly know from the article, the fact stands that three entrepreneurs involved recently committed suicide.
First, if you are ever considering committing suicide, immediate reach out to someone and ask for help. Amy and I recommend the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you don’t know where to turn. The 800 number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
When I had my first clinical depression in my mid-20s, Amy and I set up a few rules around things. We specifically talked about suicide and I agreed that if I ever had a suicidal thought, I wouldn’t act on it. Instead, I would immediately stop what I was doing, tell Amy what I was thinking, and we’d discuss it. During this long depression, I only had one suicidal ideation, but it was while we were driving on a highway in Sedona (I was driving). I immediately pulled over to the side of the road, stopped the car, and told Amy what I was thinking. We switched seats – she drove the rest of the way, and then we had a long conversation that night. After the conversation, even though I was still very depressed, I felt immense relief and support. When we got back to our home in Boston after that vacation, I started therapy, which was incredibly helpful.
Our society still has an incredible stigma associated with depression. Anyone who has been depressed knows that it is extremely hard to describe how it feels to someone who hasn’t ever been depressed. My favorite description of depression continues to be from Hyperbole and a Half. I’ve recently started describing it as an emotional pain that is significantly worse than almost all physical pains you could imagine, especially because it seems to go on forever. And sometimes this pain is so severe that it feels like ending it all by committing suicide is the only answer.
While this isn’t unique to entrepreneurs, the intensity of being an entrepreneur, especially when your company is failing, or you are failing at your role, can be overwhelming. I see it all the time and try to be a very empathetic listener whenever I encounter it. I’ve learned a huge amount from my friend Jerry Colonna about how to be helpful and know that I’ll continue to be on a journey around mental health and entrepreneurship.
It’s ok to fail. It’s ok to lose. It’s ok to be depressed.
If you are contemplating suicide, get help. If you have an entrepreneurial friend contemplating suicide, do your best to get them help.
I recently talked to Larissa Herda, the CEO of TW Telecom (in the process of being acquired by Level 3). Larissa reached out to me through an employee who knows me because of my own struggles with depression. Larissa is another example of a leader / CEO who has been open about depression, especially in the workplace, and we had a great conversation.
Larissa is hosting the Sixth U.S./Canada Forum on Mental Health and Productivity at her offices in Denver on 9/26. The topic this year is Making Suicide Prevention a Health and Safety Priority. The participants will largely be business leaders and CEOs.
While I won’t be able to attend because I’ll be in LA, I told Larissa that I’d invite the CEOs from the Foundry Group portfolio as well as my extended network. I know from conversations and our friend “social media” that many of you were impacted by Robin Williams’ recent suicide. And I’ve had excellent conversations about my own depression with a number of you, and a few of you were extraordinary helpful during this time for me.
If you are a CEO and this is something you are interested in participating in, send me an email and I’ll hook you up.
I woke up with gloom in my brain this morning. Robin Williams apparent suicide really impacted me, just like it has so many other people. At first I wasn’t going to write about it because I haven’t really processed it or my emotions around it, but as I woke up, and continued to obsess about it, I thought I’d try to chase some of my own demons out of my head by putting words on paper (well – electrons on screen.) I have no idea where I’ll go with this post and hope it ends up being helpful instead of self-indulgent, but we’ll find out together if you read along.
Robin Williams was one of my favorite actors. He was an iconic comedian from my childhood (I’m 48) alongside Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Steve Martin. For a teenage boy in Dallas, Texas, these four guys defined funny. Every time a movie or TV came on with them in it, I watched it. And laughed a lot. But then Robin Williams did something magical. He started acting (well – maybe he was always acting) and went on to make two of my favorite movies of all times – Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. And man oh man was Mork from Orc an amazing actor.
When Amy and I moved to Boulder in 1995, one of the fun quiet things I didn’t share was how cool it was to be living in Mork’s home town. When I met David Cohen and found out he lived next door to the Mork and Mindy House, I knew I’d found an easter egg that would tickle me forever.
Yesterday afternoon I saw a tweet that was simply “Robin Williams RIP.” I immediately knew he was dead. With a couple of clicks I knew it was probably suicide (although it hasn’t been confirmed yet.) And at about 4pm Mountain Time, a lot of air went out of my balloon.
Amy is up in Keystone and I’m in Boulder so I went out to dinner with my partner Jason and his fiancee Jenn. It was a perfect night in Boulder so we sat outside at Japango and ate sushi and drank sake. I knew I probably shouldn’t have had anything to drink, since it’s wrong for me whenever I’m feeling down or depressed, but I just rolled with it. Jason and Jenn were perfect company – they are so incredibly happy and aligned on the run up to the wedding – so it was great energy just to be with them.
I got home, checked my email, facetimed with Amy, and went to bed. I was planning to get up early and work on my current book (Startup Opportunities) but at 5am when I got up, the gloom was heavy in my brain. Some of it might have been the sake, some of it was the tossing and turning from the dark, angry, hostile, complicated dreams I had, and some was waking up alone, with my beloved 90 miles away.
I rolled over and woke up naturally at 6:47. The fact that I noticed it was 6:47 triggered a bunch of stuff (normally I’d stay in bed until 6:48 because of 7:00 – 13 minutes) but I decided I wasn’t going to play that game with myself this morning. I had a cup of coffee and checked my email. I looked at my calendar which is packed with meetings from 9:30 to 5:30 followed by dinner with Seth and Jason and one of our LPs who is a very close friend. My brain flashed on “I just have to get to 6pm – then I’ll be able to chill and be happy.” That was a bad sign.
I went and read some of the stuff on Robin Williams. I watched the clip which I embeded above. I read Jeff Carter’s post Robin Williams RIP-Suicide Is Not A Way Out (Moz had picked it up in my Moz Fresh Alerts.) Jeff leads with a great reminder to anyone contemplating suicide:
First off, if you are thinking of committing suicide, don’t. Here’s the number to call if you find yourself unstable. No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.
It’s an hour later. While this did end up being a self-indulgent post, I’m feeling a little lighter. The sky in Boulder is a perfect blue color and it looks magnificent outside. I looked at my schedule again and it doesn’t look as oppressive. I know I’m surrounded by people I love and who love me. While the world will miss a wonderful man, and as David Mandell said in his Facebook post “The awesome/asshole ratio of this world took a very big hit today” life goes on.
Let us all stand on our desks today. O’Captain My Captain, we will miss you.