Around 2.5 years ago, I lost my mind. I was working on something (I still am) that I thought would change the world. It’s big, but of course, without traction, that’s just my opinion.
I was a year or so in, and I was encouraged by my progress in domain understanding, product strategy, and overall product status, while at the same time frustrated that I hadn’t made more progress. I imagine this is typical of founders who are aiming as high as they can.
In the thick of what I now know were the early stages, I tried to predict the future. I tried to extrapolate ‘current’ status into next steps. I tried to anticipate risks. I tried to anticipate rewards. I thought through the potential losses and, should my plan succeed, the optimistically ‘guaranteed’ rewards.
I saw my future-self as a successful, well-regarded CEO… one with many accomplishments and accolades. I was considering what “ultimate success” would look like, and my Ego took hold. It was a thought experiment, to be sure, but I was so confident that I believed I could will it to be so. Not only COULD I model the future in my mind, but I SHOULD do that to predict future risks for my business. That was my mindset.
I saw money, freedom, and the like. How high could I go? I saw a statue erected in my honor. After all, if I succeeded to the highest possible degree, a statue was inevitable. Bill Gates will get statues. Why wouldn’t I surpass that?
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t delusional, or at least I didn’t think so. I was firmly grounded in the religion of MVP, but in my downtime, after I ‘clocked out,’ my thoughts wandered to predictions. I can’t bet on myself to fail, so I bet on myself to succeed, and I needed to see what that looked like to the fullest degree.
I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. This was an ego out of control. Psychologists would likely tag my file with “God Complex” or some such though I’ve never seen a psychologist. It wasn’t healthy in the least, and the highest of highs I got from fantasizing about ‘success’ was coupled with an unexpected low.
As I visualized myself as a statue, I couldn’t help but see it in the context of death. Rarely people who are alive and thriving get a statue, so my thoughts meandered to death and the meaning of life and the finity of existence.
I then reverse-engineered the idea of having a statue of myself erected. I saw that it was meaningless, and that everything that led to the statue would fade and be meaningless too. I felt alone. I felt fear. I lost it.
I’m a positive person, and I have it good. I have many, many things to be thankful for. But in that moment, I lost faith in life itself. If the best I could muster was a future where people built statues of me, and if those statues were completely worthless, then what the hell did any of my big plans matter?
I spiraled downward, and quickly. That entire thought process took place in a single evening. I lost sleep that night, and I woke up the next day afraid. I didn’t understand the fear, but I felt it. I felt it at my core. The thought experiment for what my life would be like if I were to succeed beyond my wildest dreams still ended in nothingness. Every fiber of my being was shaken, and I was different from who I was before.
When I woke up the next day, I wasn’t the same person. I couldn’t shake the feeling of hopelessness. Regardless of what I did, I would die. And if that was inevitable, then wtf was the point?
And that feeling persisted. It didn’t come and go. It was constant. I tried to shake it, but I wound up crying in my car in the parking garage days in a row. I collected myself, distracted myself, but I was different. Seeing my future self as non-existent removed the taste from my mouth; it took any joy I found in the real world and replaced it with an existential question of “why the hell am I trying this? Why the hell am I doing anything?”
I’m not religious. Hell, I’m probably an atheist. But I thought about going to Church. I thought about the meaning of life. I looked for logical ways around meaninglessness. I found none. I was married and had two young kids, but I still found no meaning or purpose. I started drinking more… then every night… then more every night. I knew it wouldn’t help, but I was willing to kill the fear with whatever I could find. In hindsight, it was slow suicide. I knew it was killing me, not the fear, but I couldn’t find anything better.
This went on for ~2 years. I was still building my “big” product, but the effort wained. I convinced myself of excuses for why I wasn’t moving my plan forward. In actuality, I had tied the idea of success to death, although I didn’t understand it at the time. I just smiled to the outside world while I silently, solemnly gave up on everything.
I wish I could tell you that I figured it all out… that I found logic that pulled me above the desperation and lifted the sad, sad cloud I imposed upon myself. But that’s not the case.
My recovery was gradual and slight. Each day was worse than the last, until the next day wasn’t. It was slow, arduous, and heavy. I still could 100% believe in what I was working on, but personally I was a wreck. It hurt every single aspect of my life, and I saw no way out.
I never contemplated suicide as a solution, although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it as an idea. I thought about people who committed suicide. What drove them to do it? Was it the same thing I was experiencing? That’s a scary path to travel down.
I wish I could say that I had a turning point. As fast as my depression came on, I wish it had dissipated as quickly. But it didn’t. I hit my own rock bottom (not knowing it at the time), and then started the slow, heavy climb out.
After some time, probably 2 years later, I realized that I wasn’t as bad anymore. I just went about my day, hiding my internal, ego-driven anguish, and after a certain point, things started improving. The weight I felt got lighter over time, and I started to realize that I would recover. Focusing on my family and friends helped the most, along with working really hard to live in the present rather than some fictional future I dreamt up.
I’m now 3 years into this startup journey (it’s a marathon, not a sprint, right?). I still feel down from time to time, but nothing like I felt before. In retrospect, Alcohol and lack of sleep’s effect on serotonin uptake probably played a lot in my brain’s chemistry, but the ego-steroids that I was on because of my startup ambition fueled the depression more than anything.
If anyone made it this far through this, I’d also like to write about how tech journalism and venture capital fuel these problems based on my experience, so let me know in the comments if that’s something that would be of interest.