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Amy and I talk a lot about big issues, such as depression and divorce, in Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur. I’ve been speaking from experience on each of these topics, as I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression my entire adult life (the official DSM-IV code I have for my diagnosis from 1991 is 300.3 – Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and, in 1990, I was divorced from my first wife.
I’ve always been open about these two issues (and experiences) since they’ve had a profound impact on me. I’ve learned how to manage my OCD and, even when I’m depressed, I’m very functional (if you didn’t know I was having a depressive episode, you’d think I was just flat or having an off day.) And many of the things that Amy and I do right in our relationship are lessons that we learned when reflecting on why my first marriage, and marriages of friends of ours – many of which are entrepreneurial couples – have failed.
As I’ve been doing interviews and talking about Startup Life, I’ve been asked several times whether or not entrepreneurs are more prone to depression and divorce. While I have zero empirical data, I believe from my qualitative experience that they are no less prone to this than the rest of the population. But I don’t really have empirical data to support this assertion either.
So – I’m looking for real data. Do any of you out there know of real quantitative studies – preferably academic / social science oriented, that investigate the question of whether or not entrepreneurs are more prone to depression? Or, a separate study that investigates the question of whether or not entrepreneurs are more prone to divorce?
If you know of one, email me or leave it in the comments.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Aaron Swartz the past few days. I didn’t know him, but knew of him and have a lot of friends who knew him. I’m still processing it, especially the dynamics around his suicide, and expect I’ll have plenty to say in the coming weeks about depression and entrepreneurship. In the mean time, I thought the USA Today article, Activist Aaron Swartz’s suicide sparks talk about depression, by Laurie Segal, is particularly good. I’m quoted as saying:
Investor Brad Feld, who has battled an anxiety disorder all his life, says one the hardest things for those fighting the disease is opening up about it. “Many entrepreneurs don’t feel like they can talk openly about their depression, as they don’t want their investors, employees, or customers to know they are struggling with it,” he says. “For anyone who has been depressed, not being able to be open about it with the people around you makes depression even harder to deal with.”
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a few people incredibly close to me that I could talk openly about my depression with. The two closest are my wife Amy Batchelor and my brother Daniel Feld. In Amy’s case, she’s my early warning system for my depression. She knows me better than anyone on this planet and is able, in a way that doesn’t set me off, make observations about what she is seeing in my behavior whenever it shifts toward a depressive episode. She goes into a mode that I call “observer” – she’s not critical, doesn’t tell me to “snap out of it”, but also doesn’t get overly concerned. She watches, gives me feedback, and observes. Usually this is all I need since I’ve learned that with my own struggles, merely knowing that I am struggling is often enough to start a shift back to normalcy.
As part of this, I’ve set up a monthly cadence with Amy and Daniel. In the case of Amy, we have “Life Dinner” on the first night of every month. We talk about this in our new book, Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur, but I missed that nuance that in addition to a monthly reflection both backward and forward, it also serves as a touch point on “how I’m feeling.”
Daniel and I do something different. We love the relationship our dad (Stan Feld) has with his brother Charlie Feld. A number of years ago we committed to each other that we’d never get hung up on bullshit between us and if anything came up, we’d clear the air each month. So – we have an “almost monthly” dinner (probably six to nine times a year). I can’t remember the last time we actually had any emotional dissonance of any sort. It’s a casual couple of hours for us to check in on each other.
This morning I was emailing with Fred Wilson about some stuff. He asked me how it was to have Jerry Colonna living part time in Boulder. Jerry is now chairman of Naropa University and is one of my closest friends. He and Fred used to be partners at Flatiron Partners and are still very close. My response was “It’s awesome to have Jerry here. I love every minute I get with him.” Fred responded “i do a monthly lunch with him and its awesome.” There’s that monthly cadence thing again.
Yesterday, I had my monthly meeting with my partners at Foundry Group. We have a quarterly offsite where we spend a day and half together and have recently instituted a monthly day long meeting ending with dinner to go deep on our portfolio now that it’s about 60 companies. We spend the day on the portfolio and the evening on ourselves. It’s yet another version of the monthly cadence that let’s the four of us check in with each other.
