In December 2018, Lyft’s co-founder and President John Zimmer broke new ground by speaking publicly about his struggle with depression. CNN’s Laurie Segall published an interview with Zimmer where he spoke about the challenges of competing against Uber, a company that raised 10 times the capital raised by Lyft. Though they provide similar services, press and analysts hailed Uber as the disruptor and treated Lyft almost as an also-ran. Critics wondered if Lyft would even survive. During this time, Zimmer found himself “in a dark place” and was “in a funk for several months”.
Sadly, Zimmer’s transparency is rare in the Silicon Valley. The pressures and burdens of a continuous, breakneck pace with minimal financial resources can leave entrepreneurs feeling like they are skydivers frantically trying to assemble their parachute while they are freefalling past 10,000 feet. The fact of the matter is that startup life isn’t all glamorous hack-a-thons and butter-smooth Agile sprints. Not everyone buys into your vision. Venture capitalists don’t regularly beat down your door to give you money. All apps don’t go viral. And considering the total number of startups, companies with billion-dollar valuations are almost as rare as the unicorns they are named after.
The truth is that startup life is hard. Silicon Valley culture promotes an always-at-work lifestyle. When most of your colleagues work six or seven days a week, it creates a palpable pressure to follow suit. Small startups attempting to disrupt their market represent the ultimate underdog David vs. Goliath battle. The urgency to retain first-mover advantage drives an expectation of non-stop sprints. Most people understand that sprints and marathons are very different types of races, but Silicon Valley seems to sadistically believe that sprint-a-thons represent a sustainable way of life. For an emerging startup, it can feel like you’re in a perpetual state of crunch time.
In normal life, people who exhaust themselves sprinting to reach the finish line get some time to decompress and recharge afterwards. In startup world, the reward for meeting a deadline is usually the next crazy deadline. Instead of resting after working hard, recovery is replaced with playing hard, blowing off steam, and partying. Numerous news reports chronicle the under-the-radar substance abuse problem that is all too common among tech startups. This news stream seemed to peak briefly in November 2013 when former Google executive Timothy Hayes died from a heroin overdose aboard his yacht in Santa Cruz. It briefly spiked again in December 2018 when Colin Kroll, co-founder of Vine and HQ Trivia, died of an apparent drug overdose. Kroll’s father reported that his son routinely worked 100 hours a week. As co-founder of prolific payment provider Square, Tristan O’Tierney was set for life, but died in February 2019, likely due to an addiction problem he previously disclosed on Twitter.
In light of the crushing pace, employees need to be able to consistently perform at the highest possible level. In the tech world, it’s quite possible to have one developer produce 10 to 20 times more quality output than the next. Tech workers can be tempted to find a solution they believe will help them to continuously excel and produce, as the threat of failure can lead to the company replacing them with another hotshot new hire, or worse, in the company shutting down.
The challenge is that it’s nearly impossible to hit a home run every time you step to the plate. Major League Baseball was rocked in recent years by a series of reports that its biggest stars used steroids: Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez and many others tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. All of these players had tremendous raw talent, but felt the need for just a little more juice to boost their abilities.
Since both athletes and tech workers are human, it’s inevitable that startup employees face the same temptations. Red Bull and coffee eventually fail to adequately feed the voracious appetite of the strive-for-performance engine, so it’s not a stretch to see people trying to upgrade to some form of rocket fuel. Where one industry enhances physical strength with steroids, another enhances knowledge worker abilities with psychostimulants.
Adderall, a prescription drug that treats Attention Deficit Disorder, is popular on college campuses as a cognitive enhancer. Its popularity as a “smart pill” has spilled over into the tech space as well. The lure of a smart pill is even dramatized in the movie and television series, Limitless. Adderall holds a reputation as a smart pill that helps high-functioning people become higher-functioning. This reputation exists in spite of a study by Dr. Martha Farah at the University of Pennsylvania that suggests “higher-performing people show no improvement or actually get worse” from taking Adderall.
It’s common for college students and tech workers alike to rationalize their off-label Adderall usage by thinking it’s just a stronger form of caffeine and not as addictive as cocaine. While there may be some truth about Adderall being less addictive than cocaine, dependence can still form due to the added release and absorption of dopamine. Like all drugs, Adderall also has a long list of side effects including hypertension and cardiovascular disease. In addition, all prescription drugs run the risk of triggering dangerous interactions with other medications. Finally, there’s still the fundamental issue of a workplace culture that leads people to illicit drug usage.
