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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.
I had Digital Sabbath #3 yesterday. I turned off my phone and computer Friday at sundown and didn’t turn them back on until Sunday morning. I’m starting to enjoy the pattern and had a lot of relief yesterday from the complete disconnect. We had dinner at our house with friends Friday night, Amy and I did some stuff in the morning together, I went for a 9 mile run, took a nap in the afternoon, and we had dinner last night with friends and then watched some comedy on tv afterwards. My brain was less chaotic yesterday and I was able to settle into a calmer state over the course of the day than I had been the previous two weekends.
Last weekend a read a book by Wayne Muller called Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. I was a little apprehensive about the book, but it was recommended by a few people including Amy. It was extraordinary and just what I needed to begin to understand the need for a real day of rest out of every seven days.
While I’m not religious, I’ve got a strong jewish identity. I’ve also lived in Boulder for 17.5 years so it’s hard not to be spiritual. I found as I read the book that I was able to abstract away all the religious references, especially since Muller provides a nice mix of jewish, christian, and buddhist quotes and thoughts. He isn’t bashful about tying the idea of a day of rest back to religion, but he isn’t dogmatic about it, nor is it the dominant thought. Instead, it’s just additional support for the idea from many different cultures and times.
Muller broke the book up into six sections – rest, rhythm, time, happiness, wisdom, and consecration. He then ends with a chapter on the actual sabbath day. Each section has examples and exercises – it’s an easy book to read in one sitting as the tempo of the book is consistent, and the rhythm of each section is enjoyable.
The bonus so far from starting on Friday night is that when I wake up on Sunday I feel rested and in a totally different mode for the “rest of the weekend” than I normally do. And I have no real “I need a weekend” feeling on Sunday as it’s still a relatively chill day, although one that has some work and all the other stimuli of my world woven into it.
I’m going to keep doing digital sabbath for a while and see how it goes. Muller’s Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives helped me understand it a little better.
I’m not religious but I’ve always liked the idea of the Sabbath. One day a week of rest and reflection. I spent the weekend with Amy in San Diego and in addition to a Digital Sabbath (no electronic devices from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) I took off all day Sunday off from electronic devices, only opening up my laptop on Sunday night to start editing the latest draft of Matt Blumberg’s book Startup CEO.
It’s been 145 days since I first acknowledged my lastest struggle with depression in my post Depression and Entrepreneurs. This has been my longest depressive episode since my mid-20′s when I had an extremely difficult two year depression. I’ve thought several times that it had ended, most recently mid-February, only to have it be back in it within a week or so.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a functional depressive, so I’m able to get through the day, but it takes an enormous amount of energy. And I know that simply makes the cycle longer – rather than restore myself, I’m draining myself, which just makes it harder to get out of the depression cycle. Resting and sleeping is key for me, but so far this year my schedule has been packed, so it’s been hard to get ahead of what has become a negative spiral.
Digital Sabbath is a new thing I’m going to try to help break the cycle of what has been going on. The value that comes from having a day of rest each week is universal regardless of one’s religious beliefs. So I thought I’d try it, starting this weekend.
It was really difficult. I slept late Saturday, although it was a turbulent sleep. I then played tennis for an hour and went for a 70 minute run. My brain continued to churn during my run – whenever I realized I was obsessing over something I just sped up a little and listened to my breathing. Amy and I had lunch and then I realized the afternoon was stretching out endlessly in front of me. For some people this is wonderful; when I am depressed this is awful. So I asked Amy what she thought of me just doing a quick check of my email.
“I think that’s an awful idea,” said Amy. We then had a 15 minute conversation about what was going on in my brain. By this point the cruft of all the stuff that was bothering me was floating to the surface and I was having to either think about it or let it go. Amy encouraged me to acknowledge it, and then let it go. Then she suggested I just listen to my breath – a classic meditation technique. So I did. Eventually I got in bed and took a nap for several hours.
We had dinner with Howard and Ellen Lindzon on Saturday night. We had a great time – I love Howard and Ellen – and they are good for me. They let me be me, we talked quietly about a bunch of different things, and enjoyed a calm meal at the nice restaurant at the place we are staying.
On Sunday, I again slept in. I didn’t know whether I’d do another day off the grid, but I knew I’d start my day off with a run. My sleep was less turbulent except for the few hours where I tossed and turned. Amy and I had breakfast together, although I wasn’t hungry so I only had a few bites of pancake, and then went for an 80 minute run. The drill was the same – whenever my brain started obsessing on stuff I sped up and listened to my breath.
I decided to maintain my Digital Sabbath for another day. I didn’t turn on my computer until after dinner and then it was only to start working on Matt’s book. Throughout the day, I noticed that my brain continued to spiral around the same things, over and over again. Whenever it got out of control, I just sat, focused on my breath, and let it go. But it made for a very long day.
I woke up this morning feeling about the same as I did on Friday. I’m a little more rested feeling and have a pleasant soreness in my legs from my running, but my overall mood is unchanged. I know I’ve got a full week of stuff to do and my next task will be to tackle the 300 emails that have shown up since Friday night. But first, breakfast.
I woke up to an email today from Aaron Schwartz, founder of Modify. I don’t know Aaron other than our email exchanges but he thanked me for Venture Deals which he said has been very helpful to him. His note went on to say:
A close friend of mine, and one of my best friend’s co-founders just passed away after a 15-month battle with non-smoker’s lung cancer. I thought the below article was incredibly revealing about how meaningful a partner and leader can be for a start-up. If you think it would be useful to other entrepreneurs, I hope you’ll take a moment and share it.
I went on to read Farewell Hansoo, We’ll Miss You, a beautiful tribute by Bhavin Parikh, the CEO and co-founder of Magoosh. At the end, I had tears in my eyes. Hansoo is 35 and just died of cancer, which was discovered a year ago. I have several friends fighting cancer right now and had one die last year and this story really touched me – of the intimacy of the relationship between co-founders, the beauty of spirit of Hansoo, and how rapidly loved ones and partners can be taken from us.
I just made a donation to the The Hansoo Lee Fellowship to support entrepreneurs. The fellowship will provide a stipend and mentorship to help Berkeley-Haas MBA students pursue their venture full-time for their summer internship, as Hansoo did. MBA students will receive a summer stipend of $5 – $10K, Mentorship from Haas alums focused on entrepreneurship, and office space.