I’ve always found rhythms like this to be extremely helpful to me, especially around my depression. Amy, Daniel, and my partners are safe people to talk to about it. They don’t judge me, or coddle me, but they listen and, if nothing else, give me empathy. And, in many cases, they check in regularly to make sure I’m in an ok place, until the phase passes.
Being an entrepreneur, or anyone pressing the boundaries of society, can be incredibly lonely. Make sure you are surrounding yourself with people who can help. And don’t be afraid of being open about being depressed, or anxious, down, or sad. There is no crime or shame in that.
This is a tough time of year for a lot of people. I used to be one of them. And I’ve gotten over it, and myself, which I attribute 100% to Amy helping me figure it out and not being willing to put up with my nonsense. But it’s a useful reminder for those who think it’s awesome for everyone.
While the Christmas and New Year’s holidays can be a restful, restorative, wonderful family time, it can be excruciating for those who are depressed. It can be oppressive rather than restorative to those who are exhausted and worn out from the year. And for those who feel pressure from being immersed in their family, or who feel unresolved tension in their relationships, it can be a nightmare.
My struggle with this time of year is simple – I never had Christmas as a kid. I’m Jewish and my parents didn’t embrace the “ok – we’ll pretend like Christmas isn’t supposed to be about Jesus being born” so we never celebrated it. I recall existing in this parallel universe, where all my friends had this crazy gift foreplay for the month of December, talking about what they were going to get, running around with the parents getting things for their friends, and planning for the main event. It culminated in gift orgies on December 25th, wrapping paper flying, and endless gifts piled up to be played with, inspected, eaten, and traded.
I attended a few of these gift orgies at the invitation of my friends. I always brought over a nice gift for my friend and his or her parents. I always got something – usually one thing that was generic (that everyone got), or a book, or sometimes a piece of clothing. Occasionally, out of last minute mercy, the mother of my friend would scrounge up whatever extras they had, put it in a leftover stocking, and give it to me.
As I got older, I got crankier about it. My first wife celebrated Christmas so we did it at her house, with her family. They were polite, but they never liked me very much, so the whole think was this awkward charade, which just made things worse. I refused to have a Christmas tree in my apartment, so my ex-wife and I fought every year around Christmas for the few years that we were together. And that sealed the deal for me – Christmas sucked.
I then went through the “why isn’t everyone working” phase of Christmas. I was resentful that everyone took two weeks off. C’mon – there’s work to be done! I’d grind through my work, being newly productive, cleaning up all the cruft I hadn’t gotten to, as everyone else partied and had fun.
I can’t remember what Amy and I did for Christmas for the first few years of our relationship, but after we moved to Boulder we started spending it with her family in Western Colorado. They were extremely nice to me and included me in everything they did, but I still felt like an alien in the midst of a strange human ritual. I recall spending hours huddled over a laptop trying to figure out the cheapest way to get a dial-in connection to check my email, even though no one was sending me email because it was Christmas.
At some point I just accepted that I was grumpy at this time of year. Disoriented. Confused. Sometimes a little depressed. Usually just bored. Amy put up with it, but kept nudging me to try different things.
A few years ago I finally turned a corner. We started spending the last two weeks of the year at our house in Keystone. We’d invite a variety of friends up for a few days. The only Christmas celebration we had was Jewish Christmas, where we went out for Chinese food and a movie on Christmas eve. We’ve recently augmented that with sushi and a movie on Christmas day night. Instead of being grumpy, I just chill out. I enjoy hanging out with whomever comes to visit. I read a lot, sleep a lot, and catch up on a bunch of stuff – mostly writing – that I get behind on. And I get rested and ready for the year ahead.
It took me a very long time to figure this out. Maybe I’m slow when it comes to decoding Christmas, but I’ve got a bunch of friends who also struggle with this time of year. I watch from a distance as couples bundle up their kids, stick them on a plane, and make a painful, stress-filled visit to some distant city where one of them grew up. Or my single friends searching for something – anything – to do other than a trip to their parents. Or others, just defaulting into a trip to where they grew up, knowing it’s going to suck but feeling powerless to do anything about it.
