Depression and the Entrepreneur

It is amazing how many people make statements to me like “oh it must be great having your own company”, “I really want to make my own career like you so I can have less stress I my life”, or “you don’t know what it is like [fill in the blank work issue] you have your own company that’s much easier.” I just ignore people who make these comments realizing they are really looking for something else in life. Most people who make these comments really just want to work less and have less stress. If only they really new.

Start ups are almost never fun and relaxing. They tend to be fraught with fear, uncertainty, and risk that all adds up to incredible levels of stress. It takes a special kind of person who can comfortably take on that sort of stress and not crumble. A strong, self confident, and emotionally tough individual; the sort of person we all imagine that founders are. In reality that’s rarely the case.

Statistically, and from my own personal experience, a abnormally high percentage of entrepreneurs suffer from some sort of anxiety, depression, or mental health issues. Many of the interesting and successful people I know who are entrepreneurs are somewhat tortured individuals often having wrestled with serious anxiety issues or depression. People often describe these sorts of entrepreneurial souls as hypomaniacs. Those same creative, exciting, and successful people often wrestle with self worth issues, depression, and an almost manic need to fulfill their passions. This becomes incredibly dangerous in the stressful environments of a startup. It is something that is too often ignored as the Harvard Business Review points out, although that’s changing.

“Lately, more entrepreneurs have begun speaking out about their internal struggles in an attempt to combat the stigma on depression and anxiety that makes it hard for sufferers to seek help. In a deeply personal post called “When Death Feels Like a Good Option,” Ben Huh, the CEO of the Cheezburger Network humor websites, wrote about his suicidal thoughts following a failed start-up in 2001. Sean Percival, a former MySpace vice president and co-founder of the children’s clothing start-up Wittlebee, penned a piece called “When It’s Not All Good, Ask for Help” on his website. “I was to the edge and back a few times this past year with my business and own depression,” he wrote. “If you’re about to lose it, please contact me.” 

Brad Feld, a managing director of the Foundry Group, started blogging in October about his latest episode of depression. The problem wasn’t new–the prominent venture capitalist had struggled with mood disorders throughout his adult life–and he didn’t expect much of a response. But then came the emails. Hundreds of them. Many were from entrepreneurs who had also wrestled with anxiety and despair. (For more of Feld’s thoughts on depression, see his column, “Surviving the Dark Nights of the Soul,” in Inc.’s July/August issue.)”If you saw the list of names, it would surprise you a great deal,” says Feld. “They are very successful people, very visible, very charismatic-;yet they’ve struggled with this silently. There’s a sense that they can’t talk about it, that it’s a weakness or a shame or something. They feel like they’re hiding, which makes the whole thing worse.”

If your thinking about starting your own company or even just going off on your own make sure you are prepared for the stress. If you are someone who already suffers from depression or anxiety, and statistically if you are starting a company you are, be very careful. Make sure you have grounded people around you. Try to build a network of people who are doing startups as well as a support network. Finally if you are someone though who is a founder or entrepreneur realize that getting professional help should not be something to be embarrassed about. Indeed think of it as a hiring a personal management consultant who might not only save your life but help you save your start up.

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