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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 did Digital Sabbath #4 yesterday. I spent the day on Coronado with my dad at Lindzonpalooza, the annual retreat put on by Howard Lindzon. We had a nice time hanging out Friday night as people arrived and then spent Saturday morning hearing short pitches from many of the companies Howard has invested in. I went for a two hour run in the early afternoon and then read Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer while my dad took a nap and practiced his snoring.
I haven’t been reading much the past six months. Usually I’m a voracious reader – 50 to 100 books a year is not unusual for me. But for some reason I haven’t felt like reading lately. I know some of it is my general mood and some has been the mental exhaustion from writing two books, but I’ve decided to start reading again as part of Digital Sabbath.
My good friend Jerry Colonna recommended Parker Palmer’s book to me. Jerry and Parker are doing a seminar in Boulder on 4/19 called Surviving the Startup Life: The Toll of Merging Identity and Work and, while I’ve heard of Parker numerous times, I’d never read anything by him.
Let Your Life Speak was really good. I read it at a good time for me as I continue to struggle with a depressive episode. Parker covers a lot of stuff but goes deep in one chapter about his own struggles with depression. It’s powerful – and very helpful to me – to read the first person stories about other people who sort through a real clinical depressive episode. Parker covered it bravely – and openly.
I had an excellent talk on Friday afternoon with my dad about what I’ve been struggling with since October. My dad is one of my heroes and closest friends. It’s hard to really connect deeply about this stuff over the phone so we sat for two hours in the sun outside a gelato store, ate our chocolate gelatos together, and talked. I’ve been processing a lot of the root cause of what’s going on and feel like I’m getting underneath some of it, and our conversation helped me get deeper into some of the issues. Parker’s book was a good reinforcement of several of the things I was struggling with.
We finished last night with a nice dinner with everyone overlooking the water and a very lit up San Diego. I just got back from a short run on the beach and am heading out for breakfast with my dad. Then, I’m off to the airport to spend a week in New York.
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.
My close friend Jerry Colonna is giving an extraordinary seminar in Boulder on 4/19 with Parker Palmer called Surviving the Startup Life: The Toll of Merging Identity and Work. Jerry is the best CEO coach I know, a dear friend, and one of the best investors I ever have gotten to work with (we did a lot together in the 1990s when Jerry was partners with Fred Wilson at Flatiron Partners.)
Context on the event comes from Jerry’s blog post titled The Hand of A Friend:
“A distraught client emailed me the day after Jody [Sherman] died. So many people were hurt by the news–whether or not they knew him. I tweeted, emailed, reached out to friends. I wrote to Parker [Palmer].
My request was simple: Help me help them. We decided the best way to respond was to embody what we believe: that speaking about the existential difficulties, being authentic even in our collective guilt, pain, and fear, is–as Parker coined it in Let Your Life Speak–Leading from Within. We would have a conversation about the ways in which this merger of self and work exacerbates the pain as well as Parker’s notion of the Tragic Gap. We’d invite others to join us.
It’s free. Register here.