It’s ok not to love Christmas. But that doesn’t mean you have to be miserable for the last two weeks of December every year. If you aren’t loving the game, change it.
Amy and I wrote a meaningful amount about entrepreneurs and depression in Startup Life. Since we finished the final draft a few weeks ago, I’ve given several talks where depression came up as I’ve woven my own experience with depression into the short (less than 15 minute) version of my story. I’ve received a surprising (to me) number of emails from people thanking me talking about it publicly, along with my discussion of the anxiety disorder (obsessive compulsive disorder) that I’ve struggled with my entire adult life and that was severe during the serious depressive episode I had in my early to mid 20s.
So the idea of depression has been on my mind. It doesn’t surprise me that I feel down and flat as I sit here in the Charlotte, North Carolina airport on my way to Lexington, Kentucky on day 16 of a 19 day trip. I’m tired, strung out, missing home, missing Amy, and running out of extrovert energy. I’ve had a great time with all the people I’ve been with and the events I’ve had around Startup Communities. I’ve had several extraordinary experiences like dinner last night in Toronto with a dozen fantastic entrepreneurs who I hope to have continuous involvement – as a friend and potential investor – in the future. But as I sit here, I’m surrounded by a lot of grey, and it’s not just the clouds outside that are the remnants of the storm.
I’ve reached out to most of my friends in New York to check in on them. They are all doing fine even though a few were hit hard and are now effectively homeless as lower Manhattan gets cleaned up. I picked a spot in the airport far away from the TV – I couldn’t stand the endless news cycle that mixed Sandy with Romney with Obama. I had some extra carbs hoping that would help – it just made me feel sleepy. Yup – I know what this feeling is.
I know many entrepreneurs who deal with different levels of depression. My close friend Jerry Colonna is extraordinarly eloquent about this and how it impacts entrepreneurs. Ben Huh, the CEO of Cheezburger, wrote a powerful post about his struggle with depression titled When Death Feels Like A Good Option. And I’ve had many conversations with other entrepreneurs about my, and their, struggle with depression.
For some reason we’ve embraced failure as an entrepreneurial trait that is ok, but we still struggle with acknowledging and talking about depression. Entrepreneurs function with a wide range of stresses and emotions that often have overwhelming intensity. In many cases, we are afraid of admitting depression, and are often highly functional when we are depressed. But that doesn’t deny the fact that entrepreneurs get depressed. To deny this, is to deny reality, and that’s against my value system.
I just went back and read what we wrote in Startup Life about depression and it made me smile. I’m really proud of the work that Amy and I did on that book – I think it is the best book I’ve been involved in writing (Venture Deals, which I wrote with Jason Mendelson, is a close second) and I’m hopeful that it has a lot of impact and value for entrepreneurs and their partners.
Just writing all of this makes me feel better. Thanks for listening. Time to get on the plane and go to Lexington.
I’m in Las Vegas at CES. I walked the floor yesterday, had a bunch of meetings in the afternoon, and then went out to dinner at Nobu with my partners and a bunch of the founders of companies we are investors in. It was a great day but at the end of it I was totally used up, especially since I got up at 4am Las Vegas time to go to the airport.
My plan today was to walk the floor of CES some more. I only have one thing scheduled at 2pm (a call with Mark Udall, one of our Colorado Senators, about PIPA) – the rest was left open. But yesterday I felt like I saw everything I wanted to see. And I was tired of bumping into people, overwhelmed by the smoke everywhere, and way over stimulated. On top of this, I’ve been feeling a little flat (not depressed – but down / off balance) since the middle of last week, I’m on the road through the end of the month on the east coast, and I’ve got a head cold that I’m having trouble shaking.
When I woke up at 6:50am this morning, I decided I was going to camp in my room today. Just me, my computer, and whatever is on the other end of my computer. We’ve got another Foundry Group event tonight – by then I’ll probably feel like seeing humans again. But until then, I just feel like hiding for the day. The one exception is a run, which my body is begging me to do, even though I have snot dripping out of my nose.
Some days it’s best to just hide in your room. Today is one of those days for me.