Silicon Valley also worships the superhuman: hero hackers, serial entrepreneurs with multiple exits, and celebrity founders can all achieve rock-star status. But the reality is that most startups fail, including those founded by some of the world’s brightest and most promising people. Sometimes, the shock of failure for people who are used to succeeding becomes too much to handle. Or, even if the startup continues to operate, just the daily startup grind can become too much. Sadly, there are too many tales of promising, capable people deciding that ending their life is more appealing than continuing to fight:
- Ilya Zhitomirskiy, founder of “Facebook killer” Diaspora, was rumored to have committed suicide in November 2011. He died 22 years young.
- Eric Salvatierra, CFO of Skype, VP at PayPal, stepped in front of a train in March 2012. He was 39 years old.
- Aaron Swartz, co-founder of Reddit, hanged himself in January 2013. He was just 26 years old.
- Jody Sherman, co-founder and CEO of Ecomom, shot himself in January 2013.
- Zaria Draganic, CEO of AltoCom, ended his life in March 2014.
- Austen Heinz, CEO of Cambrian Genomics, committed suicide in May 2015. He died at age 31.
Many of these people suffered in silence because society still stigmatizes mental health needs. This is sad because mental health challenges are more common than we may know. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 18.1% (42 million) of American adults live with anxiety disorders and 6.9% (16 million) live with major depression. Research from Dr. Michael Freeman, a psychiatrist at UCSF, indicates that entrepreneurs are 50% more likely to have a mental health condition. So if 18.1% of the general population lives with an anxiety disorder, then about 27% of entrepreneurs suffer from anxiety.
People tend to react with compassion and empathy when someone tells them they have cancer. However, most people don’t know how to react when learning a colleague, friend, or family member has a mental health challenge. Responses vary from awkward silence to criticism (spoken and unspoken) of how the person must be weak in some way. If we are honest with ourselves, we are all weak in multiple ways. Anyone who has a hard time identifying their weaknesses probably struggles with pride or arrogance.
We can all help to de-stigmatize anxiety, depression, obsessiveness, or other conditions by treating people with mental health needs no differently than people with medical needs. Most people don’t bat an eye if a colleague or friend needs insulin to treat their diabetes or needs time off to recover from a broken bone. We should offer the same understanding and caring support for people who take anti-depressants or suffer from panic attacks.
I personally endured extended angst and anxiety for decades. I have always had very high expectations for myself and those around me. When I or those around me failed to meet these expectations, I usually found myself in a tailspin emotionally.
When I was CEO of startup #4, a number of circumstances led to serious problems on a big customer project. These problems resulted in missing several key deadlines, which ended up costing the customer a lot of money. The customer blamed us and threatened to sue. Since I had to personally guarantee the company’s finances, any losses would hit me hard. Resolving the customer’s problems and getting the project back on track stole my entire attention. In addition to the full-time job of running the company, I added about 40+ hours to every week working to avoid a lawsuit. I felt like I was playing an endless game of Whack-a-Mole, as clearing one hurdle only led us to the next obstacle. No matter how many hours we spent, we still couldn’t break through the logjam blocking the project. My stress level was off the charts for many months. I honestly started entertaining thoughts of ending my life. I welcomed the prospect of no longer having to deal with angry customers or threatening lawyers.
Thankfully, I had a strong support network. I reached out to many friends and mentors. Some really tried to help, but didn’t have the background to really understand the details of my predicament, so their advice didn’t address any of the root cause problems. (This actually added to my stress!) I had to persevere through this — knowing that people were trying to help — to get to those who had the background and wisdom to correctly identify and address the core problem.
One wise friend suggested I seek professional counseling. I initially bristled at the thought, as my prejudices reflexively took control. I didn’t want to appear weak. I didn’t want to have others potentially look down on me. I didn’t want to waste the time or the money. I doubted that a therapist could help me. In spite of all these excuses, the pain of staying the same was worse than the potential pain of seeking therapy. Engaging a trained counselor ended up being one of the best decisions I could have made.
After several sessions, I received a diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). The name often creates confusion, given its similarity to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Even though the names are similar, the conditions are vastly different. The Wikipedia definitions for OCPD and OCD follow below:
Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD)
A personality disorder characterized by a general pattern of concern with orderliness, perfectionism, excessive attention to details, mental and interpersonal control, and a need for control over one’s environment, at the expense of flexibility, openness to experience, and efficiency.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
A mental disorder where people feel the need to check things repeatedly, perform certain routines repeatedly (called “rituals”), or have certain thoughts repeatedly (called “obsessions”).
Basically, people with OCPD are perfectionists. In fact, a better name would be Perfectionistic Personality Disorder. In the workplace, OCPD can be viewed as a valuable trait, as perfectionists tend to do great work. However, OCPD can wreck your life or your relationships as you tend to repeatedly make poor, unbalanced decisions. OCPD made me see the distressed customer project as imperfect, so it was my job to fix it all, no matter what the cost personally.
If I or someone I depend on makes a mistake, I have a hard time letting it go and moving on. OCPD makes it hard for me to step away from work. I constantly think about work and will wake up in the middle of the night solving problems and refining business plans in my head. I struggle with healthy boundaries, always feeling that I need to make every deliverable great, even if the customer would be happy with good-enough. If left unchecked, I will spend excessive amounts of time and energy creating artwork worthy of a museum when a stick-figure drawing would have been sufficient.
As I worked with my therapist, we developed strategies to combat my obsessive tendencies. He helped me to build boundaries that vastly improved my quality of life. He even helped me to think differently about therapy. Since I love sports, I have no problem receiving coaching. As an advisor, I have no problem giving or receiving guidance and mentorship. I learned to think of my therapist as a life coach instead of a psychologist.
I’m grateful I listened to the advice of my friend. I have tools to help me live with my obsessive tendencies. My quality of life has greatly improved.
Similarly, when he was in a dark spot, John Zimmer received great support from his wife and from Lyft CEO, Logan Green. Zimmer advises us to invest into connecting with others, as that’s what matters most. In spite of the distractions that threaten to drown us, make time to meet with people in person. Care for others and allow others to care for you.
Into the Light
Thankfully, in addition to John Zimmer, several industry thought leaders are working to bring these real problems out of the shadows and into the light:
- Ben Huh, CEO of The Cheezburger Network, wrote an amazingly candid post about his failures and why death once felt like a good option.
- Brad Feld, an entrepreneur turned venture capitalist, and his wife Amy Batchelor, an activist and community builder, wrote a Startup Life, a book about “surviving and thriving in a relationship with an entrepreneur.” The book is remarkable in its transparency about their own real-life relationship problems.
- Sean Percival, an entrepreneur and investor, wrote about his struggles with depression after a friend and kindred spirit took his own life.
- Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, spent two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. Her December 2010 Ted Talk on vulnerability included many personal and potentially embarrassing stories. It continues to be one of the most popular and impactful among their entire library of over 3,000 talks. Dealing with mental health starts with the willingness to be vulnerable and rebuff shame.
I’m grateful for each of the courageous souls who have chosen to be transparent with their challenges. Brené Brown’s transparency on stage in a large public forum literally took my breath away and made me sit up and pay close attention. She models the vulnerability her research advocates. Vulnerability is key to getting help and to building connections. Even though I’ve never met Brown, I feel a connection to her because her talks about vulnerability and shame resonate deeply with me.
Shame is a difficult problem, particularly in Asian cultures, where saving face and looking good seem to be top priority. The startup world faces similar challenges, as incredibly talented and successful people face obstacles larger than any they’ve previously encountered.
Trainers Needed (and Wanted)
Professional sports teams are built on the talents of the best athletes in the world. Every sports team includes a trainer to tend to the many injuries, both small and large, that athletes endure. Startups should learn from the sports world and provide resources to help founders navigate the turbulent world of entrepreneurship. Recent developments include:
- Jake Chapman, a general partner at Alpha Bridge Ventures, published an excellent article on TechCrunch challenging investors and entrepreneurs to address the mental health crisis in startups.
- Erin Frey, co-founder at Kip (HelloKip.com), created an Investor Pledge for Mental Health on Medium. A growing list of pioneering investors have signed onto the pledge.
- Mahendra Ramsinghani, Managing Director at Secure Octane, created an anonymous survey to collect mental health data from entrepreneurs. He plans to incorporate the survey data in a book he’s currently writing.
- Mark Suster, another entrepreneur turned venture capitalist, issued a heart-felt plea to de-stigmatize depression and mental illness.
We can all amplify this small, but growing movement. Learn to recognize, acknowledge, de-stigmatize, and address mental health challenges. Accept others for who they are. Learn to fight against shame and practice being vulnerable — it’ll help you build connections with others that you’ll value. Invest heavily in your relationships. Entrepreneurs who’ve been to the brink and back consistent lobby for the need to keep your relationships strong.
Startup life carries a high risk of mental health challenges. Mental health needs to be viewed with the same importance as physical health. As you continue your journey down the startup path, investing in mental health will better equip you to achieve your goals while also minimizing your pain.